Mind-Body Practices to Manage & Alleviate Chronic Pain

“Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional”…. Buddhist proverb

Pain is an important part of life. Pain is protective. It helps stimulate the healing response through release of chemicals and hormones in the body. We will all feel pain in our lives. However, pain can also become prohibitive. It can stop us doing the things we want to do. It can become chronic and consuming, where it affects the way we think, and feel and interact with those around us. It becomes suffering.

The best way of dealing with pain is to try to eliminate the source. Sometimes this means medical treatment. Sometimes it means rest and recuperation; breaking the cycle of repeated injury that we can easily fall into. Sometimes eliminating the source isn’t possible though. It continues. There are good days and bad days, changing with the weather, our diet, our mood and for inexplicable other reasons. Some pains relate to diseases or conditions which cannot be cured and we have been told to ‘live with it’.

The Buddhist proverb tells the story. We will all feel pain, and not all pain can be directly eliminated. But do we have to suffer? Mind-body practices have a unique ability to help, especially when it comes to determining whether or not pain leads to suffering, because that distinction occurs within the space of the mind.

On the simplest level body work such as yoga and massage can improve blood flow to tissues, increase lymph flow, help wash away inflammatory chemicals and contribute to tissue healing. The mental aspect of mind-body practices however can help how we process pain. How we react to it, and how we let it affect us. Chronic pain leads to stress, fear and depression which can be reversed. Meditation has been shown to be very helpful for pain from many sources. Science has shown, using scans, that the brain handles pain differently in patients who meditate, even to the extent of different parts of the brain being active. It has also been shown to be able to reduce the amount of pain medication people take. So it is a powerful tool.

Taking part in mind-body practices is not an admission that its ‘all in the mind’, and pain is certainly not ‘weakness leaving the body’ as the military saying goes. One of the core goals of mind-body work is taking a non-judgmental approach. Feeling pain is not your fault, its not because you have not been trying to get better. The very step of calming your perspective to the situation can be a first major step in the pathway to feeling better.

If meditation can improve the way the brain processes pain, then it can alter pain perception, it can improve how the pain affects us emotionally and how we handle our thoughts and feelings in the context of chronic pain. Chronic pain leads to a rewiring of the nervous system that makes it increasingly easy to feel pain; like a memory that becomes ingrained. Meditation has the power to reverse this imprint, as well as improve emotional and psychological well-being.

Combining physical and mental exercise in a mind-body practice therefore has the greatest ability to impact pain by combining the benefits of both. Yoga has a unique power to achieve this and yoga has an increasing amount of scientific evidence to support its power over pain.  Doing a practice regularly and consistently is important. Doing it with a friend or an understanding partner can really enhance things through the benefits of social connection.

While pain may be inevitable, suffering as a result of it isn’t. If you deal with chronic pain consider exploring mind-body practices and deepen your understanding of and relationship with your pain. Wrestle back control of your situation and don’t let your pain become suffering.

Meditate for Better Health

So what exactly is meditation?  Meditation can mean different things to different people. To some, it is something weird or eerie that Buddhist monks do. To others, it is something they think they could never do because they don’t have the patience. To others, meditation is a life-changing experience that gives them mental clarity, less stress, and better physical health. Which of these will meditation be to you?

The good news is that meditation can be a life-changing experience for anyone. You don’t need any special skills, mental super powers, or inductions into secret societies. Meditation simply means mastery of the mind. We can all do that to some degree. Imagine a big, sweet, sticky cinnamon bun, dripping with frosting. It’s easy, right?  You were probably able to control your mind and bring that image into your awareness with a simple instruction. Unfortunately, we don’t focus on controlling our minds very much.  Our thoughts tend to run wild, causing chaos, lack of focus, fear, anxiety, and stress.

Imagine your internal dialogue any time during the day.  Our minds tend to fly from one thought to the next, thinking of problems, solutions, fears, things we are looking forward to, memories of the past, etc. The thoughts are like bubbles coming up through water, and as each one hits the surface, it is in our attention until the next one appears. This is a hugely inefficient and stressful way of thinking.

The goal of meditation is to wrestle control of these bubbling thoughts, and replace them with a fixed thought or series of thoughts, which calms the mind and reduces the internal chatter. In many ways this acts as brain rest, which allows the brain time to recharge and collect itself. It is better than sleep, since when we sleep our minds can be just as active, running rampant through our dreams.

Meditation has been scientifically shown to alter brain waves measured by electroencephalogram. It can reduce stress, and in turn, reduce stress-induced disease. In the world of ancient yoga, it was believed that meditation helped you approach a state of complete bliss without care or worry, completely at peace with yourself and the world. Yoga postures were designed to prepare the body for breathing exercises (pranayama), which were in turn designed to prepare the mind for meditation. So the whole premise behind yoga was that of preparation for more efficient meditation.

There are many types and styles of meditation. In one of the simpler methods, we select a pleasing image (such as the cinnamon bun), an object we associate with, or a memory.  We try to fix the mind on this object or place, and keep thinking about it. If the mind wanders off to the thoughts, we bring it back to this image, and keep doing that until the meditation session is over. Meditation sessions can be minutes or hours (even days) in duration, depending on your goal. There are definite health benefits to even a few minutes of meditation every day. Starting with a modest goal is very reasonable.

With a little practice, this process becomes easier and easier. It becomes possible to drop into meditation almost anywhere, even for a few moments, to help clear the mind and rejuvenate, or de-stress. There is nothing mystical about any of this, it is just a clearing of the mental bubbling.  Anyone who is capable of thinking is capable of doing it.

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But how can Pranayama work? How can changing the breathing have any impact on our body?

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