Well, much like anything, it depends. The answer is rarely straightforward and definitive.
As mentioned in the last post everyone comes in with their own experience of pain, history, individual, unique life circumstances. What might be helpful for one, will not likely be the same for another.
Below are a few comments made during a recent class, which illustrates this difference, for each person.
“I slept so much better all last week.”
“I’m not really using my cane anymore. My leg feels stronger, and I have no pain.”
“My back went out last week for a couple of days. I was flat on my back, so I used one of the (breath-awareness-distraction) practices and it really helped me get through it.”
And your back now? – Me
“It’s fine, now.”
“I’m so surprised. Normally I cannot walk around without my shoes on.”
Did you feel pain, while we were doing this (walking exploration, practice)? – Me
“No, I had no pain at all.”
I can’t say what will happen for you, or for another. Most often though, people will begin to experience feelings of calm, safety, less or no pain during class. And, some will begin to transition those responses and feelings into their daily lives.
Like most things in life, what we do, what we practice, we get better at. I would say the same, in this case. If you only practice during our class, for an hour a week, you may not see as much progress, notice as much difference. However, if you do a little, each day, I bet you will your experience will be similar to these others.
What I highlight to people, from both their comments and experiences is that something changed. To get curious about that, and realize they created the change.
It wasn’t something done to them.
From there, they begin to feel some hope. Perhaps a little empowered and more able to start exploring and learn to self-manage or resolve their persistent pain.
The second question people often ask me about Pain Care Yoga classes, after “who is it that comes to these classes” described here, is “what do you do in them”?
Pain is never just about one thing. You want to know what’s wrong. How you’re going to fix it. And how long it’s going to take. And rightly so, as having long-term pain often changes everything for you and how you live your life.
When it comes to pain, however, it is usually not that simple which is why searching for ‘the thing‘ usually doesn’t work in the long-term. Particularly if you’ve had pain for a long time. Which doesn’t mean to say that it can’t change. It can. We know what can help to bring about change, the best practices research points to.
Two key aspects, education … and movement, are important. So that’s what we do in these classes.
Some kind of education piece, usually at the start of the class, is provided. I only spend a few minutes on this, but it’s important to do so. One of the most common things I see with people in pain is the fear of moving. If I can help you to understand why it might be safe to move and why it’s important to do so, that’s a good place to begin.
“Current evidence supports the use of pain neuroscience education (PNE) for chronic musculoskeletal (MSK) disorders in reducing pain and improving patient knowledge of pain, improving function and lowering disability, reducing psychosocial factors, enhancing movement, and minimizing healthcare utilization.” 
Then, you practice. You get to experience how you might move, with guidance and guidelines, to learn what’s right for you. Which often won’t be the same as others in the room.
This is not a typical yoga class with sun salutations, downward dogs, lunges, forward folds, backbends. It is not even what I would call a ‘gentle yoga class’. Yes, we use slow, gentle movements. Yet, sometimes you might begin by just imagining the movement if you don’t yet feel safe to do it. Or you might practice it in your mind, plan out how you might go about it and if it feels right for you. It is always your choice to do or not do anything presented in class. You always get to decide how to move, how far to move, by using a slow, mindful exploration along with guidelines and principles utilized.
Most movements are fairly simple and modifications are always available. You’ll experience a lot of repetition, and rhythmic movements. Movements that cross the midline of the body. Movements that challenge your brain as well as challenging your body. You, anyone, can really begin wherever you’re at. With what’s right for you.
There will always be some kind of breathwork or a breath awareness piece in the practice. Again, it’s not so much about controlling the breath, rather what you might notice about your breath. How breath can be an indicator of your physical and emotional state at any given time. Also, learning how breath can help to bring about change to your nervous system, physiology, which can then change your experience of pain.
Like breath, awareness is key. So often when you are in pain the last thing you want to do is pay more attention to your body. But in fact, this paying attention is your guide to changing pain. It is in this noticing that you can begin to explore what the signals (or sensations) you feel might be indicating, what might be your unique contributors to pain, what might be the reasons for flare-ups. This practice is not only about noticing your body in class but then also paying attention to your whole self in your environment, in the larger world you live in.
There are many reasons, purposes and benefits to practice relaxation techniques. In most yoga classes this is done at the end of class. Though we’ll also do some kind of formal relaxation practice at the end, relaxation or creating a state of calm is facilitated right from the start.
