Yesterday I woke in pain so intense I was completely locked-up all through the trapezius muscle and my limbs hurt all over. This was a fibromyalgia flare-up of old; I recognised all the signs of the pain that gets into everything. Yet by mid afternoon I was bobbing around the house on a mission to clean bathrooms, I spent three hours painting then finished off by striding out on one of my most enjoyable long walks for a while, feeling so conscious and appreciative of how great my body felt from head to toe. This had clearly been no ordinary day.
Here’s another wonder – last week, I got back from almost two weeks’ travels around Belgium and Holland by train, lugging suitcase and rucksack (OK, my husband took over my suitcase for the final leg), sleeping in unfamiliar beds, walking around cities and even cycling for hours every day. In the old days (and I’m only talking two years ago), a week in the sun used to floor me and my health would crash for a month. This time, I came back feeling energised, extremely proud of my resilience and pretty-much intact. Yes, I felt weary to my core, with extreme pain and exhaustion switching on for a day or two and, lets face it, I did nothing much but ‘stop’ for those few days; yes, even now, my pain levels are elevated and I’m listening more closely than usual to what my body needs to get over the hump in the road. However, less than a week later, I can sense that the worst is over, without having got as far as the kind of crash where brain fog takes over and chronic fatigue settles in. Tired and a little triggered though I am, I am also mentally ‘back in the building’ and feeling full of creative vigour, coursing with things I want (and intend) to do. The pain doesn’t feel anywhere near so engrained as it usually does and I can trust that I have the means to work my way through it quickly, which makes all the difference.
How yoga makes a difference
So what is that difference? Well, I believe a BIG part of it is yoga, which I took up ten months ago and which I practice – not every day but – most days.
When my body locked up yesterday (and this is key), rather than thinking “oh, better not attempt yoga then” I felt more inclined to do it than ever and was very glad I did. Sticking to floor-practice, I gently worked through postures that I knew would be helpful and made them slow and sustained – holding them for just a little longer than I might normally do, working with gravity to ease me into where I could breathe and surrender into position.
Even when I travel away from home now, yoga comes with me. Maybe not every day but when I really need it, yoga is the ultimate portable wellbeing kit and just knowing its there with me – for me – makes a difference. Even in a space no wider than my outstretched arms, I managed to work through my routine in a B&B we stayed in for a wedding-weekend a few weeks ago and I know, without doubt, that the fact I took time for this made all the difference to how I coped with a long, physically demanding day. In an Amsterdam apartment last week, where we had been provided with too few bath towels for me to sacrifice one to floor, I attempted my yoga on a hand towel that slid around on the vintage wooden slats and somehow managed it, but a lightweight portable yoga mat is now high on my wishlist. One thing that aids this portability is the music that I have come to associate with my practice – I have a soothing playlist that, as soon as I hear those opening bars, tells me I’ve arrived in that inner space, no matter what the external surroundings or physical limitations of where I happen to be.
After ten months of home practice with the support of a coach that I see every eight weeks, I’ve built together a mixed bag of postures that can be adapted and built together into a routine that meets where my body is at each time I get on the mat. That time on my mat is just for me, is an intimate thing that is as private, deep and expansive as a meditation and is where I find my broadest self ready to meet me and to work with me to heal the body. This ‘beyond the postures’ aspect of yoga is what resonates with me in a way that pilates never did; yoga is profound energy work that integrates body and soul, ironing out creases in the physical self at a level that goes way beyond the hard matter of muscle and limb yet, through incorporating this deeper aspect, that other realm finds its way back to equilibrium all the easier.
Yoga postures to help release chronic pain
There are three postures that serve me so well that I almost always incorporate them. One is the Reclining Twist (Supta Matsyendrasana) which feels like it squeezes out and massages all your organs whilst restoring equilibrium to the nervous system centred on the spine. Most useful of all for fibromyalgia, in the immediate sense of providing swift release to the locked-in, contorted pain that often centres on that back region, it loosens up and unsticks all the myofascia in the abdomen, ribcage and neck until they glide again, providing the blessed relief of everything moving freely.
