The hard truth about back pain

The Guardian published a nice opinion piece, written by a Doctor, in which she basically poo-poos medicalised back-pain management strategies.  Here is the link:

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/mar/22/back-pain-drugs-scans-fixes-treatment-lancet

I will never forget the day I had someone come to me for sever, chronic back and shoulder pain and say to me, when I asked “Are you doing anything about it?”  meaning, are you exercising? swimming? lying on your back on the floor? doing yoga? I almost fell over when she replied

“Well, I am taking the pills my doctor prescribed me.”

I don’t have a lot of time to blog this morning, so the links will be few.  But know this:  time and time again in the past decade, scientific, peer-reviewed, academically published studies and meta-studies (a meta-study is a study of a group of studies, comparing conclusions and crunching numbers) have found that exercise and ideal weight are the best tools for fighting back pain.  

So, get on your mats, dear ones, practice and all is coming.  If you can live pain-free, you release energy for other things, like creating, communicating and just being happy in your skin.

The guru is within you.

-Rachel

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Mixcloud: 3 hours of relaxing music

This is a lovely, relaxing piece of music.  Be at peace, move gently upon your mat, feel yourself alive, mobile, free, blessed.  You are love and you are loved.

Yoga is meant to calm me…so why do I feel so nervous?

This is a brilliant question that I received this week from a newcomer to class.  This particular lady was recommended yoga by her doctor, so comes as a special case.  Ideally, it must be said, such a person would have private tuition.  But, the mere fact that she has managed to make contact and come to class is practically a miracle.

Before the second class, she asked me this

During class last week, I felt very good.  But afterwards, I went home and felt more nervous than ever.  Isn’t yoga meant to calm me down?

Thus I replied:  Most anxiety arises from repression of emotions.  Anxiety and depression are often mixed, and sometimes confused.  But they are vastly different.  While depression has to do with a lowered level of mental activity, anxiety is a heightened state.  In yoga terms, anxiety is rajas and depression is tamas.  

Anxiety seems to arise when the brain is over-active.  This can be an excess of information, or an excess of emotion.  Most people with anxiety develop coping mechanisms.  The best way to plunge on through life when your brain is screaming red murder is to pretend it isn’t happening.  Here is the delightful Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s explaining it much more clearly than I ever could:

So, this lady suffers from chronic anxiety.  ie:  running to Tiffany’s every time she gets the mean reds.  And Tiffany’s can be a place in your mind, it can be a bottle, it can be distraction, an addiction, whatever.  You’re afraid and you don’t even know what you’re afraid of, the best response is to run, right?

Well, yes, until it isn’t the best response.  Because, just like Holly Golightly, if we could find a real live place that makes us feel like Tiffany’s, then we would buy some furniture and give the cat a name.

You see, dear readers, dear students, dear seekers, yoga brings you home to that real live place. When suddenly you have contact with the Still Point inside of you, simply through breathing, movement and the right teacher, you realise that all your running was in vain.  And you relax a little bit.  But… the minute you relax a little bit and then go back to breathing fast and shallow, fighting with the traffic, being surrounded by people who are NOT on the Path and almost seem to wish to shove YOU off the Path, you have to start running away again.  And you feel even more nervous than before.  

You can think of it as a study of contrasts.  If you are always in the mean reds, then a little deeper tone of red is hardly noticeable.  But if you are suddenly “in the pinks” and you go back to the reds…ouch.

Why does yoga make me feel good in class but nervous afterwards? Because yoga holds a mirror up to your inner state and makes you look at the things you don’t want to see and have probably spent a lifetime avoiding.  For that reason it is very, very, very important to have a trusting relationship with a qualified teacher.

Upon receiving that information from my student, a person I know hardly at all, I modified the pranayama at the end of the class and gave a technique specifically indicated for her, but that would cause no harm to any other members of the class.  And then, the next morning, I texted her, to make sure she was okay.  And she was.  And what’s more, she felt good.

So, people, there are Youtube videos a-plenty, gymnasium yoga fit classes galore, all sorts of bells and whistles.  But yoga is a practice that transcends all of this stuff and has tools to help everybody and the teacher is the one who will show you the path.  Get on your mats, comes to class, breathe deeply, be joyful.  The Spirit is within you, let it move you.

Love,

Rachel

Up in the early morning

Up in the early morning on Saturday, I chanced to spy the alignment of the heavenly bodies. Sun, moon and star traced a straight line in the dawn sky, casting their reflections on the calm surface of the sea.  As the heavens sang their coloured glory and the birds their joyful chorus, I was given a reminder of my own insignificance.  It felt great.

