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Practicing Yoga When You Have Chronic Pain


Untitled-5People are often surprised that I have chronic pain, because I am a y
oga teacher and the two are somehow supposed to cancel each other out. If only it were so simple! In my life, it’s been a more nuanced relationship—I got into yoga because of chronic back 

pain (and a whole host of attendant emotional and psychosocial issues), and my practice has, over the years, both helped me and hindered me in coping with pain and injury. When it’s helped me, it’s been because it has helped me to relax, centre, clear away my mental chatter, calm my nerves, and teach me to tune in to my body’s needs and capacities on any given day. When it’s hindered me, it’s been because of a combination of my own unrealistic expectations of myself and a culture of yoga classes that emphasizes fast and hard yoga asana practice, rather than slowness, deliberation and boundaries. Overall, though there have definitely been bumps along the way, yoga (and all different types of yoga, including yoga asanas, yoga nidra, hatha yoga, vinyasa yoga, pranayama and meditation) has helped me enormously.

I picked up some tips along the way, and would like to share them with other people who have pain, limited mobility or (dis)ability issues. This is what I have learned about practicing yoga with chronic pain—I hope it’s helpful to you and good luck on creating a style of yoga that fits and nurtures you.

Select Your Teachers Carefully
Unfortunately, many yoga teachers aren’t actually trained in the kinds of modification and adjustment you might need. This isn’t their fault—it’s because the standard of training (the 200h training that most teachers have) doesn’t address injury and limited mobility adequately. Someone with a 500h training may have more knowledge, but may also not. The best thing is to find a teacher who, through their own practice and teaching, has had injuries themselves or has made it a priority to learn about injury. Look for a teacher with a lot of experience; it’s also great if they are trained as a physiotherapist, massage therapist or other bodyworker, or if they have connections to such practitioners that they can recommend to you. Such a person might also not be working in a yoga studio, but rather giving yoga classes in a different setting. (This is because studios are often run on a very specific profit-maximizing and class-stuffing business model, and people who’ve been teaching for many years are often not compatible with it!) Most important of all is to find a teacher who puts you firmly in the driver’s seat, who gives you the information and then allows you to decide how far to go with it.

Select Your Style Thoughtfully
There are many different types of yoga. I would encourage you to try a few different styles, and then select what you need on any given day or week. Yoga benefits you in many different ways. For example, if you are having a pain flare, you might find restorative yoga or some other gentle yoga to be most helpful. If you’re feeling anxious, you might want something with more movement, or more meditation. I would suggest starting with slower styles—like Hatha Yoga or Classical Yoga. Chair yoga is also a great option for people with limited mobility. When you feel that you know your own body’s preferences and limits, you can try a more dynamic style (like Vinyasa Yoga or Ashtanga Yoga). Be careful with hot yoga, or with very fast-paced yoga classes; they can be a lot of fun, but it’s often challenging to listen to your own boundaries in such environments. It’s easy to overdo it and aggravate pre-existing problems.

Do Your Research
Don’t rely on a teacher to know what your body needs or shouldn’t do; It’s great if s/he can inform you, but it’s ultimately your responsibility. You’ll feel more empowered if you actively search for information, and then can make better decisions. If, for example, you have hyper-mobile shoulder joints or a slipped disc, it’s a good idea to ask your other healthcare practitioners about particular movements that might be dangerous for you. Of course, ask your yoga teacher, too—but don’t rely solely on their opinion.

If You Need To, Do Your Own Thing In Class
So, let’s say you have some disc issues in your lower back. And let’s say your teacher is teaching a lot of forward bends on a particular day, because other students are interested in learning them. And let’s say that, due to your research, you know that forward bends are something with which you should be careful. You can start by modifying the postures (and asking the teacher for ideas about how to do so). But, you know what? If you modify and it still hurts or feels like too much, just don’t do it. Feel free to rest in Savasana until the sequence is over, or do some other asana or pranayama while the other students are bending forward. A good teacher will support you in this, and won’t take it personally. Remember, it’s your time and your practice—do what’s best for you.

