Article, Pain
If you have neck pain, yoga therapy has a great deal to offer once you have been cleared medically to participate in Yoga. I’ve been an expert witness when there isn’t medical clearance. Trust me, it’s not worth the risk! We’ll look at some postures and breathing that might help, but also touch on some less physical aspects of yoga that often hold keys for relieving the suffering associated with head and neck pain.


Viewing the Whole of You

I like to tell people who have been through standard treatment for neck pain without success that sometimes looking “south” holds a key for resolving the problem. By south I mean lower in the body and in fact all the way to the toes.

You see between your head and your toes lay three diaphragms of muscular and dynamic control. Think of them as a musical trio and for you to enjoy their music, the three must be in harmony. In medicine we call these the thoracic outlet (glottis/shoulders/neck/upper chest), the respiratory diaphragm (covers the entire bottom of the rib cage), and the pelvic floor (the part of your body that rests on the saddle of a horse). In Yoga these areas have been described for centuries as important places of balance and awareness, known as the bandhas.

An imbalance or tightness in anyone of these areas throws the other two off and can generate discomfort and pain in any one or more of the other areas as well. A good yoga therapist will help you discover which if any may be affected and prescribe techniques to resolve the imbalance. The causes can be from:

  • Poor postural support and ergonomics
  • Bad sleeping habits
  • Repetitive oral habits (clenching, chewing, etc.)
  • Diet and use of stimulants
  • Faulty breathing patterns
  • Physical inactivity (couch potato-it is)

But be prepared, as often more subtle aspects of our human experience are the cause, such as emotional distress, fear, spiritual isolation or anger that may be fueling the imbalance.

Failure to explore and address these states will keep you on the merry-go-round of pain. A missing ingredient in many students prescription for relief is often that there is no joy in their life. I ask, “What do you do for fun?” and there’s a long awkward silence, often followed by an admission they don’t have much fun and certainly not every day. If that includes you the reader, then start scheduling some at least once a day…and triple your out loud laughter while you are at it. It’s free and non-allergenic, though it can be infectious!


Postures and Breathing

These postures, or asana, and breathing (pranayama) will be prescribed based on the evaluation by the yoga therapist. Typically they include grounding the feet and toes as the foundation, then opening both the hips and chest. By performing these in conjunction with your awareness around the above-mentioned subtle issues, you increase your sensitivity and consciousness in that moment and later moments to moments in your daily life. We call those moments “Off the Mat” yoga because what you discover in the formal practice should transform what you do away from the mat. As you explore relationships between how you hold yourself during life and your response to life, you can return to work together with the yoga therapist to address those intertwined relationships that may have gone unnoticed or weren’t addressed in your earlier treatment attempts. Be assured, you will discover the need to change, but then stimulating change is a primary function of pain anyway so the pain is doing its job well.


Surrender and Action

As you continue to learn and change, hopefully you will experience the “art” of yoga in your life. It is a beautiful dance of action and surrender. Accepting what is and acting to change what will be.

When we lose our balance and become stuck, often the head throbs, the neck stiffens and the heart collapses in despair.
Restoring that dance we become light and free in our actions, vanishing pain and suffering, and becoming an inspiration to others to wake up and engage the moment with sweetness and calm.

Words of Caution

Not all of the tools and technologies of yoga are benign. Knowing when and what to avoid are probably as important as what to do. Here’s a checklist of things I have observed in yoga injuries that would be good to keep in mind.

We are homo erectus, not homo invertus… if you have issues with your neck, there is no reason to do headstand, shoulderstand, plow or any other postures where you bear weight on your neck and shoulders. Just don’t.

  • No teacher should push you into a posture with their hands. If they have your permission, a light touch to give you a sense of direction is helpful, but no firm or hard adjustments.
  • The nerves in your arms arise from your neck. Use caution moving into and out of any stretches of the arms and shoulders as it could ignite your neck symptoms if not done slowly and with awareness.
  • Use props liberally. Belts, blocks and furniture extend your reach, allowing you to not grip in the neck and to move in safety and ease.

