Yoga Speaks to Chronic Pain


According to the Institute of Medicine of The National Academies more Americans suffer with chronic pain than are afflicted with diabetes, coronary heart disease and cancer combined. The estimated number of chronic pain sufferers in the U.S. is about 100 million. Though I’m using pain statistics from the U.S., this post applies to all in chronic pain no matter where you live.

During my yoga therapy training one of our teachers was renowned Canadian physical therapist, Neal Pearson. Also a yoga therapist, Neal helped us look at pain in an entirely different way—a way that revealed to us practices that can minimize pain and help such sufferers’ live more comfortable, functional lives.

The first thing Neal did was disabuse us of several attitudes about the brain, pain and our nervous systems. Western attitudes about pain include the suppositions that pain is a product of: tissue damage, irritated tissue, imminent damage or incompletely healed injury. All of these suppositions can be true in certain cases, but are not always true.

Neal shares a story about his teacher, Lorimer Moseley, pain specialist and author of the book, Painful Yarns. Walking in the Australian bush one day, Moseley felt a slight pain on his leg and supposed that he had been scratched by a briar. Rather, he’d been bitten by a deadly snake. The next time Moseley was walking in the bush he was scratched by a briar, but his brain sent exaggerated pain signals because of the previous incident of snakebite that nearly killed him. In this case we see that the brain and the nervous system can be wrong!

The purpose of pain is to warn us that we have been damaged or that we are about to suffer injury. Banging your knee is an example that Neal often uses. Not only does your knee hurt, but the muscles of your leg may go weak to keep you from making anymore potentially risky moves. Basically, the affected nerves send messages to the spinal chord nerves and onto nerves in the brain. The brain responds by analyzing the information and sending response signals to the body to deal with the situation.

The brain prioritizes the messages it gets from the nervous system in levels of importance. If you are fighting or fleeing you may sustain an injury. The injury may not be immediately apparent because your brain is occupied with the fight or flight. After you’re out of danger you may notice injury and pain that wasn’t able to get the brain’s attention in the heat of the moment.

Our pain detection and alarm system is complex. The neurons in the brain can “increase or decrease the intensity of the danger messages in the spinal chord.” (Understand Pain, Live Well Again, Pearson, Neal p. 15). Depending on the importance of the pain the brain can increase the signal intensity via the nervous system to warn you of the level of danger.

Now that we understand that the brain and nervous system can be wrong about the reality of danger we can begin to address chronic pain. Even after an injury is mostly healed (sub acute state) the brain and nervous system may still be on high alert and continue to send pain signals that do not reflect the present level of healing.

In my next post we will explore how pain is like vision and thirst and how we can retrain the nervous system and brain to understand that it doesn’t need to continue its level of pain signal notification as we heal.






New Postures of Consciousness

Though I can’t remember where or exactly when, I once read about the propensity of Hatha Yogis to be a bit too invested in their egos when it came to asana practice. It must’ve been early in my practice because I didn’t know what it meant—but I sure do now.

Since I began practicing almost 20 years ago, I’ve injured myself several times just plain showing off what I could do. In 1996 while attempting the splits I tore some hamstrings in my left thigh. Currently I’m working with two nagging injuries born of my own egoistic attachment to demonstrating the prowess of a 60 year old yogi.

You may be familiar with William Broad’s 2012 book, The Science of Yoga. Much of what he chronicled about yoga injuries rang true to me. He clearly showed in so many cases that yoga injuries happened because of the egos of the practitioners—some of whom were seasoned and even famous teachers who should’ve known better.

My point is that too often in the West yoga is disconnected from the very spiritual tradition that it is designed to cultivate. Rod Stryker puts it succinctly when he says, “What most of us in the West commonly associate with yoga represents only the tip of the iceberg that is yoga, a tiny fraction of what is a vast and profound science in fact.”

The purpose of this practice is not to give us sexy, enviable bodies but to help us develop our full human potential. Yoga calls us to transcend the ego so that we can transform our lives and the world. This practice provides the tools we need to build a culture based on respect, love, kindness and the unleashing of our miraculous aptitudes to make peace and plenty a reality for all.

Last week I picked up a copy of Mantra Yoga + Health magazine. One quote that just pierced my heart comes from Catherine Ghosh. “For in yoga, it is the pure interconnectedness between us, or sat sanga (company of the wise), that best ignites our practice, and moves us into new postures of consciousness that would have otherwise seemed impossible to achieve.” Postures of consciousness. Just let that sink in for a minute. If yoga practice is not helping us to embody the righteous behavior that revolutionizes our lives then we might as well just be doing jumping jacks.

New postures of consciousness through the practice of being connected to each other heart-to-heart will allow the human race to let go of hate, greed, and the ruinous competition that is leading us to extinction. New postures of consciousness will prompt us to adopt ahimsa or non-harming as a basic behavior. New postures of consciousness will help bring about an era that sees human nature evolve in fundamental, positive ways. New postures of consciousness will help us dissolve the hardened human ego and help us claim a new day—a day we once thought impossible.

Five Strategies for a Joyful Holiday Yoga Practice!

Maintaining your yoga and meditation practice during the holidays, or any busy season for that matter, is a challenge! Our schedules fill up with so many activities and often we are not in control of the what, when, where and how. Sharing control of our lives can be stressful, but it can also be enriching because it jolts us out of our routine and forces us to re-focus on organizing our priorities. Kurt Vonnegut, a great American writer said, “Organization is the triumph over everything.” I hope the next few paragraphs will help you achieve the organization you need to keep your practice strong during the holidays.

The first thing I recommend to help you keep your practice up during the holidays is to make a commitment to your asana and meditation practice and give yourself the permission to maintain the training that keeps your body healthy and your mind at ease. Demands placed upon us by friends and family during the holidays can make us feel obliged to “go along with the crowd” so to speak. This is a good time for us to learn how to give ourselves permission to pursue our daily practice and enjoy the spontaneous fun of the holidays, too.

Second, try to see what activities are on the holiday schedule. Look for lulls in the activity where you can take twenty minutes to do a meditation or asana practice. You may not be able to practice as long as you might like, but each practice will allow you to reset yourself so you can be at your best as you enjoy all that the holidays offer. The best advice I can offer is to get your practice done first thing in the morning before the activities start revving up.

Third, take frequent conscious pauses to help you remain present and aware. This may be no more that a long breath or two to remind you of how you want to be in the midst of whatever situation you find yourself. The holidays sometimes create situations for interpersonal conflict and ax grinding. If you are aware of your breath and are mindful, you will be prepared to avoid these situations with a kind word or helpful action.

Fourth, as you your permit yourself to keep your commitment to your practice use your concentration to truly connect with your “namaste” or your personal excellence. This will help you shed anything that has begun to drag you away from your bliss or true nature. Allow yourself to bask in your bliss, to soak it up so that it permeates you. This will give you no small measure of immunity from any unexpected upsets or temptations.

Finally, enjoy yourself and have fun! Just because we are determined to maintain our practice during the holidays doesn’t mean we can’t let our hair down a bit. Your practice will help you establish the ground rules that you want to play by. It will open your heart so that you can truly be present with your loved ones and enjoy all the activities the holidays have to offer. An open heart will enable you to see and act with loving-kindness toward yourself and others.

Happy Holidays!