Being Not Ok With It – or – Where Is My Equanimity?

Long time readers, if there are any of you left, have probably noticed my horrible lack of posting, and that almost no posts about yoga have happened for months (there have been a lot of posts about cookies, though, so that counts for something). The reason for my yoga silence is that I’m not in a good place in my own practice, and I don’t know what to say.

Starting in the spring, some medical problems beyond my usual rheumatoid arthritis began happening. They included a significant amount of pain and pretty much ground my asana practice to a halt. At the end of May, this culminated in surgery, and then almost 10 weeks of no-yoga restrictions.

By the end of the imposed restrictions, I had very little stamina and still had a good amount of discomfort, plus the surgical after-effects that had boosted the arthritis into high gear. But, I started slowly back into my practice.

And here we are in November. I expected that my practice would be fully back on track now, but it is not. I had to eliminate a major part of my RA medications after surgery due to some liver issues (yes, I am a mess, thanks for asking), so the arthritis won’t calm down and most weeks, there is one or more parts of my body that just won’t cooperate. This has been compounded by daily headaches – maybe sinus, maybe migraine, maybe cluster, maybe gremlins – that I often have at this time of year, but that have been particularly bad and hard to deal with on top of the RA pain.

And, even the act of writing this makes me feel like a crazy woman. When I go to practice and have to sit out poses again, I am sure I look lazy or like a hypochondriac. When I realize that I haven’t attempted wheel, and only rarely inversions, in months, I wonder if I am lazy or a hypochondriac. When I don’t go to practice because something hurts, I am sure I AM lazy or a hypochondriac.

This morning, I got up with a nasty headache. It hurt to open my eyes or breathe. Yoga class was right out. But, it was a class that I really really wanted to go to – the last class in the studio that has been my yoga home for as long as I’ve been doing yoga. I’m so very sad right now to have missed it. I feel like I let myself, my yoga mentor, and my community down.

I know that yoga isn’t just about asana. I know that practice doesn’t have to happen in a vigorous class. I know that I should let go of attachment to a certain schedule or particular poses. I do. I say these things often to students in my gentle class (and I’m not even going to go into my feelings about not deserving to teach when my own practice is such a mess). I know them, but I’m having much trouble feeling them.

I can’t find my equanimity about this. It’s in there, somewhere. But, I can’t access it.

So, yeah, I don’t have a big point to make here. I guess I am writing this partly because I’ve spoken to many people over the years who say that they can’t seem to get started in a yoga practice, or can’t seem to maintain one, or are so busy fighting their body demons that they can’t find the space for it. And, they look at me with guilt and shame in their eyes when they say it. But, they don’t have to – if it’s you, you don’t have to – because I understand.

I’m writing this partly to also explain why the blog has been quiet and focused on, well, cookies. I’m a little too mired down in my own yoga funk to have much good that I can add to anyone else’s contemplation of yoga. So, if you have hung in there waiting to read something interesting about yoga, I still hope it will be back, but I don’t know when. And, I thank you.



Relaxing In, Not Pulling Away

cold outside

Photo by J. Haynes

The last few weeks have given me several reasons to think about how much more difficult most challenges in life become when we struggle with them in an attempt to get away, rather than relaxing into them and figuring out how to live with the situation.

For example, it’s been cold in NJ. It’s been quite cold for NJ. I know that, when I go out in the cold, my first impulse is to clinch all of my muscles, especially the muscles in my face and shoulders. But, if I can get myself to stop that, to relax my muscles and notice the sensation of cold rather than just reacting to it, it seems less awful.

In another example, I spent a few days in the hospital in January, while my family was on vacation in Orlando. The first night/morning, I was in enough pain that I didn’t really have room to ponder or fret. Then, as the docs started to get that under control, I found myself getting increasingly more sad and anxious at being away from my family, without my own doctors, in a place I wasn’t familiar with. I think that stress actually began making the pain worse. Once I talked myself down from there and worked on (not 100% successfully) accepting the situation, my body was able to calm and that definitely helped.

