I read the following link on the BBC website, about the young overworked yoga teachers predisposing themselves to hip pain and pathology. Firstly, dont worry about me as I am neither young nor overworked, but secondly the following might help your understanding and enjoyment of the class you attend with me!
I recently went on a fantastic yoga teacher training course where we drilled deeper down in to what yoga meant to us as practitioners, and to those people who were attracted to our classes. Today there are as many different types of yoga out there as there are fingerprints! I can guarentee that all the people on the course, and all those people who come to my classes will have one thing in common, we will all have experienced pain, but each person’s experience of pain will be unique to them.
My view of the ‘pain experience’ has shifted significantly over the past decade or so. In my work as a physiotherapist, I have always recognised the mind body link, but articulating that in a meaningful and purposeful way has often been a challenge. Its through the practise of ‘yoga’ that I have come to see the relationship between mind, body and movement with greater clarity. This has not been at a cognitive level, but been experiential in nature ( thats how I learn best!). Interestingly, the mainstream science that now underpins the understanding of pain has helped to explain what I have experienced at a deeper level, through the practise of yoga.
Yoga like pain has often been described in terms of anatomy and biomechanics. “Your pelvis is out of line so your spine is compensating, and thats why you are getting your pain “. I have been there and got the t-shirt working as a physiotherapist. When I first qualified as a yoga teacher, I would make sure the people I was working with were put into the ‘text’ yoga book posture. Are our views about pain and yoga outdated and no longer helpful but more of a hinderance?
Pain like yoga is a good thing, if we strip everything back to the basic concepts. Pain is there to protect us. We put our hand on a scadling hot plate, without having to think we withdraw our hand. When we sprain an ankle, the area is flooded with inflammation and a chemical soup, that brings will bring about healing, the muscles splint the area to help along this process, and Bobs your uncle your back playing tennis before you know it. The pain experience is routed in our nervous system, the same as movement and yoga is, not necessarily in our joints and muscles!
However, not all nervous systems are made equal, and there is the crux of the matter! Understanding how our nervous system works, and why it works as it does is a very important step in determining what yoga means to me.
Its been over six months since my yoga course, and whilst at the time many things were highlighted by the group taking the course as to what Yoga meant to them, ‘wellbeing’ stood out for me. But looking back, I can only put into perspective my concept of wellbeing when I marry it to my understanding of the nervous system. Through understanding the function of the nervous system and its role in movement, perhaps a more appropriate name for the classes I run would be movement with kindness, or no pain all gain, or less is the new more! I will explain why…. or at least try to!
When we move or even when we are still, our nervous system is wired to be looking out for percieved or actual threats. This is based on many different inputs, but past experience is one I shall highlight here. An olympic sprinter injured his hamstring on his 21st stride in 100 metres, and didnt qualify for the next stage. He rehabilitated and returned to sprinting, but when measuring stride length, on his 21st stride his stride length was shorter. This concept is usually termed as ‘muscle memory’, but I think nervous system memory would be far more appropriate.
So whats happening? Based on past experience the athlete’s nervous system is flagging up the last time you extended your leg on 21st stride you injured your hamstring and weren’t able to complete the race, but much worse than this perhaps was that it ended your olympic dream! So whats this got to do with you and the yoga ( movement with kindness) class?
As mentioned earlier we have all got the pain experience in common, so it might be the last time you bent down to do the weeding you hurt your back. Now it could well be that some of the movements we do in yoga replicate your movement of your previous injury. Lets take the gardening example to its extreme; so the olympic sport of extreme gardening!!
You hurt your back, your self-employed so feel you have to keep going, your dad was also self employed and he did the same thing and had to retire early from work. You go to the GP and he sends you off for an xray and the report comes back with signs of arthritis. “Argh thats what my dad had!!!!” You ask the doctor what exactly arthritis means, and he explains it as the two bone rubbing together. But there is nothing really we can do about it. Youve got a young family and a mortgage , how are you going to manage moving forwards. In this instance the pain you experience may be intense and longlasting, developing into chronic pain that lasts over three months.
OR you were doing gardening for the first time in the spring , this happened last year and it resolved in a couple of days with a bit of rest, its not your job etc etc. You’ve got a very useful physio friend ( who you have a lot of faith in) who has advised you on what exercises will help and he has told you that there is nothing to worry about and you’ll be back in the garden next week! This pain experience of the olympic gardener might be very different to the one described above.
All of you who attend my classes will have experienced pain, and are most likely to at some point in the future as well. Understanding the science of pain will help you move with greater ease and confidence moving both now and into the future. But pain and movement are not simply constructs of the physical body, as you might be able to guess from the hyperthetical example of the extreme gardeners above. Pain can be amplified by what we think and feel in the same way that movements can be diminished, and of course it works the other way around as well. Most likely all of this happens below the level of our consciousness. I will explore in my next blog the science of pain, but if you feel motivated in the meantime then do consider a very expensive but very worthwhile book on pain science. Explain Pain second edition (2013), Butler and Moseley
It has been my experience working as a yoga teacher, that when students feel safe their nervous systems relax. With the above example of the extreme gardner and olympic athlete in mind, how could you approach your yoga class to get more from it?
You are in control of your movements
Be inquisitive and explore how and where you move rather than how far you move
Focus your attention internally:-
notice where you move with ease and where you bump into resistance.
Pause and explore areas of resistance
notice what thoughts and feelings arise in and around those areas of resistance.
notice and compare how one side of the body moves compared to the other side of the body.
Yoga for me has been a process of learning to speak and listen to the organ grinder and not getting caught up with all the monkeys. The nervous system is the most amazing social media network for connecting with ourselves and others, and when we enable it to work for us then many things become possible. So when asked why you go to Yoga classes what will you say ……… I go to get my nervous system rebooted?!