“When we ‘find’ our bones and allow them to assume a supporting role, muscles can start to relax. It is in the ‘undoing’ of muscles that freedom in the joints is found – and with it, greater ease in movement.” Peter Blackaby, Intelligent Yoga
How might you explore this and how might it help in finding more ease in your life, less pain, or fatigue?
Try noticing if you’re holding tension or contracting a muscle that’s not required for whatever it is you’re doing. So for example, I often suggest a person balance on one leg and notice if this creates any noticeable tension in their upper body, or jaw in order to do so. Obviously you don’t need your jaw muscles to contract to stand on one leg, but might this happen without you being aware of it?
How might you learn to release this? To relax, let go of what’s unnecessary. I think it can often be more helpful to imagine softening, rather than ‘letting go or relaxing”. How often have you been told to “just relax….”. Easier said than done.
One of my teachers used words suggesting this relaxed tone in our tissues “might feel like the texture of a soft, ripe peach.” Or I can imagine how the muscle tone feels in a baby or young child compared to what I notice in myself at times.
Make the biggest smile you can. Big, huge cheeks. Feel the tissue around your cheeks, maybe your throat, neck and perhaps even your shoulders. Just notice. Or clench your mouth, teeth really hard. Now, let your jaw hang loose. Open your mouth. Feel around again. Notice the difference.
I’ll often suggest people lay down on the floor to rest. Not your bed, not the sofa, but the floor.
Why is that?
When you lay on the floor it’s usually easier to feel the support of the ground below, in contact with your bones. So you might feel your head supported, shoulders, pelvis, legs and feet. See if you can notice that and does this allow your muscles to soften a little? This can be really hard to do. Something you might try is to first tense or contract a muscle (like we did above) and then release it so you can notice the difference.
The first step however, is just in noticing. Like anything, by practicing this you’ll often be able to sense more easily when there is tension ‘held’ in your muscles that you’re not aware of. Tension that might contribute to other changes in your body and likely fatigue, over the longer term. How might that influence pain?
The second step might then be, how to find support. Curious to explore this further?
Creating New Pathways: change your pain, change your life begins this Wednesday, July 22nd. For more information or to register:
I could really go on and on about breath, from many different angles and actually have been sent down the rabbit hole for a few days now wondering how I might approach this, in a single blog post.
Our breath, the in-breath and the out-breath happen quite naturally, right? Of course, they do. It is one of the most important things necessary to our survival. We do not have to think about it. It is just one of the many wonderous systems in our body, working behind the scenes.
However, if you look at how a baby breathes, and how many of us older folks breathe, you might notice a difference. How in babies and young children it almost seems like their whole body moves when they breathe. How their big, soft bellies expand with each inhale. For us, often, not so much.
There could be a whole mess of reasons, but the one I’ll explore here is one you’ve perhaps been exploring over the past week.
Muscular tension might be involved when we hold our breath, or when it doesn’t flow so freely.
Generally, muscles and tissues may become strained, fatigued over time if they are recruited, or over-recruited, ‘switched on’ a lot. We may not be aware of this, particularly if ongoing over a long period of time. It often becomes our usual ‘pattern’ rather than what might be a responding or releasing (and relaxing) as required.
There are also some areas of the body where this tension might get in the way of a full, easeful, ‘natural’ breath we see in a baby. I think of the stomach or belly area for one. How many people unconsciously hold or constrict in this area for a multitude of reasons? This, which happens to be the area containing your primary breathing muscle, the respiratory diaphragm. Or might someone hold tension unconsciously in their pelvic floor (diaphragm) muscles, again for a variety of reasons? I think of all those ‘core exercises’ we’ve been told are good for us or how often women socially, culturally, ‘suck in their stomach. Or perhaps you’ve been told to do kegels at one time or another, or hold, strengthen or tighten up your pelvic floor muscles. Which may be useful. Or maybe not.
Both diaphragms are meant to move with each breath yet with tension and tightness in one or both, might this change how we breathe?
