Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Yoga for Pain Relief

The following article by guest blogger, Kelly McGonigal talks about how chronic pain can affect mental health and she details the Breath of Joy to help combat the feelings of depression or hopelessness that can often accompany chronic pain. Kelly McGonigal is a yoga teacher and health psychologist at Stanford University and the editor in chief of the International Journal of Yoga Therapy. The following is an adaptation and excerpt from Kelly McGonigal’s new book, Yoga for Pain Relief.

The Effects of Chronic Pain
One of the most profound but least appreciated effects of chronic pain is the toll it takes on mental well-being. People with chronic pain have high rates of anxiety, depression, anger, and even grief. Not because the pain is “in their heads,” but because pain has a way of making you question who you are and what is possible for your life.

If you don’t have chronic pain, try to imagine what it would be like to experience persistent and often unexplainable pain. To wake up in a body that doesn’t function like it used to, and to find every part of your life disrupted. To not know if you will feel better tomorrow, next week, next month, or ever. To find that your friends, family, and coworkers don’t understand what you are going through. Who wouldn’t feel betrayed by their body, anxious about the future, and sadness about what might be lost?

Many people with pain find some relief and hope from psychological therapy, support groups, and medications like antidepressants. All of these can be important resources for dealing with the psychological consequences of chronic pain.

Mind-body practices like yoga and meditation are another powerful resource for reconnecting to the part of you that is glad to be alive, and can find meaning in each moment (even the hard days). One reason is that yoga philosophy places deep, unshakable joy—a natural sense of well-being, gratitude, and peace—as the deepest aspect of what it means to be human. You might have felt this kind of joy at special moments in your life—the birth of a child, the view of a sunset, or while immersed in hands-on or creative work. These glimpses are not dependent on external events. It is simply easier to be in touch with your natural state of well-being in these special moments.

In the yogic view, joy is the closest to what you might call your true nature. It is not a fast-changing, fast-disappearing happiness that fluctuates according to your thoughts, mood, and present circumstances. Yoga teaches us that the ability to feel at peace in this moment is central to who you are. This inner joy is less vulnerable to the changes in your life, and it is not dependent on fixing what is wrong or getting what you want. Even chronic pain cannot take away your ability to feel this part of yourself.

Yoga practice helps you reconnect to this inner joy. Whether it’s a meditation on gratitude, a relaxation pose that puts the body and mind at ease, or a breathing exercise that strengthens the flow of energy in your body—they all share the benefit of bringing you back home to your natural sense of well-being.

The Breath of Joy
(Excerpted from Breathing Practices for Pain and Stress Relief)

The Breath of Joy is a simple practice that can change your state of mind by changing the quality of your breath.

Come into a comfortable upright position, seated or standing. Place your hands over your heart, and notice the natural movement of breath under your hands. Relax your face, neck, and shoulders.

As you inhale, feel the breath expand the lower belly, upper belly, rib cage, and chest. Feel each area expand gently, like a wave that starts in the lower belly and crests at your heart. Be patient with each inhalation and keep inviting the breath in (without strain) until you feel comfortably full and radiant with breath. As you exhale, let the breath go without effort. You might even open your mouth and let the exhalation be an easy, soft sigh. Both the inhalation and exhalation should be free of tension. Have the feeling that you are
receiving each breath and welcoming it with an open heart. Keep a soft smile on your face.

Once you connect to the feeling of the breath, close your eyes. Feel your heart center, right underneath your hands. Visualize one of the following in your heart center: your physical heart, resting between your lungs; a sun, glowing brightly; or a sphere of light in your favorite color. Imagine it expanding as you inhale and contracting as you exhale. Connect to the visual image of it expanding and contracting, as well as to the feeling of it expanding and contracting. Another visualization that can help is to imagine breathing directly into and out of the center of your chest, into and out of both the heart and lungs.

Summary: Breathe into the belly, rib cage, and chest with a soft smile on your face and the image of your heart expanding.

