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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Yoga makes me feel…old. What’s up with that?

The lady who asked the question I blogged about last week, “Yoga is meant to calm me, so why do I feel so nervous?” asked another great question yesterday.  Gosh, I love students who give honest reflections and ask questions!  Thanks, honey bunch.

After class I noticed that her face wasn’t 100% bliss.  Quite the opposite.  So, unlike a YouTube video would, I sat next to her and asked her what’s up.  She said:

“I couldn’t do some of the simplest poses.  It made me feel old.”

Ouch.  And yes, yoga does that.  You see, if you give someone a workout routine like Crossfit or marathon training, it is very normal that they will find, at first, themselves not able to do it.  But because it is hard, challenging, perhaps unattainable, they are quite happy to just thrust away at it for a long time until they reach the goal.  To not do something hard on the first go is quite normal and acceptable for the ego.

But when we are asked to do something simple like lie on our backs and stretch one side of the body and breathe deeply, and find that there is pain, discomfort, we say “hold on a second…what is happening here?”

What is happening here is that our bodies have aged, have adopted fixed patterns, have held onto thoughts and emotions and stored them in our abdominal muscles, our hips, our necks, and we have become unable to make those muscles do our bidding.  We try to move the ribs with the breath, and we can’t.  Upon finding that we can’t do something so seemingly simple, we reflect on how, once upon a time, we could.  As children, we were all free and loose and easy.  But time, and life, and blows, and ailments, and all that, steals our childhood from us and we become adults, then middle-aged and then, if we are lucky, old.  The body ages but so does the mind.  We swap physical agility for mental wisdom.  Or that is the idea, anyway.  There is concept that I love in yoga that goes like this:

Why do we do âsana?  We do âsana to  keep the body strong and supple and youthful so that we can live a long time.  And why do we want to live a long time?  So that we can gain wisdom.

Doing yoga is like holding a mirror up to our true selves and being forced to look.  Mostly, we won’t like all that we see.  The mirror as a symbol is powerful and appears all over in the popular culture.  In Jean Cocteau’s 1950 Movie Orphée, the mirror is the portal between two worlds, the living and the dead.  And in fact, a very eerie reflection uttered is :

“Les miroirs sont les portes par lesquelles la Mort va et vient. Du reste, regardez-vous toute votre vie dans une glace et vous verrez la Mort travailler commes les abeilles dans une ruche de verre.” (Mirrors are the doors by which Death comes and goes. You have only to look at yourself in the mirror every day and you will see Death at work there, like bees in a glass hive.)

Yes indeed.  When we look at the mirror every day, we look at the face of Death.  Our own death.  This is getting heavy, but the Yoga Sutras are very clear about all this, in the first 5-10 aphorisms of the very first Yoga Sutras book, Patanjali identifies the Kleshas, the mental patterns that cause the vrittis, the mental fluctuations that assail us all.  And right up there in spot number five is fear, abhinidvesa.  Principle fear? Death.

We are all aware of our mortality but none of us wants to admit it, to face it.  When we do, we cringe and shudder.  This is normal.  I love to ruminate on the human being’s awareness of the passage of time.  We are, I believe, the only animal that marks time with such precision.  We are time-obsessed species.  Why?  Because we are all unconsciously counting down the seconds of our lives.  And this is wildly uncomfortable.  Because what this forces us to do is to admit that our time is limited, that we must live fully in the present and create from our meagre and humble little lives the best and brightest creation that we can.  And any abstention from this duty, whether through fear, intransigence, obstinance or fakery, is a negation of our duty to grow and gain wisdom and be the best person we can be.

Uff. All that at 8 in the morning.  I think a lot.  That is why I do yoga.  So, I will leave you with a Joy Division song with footage from Orphée.  Enjoy it, and live this day fully.  And get on your  mats, and breathe deeply and feel the love.  It is there, all the time, and there is enough for everyone.

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

The sun will come out, tomorrow….Yoga before the sea and the big blue sky

Yesterday morning dawned rainy and grey.  Around these parts, precipitation is a present, a gift.  The chill in the air was invigorating, and the light reflecting on the wet cobblestones a portend of danger, for they are slippery when wet.

Sophie and Laurence and I warmed up with a white tea before class, then ventured upstairs to el Cielo, which means “Heaven” in Spanish, for yoga class.

There was a chill in the room, so we doubled up the yoga mats, and distributed nice, warm, hot pink wool blankets.   When we reached the floor phase of the practice, I noticed that the chill was starting to bite.  Feeling protective of my students, I hoped and prayed for some warming rays.

As we began to practice dvipada-pitâm (“the two-legged table pose”), the sun burst through!  Suddenly our little greenhouse of a room warmed up!  Joy!  We finished the sequence with Dolphins and headstand prep…energies were moved, smiles dawned upon faces and yet again, yoga worked its magic.

Thanks to everyone who came to class, it is a honour and privilege to be allowed to teach even a little bit of this ancient system.  Thanks to all the yogis and sages who kept this oral tradition alive for us to employ now, in 2018.  Thanks to my teachers, Claude and Carmen, for dedicating your lives to teaching teachers.  Namasté.

Yoga at GOA Altea, with Rachel – video clip

Hey ladies and gentlemen,

A few months ago, the team down at GOA made a fab little video about the yoga and wellness programs that we run.  I, of course, am the yoga teacher.  That’s me on your right, with the braid.  So, click the link, watch the video and dream of quiet mornings in front of the sea, doing hatha yoga, breathing in the salty air, luxuriating in the silence and the sound of the waves.

Alteayoga @ GOA Altea
Alteayoga @ GOA Altea

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