It is when you are in a place of safety, when you are calm and relaxed, that change is likely to occur. It is this place of calm (a parasympathetic state) when you might first experience a change in your pain. Without this, it’s no different than trying to stretch, exercise, push through and strengthen your pain away, which seems not to work out so well.
If you’re interested in learning more, have any questions or would like to sign up for the next series of classes starting at the end of February, please get in touch here. I’d love for you to experience, how you might learn to change your pain. Or, if you prefer a one-to-one session, information can be found here.
 Adriaan Louw, Kory Zimney, Emilio J. Puentedura & Ina Diener(2016)The efficacy of pain neuroscience education on musculoskeletal pain: A systematic review of the literature,Physiotherapy Theory and Practice,32:5,332-355,DOI: 10.1080/09593985.2016.1194646
Most people I talk to wonder how yoga might help with their long-term, persistent or chronic pain. So, I thought I might tell you this week a little about who comes to these classes, what we do and why, or the outcomes experienced.
Let’s begin with who attends.
Most people in these classes (or private 1-to-1 sessions) have never done yoga before.
Classes tend to consist of people who don’t turn up in yoga studios, who probably never thought of doing yoga to help with their pain. After all, most of the marketing and imaging around yoga is out of reach for many people, let alone people who have difficulty or experience pain when they move.
Most, are around mid-life; perhaps 45 or older.
The oldest student who’s attended is 78. Most are about 50 – 65 years old. Once in a while someone younger will attend, perhaps in their 30’s. Currently, my youngest client is 13.
What are some of the conditions, or diagnoses they have?
The most common condition is people with persistent back pain and/or those with fibromyalgia. Most often, those with fibromyalgia have had it 20 to 30 years or more. Others have osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, sciatica, other musculoskeletal pain (hips, shoulders, feet, and neck seem to be the most common). Chronic pelvic pain, is another. Or those who are currently going through cancer treatment, or recovering from it.
What are some of the conditions or diagnoses that often accompany persistent pain?
Most often it’s either (or both) anxiety and depression. Many suffer from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), chronic fatigue, sleep issues (insomnia, sleep apnea, etc.), incontinence.
You can see there is such a wide variety and it’s not really ‘yoga’ people coming to these particular classes. Again, from what I know about most, they are people who have tried many other things that haven’t worked for them over the long term or are using yoga as complementary to or integrated with other aspects of their personal comprehensive pain management or treatment plan.
Up next on the blog, we’ll dig into what we do in these classes. I hope you’ll join me.
Unhelpful beliefs about LBP are associated with greater levels of pain, disability, work absenteeism, medication use and healthcare seeking. Unhelpful beliefs are common in people with and without LBP, and can be reinforced by the media, industry groups and well-meaning clinicians.”
The purpose of the editorial (made free due to popular demand, read it here) and the infographic is to “identify 10 common unhelpful beliefs about LBP and outline how they may influence behavioral and psychological responses with pain”.
The authors are also “calling on clinicians to incorporate these into their interactions with patients.”
This is so important. It’s why I always include a touch of education and information as part of my Pain Care Yoga classes. When people are in pain, it’s difficult to understand why it might be safe to move, how important it is to move and how movement “doesn’t mean you are doing harm – FACT #5”.
I hope these FACTS will bring some curiosity to your beliefs. I hope you might consider what you believe and how they might influence your experience of pain, either positively or negatively.
Sometimes, however, information is not enough. I, we, can give you all the ‘FACTS’ but often until you experience that you CAN move without pain it’s difficult to change beliefs.
As called for in the editorial, I am personally committed to bringing evidence-informed information and education to the people I work with and hope to provide a new experience to get you moving again, with confidence.
Foster NE, Anema JR, Cherkin D, et al. Prevention and treatment of low back pain: evidence, challenges, and promising directions. The Lancet 2018;391:2368-83.
Buchbinder R, van Tulder M, Oberg B, et al. Low back pain: a call for action. The Lancet 2018;391:2384-8.
 Louw, Adriaan & Zimney, Kory & Puentedura, Emilio & Diener, Ina. (2016). The efficacy of pain neuroscience education on musculoskeletal pain: A systematic review of the literature. Physiotherapy Theory and Practice. 32. 1-24. 10.1080/09593985.2016.1194646.
Often, when someone has persistent or chronic pain, what’s almost forgotten amidst the assessments, tests, diagnosis, and treatments, is the person. This person is not just a body with all these parts. Rather, someone who has a unique story, history, perspective and perception about what is happening with them. How pain affects almost every aspect of their life. Their worries, concerns, uncertainty about the future.
