As yoga instructors, it is easy for us to recommend yoga as a way to manage pain. There is a lot of literature out there about how great yoga is for curing disease and various ailments including pain management. But how many of us actually know how it feels to have to live with chronic pain?
As I love to say to my students, we can only truly teach what we ourselves have experienced. For example, you can read all you want about how it feels to be hit in the head with a baseball bat, but until it happens to you, you really have no idea.
November 2013 – “Chronic pain is not simply a physical problem. It is often associated with severe and extensive psychological, social and economic factors. Many of these factors interact, and the whole picture needs to be considered when managing individual patients. “ – PatientPlus UK
During a Yin Yoga workshop with one of Paul Grilley’s students, Joe Barnett, we were talking about the role of fascia and how much of a mystery the human body is to modern anatomists. For example, anatomists in the US have found that a lot of us are walking around with a disc herniation of some sort but have no idea we even have it and might not recognize any associated pain sensation to tell us it is there.
The experience of chronic pain is very complex and can have many causes. Neuropathic pain, often characterized as a tingling, stabbing or burning sensation occurs when the brain misunderstands signals coming from the nervous system due to damage that has occurred. Musculoskeletal pain is due to wear and tear or strain in muscles, joints and nerves which often gets worse with activity and better with rest. Visceral pain is usually felt in the internal organs and is due to some problem with in this area but can be reflected to different parts of the body. This is called referred pain. An example is shoulder pain that results from gallbladder disease. Studies have also shown a link between psychological disorders such as depression, stress levels, socio-economic pressures, and addictive personalities with chronic pain conditions.
The question is, what does all this mean to someone suffering from fibromyalgia for example? How can the information above help me to help a woman suffering from this disease whose own husband agrees with her physician that the pain she feels is all in her head because all the tests are coming out negative? How about the very beautiful lady who comes to my morning yoga suffering from chronic neck pain and is asking me to give her yoga poses to help fix her, but when I try to give what textbooks say will help her, she leaves the room because she cannot continue? How can I help any of them if I don’t know how they feel?
December 15 2013 – “Stress can exacerbate pain, whatever its cause. When you are feeling overwhelmed by stress, your pain tolerance may be lower. And, of course, a vicious cycle often ensues, since being in pain can be stressful.” – Dr. Timothy McCall
It was almost the end of the year some were over at my house for our year end get together. One of them was sharing with us that her mother was coming down to visit and she was working through her personal “mommy issues” which were something she was addressing in her practice. She sent me this interesting article on how we all might have some sort of parental “issues” buried deep in our subconscious and the different ways that this can manifest. After reading I thought to myself: “good thing I have resolved all of these things already or else I would be panicking when they (mom, dad, and my 3 siblings) all come to visit next week.” I even invited all of them to stay in my place and had saved up a little money to tour them around UAE and show them all the best time possible so that I don’t get an earful from my mom about not providing a good life for her grandchildren. Never mind that I was scheduled to move out of my house earlier in the month and had over-stayed to make sure everything was smooth for their arrival. Never mind that my little rundown villa in Mirdif was falling apart and the owner wouldn’t fix anything. I put a hose in one of the showers because the faucet fell off and at least we won’t need the broken air-condition because its winter. It’s been nearly 8 years since I saw my family. I was proper excited.
Three days after my family landed in Dubai to invade my little villa, things were going pretty smoothly except for the fact that the landlord forgot to pay the water bill to DEWA so my cats were drinking out of the pool and we had to borrow the neighbor’s garden hose to wash the dishes. This didn’t bother me. I was fine with not sleeping very well because everyone was snoring like a pack of wild animals.
On the 28th of December I woke up with pain coming from somewhere deep inside my right shoulder, radiating up towards my neck and down my arm and ribcage. That whole side of my body felt frozen and stiff. I could hardly get out of bed at 5:30am to do my morning practice. The pain was so intense I decided to go for a walk and recite one of my favorite mantras – maybe this would help distract me in some way. It didn’t and in fact the pain got worse. So I decided to attempt a few rounds of Surya Namaskar to maybe “stretch it out”. After round 2 and coming to terms with the fact that downward dog, lunges and even balasana were impossible, I was on the verge of tears.
So I did what any normal 40 year old child would do: I ran to my daddy. He gave me some muscle relaxants, pain killers and suggested back exercises that his doctor prescribed to him for his lower back pain. He said that when he drinks too much this same thing happens to him and chided me for overindulging during my birthday brunch. He was convinced the pain would disappear after a few days. It didn’t. The pills never really made it go away but I felt myself getting attached to them as a sort of life preserver in my sea of suffering. This is when I decided not to take them. I started experimenting with pranayama and found Anulom Vilom (Alternate Nostril Breathing also known as Nadhi SHodhana) was the only thing that helped. Also when I did this breathing practice I felt a tingling in my neck and instinctively knew there was some sort of connection but did not know what it was. (This pranayama balances our chakras and the energy flow in our energy channels. It’s incredibly healing for the nervous system specially when the nerves have been damaged or energy is blocked and not flowing).