Practice: For ten breaths, or as long as is needed and helpful, anytime to reconnect to the inner joy that is your true nature.

Kelly McGonigal, PhD ~  www.kellymcgonigal.com
Yoga for Pain Relief: Simple Practices to Calm Your Mind
and Heal Your Chronic Pain

is now available at Amazon.com.

Sara's note: Thank you Kelly for this insightful look into the psychology of chronic pain and for including a helpful and soothing breath practice. Namaste.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Winter Reflection Retreat

I'm so excited! Molly and I will be heading up Yoga North's Winter Reflection Retreat at Camp Amnicon this year. We will feature Restorative Yoga, Therapeutic Yoga, Yin Yoga and Meditation. This 24-hour retreat (Fri Jan 22 - Sat Jan 23 6pm-6pm) will also include 2 meals on Saturday, Lecture and Reflection time, and use of the facility's resources such as the sauna, hiking trails, and community space.

Here's the details:


Restorative Yoga, Lecture & Reflection, Meditation, Hiking, Sauna, Rest, Good Food, Community

24-hour January Reflection Retreat 2010 
at beautiful Camp Amnicon,
just 30 minutes away from Duluth.
Pause on Purpose as the New Year begins. 
Take this opportunity to reflect on your life,
settle into your body,
quiet your mind
and cultivate contentment.

Led by Molly McManus and Sara Duke

Arrival: 6 pm  Fri, Jan 22nd
Departure: 6 pm  Sat, Jan 23rd

$108 Before Jan 4th,
 $138 after Jan 4th

Early registration discount price of $108 has been extended! 
Call Yoga North at 722-9642 to register.

*Price includes Saturday meals,
yoga classes in postures and philosophy
and the use of Camp Amnicon facilities.

Makes an excellent holiday treat for 
yourself or a loved one.

Camp Amnicon: Located on 700 acres of the south shore of Lake Superior, along the Amnicon River. Enjoy the community space with a large fireplace, windows overlooking the river and forest, nature trails, and sauna. There will be opportunities for both community and solitude.

Sign up online or, for more details visit Yoga North, or call the office at 218-722-9642. Looking forward to seeing you there. Namaste. ~ Sara & Molly

Friday, December 4, 2009

Susi's Newsletter

I just received Susi Hately Aldous' newsletter. She was talking about doing less, instead of more; of relaxing into a pose instead of pushing into a pose; of letting go of the "no pain, no gain" attitude. I can't agree more. When it comes to Restorative and Yin you cannot push yourself to relax more. There is no competition to see who can be the most relaxed. There is just you, your breath, and your body, settling in and softening.

Here's Susi's rules:
1. Relax into your movement. If you think about relaxing as a segue to movement, you will automatically "let go." As you continue to move with relaxation, your strength will improve. Remember, tight muscles are weak muscles, so as tight muscles relax, they will become stronger.

2. Breathe easily. Notice if there is any tension when you use breathing techniques like Ujjayi. If there is tension, back off in order to find the ease. Remember, you want to use your breath to breathe, not to stabilize.

3. If you feel strain or ache, ease out to a position of strain-free or ache-free. Feel for the emerging non-pain sensations.  (If you have pain or strain constantly through your day, then be sure that your pain symptoms don't increase with your practice).

4. Don't believe that your "bad back" or "bad knee" will be "bad" forever. I have seen so many people increase their range of motion, strength, and stability while at the same time reduce or eliminate their aches, strains, or pain.

5. Remember, relaxing is not doing nothing.  As Indira Gandhi said, "You must learn to be still in the midst of activity and to be vibrantly alive in repose". It may be helpful to consider relaxation in movement as relaxed resilience. This will help you cultivate greater strength.

6. Instead of saying to yourself, "Ooooh, a little further," say, "Relax just a little more."

Thanks for the great tips Susi. Aren't these lovely rules to live by? Relax and settle in.