Holding tension might not allow for a full, deep breath such as when our respiratory diaphragm moves down, creating the in-breath. Maybe, we hold tension in the pelvic floor, without realizing it and again, not allowing for optimal breath.
Now, think about what is more important to our body, to our brain, but breathing. And how this regular intake of oxygen not only provides nourishment our body needs to survive, but it also forms or influences our physiological state. For instance if we are under threat, or even perceived threat there are immediate changes to our physiology, including our breath, that takes place to aid in our survival.
Which is all great when we’ve broken a bone, need to pull our hand away from fire, stay clear of toxic fumes or something similar. Back in the old days, we would need all our senses, these sensations, to help us stay clear of dangerous predators like tigers and the like.
What happens now though, is often we are unaware of:
1. The threats (real or perceived) that we encounter on a daily basis. These aren’t likely threats like running from tigers, but threats in terms of our relationships, our jobs, our finances, our communities, our environment. How much of the news do you see, threatens your sense of safety? Does this create a sense of tension, stress, holding of your breath perhaps, in your body?
2. The response of your nervous system and subsequent physiology that accompanies this. You may have read that stress is not good for the immune system, for your mental health, etc. but there are also effects on other areas or systems that occur including your pain system. If pain is meant to protect you, yet you ‘feel’ threatened, stressed, and tense might that turn UP the volume of pain? Have you ever noticed a correlation (not saying cause, here) in your stress levels and your pain?
Conversely, how might a sense of safety, turn DOWN the volume of pain? Even a few simple words from a parent to a child such as “you’ll be okay” often turns down a pain response.
Can we learn to notice our breath and what that might tell us about how we feel?
Can we find a breath that is supportive for us, when it’s called upon?
Can we find a breath that is supportive for for us, when we need rest, find calm, sleep?
There is no right or wrong in this.
Rather, can we find a responsive, flexible breath that supports us for whatever it is we’d like to do? To live in an optimal state of health? As a first step, can be begin to notice this at all?
Personally, attention to breath and subsequent practices has had the most influence I find, when working with people who experience persistent pain. Time and time again. Though as Shelly rightly points out “the practices must be individualized to meet the unique needs of the person.” Telling people to take big, deep breaths, may not be ‘the answer’ or ‘the fix’ for everyone which is often what I see out in the main stream media. Suggesting there is some kind of ‘ideal’ breath, for all people, at all times.
I was looking at this tree (pictured above) in my back yard at lunch time today. It sways and flows. Appears strong, yet supple. Not rigid, brittle, tight or constricted. Takes in nourishment, gives back some. Might we be like this tree … A breath in. A breath out. Responding as need be, in any given moment to what life is asking of us.
I’ll be diving into this in more detail with information, a little bit of research and experiential practices in Week 4 of my upcoming online ‘Creating New Pathways‘ course. Want to learn more?
Interested to learn more about this thing called ‘yoga therapy’? Some FAQ’s plus links for ways yoga therapy can help, information for healthcare providers, where we’re at in terms of current research and yoga, yoga therapy.
I look at these flowers and wonder what happens between having a felt sense of freedom and space or that of feeling tightly clenched and constricted. What creates the dance between these two opposites in my my body, my breath, perhaps even my voice?
Recently I find myself rather tongue-tied, influenced each day by current events.
We celebrated Canada Day on Wednesday. Yes we did. Yet, this celebration doesn’t quite feel the same for me these past few years, given what I’m seeing and learning about our county’s history and what Canada Day might (not) mean for our indigenous population or others, unlike me.
I wanted to acknowledge how much I love this country. Having lived abroad for so many years I hold deep appreciation for not only the land, but the culture, society, values, all it’s people. Yet I didn’t want to not also acknowledge it’s dark history and so… I mostly said nothing.
I find uncertainty in knowing what to say, how I might use my voice regarding events unfolding, day by day. How #blacklivesmatter. The need to acknowledge the disparity and racism that exists. Which is not recent, but rather long standing. I still don’t know how to express my thoughts, even here, as I write. I have much to learn and therefore … I mostly, say nothing. Yet, that can’t be right, either.
