August 2013

Yoga Classes - Pain and suffering

It may not come as any surprise, but most people experience pain somewhere in their body. Even amongst a motivated bunch that come to yoga, some form of pain is what drives them to attend. A survey conducted by Stephen Penman in recent years indicated that body pain or anxiety were the most common reasons that people started attending a yoga class. This is reflected in the attendance at yogaphysio. Interestingly this survey also showed that people get more from yoga then they expect and a large proportion continue yoga not just for health benefits, but for the spiritual benefits - ie. a feeling of peace and connectedness (not necessarily a religious experience).

So what are the key elements of a yoga class that bring benefit. Universally, people feel better, but it's not always a case of elimination of pain. Many people at yogaphysio feel reassured that physiotherapists teach the classes - aware of the importance of good alignment and safe practice, but I'm not sure this is the most beneficial aspect. On reflection I've come to think a number of things are important.

  • Community and humor

Maybe the most important - we get together and have a laugh. Looking after yourself doesn't need to be serious and hard work. Laughter releases serotonin, one of the body's feel good chemicals, we need more of it. Even if you don't know the name of the person next to you, smiles of recognition abound - we're all in this together - we all suffer in someway from time to time, but we all keep going. The yoga class is like a little microcosm - if we can get to class when we don't feel like it, and manage to do all those delicious yoga poses (that we don't feel like) we can do anything!

  • Kind and calm attention to the body

Yoga invites our awareness into our body - a rare experience when we are usually so caught in our heads - 'thinking' heavy. And when we bring our attention into our body, we discover tensions, tightness, pain and contracture, numbness, inability to move with ease - but this is a good thing. What we aren't conscious of, isn't not there. When we have awareness of it, we have capacity to change and work with it. We can explore the body and learn to relax it. We may notice an emotional component - that we are fearful and lack confidence in our body (and ourselves generally) and again with this, the opportunity to gain confidence; a confidence that generalises to daily life.

  • Breath and flow rather than control

Focus on the breath in yoga helps to integrate the mind and body. If we focus just on the body, there is a tendency for the mind to impose it's ideas on the body - it's systems of analysis and understanding - my body should be able to do this and attempt to make it. Yoga that involves some focus on the breath; so although we are attentive to what we are doing, we are not obsessive in it. Breath brings a softness and is a crucial part of a practice that influences the body's physiology - ie. nervous system. Anyone experiencing pain should bring more focus to the breath in their yoga practice.

  • Awareness of the mind

Yoga helps to put the mind in it's place. In the Vedic philosophies the mind is said to be a fantastic servant, but a terrible master. In a yoga class we bring our attention in to our body, and thereby develop trust and a more intuitive way of responding to injuries and pain – insight. The mind has no role here. Pain science has shown that being being reminded of a situation associated with injury can provoke pain. It's a little like 'cookies' on our computer (I think). When an old page is reloaded, 'cos we didn't refresh our browser. Awareness helps us to clear our cookies – to leave the systems, beliefs, ideas and analysis at the door. To do this we need to start by calling the minds stories when the get in the way of keeping attention in the body and with the breath – just being aware of the mind is a great start.

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