Practice Alone—It Will Help You Learn Your Boundaries Honestly
We’re social animals and we all like to feel part of the group. Unfortunately, when the group is moving in a specific way and you can’t follow, it’s very common to try and push and see if maybe you can get there today. Everyone with chronic pain or disability issues knows these thoughts. If they come up for you in yoga classes (and they often will, even in very gentle yoga or yoga for beginners classes), the best way to counter them is to balance your yoga studio practice with home practice. Then, with time and space, you can figure out what works for you, and you can come to a class prepared to respect and love your body’s limits.

Share Your Feelings About It
When you feel isolated, frustrated, invisible, hurt—find a way to let it out. Part of the journey of dealing with pain is learning to share it, verbalise or otherwise express it. Pain is often a silencing and isolating experience, and making it a social experience lessens the burden drastically. You might want to let your teachers know. You might not. It’s entirely up to you, how and with whom you share your emotions, but that you do share in some way is a very important part of learning to cope with your body’s limitations, negotiate this in relationships and celebrate what you do have and how great it is.

If you are looking for injury-, pain- and disability-aware yoga in Berlin, please don’t hesitate to contact us or drop into a class. We offer yoga nidra, hatha yoga, vinyasa yoga and classical yoga, in small classes with experienced teachers. You can see our yoga Berlin Kreuzberg schedule here.

 

A Tantric Way of Dealing with Pain

Does it hurt?  Can you do something to get rid of the pain?  No?  No problem.

You can remain content and relaxed in the midst of any experience. Including pain, sorrow, fear, or anger. Hang on… nobody said it’s easy, but we categorically say that it is possible. And not only that, it is possible for everyone.

rocksOne way I know of dealing with pain is amazingly simple: To directly experience what is happening, in a steady and concentrated way. In other words, to meditate on the source of the experience.

I have been using the Tantric meditations to deal with chronic pain for years. And, although the pain hasn’t entirely gone away, a lot of the side effects (mental anguish, fear, or other physical tensions) have disappeared.  When my knee hurts I can accept it and remain relaxed, so it doesn’t cause me any real disturbance.

Of course, if you don’t know the cause of a pain, it’s best that you seek prompt medical advice. But, if the pain is already there, you might as well meditate on it on your way to the doctor.

You will find that many pains actually disappear when you experience them in this way. Or the quality or intensity of the pain may change. Or it may move, or get smaller.

How does one do it? Simply by going to the place of the disturbance. Locate it physically with your mind, and then experience it with curious detachment. Experience it, not like you want it to go away, but like you want to know about it. Where is the center of this sensation? How big is this area? Explore it like an objective investigator; or watch it like you watch a film.

We experiment with this method during the Tantric Tuesdays at KiKi, for example, feeling a tension during a yoga pose.  We also practice some of the meditations that (like Antar Mauna) cultivate this ability of detached experience, or (like Tratak) teach the mind to concentrate intensely on one point.

I recently visited a friend, who’s also been coming to my guided moments.  I found her in a desperate state due to an intense headache.  Although she has only practiced for a few months, she has been very consistent and regular, so I felt that the meditative approach would help.  Below I transcribe her impressions of what happened next, written the day after.

I woke up with pressure in the head. Something very usual for me since I´m eight years old. Lucky that since I´m a teenager I can take medicine against it. And I do, immediately, with the first signs of pain. So hard is it for me to resist the pressure, the burning and stinging at my forehead. So with 3 pills per day I get over it and stay 2-3 days without pain, and can continue my daily life …. Therefore, I always have medicine in my handbag. Always!

 

But this morning I received a lovely massage from caring hands and I felt I din’’t want to swallow the pill. The pain got worse and then my stomach rebelled, so it was too late to take a pill. Ohhh I wanted to hit my head against the wall, like I did as girl, when the pain was unbearable.

