Yoga and Buddhist wisdom may ease the suffering of chronic pain.
There has been a lot of research devoted to the role that emotions, stored anger and ‘stuffed feelings’ have on chronic pain syndromes. Yoga with its emphasis on breath work and turning inward allows us to access these stored feeling we may not even realize we are holding onto and in a safe supported way, by letting them go.
Yoga by definition unites the body, mind and spirit. By accessing this ancient pathway back to ourselves we gradually become more mindful of our actions.
We learn to rely on intuition rather than following the societal pressure to do, do more, consume more and finally learn to just be.
Of course, there is a very real physical component to chronic pain that yoga also addresses. We Americans spend a lot of time in chairs! This leads to tight hip-flexors and hamstrings and weak abdominal and spinal muscles. Even those that routinely head to the gym, run or walk can end up with serious imbalances.
Most people have experienced some sort of acute pain brought on by injury, strained work conditions or structural challenges such as scoliosis.
Combine this with an unbalanced exercise program, poor diet, inadequate hydration and daily stress; there is no wonder chronic pain is so common.
Dr. John Sarno , the author of The Mind Body Connection and Healing Back Pain, was a pioneer in the work that linked emotions with pain in the body. His work focuses on stored trauma and negative emotions, especially anger leading to chronic pain.
Once this connection is acknowledged in the client, their pain diminishes.
With more awareness of one’s mental state and a move away from the victim mentality, one moves towards a place of acceptance and self-empowerment.
Dr. Sarno’s extensive research on back pain documents that MRI results have little effect on one’s pain level. Someone could have a significant bulging disc on their MRI and be totally pain free or vice versa; Giving credence to his theory that a lot of our pain is more emotionally based, or samskaras, old trauma buried in the mind or body.
This is where yoga comes in, strengthening the muscles and improving flexibility, but also making us more resilient. Improved mindfulness allows us to listen to our bodies more.
With time spent on the mat we begin to pay more attention off the mat; bringing ourselves back to what is right for ourselves over and over again and listening. Rest when your body is asking for rest, and move when it is more appropriate. Yoga is perfect for allowing one to listen deeply to the body, to accept what is and aligning more to the spiritual layer of our existence.
There are clear medical and scientific reasons that can and do lead to pain syndromes, but the psychological component can be tempered by some Buddhist wisdom.
After all, pain is a perception; pain is not in the body, it is in the interaction between the body and the mind.
Studies have shown that patients that over focus on the painful sensations in their bodies, or get stuck in fear or the emotional response to the pain can actually shift their body subconsciously from an acute pain event to a chronic one. So the Buddhist concept of accepting suffering along with joy in our lives, in addition to the concept of detachment may be quite helpful in allowing us to accept whatever is going on in our bodies and go with the flow or let go!
Furthermore, the four noble truths of the Buddhist tradition speak simply and eloquently about the human’s natural tendency to grasp or strive for good feelings and experiences, and to be averse to negative feelings and experiences.
The Buddha stated it as it is: The first noble truth is that life has suffering. There is change, there is good, there is bad. By learning to accept life’s inherent difficulties we feel less betrayed by life’s challenges. This simple acceptance allows us to relate to the ups and downs of life more honestly and directly.
The second noble truth is we suffer due to our grasping or attachment; we tend to hold to tightly to those things we hold near and dear, to the past, to the good, while desperately trying to avoid and honestly accepting the not so good.
The third truth is that we can end our suffering by accepting that things change. Remember pain is inevitable but suffering, which is our reaction to our pain, is optional.
The fourth truth is that there is a way out of suffering, by changing ourselves. These Buddhist self-help tools compromise the noble eightfold path.
This eightfold path includes right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right meditation. Some consider three of these to be the most important on which the others build; these are the three cardinal points.
The first cardinal point is right view which asks us to understand cause and effect and to fully understand the four noble truths. Self-inquiry is important here. We may not consciously cause our problems, but we can observe and perhaps modify our attitude or reaction to the event. By taking this step we realize we decide whether we suffer or not.
Wise effort imply that we must use sustained effort to overcome our habitual patterns of reacting. We must continue to work to observe our patterns that lead to suffering and cultivate a certain amount of detachment; becoming less drawn in to the inherent ups and downs and labeling everything as good and bad rather than just as what is.
Right mindfulness, asks up to observe our minds and bodies. With heightened awareness we begin to see our patterns and learn to stay in the moment. We learn to become observers of sensations, thoughts and feelings. We observe without judgment and with more compassion and acceptance.
When dealing with a chronic condition, whatever it may be, the only real way to move forward is with acceptance. We all know that negative emotions can lead to poor health. It is empowering to take control and responsibility for your health.
Knowing you can control your own behavior and reactions is empowering. Time on your yoga mat is the perfect place to begin and sustain awareness of what is and to tap in to the place within us that is untouched by the fluctuations of the body and mind.
As we tap into our inner wellspring of peace, we begin to cultivate a more neutral center, less reactive to all we experience internally and externally.
We begin to accept that although our bodies have their failings; our spirits are boundless, bright and pure.
Yoga unites the body, mind and spirit. Yoga practices on and off the mat, help us remember we are more than just these bodies having a physical existence, we are spirits having a human experience.
Do you suffer from chronic pain? If so, what self-care practices help you?