There’s no way forward in standing still, or silence.
Usually I love to talk, to speak out, as noted in my last blog post. So this not talking does not come easy to me. However, I do notice times, places, situations where I expressly, consciously ‘hold my tongue’ as they say, for a wide variety of reasons.
What happens when there is something you want to say, but you’re afraid to say it? How does this happen in my body, this holding back, this silencing? How do I manage this? Surely, musculature is involved. Therefore my brain, my nervous system play a part. A thought or feeling proceeding it.
I wonder what happens to my breath, when I consciously hold back saying something? When there is a conflict between what I want to express but am unsure how to proceed? Or, perhaps if I don’t believe what I have to say matters. Or maybe this expressing of my self, is not welcomed in a particular environment or social context?
What effect might that have on physiology, my body, my breath? How do I even notice that in my body? What do I feel, how does that feel? Do I even notice when this occurs?
Do you ever notice for yourself, times when you don’t express yourself, hold back on your opinions, aren’t sure what to say? I can say there have been more than enough times when I have done so. In work situations, for sure. But also with family, friends, even strangers I encounter. For me, these are often situations when there is discomfort, conflict or uncertainty already permeating the air, circling into the mix. It is a pattern, I’ve come to recognize.
Today and over the weekend, try this: notice what happens to your breath when you speak with someone. Notice if you pause, give yourself time to think about your response. Notice if you allow others to complete what they’re saying or do you tend to interrupt? Can you feel your breath supporting your voice or does your voice or breath feel held, or tight? Can you notice any of this happening to the person you’re in conversation with? Do you feel comfortable or uncomfortable in what you wish to express? Do you hold back?
Or the opposite. What do you notice about your breath, your voice, when you’re singing your favorite song or in easy conversation with a trusted friend or partner?
What allows one to open up, speak freely? What might not? How might paying attention to your breath be an indicator of this?
I’m interested, to hear how it goes for you. Anything you notice about your breath, your voice. Your thoughts as you begin to speak or decide not to speak. What happens? How does it feel?
Let’s circle back on Monday and consider how our breath might have some influence or relationship to discomfort, and perhaps the experience of pain.
“Your graduation exam for this exercise is to practice breathing during an argument or confrontation”. – Donna Farhi
If you’re interested in diving into this type of exploration or other practices and how they might influence your experience of pain, I offer online 1:1 private sessions.
Such a beautiful tray of food. No wonder eating comes naturally to me. Rather like breathing. But it may not be so for you and I suggest that perhaps our breathing is not always natural either, but is rather responsive and adaptive.
I experience this in other areas of my life, as well. For instance, everything about being a mother did not always come naturally for me. It began with a struggle to breast-feed our first born. I became anxious, stressed and upset when this did not go according to plan. I had to make a call for support and learn from someone. All was well, soon enough.
Next, however, was being home alone all day in the dead of a cold Canadian winter with a baby, requiring so much time and attention. Not only exhausting (compounded by sleepless nights) but the social isolation I experienced was new to me as well, and did not come naturally. Knowing what to do, how to best raise this human being was a challenge. Parenting as being ‘natural’? In some ways, yes, of course. In many ways, not so much. When it didn’t feel natural, I felt like I failed, somehow.
Back to food and eating though. As I said, it does come quite naturally to me. In fact it comes to me far more often than I might need. Hard to resist when images like the one above, presents itself.
Mostly, we don’t pay much attention to these natural things we do until they become a problem, an issue somehow, in how we might like to live our life.
For today’s exploration let’s combine breathing with eating. How might that go?
Much to my family’s dismay I have a tendency to choke, fairly frequently, when eating. Part of it, I’ve noticed, I’m often rushing. Second to that, I’m often talking. Our dinner time is ‘family time’ and usually consists of our coming together prepared for much debate about the events and/or news of the day. When given the opportunity, I do as well, love to talk. Rather similar to the eating thing.
Meanwhile, what’s more important to survival than breathing?
Breathing is going to sneak in ‘as needed’ whether we want it to, whether we make time and space for it, or not. Whether we’re conscious of it or not.