 

I actually do not remember how I got on the chair in my room. I just remember this voice guiding me into my body, the stillness inside…. Ohh the throbbing got so heavy.. But I trusted and followed the guidance into the movement of my breath. I felt how my body was relaxing little by little, and at the same time the pain in my head became more intense. And I was guided directly into this pain. I felt the pain coming in waves and my tired body, leaning forward devoting to these waves. There was only pain and heaviness, and it felt eternal. I was awake and at the same time like sleeping, sitting on the chair. Until… Hari Om Tat Sat.

 

I just observed how my body laid down on the bed beside the chair. When I woke up, my head was completely free! I could not believe it, and noticed how I started to search for the pain. But quickly I dropped this idea and enjoyed my day.

 

Kathi hasn’t had any more headaches in the two weeks since this happened.  But she claims to be eagerly awaiting for another episode, so she can try this method again.  She also says that this experience has completely changed the way she approaches any pain or unpleasant feelings:  Now she meets them as their curious explorer, rather than as their victim.

On another post, we will write about the mechanisms that make this shift in the experience of pain possible.  For now, just take our word that it works.  Or come and practice it yourself to find-out.

Pedro teaches Tantra yoga and meditation at English Yoga Berlin.

Four Yoga Poses for Back Pain

Many people discover Yoga during the process of trying to treat back pain. Back pain is a very common problem in our society and can be caused by diverse sources. It can stem from simple muscle tightness, chronic postural problems, bad working conditions, structural misalignment in the skeleton, emotional stress or any number of other imbalances in the body.

 A regular, personalized Yoga practice can go a long way in helping to relieve back pain. We are careful to keep our Berlin Yoga classes small enough so that every student can freely ask questions about their own body. It’s important that your practice is tailored to suit your needs–every back is different! Make sure that you let your teacher know about your specific issues. For example, Yoga for a slipped disc is very different from Yoga for tight hamstrings. 

 Here are some tips for using Yoga to treat the most common back ailments.

Downward Dog is a wonderful posture for strengthening all of the paraspinal muscles. It also helps to stretch the hamstrings and calves, which, when tense, can contribute to lordosis in the lumbar spine. It’s very important to have a straight back as you practice Downward Dog–so start with bent knees and, as your legs warm up, you can experiment with straightening them. Sliding the shoulder blades down the back and rotating the upper arms outwards will keep your shoulders broad and strong in the pose.

 Cat/Cow is a gentle vinyasa that helps the spine warm up and releases tension in the back. Make sure you move slowly, deliberately and with your breath. If you have neck problems, keep your neck steady and your gaze on the floor. Otherwise, you can let it move with the rest of your spine. As your back warms up, notice where the bend is easiest to accomplish in your spine and then gently bring the movement into the stiffer parts of your back. This will help achieve more mobility in tighter parts of the spine.

Child’s Pose is a great release for the lower back. Bringing your knees together under your belly will bring your spine into neutral. Letting them rest wide apart is a deeper hip opener but involves more flexibility in the lower spine. Choose whichever variation works best for you, rest your forehead on a block or on the floor and then breathe and relax.

 Abdominal Work is best performed while lying on the back. This way, the floor can support the pelvis and the lower back. This makes it easier to work the abdominal muscles without straining the spine and strong, long core muscles are a key part of back health. Start gently, lifting the legs one by one (with the knees bent if need be), and then build gradually towards longer holds.

 As always, listen to your body. If you feel any pain, stop, rest and ask for a variation from your teacher.

The Puzzle Picture

Avidal's painting on flyer

We believe Yoga to be a powerful tool that helps us assemble the pieces of our Life’s puzzle and allows us to see the big picture.

Ever wondered what the “Puzzle Picture” on our flyers means? Clelia, our Erasmus intern, reports from behind the scenes.

 

The image representing English Yoga Berlin left a deep impression on me from the first time I saw it.  It is the painting of an almost complete puzzle.  The puzzle image is of a person completing their own puzzle.  It’s an image within an image.  A puzzle of a puzzle.  I was curious, and I asked Pinelopi, my teacher of yoga in Kreuzberg.  The story she told me really resonated with me.  I want to share it with you, so here what she said.