January 1, 2014 – “From the Oceans of Suffering May all Beings Be Free” – Vajrayana Dedication of Merit Prayer
It is easy to be in denial and say this has never happened to me before but that would be a lie. I remember long ago waking up with something similar. But I could not find comparisons between my life then and my life now. It was not a good time in my life. I remember myself in bed trying to find a pain free position, doped on pain killers and other substances, speaking to my mother long distance because her friends had told her that my marriage had fallen apart and I was broke and starving. I was trying to convince her everything was fine. Am I doing the same thing now? Looking back I see the parallel of masquerading an untruth so that the people you love most in this lifetime will be at peace – to the detriment of my own.(The throat chakra by the way is the seat of communication and blockages sometimes result in problems in neck and shoulders. Also one of the first places that fears associated to life-threatening situations manifests as pain.)
At this point of desperation I would try anything to make the pain go away. So I thought “Oh heck fine, let’s see if a little honesty session will heal me”. So as I had done as a little kid, I tried to snuggle up (without moving my back too much coz it hurt) between my parents, who were borrowing my bed for the holidays. As soon as I got into bed with them I started to cry. Used to this, my mom asked me what was wrong and waited patiently for me to get the words out. When the words came out from my heart they were not what I expected. “I just wanted everything to be perfect!”. That was when both my mom and dad held me in their arms and mom said “Peewee just us being together is already perfect. It doesn’t matter where we go or what we do, as long as we are together. This is all that matters and it is enough to make us happy to be here.” The pain didn’t go away but somewhere inside my heart I felt really, really good.
Eventually my family left the UAE and through patience and yoga self therapy, about a month and a half later so did the pain. What was left in its place was a little more wisdom and understanding that I could take to my students. I realized that for the most part, if you try to heal yourself with your practice, the first thing you instinctively try to do is find “the pose” that will instantly make the pain go away. Well, guess what: there is none. Healing usually takes time and as my friend Timothy from Holiztic Yoga likes to say, people nowadays treat yoga like another commercial pill. Pain is very complex and multifaceted, so you need to treat it from all angles. And in addition you need to have patience. I used a combination of asana, pranayama and meditation to give me relief and finally resolution. Here is what I did:
1.Asana: Because the issue was a compound one involving neck and shoulder, shoulder releases were crucial to healing. Releasing the tight muscles that connect the neck to the shoulder and upper thoracic spine frees up the cervical spine vertebrae so they can have more space between them in order for the nerves branching from them to have freedom to do their job. This experience helped me to formulate a lot of sequences to release the neck and shoulders because, being more conscious about it I noticed that everyone needs them!It did not always feel pleasant but there is a difference between the uncomfortable feeling of progress and the warning signs of further damage. Sometimes a little bit of discomfort is necessary for healing to happen. The attachment to pleasurable experiences and aversion from things that are not pleasurable can get in the way of healing. This subconscious reflex is something that the yogi strives to conquer in order for true evolution of consciousness to arise.
2.Pranayama: Anulom Vilom or alternate nostril breathing was great to balance the nervous system and relieve anxious feelings when in the state of pain. I feel this was necessary for my rehabilitation. A lot of traditional Hatha Yoga therapy models recommend this pranayama for any ailment resulting from damage to the nervous system or brain. In the early stages when I was in intense pain, this was the only thing apart from meditation that I could do. Ujayi pranayama was also helpful in later stages to take the mind deeper into the self so that the pain seemed only on the surface. This is a very helpful tool to achieve the meditative state.
3.Meditation: Tonglen meditation is from the Buddhist tradition and helps you make peace with what you are going through by reminding you that reality is much, much bigger than your ego’s version. Looking back, this is what really gave me a way out the first time I felt this kind of pain. I remember sitting in meditation and visualizing all the people in this planet that were going through the same thing that I was. I could feel us all breathing together, connected by our common experience. Taking them into my heart I thought to myself that if what I was going through could somehow help all these other people feel better, then I would bear it more peacefully. On the more scientific side, meditation is said to soothe activity in the left prefrontal cortex of the brain, which studies have found increases levels of happiness and equanimity. According to some studies, meditation can also reduce pain signals from the thalamus to the higher brain signals were the pain is interpreted.
Aside from the suggestions above, I believe that my current pain-free state has something to do with a change of perception about the experience itself. Sometimes even the best yogis have the tendency to think: “with the right therapy methods I can bring me back to the way I was before”. What we have here is a case of being attached to the idea that you are still “the same” as you were before. Sometimes we get attached to either the presence or the absence of pain. We might be longing for things to go back the way they were before or when one day we wake up and we don’t feel the pain we “look for it” in disbelief.
Lord Buddha once said that attachment brings suffering. In either of the cases above we fail to realize that pain is transformation and there is no going back to the way things were before simply because you are not the same person anymore. Instead of looking at what you are going through as “bad luck” or a “curse” – look at it as an opportunity to learn a better way to be a better you.
Peewee Sanchez is a Yoga Alliance ERYT200 & ERYT500 certified teacher with more than 20 years practice. Teaches various types of yoga (Vinyasa, Iyengar, Kriya Yoga, Yoga Swing, Kids Yoga and Prenatal Yoga), and it´s the founder of Yogafirst, company offering Yoga teacher trainings, retreats and related events.