The International Association for the Study of Pain (IASP) launched it’s Global Alliance of Pain Patient Advocates in 2018, stating “this initiative seeks to better integrate the patient voice to inform pain research and its translation into new interventions to treat pain.” Below, Joletta Belton, tells her story:
I’ve been following Joletta for a long while now. Not only an advocator for the person in pain, she writes a blog over at mycuppajo, and co-founded Endless Possibilities Initiative (EPIc), which is a “nonprofit organization intent on changing the way people get access to science-based information about pain.”
She writes “My protective responses not only affected my breath, but my movement too. My muscles would tense up, my joints would become stiff, my movement braced and rigid. Being rigid and stiff affected the way I moved, the way I walked, the way I sat. The way I existed in the world. The tenser and more guarded I was, the more pain there was, so I started moving less. The less I moved, the more painful movement became. Fear of more pain, of more damage, made me move even less. A vicious cycle.”
She goes on to share what helped her most over the years. The first two, on her list:
“feeling heard and believed, supported and empowered
feeling understood, as well as understanding and making sense of my pain.”
“When we live with pain, it changes who we are as people. It changes how we see the world and how we relate to that world. We protect ourselves through isolation and withdrawal, through guarding and tension, through altered thoughts, beliefs, and movements. We disconnect from the people, places and activities that are meaningful to us.”
“It is hard.”
In her conclusion, she also goes on to say “… I want you to know it takes hard work to get out of those dark places, too. I want you to know that change is possible, but it’s not easy. It takes time and persistence, compassion and courage. … there is so much that is possible, so much that can be done, no matter how long someone has lived with pain, no matter how many limitations they may have.”
Jolette also recently contributed, wrote, the first chapter in the Meanings of Pain, Volume 2, released last month. The interdisciplinary book – the second in the three-volume Meanings of Pain series edited by Dr Simon van Rysewyk “aims to better understand pain by describing experiences of pain and the meanings these experiences hold for the people living through them”.
In my work as a yoga therapist and Pain Care Yoga teacher, probably the most important part of my work is to listen to what the person in front of me is saying about their pain, their story, their life. Provide safety and support, work to empower the person in pain as they might learn to move, breathe and renew their own sense of meaning and purpose in the world.
If you are someone who suffers from chronic pain, know that there are people out there willing to listen. There is hope. Your pain CAN change.
Let’s all continue to advocate for, educate and push for more services and support for the 1 in 5 Canadians who need it most. Each and every person, in pain.
What if you could learn how to move safely? To live your life again, with more ease.
What if you could learn how to tune into your body’s signals in a way that can best guide you?
Pain is definitely complex and there can be a whole range of contributors to your individual experience of pain. It’s usually not just one thing which is why looking for the ‘thing’ to fix the pain doesn’t usually work. Particularly over the long term.
What if you had a safe place to practice what yoga offers?
gentle movement practice
meditation or mindfulness practices
What if you had a community of others to be with who face similar concerns, uncertainty and questions, while you explore this?
What if you could learn that you are capable of changing or modulating your pain.
What if you could learn a little more to understand pain, what might be contributors, and what might best help to change your experience of pain?
What if you could learn how to work with your breath to help modulate your pain?
What if you could learn to notice stress and muscle tension which may contribute to your pain? Often, these lay just under your current level of awareness.
What if you could learn ways that might help you to sleep, as we do know sleep is often a factor in the experience of pain.
What if you could learn more about your nervous system and your brain and how adaptable these are? What part they play and how this means your pain is adaptable as well.
If any of this is of interest, resonates with you or you’re curious to find out more there is still time to register for the next series of Pain Care Yoga Classes. You can find more information here, or feel free to send a question here or by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org
** Tuesdays and Thursday mornings in Stittsville, starting November 5th.
Similar to the current biopsychosocial model used in the medical community when working with people suffering from chronic or persistent pain, yoga therapists utilize a comparable framework or philosophy, that being the panca maya kosha model.
The felted model above (by my colleague @meyogalune) beautifully illustrates how we might look at, explore and peel back the many layers of our existence when working with someone therapeutically. We are, after all, more than a body of tissue and matter.
What does this mean, exactly?
Let me provide a very general, simplistic idea of what each represents:
Annamaya kosha. You can think of this generally, as the physical layer.
Pranamaya kosha, or the energetic layer.
Manomaya kosha, or the mental/emotional layer.
Vijnanamaya kosha, or the mind. We might also refer to this as intellect or wisdom.