When I see the planets align, feel the Earth turn upon its axis, watch the days break and then later fade away, I realise that I matter little, if at all.  I am a speck upon a speck, hurtling through space and time infinite.  

In childhood, we believe the world revolves around us. Much of our long-lasting angst arises in childhood when we somehow think that we are responsible for everything that happens around us.  Parents divorce, must be because I didn’t put my socks on that morning.  Vacuum cleaner broken, must be because I left that dirty little candy paper on the floor.   Etc etc ad nauseum.

Growth, maturity, is reached, I believe, when we lose our sense of self-importance.  When we realise that we won’t save the world, that our scope is limited, we see that our only duty is to be as good as we possibly can be within the tiny scope of our lives.  This is actually much easier, isn’t it? I mean, it’s not that difficult to decide to walk in the door of your house with a smile on your face despite your soul-destroying day at work, now is it?

We are all specks upon a speck, hurtling through space.  We don’t know what we don’t know.  Life is a huge mystery and probably none of it matters.

Yoga taught me all this.  Yoga taught me to be still, quiet, and find that quiet place within myself.  I often close my classes with a discourse that goes along the lines of “that stillness that you feel inside, right now, was always there.  It’s just that you didn’t know how to reach it.  Yoga gives us the tools to reach that still point, that quiet place, and to do so repeatedly and reliably.  That is what yoga is, a series of ancient and well-tested tools that help us find our true selves, our quiet, calm, detached peaceful centre.”

We are specks upon and speck, hurtling through space.  We probably matter not at all.  And that’s ok.

Happy Monday, dear souls.  Be joyful.

-Rachel

Teaching yoga from the heart

Every day I wake up thinking about yoga.  It has been like this for as long as I can remember.  It is my deepest passion, my guiding light, the shining star in my sky.  1313146901-300px

Yoga teachers are bound to one fundamental rule:  you can only teach what you know.  And knowing yoga is about doing yoga.  You cannot teach postures that you cannot do yourself.  You cannot create the discipline necessary to establish a home practice, even if that home practice is as humble as getting on your mat once a week, unless you yourself have a home practice.  And you cannot impart the power of yoga to ease suffering and pain if you do not use yoga yourself to ease  your own suffering.

An example:  I got really sick over Christmas.  And I was alone.  After days of coughing, breathlessness, helplessness, I found myself in a state of terrible anxiety.  I am going to die, I thought.  We are all going to die, I thought.  Death, sadly, has a 100% success rate.  it is the most elemental, primordial fear that we humans have, and it is a rational fear.  Because it is scary to think that our days are numbered, that all that we know will pass, that all the people we love will walk off this mortal coil one day and the worst thing is, we know not when.

womanchildstar-300pxI have a particularly intense relationship with all this because of the cancer rehab work I did.  I watched people I loved, my patients, die year after year.  I avoided the funerals because I had to maintain some sort of professional distance.  In the last year I worked in breast cancer rehab, I had four women lie on my table weeping, and all of them were younger than me.  How can you process that?  How can you deal with the fact that illness is real, that all the yoga and chanting in the world will not heal a tumour, and that even the doctors are helpless in the face of this.  How?  how do you deal with that?

Well, first you freak out, if you’re me.  Yep, it lay on me like a shroud and I carried that mantle for years. I tried, I tried my very best.  But then it got too much and I ran.  I rejected the world of oncology, I didn’t want to know.  And then I got real.  I realised that I possessed the skills to ease this particular suffering, this terrible elemental pain that we all share.  I have yoga.  My mission in life is to teach the yoga I know to ease the suffering of our human condition.  There, mission statement. I don’t know if I ever had one before!

Yoga will not change the fact that we are mortal.  Yoga will not make you live forever.  But yoga can make you still in the face of all that fear, all that sadness, all that fragility.  Yoga can teach you to sit still and say “Yes, okay, it is like this.”  And dear, dear people, that stillness is so necessary to this world.  One day you will be called upon to be still in the face of a storm and if you know how to breathe, to chant a little prayer, to ask the Universe for guidance when you yourself don’t know what to say, when words fail you, when your heart wants to burst, you lie in the hands of your maker, this incomprehensible, beautiful, contradictory, frustrating world that we live in and you say “I don’t know, please help me”, then you have the power of yoga.

