Pain: self-help in our yoga practice?

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After mentioning Dr. Esther Sternberg’s The Balance within: The Science connection Health and Emotions,I was interested to hear about research into harnessing the power of our immune systems (Radio 4 – Today Programme on 8th February).

Through advances in immunotherapy the immune system is “nudged/tweaked” – boosted or dampened to help the body cope with the inflammation that accelerates and contributes to disease.  Reference was made to Daniel Davies’ book The Beautiful Cure: Harnessing Your Body’s Natural Defences.  Davies is Professor of Immunology at Manchester University and he describes the scientific quest to understand how our immune system is affected by stress, sleep, age and our state of mind.  The linked Guardian review advises:

……..Do not underestimate the importance of immunology. This field relates to you personally . ……………. The best chapter concerns what we really know about how stress affects the body’s ability to respond to attack (measurably and negatively), and how tai chi or laughter interact with our immunity. Answer: we don’t really know, because most of the studies have been not very good……….

How we can play our part in these medical advances in terms of diet, lifestyle, sleep etc, forms part of much popular discussion but it is a very under-researched area.  Self help books abound and Davies examines some of the associated”bunkum”.    Yoga is one of the resources used by many of us to move away from pain and towards health.  However, as yoga teachers it is always important to stick to our area of expertise and to help students refer to appropriate professionals when needed.

Using yoga practice with care and intelligence does help if we “notice”.  I keep “banging on” about this and was intrigued to hear Michael Shannon, one of the stars of the Oscar nominated “Shape of Water” talking about his approach to acting.  His love of “repetition” enables him to reflect on acting and to improve his practice.  He stresses that it is not about achieving perfection, it is about noticing:

…What I am not noticing…… What I am not paying attention to .…”

(Late Night with Seth Meyers)

“Yes!!!”, I cried and this cry of enthusiasm led me to attempt to summarize this short,  generalized  look at pain;  how we move away from it and how we move towards well-being:

  • Practicing in a relaxed way is the only way that we notice.  A student struggling with balance on Thursday vocalized this in class and as she let go of tension she felt more balanced …well on one side at least!!
  • Noticing your breathing does your breathing adapt to your movement? Fluid, changeable breath is a good thing in this respect.
  • Move within a range that does not increase pain.  Allow the body to move as it can at present and please don’t force it to adopt a “pose” or hold a position that creates tension and exacerbates pain.

Being part of a supportive social network enhances our immune system and is noted by Dr Sternberg (p89).  Finding a yoga class in which you feel safe to practice, to rest, to ask questions and to compare notes is desirable, if not obvious.  At home, rolling out the yoga mat is often the hardest part of practice. The next few posts will cover some specific conditions that often feature when students join a class.  I will include some of the things that we do in class that you can take “onto your mat”.














2 thoughts on “Pain: self-help in our yoga practice?

  1. Hi Liz – this looks fascinating – thank you- I’ve just taken up tai chi – well its been 10 weeks now! and it is very difficult – we have a fabulous teacher – a bit like you – does it properly and is a purist. … so don’t get away with just waving our hands around. on the subject of pain – I take my hat off to you having carried ALL those yoga mats last week – I struggled with mine and Sharon’s !!  thank you again for getting one for me.  see you wednesday. Alison 


  2. Great news re your Tai Chi – your legs will be really strong!! Re. the mats – you are welcome and my carrying them is an example of our yoga being strengthening rather than “wimpy” as some think it is……well that’s my view anyway. Liz


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