Do you have recurring aches and pains? You don’t have to medicate your way out of pain.

by J. Renée DeTar, MA., C-IAYT, AYS, E-RYT 500

Julianne Hutchcraft, RN, BSN, E-200 RYT, Thai Yoga Therapist

Do you have recurring aches and pains?  You don’t have to medicate your way out of pain. Maybe your device can help reveal a few secrets that your body is holding onto? Why not give this a try?

What do you see when you look in the mirror? Put your device close to a full length mirror and look at yourself. You could even try letting Siri read this blog out loud to you as you admire your beautiful self in a full length mirror. Here we go…try not to move too much:

  • Do you look like you are standing on both feet and legs equally? 

  • Do you feet point straight or are they out to the side? 

  • Is one hip a bit higher than the other?

  • Does one shoulder look higher than the other? 

Now turn your right side to face the mirror and let your arm hang by your side. With your left hand take a photo as you face forward — not looking at the mirror to do a selfie. 

What do you see? Don’t try to change anything...I know it’s hard not to.

Try not to suck your belly in….stand in your natural posture, as any conscious change will shift everything.

  • Is one foot in front of the other? 

  • Are your knees straight or bent?

  • Does one hip look more forward than the other...or not? 

  • Does your lower back arch or does it look flat? 

  • Does your upper back hump forward or does it look flat? 

  • Are your shoulder forward of your ears? 

  • Is your head stacked on your spine or is it sitting forward?

That’s enough for now…as you’ve just begun your very own postural assessment! We, as yoga therapists, assess and document what we observe in the physical body in a private yoga therapy session. From traditional Western medicine and the study of living human anatomy, we have some basic tools of knowledge available to us: 

  1. the function of muscles is to move bones or stabilize  structures; 

  2. postural muscles (the stabilizers) are fueled by oxygen and can withstand long-held contractions without any conscious engagement; 

  3. the phasic muscles (the movers) are fueled by nutrition and do not do well with sustained contraction. On different levels, we must consciously engage these to create movement;

  4. when the function of postural muscles begins to deteriorate and can no longer provide stability, the phasic muscles will begin to compensate and “try” to provide the stability that the body needs to feel supported and stable as we move through our day life, i.e. the stress response versus the relaxation response. If not addressed, this  compensatory pattern gets locked in and over time could lead to decompensation and pain.

So what does that all mean? So let’s say you have chronic back pain from a prior incident…doesn’t matter what it was….it’s just been there for a long time. You take the two pics above and you observe less than aligned posture. Now what? 

This is where work with a yoga therapist is complementary and supportive to traditional approaches. And we just happen to be part of the tribe that believes that yoga therapy is a long-term sustainable intervention that can be morphed in long-term self-care, deep healing and restoration. It is not a band-aid and we have explained here how it works. First, we teach you how to cultivate the technique of Pratipraksha Bhavana, the practice of creating a positive thought and emotion every time a negative thought enters the mind. Think about what you say to yourself when you feel that familiar hint of pain. Next, we focus on working with the five levels of being human, the panchamaya koshas.

The first one, Pratipraksha Bhavana, is the process of reframing how you feel about your pain. Whatever you believe and think about it now will be different by working with a yoga therapist. We all need help with this practice because the other end of the spectrum lies in the feeling of not being heard especially if there is an issue that needs to be addressed. We have found more commonly than not, that an individual isn’t even conscious of old stuff that keeps eating away at their well being. Through our work together, the stuff gets cleaned out. So it is about the balance of thoughts, combined with beliefs, combined with the emotions that all trigger and contribute to pain.  In Ayurveda, an integral part of the IIYS yoga therapy program, we approach this mental practice first by doing what we call dinacharyas, daily self-care routines that you do to support your well-being. We always start with a few, not to disrupt your schedule a lot, but we have found that a commitment to “the few” can have huge advantages. 

As I mentioned in my last blog, we do not claim to cure your pain or make it completely go away, but we do offer a variety of strategies from within classical yoga and Ayurveda, to help you reframe your pain so you can cultivate more vitality and well being. With compassion and respect for your unique journey, we work through the five layers of being human, known as panchamaya koshas.  A simple way of understanding the symphony of the panchamaya koshas is to imagine yourself in a beginning yoga class. 

You are told to do triangle pose. Following directions, you move your body in space and do the best you can. Maybe even, grunting, and saying a few “you’ve got to be kidding me”s under your breath.

By following directions and moving your body, you tap into the first kosha layer, known as the annamaya kosha. This is your physical sheath, the tangible layer of your skin, muscles, bones and organs.  It’s that part of you, that you can see, feel and touch. The gross body. The practice of the yoga poses taps into this sheath because of movement and your encouraged attention to where you are in space, how you are holding your bones in alignment and engaging your muscles…or not. 

Then you are usually told to breathe, because during a yoga pose oftentimes we find ourselves holding our breath. So now, you are entering the first subtle layer, known as the pranamaya kosha. The pranamaya kosha cannot be seen or touched, but it can be felt and has a profound effect on the physical body. You can go a long time without drinking water, but not so long without taking a breath. In practice of yoga poses you become aware of your breath. You are told when to inhale and exhale and suddenly for 60-90 minutes, something that you do unconsciously most of the day (breathing), has become a conscious act. In yoga therapy, we design individualized breathing practices to strengthen the pranamaya kosha, enhancing your energetic body to support a balanced body and mind. You will have to think about your breath…that takes you into the next layer, the mental layer known as the manomaya kosha.

The manomaya kosha reflects the state of your nervous system, expresses and reveals itself as waves of thoughts or awareness of thoughts. That is why just focusing on your breath can take you into a meditative state. A breathing practice designed for you by a yoga therapist is based on your concerns and current imbalances. In Sanskrit, a breath practice is known as pranayama, and is a separate practice from doing poses in a yoga class. This layer is magical to us as yoga therapists…absolutely magical. Why? Because of #4 that we outlined above:  “when the function of postural muscles begins to deteriorate and can no longer provide stability, the phasic muscles will begin to compensate and “try” to provide the stability that the body needs to feel supported and stable” and #2 “postural muscles (the stabilizers) are fueled by oxygen and can withstand long-held contractions without any conscious engagement.” A breathing practice can change your life…..and we feel it such a strong practice that you need to be guided by an experienced professional…and that would be us.  Coming to yoga therapy is not like going to a yoga class. In a yoga therapy session…it’s all about you and worth every penny and every moment. 

If you are a DIY yoga practitioner, meaning you do your yoga on your mat at home, practice the yoga poses with intelligence by educating yourself about them. Very specific cues on common yoga poses are found in the books written by Raymond Long, MD author of the BandhaYoga book collection. (Dr. Ray is on our faculty here at the IIYS and he will be here in person October 2019.) Start with one of our favorite books, “The Key Poses of Yoga.” Pick a pose, read out loud how to get into the pose of your choice into your device, save, play and give it a go. This is a good place to start if you don’t go to yoga classes and want to give it a try. You can look at Dr. Long’s complete library of books here.

So if you are suffering from any kind of chronic pain…a session with a yoga therapist could change your life as you know it. More education about yoga poses in general will help you identify where you can and cannot move. By working with a yoga therapist and receiving individualized planning, you will learn how to be less tense, your nervous system will move into a more restful state so the body will begin to heal itself, your mind will be more focused and content. 

If you have any questions or are interested in a yoga therapy consultation (either online or in person), please email us at info@iiys.org