“One day I met with my friend and artist Avital Yomdin, and told her I needed to design a flyer for my classes.  We sat and talked about what yoga means to me.  I spoke about what yoga had done for me in my life.  I realised something important as we were speaking: when I began yoga, I knew very little about my physical chronic pain.  Crucially, I also knew very little about myself, for example the space I take, the person I transform into every day.

Through the yoga classes, meditation and mindfulness techniques, I started to understand and accept myself more and more.  I am not anywhere close to knowing myself completely, as that might be, who knows, ultimate enlightenment.  Yet I feel that the process of doing yoga was like finding the pieces of the puzzle of myself, so I could put them together.  Slowly, I could form a picture of  who I am.”

 

 

We offer Hatha Yoga classes with Pinelopi and Vinyasa yoga with Juli.  Our yoga Kreuzberg Berlin classes are open for and welcoming to beginners. We also offer Berlin business yoga, pregnancy yoga, and private yoga classes, including for people struggling with chronic pain.

Terminology Tuesday: Tratak

A candle flame is often the choice for tratak

Tratak is the practice of steadily gazing on one point. In our yoga classes in Kreuzberg, we practice Tratak on a candle flame, but virtually anything can be used as the object of concentration.

The term tratak from Sanskrit means means “to look” or “to gaze”.

 

It is one of six Hatha Yoga methods to remove toxins and sluggishness from the body’s organs.  This practice is said to relieve eye ailments, making the eyes clear and bright. It also said to improve a whole range of physiological and mental functions. Used in the treatment of insomnia, depression and anxiety, Tratak can improve the memory and concentration.

Through this practice, you learn that concentration involves no strain or effort, but that it is a relaxed state in which your attention remains easily fixed on an inner or outer object of your choice.

 

Here is a quick guide from this Yogapedia article:

  1. Light a candle and sit at least one meter away from it with the flame at eye level.
  2. Focus the gaze on the flame and keep it there without blinking for as long as possible.
  3. As thoughts arise, acknowledge them then return to focus on the flame.
  4. When the eyes start to water and tears flow, close the eyes and focus on the after-glow of the flame, bringing awareness to the third eye point.
  5. Meditate here until ready to come out of the practice.

 

We offer Hatha Yoga classes with Pinelopi and Vinyasa yoga with Juli.  Our yoga Kreuzberg Berlin classes are open for and welcoming to beginners. We also offer Berlin business yoga, pregnancy yoga, and private yoga classes, including for people struggling with chronic pain.

Accepting positive feelings

I love the idea of meditating on positive feelings too – have you ever thought about it? It’s about honouring those precious moments and learn from them.

RAIN meditation

Tara Brach’s RAIN

I have learned about “the RAIN of Self-Compassion” from an English Yoga Berlin class in Kreuzberg.  It’s a particular mindfulness practice that helps us to work through difficult emotions.  It is a Buddhist meditation that was later on tweaked by Tara Brach.  Read more about it here, where you can explore a wealth of resources made available by Tara’s website.

Being present to our feelings

I wanted to share how differently it landed for me one particular evening.  I connected that kind of meditation to difficult feelings only.  But that day in particular, I was feeling so blessed and grateful (for everything in my life) and I was trying to skip those feelings, not allowing them to be, felt awkward – with a thought like life needs to be hard to be meaningful and to make a difference, something like that.  Then I got anxious.

When the meditation found me in the evening, laying in Savasana, I was able to apply acceptance, understanding and nurturing to positive feelings too.  I was able to welcome them and be present to what they were telling me.

When I reflected upon it later, I realised that maybe positive feelings is not necessarily the right word.  We are talking about feelings that are challenging in other ways.  The excitement of anticipation can be tiring or distracting.  The feeling you want to explode from love or tenderness can be overwhelming.  They are all feelings that have that sensation that the cup of emotion being very full and is about to overflow… in a positive way.. but overflow.

Finding out that RAIN works for them too was very comforting. It’s as if the feeling is not out of control and overflowing, but I can sit with it in a steady glowing way. I think it reminds me of a fire. It can be consumed real quick and glamorously fast, or it can burn steady and for a while giving heat for a longer time.