And if all this is getting heavy, but you’ve stuck with me until now, thanks for listening.  And let me tell you this – yoga is about joy.  Yoga is about the joy you find when you understand and accept the reality that is ours, and you say – HEY !  But I am ALIVE!  And I have love inside me!  I have so much love to give and there is always somewhere to put my love!  And then you smile, and you laugh and you are present and available and, and, and….you feel HAPPY!  So dear readers, this is what I did when I was sick.  I sat and I chanted and breathed until I remembered that this life is the one I have, and it is marvellous, beautiful, miraculous, just as your life is marvellous, beautiful and miraculous.  

Now get out there and have a great Friday!  Live, love, laugh.  I will be teaching in less than an hour, and I will probably hug all my students afterwards.  Cos I am like that.

Get on your mat! Yoga to ease the symptoms of menopause

I came across this article about the benefits of yoga for peri-menopausal and post-menopausal women.  I just had to share!

The study was done by researchers in Germany,  and examined groups of women in the USA, India, Brazil, China, South Korea and Germany.  What is really interesting about the breadth of the study groups is that the women would have had vastly different lifestyle and diet habits.  So, the observed positive effect must come from something outside of existing diet and lifestyle.  In this case, the researchers conclude that yoga helps specifically with night sweats and hot flashes.

I worked for twelve years in rehabilitation of women who have had breast cancer.  As you may know, many breast cancers are sensitive to oestrogen, so one of the therapeutic strategies is to provoke a chemical menopause.  This may sound harsh, and it is, for the ladies.  Later, the woman may take a hormone disruptor (aromatase inhibitor or similar) like Tamoxifen for a period of five to ten years.  So, I have seen my share of ladies going through the menopause, believe me. The hot flashes and night sweats are very disruptive.

I myself have been crossing this particular juncture in the past two years and the night sweats thing comes and goes.  But, as a practising yogi, I will say that my transition has been smooth, and I am not overly bothered by the symptoms.  If anything, I feel lighter in my body and more stable in my mind.  I did not expect to have a relatively early menopause (I am only 45), but I did expect that my symptoms should be bearable.  And in fact, yes, they are.

It is worth noting that the positive effect of yoga might also lie in the way the women perceive the symptoms.  It is now known that the intensity of pain or physical discomfort is partly an issue of perception.  “A study from the University of Colorado at Boulder released on Jan. 12, 2015, reports that the ability to use your thoughts to modulate perceptions of pain utilizes a completely separate brain pathway than the pathway used to send the physical pain signal to your brain. This discovery is a breakthrough”

So, let’s just sum up, shall we?  Yoga seems to be effective at easing symptoms of menopause, even adjusting for diet and lifestyle difference.  Yoga is a safe and practical solution.  Viniyoga, which adapts the practice to the individual, not the individual to the practice, is a style that can help women who might have co-pathologies like osteoporosis/osteopenia, overweight/obesity, arthritis, and so on.

Have I convinced you yet?  Don’t worry, I will keep trying if not.  Why?  Because I care about your health, even if I don’t know you (yet).

Love, Rachel

New Year, new you

Good morning dear yogis, or yogis-to-be!

prismatic lotus flower
lotus flower

Wouldn’t you like to make 2018 the year that you take up yoga?  Yoga is so ubiquitous now, it seems almost silly not to at least try?

But why should yoga be everywhere, and now?  Because it complements any other form of physical education or sport, but can also stand alone.  Yoga can be used by anyone engaged in demanding sport like football, running , CrossFit, to help rehabilitate muscle and connective tissue, improve breathing technique and oxygenation, and generally settle you down after a hard workout.

Yoga is completely adaptable for all ages and fitness levels.  Especially Viniyoga, the style of yoga that I teach.  The central tenet of this style is that the yoga adapts to the person, not the person to the yoga.  This means that viniyoga sequences are modifiable, which is not the case in many yoga styles.  As we know, the European population is ageing, and ageing brings with it certain changes such as connective tissue stiffness in post-menopausal women, overweight and obesity, problems with bone density, heart disease, sleep problems and a host of other concerns.  While yoga is not a magic pill, it certainly helps practitioners to feel better in their bodies, to sleep better, to accept more gracefully the changes associated with ageing, and to overcome loneliness.

Yes, what I say about loneliness is very important.  Yoga is fundamentally a solitary practice, a journey within.  But, in the West, the social aspect of yoga, the group work, is tremendously important.  If you join a yoga class, you will find like-minded people, and that sense of separation might be temporarily eased.  Loneliness is a big problem in Europe.  Yoga, quite apart from all the other physical benefits, can help overcome this pervasive sense of aloneness.

So, please come along to class and see what it’s all about.  You will be welcomed with open arms and a big smile.

Peace, namasté, Rachel