In past posts, I’ve considered how having rheumatoid arthritis mixes with doing yoga. Since that time, as my practice has shifted and I have been focused more on the philosophical and spiritual elements of yoga, I haven’t so much changed my mind about what I said, but I have added some additional understandings to my perspective.
Chronic pain is what it is. We all end up with some sort of chronic pain at one time of life or another. Even people who believe themselves to be very healthy and well may have “tennis elbow” or a “bad knee” that presents issues regularly or periodically. This is an important concept for us to understand as yoga practitioners or as teachers. Knowledge about the relationships between chronic pain and yoga is not just applicable to a few students.
While acute/sharp pain should be avoided in yoga (for anyone, including those experiencing chronic pain during the practice), some degree of pain or discomfort is common. Individuals with current chronic pain may find that it is always present during practice, and may be felt as more intense during some poses. Though that is the case, the practice of yoga can make the experience of that pain shift in a helpful way.
When I am having a flare of pain, as I am currently, it becomes harder for me to go to yoga, because my body hurts and I feel so stiff and frozen up from clenching all of my muscles against the pain. But, when I get there, something interesting happens. Some poses are not accessible during a flare, because they do produce a searing and acute pain; since that makes it difficult to ascertain when I’ve moved past the edge, I avoid those poses or try to make adjustments to them. In other poses, the pose may intensify the feeling, but as I get into the practice, breathing steadily and focusing attention on all of the body sensations (are those toes spread? am I pressing into the space between my fingers and thumb? is my back leg active?), the feeling of pain becomes just another sensory experience, rather than something to draw away from or struggle with. In effect, I ease into the pain instead of withdrawing from it (a natural but not always useful protective response of the body). As a consequence, the muscles around the affected joint, even while warming and contracting/extending in poses, unclench themselves. This resonates through my body to the extent that I can feel the muscles of my face and skull begin to ease – even while I’m ostensibly experiencing “more” pain. When a practice is over, though I have worked the joints and muscles that are bothering me quite hard, I feel much better, more myself, and more ready to face the day without feeling traumatized or paralyzed by chronic pain.
I still believe that yoga has made real physical changes to my body that make my condition more manageable. My muscles are stronger, providing extra support to damaged joints. I oxygenate more efficiently, reducing the fatigue caused by the condition. It has made me more calm in general, which assists me in coping with the ramifications of RA. But, it’s also this easing into pain that brings me to a better place with my practice.
While these positive outcomes of yoga on my chronic pain are “mine,” they make me a different person. I bring a different self to my interactions and I put a different energy out into the world. Thus, the ripple effect goes much beyond my own experience. Given that close to 80,000,000 adults in the U.S. experience what can be labeled as chronic pain in each year, imagine how much change can be brought to the overall through yoga.
In teacher training yesterday we considered the second of the Yamas (restraints), which is Satya – truth or non-lying. Our conversation of Satya was quite interesting and I could think of many examples where I am not fully truthful (as I think we all can). Often, for me, being untruthful occurs in an attempt to protect my face (the image I want to present to the world) or the face of others – more on that later. So, I woke up today in the right frame of mind to think about Satya as I went through my day.
Having gotten the kids up and off to school, I quickly hit a road block. I have been having a flare-up of rheumatoid arthritis this week, because of a combination of a change in weather, hormonal shifts, and being off of two medications that I normally take. The result is that my joints are very sore and feel simultaneously really tight and really loose (in a bad way). The pain associated with this also causes nausea, compounded by a lovely little sinus issue, and I haven’t been eating much either. So, the upshot is that I’m not feeling so hot.
The decision before me today was whether or not to attend a 9:30 Vinyasa class. As I went through the rest of my morning leading up to the time when I really had to get ready, I was thinking about teacher training class the night before. So, when time came to make a choice, I found myself in an interesting conundrum. On the one hand, I could go to class – but then was I lying to myself about whether this was right for me and overdoing in a way that could be bad? On the other hand, I could stay home and rest a bit before work – but then was I lying to myself about what I was capable of and not stretching my boundaries in the way needed for growth? Hmm… I went back and forth and back and forth and finally, as time got late, just put on my yoga outfit and headed out. Great!
I would love to now tell you that this was absolutely the right decision and that the class helped me feel better. But, I cannot tell a lie (ha!). By 10 minutes in, I knew that this wasn’t working out. I got through, spending a good amount of time in Child’s Pose or Adho Mukha Svanasana. That’s ok, but even then, I was somewhere in between crying and yarking the entire class. It just was so not pretty. I couldn’t really concentrate on the poses because I was so busy concentrating on not physically falling apart. And, as you might guess, there was no calm to be found.
So, great. I made a choice in an effort to not lie, but it turned out that it wasn’t that simple. How was I to know what choice to make? I’m still not sure about that, but in reflecting on the whole situation, I am pretty sure that this all came down to an issue of Asmita (egoism or an attachment to a particular “self”). I reduced the options I had to two in my mind (stay or go – might there have been another? – I think so) and then attempted to make sense of them through this lens of Asmita. It kind of ended up as a question of: Should I stay home, which signifies my being “honest” about my physical state, and therefore a good yogi? Should I go, which signifies my willingness to work hard at this practice, and therefore be a good yogi? If I stay home, does that mean I’m lazy and a bad yogi? If I go, does that mean I’m not hearing my body and a bad yogi?
Yikes! No matter how you slice it, I am pretty sure I was being overly interested in this image of myself (for myself or for others) as a good yogi. That’s not very good yogi of me… This craziness is made all the more crazy by the fact that I knew on one level that I was in danger of practicing because of need for a particular self-image. But, I hadn’t parsed it out enough to see that there was a whole other level of the same Klesa going on there. Oh, this is such a process, eh? Learned patterns of behavior or thinking are so hard to unlearn. But, that doesn’t mean we can’t keep trying.