 

We offer Hatha Yoga classes with Pinelopi and Vinyasa yoga with Juli.  Our yoga Kreuzberg Berlin classes are open for and welcoming to beginners. We also offer Berlin business yoga, pregnancy yoga, and private yoga classes, including for people struggling with chronic pain.

Anahata Chakra – a personal experience

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

Anahata is the emotional powerhouse of your self.  In this chakra we process emotion and feel love, forgiveness and compassion.

 

Here, we learn that the most powerful energy we have inside of us is love.  Alas, this chakra gets strongly affected by trapped anger and the experience of grief and loss.
Anahatha in every day life
I have been struggling with anger, grief and loss for a long time.  I observed that when the teacher asked us to focus on the heart centre, I could not really feel the heart centre like the other centres, by will, by sending focus there.  And yet, spontaneously, especially after a good yoga session, I would feel a clear sensation in the middle of my chest.  It is a similar sensation like when the stomach is empty.  It feels like a call: “hey, I am hungry!”

What do you feel in the area of the heart? Have you ever observed how emotions feel physically in this area?
Anahatha in meditation
In meditation, I visualised the heart: I was following the instructions to bring forth the details of what I could visualize, what I could imagine.  I saw a beautiful yet hard armour around my heart. Then the teacher suggested “what are you not allowing yourself to feel?”.  I knew this was an important question.  I was struggling to keep focused, mind wandering.  The parent voice inside me said She just said ‘what are you not allowing yourself to feel’.  Some kind of energy was rising up, and with it resistance.  I got a glimpse at the energy contained in this powerful chakra centre.
What is your relationship to powerful emotions like rage or wild joy? Where do you feel them in your body?
To explore this part of my body through physical observation has helped me greatly. By grounding in the body sensations, I accepted my difficult feelings and allowed them to be.  It’s as if cracks started to appear in the wall that I felt was insurmountable for so long.  I felt hope for healing, as if I were a plant that is finally getting watered!

Ring the bells that still can ring 
Forget your perfect offering 
There is a crack, a crack in everything 
That’s how the light gets in.

– Leonard Cohen

 

Clelia is an Erasmus entrepreneur working as an intern in learning how to set up a small yoga business such as English Yoga Berlin. We offer Hatha Yoga classes with Pinelopi and Vinyasa yoga with Juli.  Our yoga Kreuzberg Berlin classes are open for and welcoming to beginners. We also offer Berlin business yoga, private classes for pregnancy yoga, and private yoga classes for people struggling with chronic pain.

Terminology Tuesday: Rotation of Consciousness

rotation of consciousness

photo by Fern

Today we are focusing on a term that we use in every class, during Yoga Nidra: rotation of consciousness.

The rotation of consciousness involves taking the practitioner’s awareness to different parts of the body. Wherever we focus our attention becomes the place where we also centre our energy. Bringing one’s awareness to each part of the body increases the energy in that part and allows the participant to identify and relax tensions there.

By using this practice we invite ourselves to experience total relaxation while being awake.  Nidra, here, means literally sleepYoga Nidra, therefore means the yoga of sleep.  It is about being aware while the body sleeps; the rotation of consciousness is one of the techniques that makes this possible.  It brings heightened awareness to the whole body, piece by piece. It grounds us with connecting to the sensations present there.

Important Tip

If you, like me, end up falling asleep during Yoga Nidra, first of all know that it is natural and common.  But, like me, you might regret having missed the visualization that follows, and really would like to stay awake.  Try and repeat the teacher’s words as they reach you, while feeling or visualizing the body part – it worked for me!

Clelia is an Erasmus entrepreneur working as an intern.  Her placement involved learning how to set up a small yoga business such as English Yoga Berlin. We offer Hatha Yoga classes with Pinelopi and Vinyasa yoga with Juli.  Our yoga Kreuzberg Berlin classes are open for and welcoming to beginners. We also offer Berlin business yoga, pregnancy yoga, and private yoga classes for people struggling with chronic pain.