I could give you more examples from my life, but the point I want to make here is how much yoga helps to build this ability. In a yoga asana, meditation, or pranayama practice, a very important aspect is to find the ease in the midst of the effort. It’s not the same thing to clench a muscle as it is to use a muscle. Breath retention isn’t as distressing if you can calm the mind and ease into it. Holding a pose for several minutes in a yin class becomes much more pleasing when you can stop fighting against the stretch. In this way, among others, a yoga practice is an excellent practice for the rest of life.

In struggling against anguish one never produces serenity; the struggle against anguish only produces new forms of anguish.
~ Simone Weil

It “Shouldn’t” Hurt, But Sometimes It Does

Image by Remara Photography on Flickr

If it hurts, come out of the pose.

Effort is fine, but you should not feel pain.

These are words that I have heard, and even said, in yoga classes many times. The basic idea is a very sound, because awareness of where the edge between effort and pain is prevents injury in yoga, as it does in other sports and activities. Additionally, it seems like pain is counter-productive to the more psychological or spiritual elements of yoga. However, as someone with a chronic pain issue, there is a little voice in my head that always says “but…” when I hear or say these instructions.

For me, a person with rheumatoid arthritis, yoga asana hurts. How much it hurts varies from week to week (or even day to day) and from one joint to another. But, it always hurts somewhere. The degree of pain can range from relatively unpleasant to the sort of pain that prevents me from practicing asana at all. But, there is almost always pain that is beyond a sensation of discomfort.

In class last night, every pose that involved pressure on my hands or wrists produced some degree of sharp pain. As you can imagine, this is a significant portion of the poses in a vinyasa class. However, I worked through it, because if I didn’t do vinyasas that caused pain, I would not be doing much vinyasa, and that’s not a place I want to be right now. I felt ok about having that pain while I was practicing, because this week it hurts to open an envelope, so I wasn’t surprised or alarmed to feel pain in downward dog. While I have read about pain-free yoga, I have never experienced it. I don’t say this to be dramatic or as a plea for sympathy. It’s just a reality for me in everything I do and thus it is part of my yoga practice.

I know I’m not alone. Many people experience chronic pain in one form or another, and some of those people are doing yoga (some do it as a way of dealing with chronic pain). Staying completely away from any sensation we might characterize as pain can be detrimental to achieving the benefits of yoga that can be gained for someone who has pain. But, that has to be qualified with a “within reason.” Working through some types of pain can result in exacerbation of the underlying conditions. It’s complicated.

You might be surprised to hear that I don’t have an answer to this issue (but not if you read here often, because I frequently don’t have a clear answer  – sarcasm alert).

I think the answer partly depends on what kind of yoga it is, and what the goal is. For a gentle yoga asana class or a class focused on relaxation, any level of pain or intensity might be too much. For a more physically active vinyasa class, or a yin class that can produce intensity for many people, we may need to expect that some students are feeling sensation they might characterize as pain and that this is ok, as long as the pain is not extreme, is not unusual, is not unbearable, does not produce dizziness or nausea, and is not in areas of the body that are very easily injured (e.g. knees) or where injuries could be quite dangerous (e.g. neck).

It also depends on the person. If the pain experienced causes the individual to clench up, to move a joint in an unsafe manner in an attempt to avoid the sensation, or to come “out of” the practice, then it is likely not advantageous to continue doing the poses that create that pain.

I think that part of the key here, as it is with so many things, is knowing the body. If I know my body well, then I’m better able to see where my edge is. It isn’t something that another person can ascertain for me. Some of that learning happens by going a little past that edge and feeling it after. Some of it happens by going a little past where you think the edge is and finding out that it isn’t really there. Some of it happens by learning to relabel some pain as sensation, or becoming more of a connoisseur of your own body sensations and thus knowing what feels like “normal” pain and what feels like “abnormal” pain, or what feels like a muscle or ligament pulling instead of some tension on a previously damaged joint. Yoga helps us to gain this kind of body knowledge.

The bottom line, for me, is that sometimes yoga asana hurts. That can be the sign of a problem, or it can be just a reality of the particular body doing the asana. As we can’t assume that anything will be experienced in the same way from person to person, we can’t assume that yoga shouldn’t hurt if it’s being done correctly.