I wonder how eating might go for me if instead of paying attention to what I eat, how much I eat, or when I’m talking, I might just notice how I breathe when I eat.
What might that bring to my awareness?
Perhaps there is something around eating that might be noticeable for you. Maybe instead of choking like me, perhaps you have a tendency to over-eat, or it could be you under-eat. Or perhaps you have some digestive issues.
Try this: Set aside one meal a day in which you do not feel any time constraints. Let yourself breath slowly as you eat. Notice how it feels to allow your belly to release as you chew and swallow your food. Monitor your breathing if you can. Notice what you feel during and after your meal. Again, try not to judge anything. Perhaps there is nothing to notice or perhaps there is.
Curious, isn’t it?
Check back on Friday when we’ll do one more exploration and it is a worthy one, I think. Also, I wonder how the movement and breathing exploration went for you, from earlier this week. You can sign up below to get all these posts.
Also, just to let you know, I’ll soon be announcing a new 6-week online course where breath is one of the things we’ll be exploring and working with. One piece of the puzzle, when we explore various aspects to consider if you experience pain. You can learn more about the ‘Creating New Pathways’ program by clicking the link below.
When looking at this picture, I imagine I may have been holding my breath in the moment. Quite a natural response, if I felt I didn’t have quite the stability and balance required to make it to the other side without falling. Perhaps I did feel able, comfortable, and so my breath flowed easefully at the time. For the most part, whatever occurred was probably not something I noticed or was aware of at the time.
It’s interesting to note how our breath might fluctuate throughout the days based on different needs or experiences.
Last week I suggested rather than bringing awareness to how your breath moves, which is often what we’re asked to pay attention to I suggested we might also focus on when it doesn’t. When you might be holding your breath. I wonder how it went for you? Did you notice anything?
This week, let’s explore this a little more.
Today and tomorrow, why not pay attention to your breath while you’re moving or doing an particular activity. It might be during a time or activity from last week, when you noticed this momentary breath-holding.
Choose something where you are not pressured or rushed for time. Maybe it’s when you’re making your bed in the morning, or perhaps brushing your teeth. Another might be when your moving from sitting in a chair to standing up. Practice, allowing your breath to move freely as best you can, as an integral part of the activity. Notice, if the activity or movement is made easier or more difficult when you breathe freely. Try not to judge it as good or bad. Just be curious.
I’d love your feedback about what you notice.
Then on Wednesday, we’ll explore this in another specific activity in our daily life. You might be surprised. Check back then, or sign up below to regularly receive these blog posts.
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
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.
Summer has officially begun and soon many will be on their long-anticipated holidays. Most likely, it will involve some travel. And at some point the dreaded ‘are we there yet?’ You might think it to yourself or maybe your little travel companions repeat the phrase. On the hour. Time seems to drag. on. forever.
Why is it we dread the getting to, and coming back from, our trips?
Sure there can be unexpected delays or surprises that inevitably happen. But typically it’s the thought of sitting in our vehicle driving for 4, 8, or 12 hours to our destination. Or being crammed into the airplane for hours on end. Uncomfortable, to be sure. Not only being seated for so long but also waiting to eat on someone else’s schedule or getting to the bathroom when the need arises.
Most of us sit, for hours, all day long. Why then, does it feel different or more noticeable when we’re traveling? In an airplane, it’s not so easy to move around, to shift in our seats, when discomfort arises. In our cars, perhaps it’s a little easier with more room and not so many eyes watching us.
On most any day, we tend to listen to the hunger and thirst signals our body sends us, while other ‘discomforts’ such as simply moving, tend to be ignored. Why do we respond to some and not to others?
Why should all of this matter to you? Why do you need to pay attention?
The median 1-year period prevalence globally in the adult population is around 37%, so chances are you or someone you know is affected.
And, what’s even more important, is
the way we have been treating people isn’t working.
“Low back pain (LBP) is now the number one cause of disability globally.”
There are a LOT of people who experience chronic or persistent low back pain. On a purely personal note, I would say it is the most prevalent ‘problem’ people tell me about when they turn up at my yoga classes.