Anandamaya kosha, or the spiritual, blissful layer. What I prefer to call the meaning and purpose of someone’s self, or life.
What happens sometimes in our current medical system is the person is looked at, evaluated by and treated in terms of the physical layer only or from a biomedical model, rather than a biopsychosocial model. This can be due to a multitude of reasons but I’ll highlight just a couple, below.
One, that may be surprising to you, is how many of our medical professionals are provided little training, specifically, in pain. (1) “In a review of 10 Canadian Universities across 7 provinces… 68% of programs were unable to specify any designated hours for pain educationand veterinary students were shown to receive 2-5 times more pain education than that of health science students (Watt-Watson et.al., 2009). Educational content also typically lacks integration of biological aspects with the psychosocial factors that contribute to the experience of pain (Wideman et. al., 2019b).”
Another reason might also be lack of time that’s allocated to people given our over-burdened system and/or accessibility into “self-management programs that educate people about their condition and build their capacity to take action.” (2)
What is now understood about pain and as stated in the IASP definition, pain is “An unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage, or described in terms of such damage. ” You might think of it as an ‘actual, or potential threat to the system’, that system or organism, being YOU. Your whole person.
And often these threats to the system are just under your level of awareness. Or as David Butler says “DIMs and SIMs can hide in hard to find places”. Referencing DIMs as being the Danger in Me, while SIMs as being the Safety in Me. (If you want a brief explanation of this concept, here’s a link.)
We will experience pain when our credible evidence of danger related to our body is greater than our credible evidence of safety related to our body. Equally we won’t have pain when our credible evidence of safety is greater than our credible evidence of danger (Moseley and Butler 2015, pp14).
People sometimes think that their pain problem is, or must be, something physical. Or, sadly, they think or are told, that its all in their head. Pain is complex and by bringing a sense of curiosity to explore many areas, layers or koshas and how they might be affecting you either positively (perhaps a SIM) or negatively (maybe a DIM) we might just change this human experience, we call pain. Your experience of pain.
If you’re interested in exploring this further, I offer both private sessions or group classes utilizing this approach. Along with awareness, exploratory and gentle movement practices, I always add in an educational aspect or some yoga philosophy in line with what we know about pain and how you can learn to be your own best resource. Click here, to see my current schedule.
References above are from ‘A Report by the Canadian Pain Task Force, June 2019’. You can read the full report here, if interested.
(1) “…the current state of pain education in Canada remains inadequate across disciplines, with significant knowledge gaps in both pre- and post-licensure contexts (NASME, 2019; Thompson et. al., 2018).” On page 21 of the report.
(2) “Research in 2005-2006 indicated the median wait time for a first appointment at a MPTC was 6 months….. In a recent update to this work, researchers found little change in the wait times, noting in 2017-2018 the median wait time still hovered around 5.5 months, with some people waiting up to 4 years to access to multidisciplinary pain care (Choinière et. al., 2019).” On page 18 of the report.
How might we blend yoga with science to provide pain care to people? A new book just released provides a way forward.
“Our vision is for this book to improve care for people living in pain, whether acute or chronic pain. We believe health care professionals and yoga therapists can enhance care through deeper understanding of pain, science and evidence-informed interventions. We also believe that professionals can enhance their work through integrating yoga concepts, practices and philosophies. As such, this book is meant to bridge yoga, pain science and evidence-informed rehabilitation … and will inform those committed to helping people with this largely undertreated issue that causes so much suffering in the world.” – Preface, Yoga and Science in Pain Care; Edited by Neil Pearson, Shelly Prosko, Marlysa Sullivan
The first chapter by Joletta Belton is about the “Lived Experience of Pain” highlighting to me the need to listen to, acknowledge and consider first, the person and their experience.
“The authors provide an integrated, in-depth understanding of how yoga therapy can be incorporated within a modern understanding of pain as an experience. The book encompasses perspectives from people living with pain, summarises research progress in the field, debates theories of pain and pain management, considers the many different yoga practices, describes pain biology, self-regulation and examines breath, body awareness, nutrition, emotions and response to pain, and above all, integrates concern for practitioners and people in pain as humans sharing an intangible experience together. The authors write about how yoga therapy can provide a uniting and compassionate approach to helping people learn to live well.”