The other is the Pigeon Pose, which is deliciously strenuous – painful, even, if you are feeling very stiff – but by breathing and relaxing into it you get to receive one of the biggest, all-encompassing releases imaginable. This posture is a hip opener that stretches the, often chronically foreshortened, psoas muscle which connects the legs to the torso (I’ve talked about the many benefits of working on the psoas muscle before). I can honesty tell that my regular practice of this pose has made a very significant difference to my access to all parts of my body like I have found a key to the door of the pain I once felt trapped in. When you are in chronic, locked in pain, it can feel like its literally all over the place but, actually, when you feel into it, you may sense that this is anchored to some very deep place that you can hardly pinpoint, as though there is a giant knot or plughole at your centre, tugging you in. That place is your psoas. If gone into slowly and mindfully, this pose – above all others that I regular use – can offer the most incredible relief of widespread pain and limitation in parts of the body that extend well beyond the psoas – proving the old adage that when you release the spine and torso area, where all of your organs reside (and this goes for both postures I’ve talked about), everything else will naturally follow.
The third yoga practice that has made a huge difference in ways both subtle and overt is mula bandha. The most tangible benefit is the way it so effectively addresses myofascial pain and weakness to the pelvic floor (oh yes, BIG difference there), although this manoeuvre goes far deeper than that, stabilising your energy at the very core, so a practice that is utterly pivotal to any recovery process. To quote the linked article, the area it works on “is the location of the muladhara chakra, the root from which energy is said to permeate the human body and mind. When this energy is calm and secure, life itself is more relaxed”.
One thing I’ve noticed is how the more I have got into yoga, the more it has become part of ‘real life’ and not just consigned to the yoga mat (a bit like mediation…). It has become naturally integrated in the way that I stand, the way I bend and reach, I find myself mindfully adjusting my posture in long queues to rebalance my pelvis or shoulder blades, sometimes slipping into yoga-inspired bends and stretches when I stand to enjoy a view on my morning walks. I find myself raising my arms high above my head (something I could hardly manage to do, not so long ago) then hooking them behind my back and feeling into a stretch as I walk, arching my back or rotating my legs out to open my hips as I sit in my car seat, easing and stretching my way gently into tensions and soreness as they occur instead of allowing them to settle in and become stuck-points. I notice how I now sit quite differently, can curl up really small bringing knees up to my chest or fall into a relaxed cross-legged pose on the floor, feel inclined to ‘walk’ my legs up the wall when I am lying flat on by back and so many other relaxed and playful poses that were the natural legacy of youth and which the years and chronic pain had, previously, taken away.
People comment that I move quite differently now, seem taller and more lithe, I stride with long legs and easy hip swing, feel decades younger than I did at the height of my pain and considerably younger than my years would suggest. I’ve been taken miles and miles beyond being a ‘health recoveree’ struggling to gain traction on feeling a little better and into the domain of someone who is, by and large, thriving in their body with just the occasional rough patch, coped with all the better for having these incredible tools to fall back on.
All of these things, I know, are part of the immense difference that yoga has made to my life and my enjoyment of this body which is why I know it will be with me for the rest of my life.
A final word of caution; all of these postures are reasonably straightforward yet should be approached mindfully, slowly and not attempted if they cause any alarming or unusual pain – and you will know when you have reached that point. Yes it is possible to attempt yoga from a video, book or article but, as someone with chronic pain, I chose to see a pain-specialising yoga coach before I started; though, looking back, that was more to address my own need for encouragement than through absolute necessity. Whichever way you approach it from, let your body be your absolute guide as learning to listen so closely to what it has to tell you can become yet another gift that yoga has waiting for you.
Just sweat it out (more from me on the psoas muscle)