“Rarely can a specific cause of low back pain be identified; thus, most low back pain is termed non-specific. Low back pain is characterized by a range of biophysical, psychological, and social dimensions that impair function, societal participation, and personal financial prosperity.”
In other words, it’s complex.
Of course, there is always a need to rule out those cases where there is specific causes.
“but, this is for less than 1% of those presenting with LBP. Known causes may include vertebral fracture, axial spondyloarthritis, malignancy, infection, or cauda equine syndrome (very rare).”
So if any of these are suspected by presenting symptoms, a clinician is well advised to do testing, imaging, etc. for what are often referred to as ‘red flags’.
If these are ruled out or if you’re not suspect for these specific causes, what then?
“Most adults will have low back pain at some point. It peaks in mid-life and is more common in women, than in men.”
“Low back pain that is accompanied by activity limitation increases with age.”
“Most episodes of low back pain are short-lasting with little or no consequence…”
“But recurrent episodes are common and low back pain is increasingly understood as a long-lasting condition with a variable course rather than episodes of unrelated occurrences.”
It’s highest in working age groups so the effect to the workforce is impacted. People unable to work, earn income, the possibility of early retirement. “In the USA, LBP accounts for more lost workdays than any other occupational musculoskeletal condition”.
Then there’s a person’s identity. Consequences such as loss of independence, ability to fulfill expected social roles can be impacted. Common themes of worry and fear are identified, along with hopelessness, the strain on families, social withdrawal, job loss, and there’s the navigating through continual healthcare encounters.
Most studies underestimate the total costs of LBP, but the economic impact is comparable to other high-cost conditions like cardiovascular disease, cancer, mental health and autoimmune diseases.
Most cases are resolved within 6 weeks, however, there are risk factors for recurring episodes. For people with other chronic conditions like asthma, headaches, diabetes. Those with poor mental health are at increased risk, etc. As one example, a study of Canada’s population with 9909 participants, found that “pain-free individuals with depression were more likely to develop LBP within 2 years than were those people without depression”.
Lifestyle factors are also at play. Smoking, obesity and low levels of physical activity are associated, although independent associations remain uncertain.
Which brings us back to it being complex. There are multiple contributors, “including psychological factors, social, biophysical, comorbidities and pain processing mechanisms.”
We can see the complexity when there is a continual increase of those affected, an increase in our health care expenditures and by the recent opioid crisis that is literally taking people’s lives.
It also seems whatever we’ve been doing in terms of treatment doesn’t seem to be working.
Why is that and what needs to be changed?
Tune in next week… where we’ll get to the second paper, “Prevention and treatment of low back pain: evidence, challenges, and promising directions.”
Note: For those interested, all references/studies can be found in the Lancet paper, here.
I’ve written about this before, here. But I think it’s important to talk about again.
People associate yoga with flexibility.
I do associate the word flexibility with yoga, but it’s in how we apply flexibility to our life.
That is, we have lots of choices available to us.
People often get stuck and then their choices become smaller, and smaller, and smaller… until they feel something a little like this; boxed in.
What I’m really looking for is this:
Do you have freedom, to do what you want in your life?
Do you have the freedom to BE you?
Skills that may aid in this might be strength. Physical strength if you want to move around in the world. Be able to go jogging, walking, cycling. Even to simply pick up and play with your kids/grandkids.
Maybe you are an office worker or writer and need to sit a lot of the day. What skills might be useful to do that?
A skill may be the ability to voice your opinions at work?
Or the skills required to get a good night’s sleep, so you have the energy for the coming day.
A useful skill may be noticing what creates tension in your body.
Try sitting in a dentist chair for any length of time and notice how you feel? A sore jaw, perhaps, makes sense. But what might your shoulders feel like? Or your leg muscles? Imagine doing this, unknowingly creating tension throughout the day, and what it might create? Pain, fatigue, stiff or sore muscles.
Yoga, is all about the noticing.
Which helps guide our life, …
out of the box, and toward spaciousness and freedom.