Terminology Tuesday: Niyamas

In our previous post we explored the concepts presented by the Yamas.  Today, for our Terminology Tuesday post we bring you the second part of Patanjali’s Yamas and Niyamas.

Hanging the laundry can be an exercise in Tapas

 

The Niyamas (the second limb) are the attitudes and behaviours that yogis can work towards to cultivate happiness and to improve their lives and environments. There are five niyamas as there are five yamas. Below is an introduction to three of them.

Tapas
“Tapas” is an attitude of passion and commitment. Some people think of it as discipline, or austerity. The word actually comes from the Sanskrit verb ”to burn”-so Tapas is all about fiery consistency. I think that we often get this mixed up with difficulty and striving. I prefer to think of it more as a gentle flame that inspires us to keep going, even when the tasks at hand seem very, very mundane!

Svadhyaya
Svadhyaya means active self-reflection, or study of the self. This doesn’t mean egotistical navel gazing. Rather, it’s about learning enough about yourself to see that you are part of something much, much bigger. Asana practice brings the body and mind to a place of quiet, so that we can experience our union with everything.

Isvara Pranidahna
The last Niyama is Isvara Pranidahna, which means ‘surrender’ or ‘faith’.  Isvara Pranidahna means that you do your best, in the moment, with the tools you have, and then you release your attachment to the outcome.

 

For a more in-depth exploration of the Niyamas, read here.  If you wish to learn more about how these values influence your own life, then we invite you to our 2.5 workshop on Patanjali’s Yamas and Niyamas coming up this Sunday. In this workshop we will use 10 guided mini self explorations to make the yamas an niyamas something applicable to our own personal 21st century lives.

We offer Hatha Yoga classes with Pinelopi and Vinyasa yoga with Juli.  Our yoga Kreuzberg Berlin classes are open for and welcoming to beginners. We also offer Berlin business yoga, pregnancy yoga, and private yoga classes, including for people struggling with chronic pain.

Terminology Tuesday: Yamas

looks like morse

Yamas are guidelines

Now that the western New Year has settled in, many of us are resolving to change some of our habits. The yamas is an aspect of yoga that guides us to change certain deeply ingrained habits. Let’s begin here.

 

Yamas and Niyamas are the first two steps of yoga that Patanjali discusses in the Yoga Sutra. They are ethical, behavioral and spiritual guidelines for living.

The Yamas are ethical principles about attitudes and behaviors that cause suffering (greed, dishonesty, violence, etc).  They are about stopping the behaviors that cause you to suffer.

Ahimsa is the first Yama, and it is most commonly translated as ´non-violence´. Non violent consciousness is defined by some as connecting with what is alive in ourselves and others. It´s also what we use in yoga, when we decide not to push beyond our limits.

Satya is the second Yama, and it means ´truth´. Satya urges us to be honest with  ourselves, and with others. In asana, we practice Satya when we listen to our body and, again, respect its limits.

Asteya is the third Yama, and it means ´not stealing´. This is a more complex concept than the translation conveys.   We believe Asteya is not about stifling need, it is about restraining greed. Asteya guides students to ask themselves: do I really need this?

Brahmacharya is the fourth Yama. It  is translated into English as ´celibacy´, but can also be looked at as a ´conscious use of energy, especially sexual´.

Aparigraha is the last Yama, and it means ´non-comparing´. This Yama is about jealousy, and acceptance. Patanjali recognized that the human mind has a tendency to compare, in order to understand. In our Kreuzberg yoga classes we often tell students to observe without analyzing.

For a more in-depth exploration of the Yamas, read here and here.  If you wish to learn more about how these values influence your own life, then we invite you to our 2.5 workshop on Patanjali’s Yamas and Niyamas coming up at the end of the month. In this workshop we will use 10 guided mini self explorations to make the yamas an niyamas something applicable to our own personal 21st century lives.

We offer Hatha Yoga classes with Pinelopi and Vinyasa yoga with Juli.  Our yoga Kreuzberg Berlin classes are open for and welcoming to beginners. We also offer Berlin business yoga, pregnancy yoga, and private yoga classes, including for people struggling with chronic pain.