The first Yama in yoga is that of non-violence or non-harming. Following the above guidelines will keep you from harm and keep you safe. With some attention to the whole of you and honoring your limits, yoga has many positive ways of easing your neck pain. Stand up for yourself and know your and the teacher’s limits. Have fun, be safe and look deeply…your neck pain is beckoning you to change.

Article by Matthew Taylor, C-IAYT. Article originally published of YogaMate

Article, Pain
Physical activity is recommended for arthritis management but many activities are not suitable for people living with joint pain and limitations.Yoga, when practiced with a qualified instructor/therapist, can be easily modified to accommodate limitations, and can be practiced through all stages of disease. In addition, yoga’s breathing practices and mindfulness are useful for stress management, which might reduce frequency or severity of flares. Additionally, yoga philosophy can offer perspective that may foster greater acceptance, contentment, and gratitude in the face of challenges.

Arthritis and rheumatic conditions is an umbrella category that consists of over 100 different disease diagnoses. Some of these include rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, ankylosing spondylitis, gout and fibromyalgia. What these diseases have in common is that they are often accompanied by pain, can interfere with activities of daily living, and can result in reduced quality of life. In addition, many people living with these conditions experience fatigue, trouble sleeping, depressive symptoms, and even social isolation. Some of these conditions are autoimmune in nature, some are more mechanical, and some are closely associated with central nervous system dysregulation.

Regardless of which rheumatic disease is involved, the tools of yoga can help individuals to balance activity and rest, improve mood, find social connection, and reframe life with chronic disease.

Physical activity is recommended for general health, and certainly that applies to people with rheumatic conditions also. Unfortunately, it is more challenging to exercise in the face of pain, fatigue, stiffness and swelling. While people with arthritis should exercise for all of the same reasons as the general public (cardiovascular health, weight maintenance, improved energy and mood, bone density, etc), there are some unique considerations for this population. Physical activity can help to maintain joint mobility, which can decrease over time. Some diseases can involve rheumatoid cachexia, or muscle wasting, which can be reduced with strengthening exercises. Strong skeletal muscles can help keep joints stable with the loss of connective tissue. Therefore, it is imperative to find safe, accessible, and sustainable ways for this population to balance physical activity and rest.

Unlike physical activities such as running or swimming, yoga is infinitely modifiable. The physical poses of yoga can be adapted with props, such as blocks, straps, and blankets. Poses can also be moved to a chair or a wall, and can be flipped around to change the impact of gravity. What must be maintained is the essence of the pose, and the intention of the pose, but this can take many forms.

Adaptation of a yoga practice for someone with joint limitations is best done with the guidance of a yoga teacher or yoga therapist with specialized training and experience. Yoga professionals who have worked with limitations have an extensive set of tools at their fingertips, and a creativity about how to find new modifications on the spot.

This is best done while working one-on-one in a private session, or in a small group where the professional can provide individualized attention. A fast-paced class is not ideal for the process of learning and creating individually tailored poses, but a more fluid practice might be available after the individual gets comfortable with how to adapt a practice for the fluctuations that come with disease flares and/or disease progression.

When many Westerners think of yoga, the focus is on the physical practice of static poses and moving pose sequences. However, these are relatively new compared to the more ancient practices of meditation, mindfulness, attention, and breathwork. In fact, the physical postures were initially used as a tool to bring the body into balance for greater comfort, balance and attention in seated meditation. While the physical practice of yoga offers potential for many benefits to those living with arthritis, it is perhaps the other practices that help yoga to stand out from other activities in addressing both mind and body simultaneously.

Alteration of the breath can be used to engage parasympathetic nervous system engagement, which counters the stress response. Since stress can trigger flares and exacerbate symptoms, tools for stress management are important for stable disease.

Mindfulness and meditation have long been associated with better mental health, and even measurable changes in brain activity and pain response. Many people initially pursue yoga for the physical practice, which can be an introduction to the other practices that can confer an important impact. Furthermore, tools such as deep breathing and mindfulness can be easily practiced without an instructor and can be seamlessly incorporated into daily life.