– Bronwyn Lennox Thompson, PhD, MSc, DipOT, Postgraduate Academic Programme Leader, Pain and Pain Management, Orthopaedic Surgery and Musculoskeletal Medicine, University of Otago, Christchurch, NZ
There are a lot of yoga books on shelves these days. Yoga for this, yoga for that. You name it; it’s being written about. The trouble with this and certainly when talking about pain is the approach is about the condition, the problem, the illness or disease. What’s often left out is the person. Which may be one of the reasons why we fail in helping people.
After all, your pain is not the same as my pain. Not only is the physical aspect different, my body different, my genetics, my structure. Almost more important is the rest of ‘me’ that’s different from ‘you’.
My life history is different from yours. My environment is different from yours. My stressors are probably not your stressors. My understanding of pain probably differs from yours. My expectations, beliefs and thoughts about my pain will be different from yours. My social structures, friends, family, work-life will all be different. So how might we believe we can just apply this ‘fix’ to everyone who experiences pain? It just doesn’t make sense, when you think about it. Particularly when we understand that pain… is… complex.
We, therefore, should look to explore and be curious about all the things that might be contributing to your particular experience of pain. Similarly, individualize the care, tools, techniques and practices with what research tells us might be useful, to change your pain.
You may have had pain for years. Like 30+ years or more. Still, there is an opportunity for change based on what we know about pain and how it works. There is much still to learn but we can change the nervous system, We can change the brain. We can change physiology and most likely all three of these have been changed if your pain has been ongoing.
Pain can change. There is hope. I will keep saying this over and over and over again …
If you’re the type that likes read and learn about this yourself, order a copy of the book, here.
If you’re the type that would like to learn from me in person or in a class setting with others, check out my updated schedule for the fall, here. New classes starting in September!
Joletta Belton, as noted above, writes a blog “My Cuppa Joe” about the lived experience of pain. Among other things, she is a speaker, educator and advocate for people in pain. You can read her blog, here.
Bronwyn Lennox Thompson also writes a blog “Healthskills: For health professionals supporting chronic pain self management.” An exceptional resource for information, research, and discussion. You can check it out here.
My desire for this update is that in some way it might inspire, be of benefit and most importantly, bring hope to you or someone you know who lives with chronic pain.
Approximately 1 in 5 people in Canada suffer from chronic pain, with costs to the Canadian healthcare system between $47 billion and $60 billion a year – more than HIV, cancer and heart disease combined. One might say that my desire, my passion, is in helping people who feel stuck, in despair and without hope in terms of their lived, unique, experience of chronic or persistent pain.
About 5 years ago, I started studying pain. What pain is (or is not), what might contribute to it and what the current evidence and research tells us. My interest began as a result of my own experience with chronic pain, which dates back a few years prior. Well, actually it began about 2010 or 2011, so almost 9 years ago now.
A year ago I decided to undertake training Neil Pearson offered to various regulated health professionals (doctors, physios, massage therapists, etc.) and yoga teachers, combining pain neuroscience education along with yoga practices and philosophy. The first workshop of the certification process he offered in Ottawa last year, happened to be part of the first module in a certified yoga therapy training program, also here in Ottawa (I subsequently applied to this program as well, and will start the second year of the 2-year IAYT Certified program next week).
Fast forward one year and I’m now certified to teach Pain Care Yoga classes!
WHY DOES THIS MATTER?
Neil trains both medical professionals and others in non-pharmacological pain care in the hopes of bringing knowledge, expertise and evidence-based practices into local communities. He is a physical therapist, a Clinical Assistant Professor at University British Columbia, and a yoga therapist. He has been a consultant with Doctors of British Columbia since 2013, to develop and implement clinical pain management continuing education. He is past Director of Pain BC, and the founding Chair of the Canadian Physiotherapy Pain Science Division.
His goal is “to help people living in pain and to assist others with the same desire to serve. We must shift many paradigms. Our views of pain, the people in pain, and the role and effectiveness of non-pharmacological pain care are mostly outdated.”
My goal is to help serve this purpose as well, by bringing Pain Care Yoga to local communities.
The good news about pain is that it can be modulated, there is hope, and as Professor Lorimer Moseley (probably the most cited pain researcher globally, based in Australia) now says “recovery is back on the table”. We know enough now about chronic pain that we can change lives.
In small group classes (or individual sessions), I hope to play my small part towards helping some of the 20% of our population in Canada who live with persistent pain.
Each time I meet with someone, listen to their experience, offer current explanations about pain, help them learn to move in safety with more awareness, attention and ease, it is clear to me WHY THIS MATTERS.
My classes start mid-April in Stittsville, with private
sessions also available.