I have been teaching Alignment Based Yoga Flow for over 25 years and practicing yoga even longer. Back pain led me to yoga, and I have been exploring the practice daily ever since. Ganga White, one of my teachers, tells us that “there is no such thing as one kind of pain – pain is a language, an entire information system.” So how did I learn this language that keeps me pain-free? I continuously sought out skillful teachers who were students of yoga and spoke to what my body needed to continue to heal. I was encouraged, so I created a personal and consistent practice by listening to mind-body feedback and altering the approach to how I evolved my movement and the way I practiced. So, as a teacher, I guide and demonstrate yoga postures and create sequences that feel good to me and may also feel suitable to my students. This evolutionary approach allows me to show you the myriad possibilities to find your way in yoga. Your “way” may differ because your body is unique, and your history of how you have been moving your body is different from everyone else. That’s why it’s a creative process that starts with tracking your internal sensations closely. Trusting your organic intelligence and intuition are mainstays of your yoga practice staying vital and creative. Think about it as having a strong internet connection. When our internal signal gets too weak, we lose connection, our mind takes over, and we automatically go on.
These automatic habitual movements can be unlearned. Our brain has an enormous capacity for new patterns of movements, and we can shift. You won’t be able to self-sense all of the time. But what you will be able to do is self-correct when you notice you are not fully engaged, without any judgment that you should be any better than you already are. We can get control of our internal processes, and through practice, we come to recognize our habitual ways of moving that can create harmful habits and learn to move and hold our bodies in ways that relieve tension and enable us to go through the day with more ease. A consistent and varied yoga practice that includes Somatic movement has the power to build body awareness and to lift moods. It just takes practice to find a relaxed way in and then begin to build strength. For me, it’s a life long practice.
Let’s not forget about another critical aspect of your practice within your practice: the breath. When I learned how to breathe abdominally and started using my entire diaphragm rather than my chest, I experienced significant back pain release. Freedom in our breath creates dynamic movement, and pain diminishes. I always tell my students if you are not breathing, you are not practicing yoga, you’re attempting calisthenics. Without pranayama, you miss out on a key component that helps bridge the body and mind. It’s so easy to fall into a pattern of holding your breath. The conscious act of paying attention to my breath brings me back into an awareness of my body and my posture. Notice how you breathe and then look for these six qualities: slow, long, deep, fine, even, and tranquil. Let’s break these down:
- Slow means you are in a calm mood with slow respiration.
- Long means a steady stream of air that is not grasped by excitement or broken by anxiety.
- Deep refers to the breath sinking low in the body.
- Fine draws our attention to the smooth and quiet sound quality of the breath.
- Even takes you feeling the internal balance with serenity on your inhale and exhale.
- Tranquil brings to focus on the present experience. The more you can do this, the greater the benefits.
Breathing into my abdomen feels like I am tapping into my body’s wisdom, which allows me to make better and healthier choices. Always come back to your breath when you are stressed: a long exhale will simultaneously slow your heart rate and make your energy channels open and available to receive nourishment.
Another breathing technique is the “Triumphant” or “Victorious” breath. The Sanskrit term is “Ujaii Pranayama” pronounced oo-jai-yee. It is sometimes referred to as the ocean breath or the Darth Vader breath. Try this, place the tip of your tongue just above your two front teeth, and with a light touch on the hard palette-nasal passages soft, take an inhale. Feel the oxygen float down the back of the throat and let it cascade past your esophagus, allowing your upper ribcage to expand outward evenly. Exhale with the same light contact of the tongue lightly touching that spot and hear the ocean or wind over the dunes sound. You have successfully produced nose throat breathing. This breathing manner is another essential tool in practicing dynamic or flowing salutation-based yoga known as ashtanga/vinyasa flow. When using these breathing techniques in your practice, you open a new world of exploration. Modern sports medicine has learned and touted these age-old practices to allow for optimum oxygenation of the blood, brings a more meditative aspect to any movement-based discipline. Breath based movement lends a feeling of art and science commingling in what becomes an aesthetic experience that moves us into the realm of self-healing.
Trust your intuition, which is tied to your body’s internal feedback system and is seldom, if ever, wrong. Let the practice and the poses come to you. Try not to rush towards more complex and challenging postures. Yoga is not performance art. It is a tool that can help us invest in our self-care and healing. My experience has been that my practice is steadily becoming a “slow non-invasive surgery,” if you can imagine.
Yoga is the most popular form of mind-body therapy, and there is plenty of positive and negative research on its efficacy for pain relief. For me, I have unquestionably ripped the benefits many times over the negative. I have a deep appreciation for biomechanical alignment and yoga safety. I firmly believe it is the micro-movement practice within the macro movement practice of yoga that keeps you in body awareness and out of pain. Get in touch with internal sensations and start exploring new pathways of moving. Then trust these sensations more than you trust words, yours, or anyone else’s. Never give up your power to dogmatic claptrap. You are the authority. How does this feel and serve your body and its individual needs? Yoga is infinitely adjustable with so many styles and lineages. And choose your teachers wisely. As a dear friend and teacher reminds me,
“You are the Guru” you are the dispeller of darkness. Find your way home. Find your practice within the practice by trusting your journey.
Hannon, M.E. (2018). Complementary Alternative Medicine for Chronic Pain Relief & Prevention
By Kent Bond
September 16, 2020