A skilled yoga teacher or therapist uses not only the practices of yoga, but also incorporates the underlying philosophy. The yogic philosophy can provide perspective that can support ways to think differently about life with chronic disease. The yamas and niyamas, or ethical principles, can also help to guide individuals in safe execution of the physical practice. For example, the first principle is “ahimsa” or “non-harming.” This is, of course, aligned with the medical profession’s aim to “first, do no harm.” While this applies to the yoga professional, it also applies to the individual student. It is important to do no harm to others, but also to do no harm to self. This may mean a more gentle physical practice on some days, or a reminder to not judge oneself on days that are physically more limited. Other principles encourage practitioners to avoid envy of their previous ability or the abilities of others, to be honest with themselves and their instructor about limitations and pain, to listen and honor bodily cues, and to foster contentment and equanimity in any situation. While it cannot be suggested that these are easy concepts to understand or master, these concepts are where the practice of yoga can become transformative, not just physically, but mentally, emotionally, socially, and even spiritually. While yoga is not a religion, it may encourage an inner quiet that could foster connection to an individual’s sense of spirituality, whatever form that may take.

In working with hundreds of students and clients who live with arthritis or other rheumatic conditions, I have seen the potential for many types of benefits and growth. For some people, finding a way to become physically fit and to feel capable in a body that has provided challenges is euphoric. For others, yoga provides a way to become quiet and pay more attention to the need for balance in one’s life. And in a few rare cases, I have seen individuals come to find gratitude for the very disease that brings them pain, limitations, and daily uncertainty. In a process of true transformation, it is possible to find gratitude in the most unlikely places. Yoga practice is unique in its ability to meet anyone where they are on their journey- physically, mentally, emotionally, socially, or spiritually. It is universally accessible when modified appropriately, and can be practiced for a lifetime with no limit to the lessons and skills that can continue to be utilized, both on the mat and out in the world.

Video, Yoga's Health Benefits
Shelly Prosko, PT, CPI, C-IAYT specializes in chronic pain. In this video, Shelly shares how chronic pain is complex with many different factors. Yoga therapy, which is accessible, empowering, low cost & effective, can be a part of your comprehensive pain management solution. After an educational talk, Shelly takes you through a 20 min experiential practice using her approach to working with people experiencing chronic pain.


About Shelly:

Shelly Prosko, PT, C-IAYT, is a physiotherapist, yoga therapist, educator and pioneer of PhysioYoga, a combination of physiotherapy and yoga therapy. With over 20 years of training and experience, Shelly advocates for the integration of yoga into modern healthcare and rehabilitation. She teaches at medical colleges and yoga therapy schools, presents at international conferences, contributes to academic research, provides mentorship to health professionals and offers onsite and online continuing education courses for yoga and healthcare professionals on topics surrounding pelvic health, chronic pain, compassion and professional burnout. Shelly is co-editor and co-author of the book Yoga and Science in Pain Care: Treating the Person in Pain and is a Pain Care Yoga Trainer with Pain Care U. She maintains a clinical practice in Sylvan Lake, Canada and considers herself a lifelong student and believes that meaningful connections, spending time in nature, sharing joy and compassion can be powerful contributors to recovery and well-being.

Please visit www.physioyoga.ca for more info.


Audio, Pain, Yoga's Health Benefits

Breath Awareness MINDFUL BREATHING IS POWERFUL. Listen to the short audio recording on breath awareness – this is one of the most effective ways for you to change your nervous systems and decrease their sensitization. Becoming skilled at this technique is vital for so much more than pain relief. Become a ‘pro’ at calm breathing as a step towards recovering ease of moment. Practice this 3-5 times each day, at first while in your most comfortable positions. More practice sessions are better for learning. Expect to get better at this when you practice consistently. Becoming more skillful may require 3-6 weeks. Do not be discouraged if it takes time for your pain to decrease – this is a skill that you can master. If your pain does change quickly, imagine how much more it will change when you practice consistently for 6 weeks.