How I Cultivated a Slow, Compassionate Yoga Practice for Chronic Pain Relief

Updated: Jul 10, 2020

In June of 2019, at the age of 36, I was in pretty rough shape. The chronic pain in my legs was bad, my mobility was limited, my energy was low, and I was suffering from a deep depression. Despite being a yoga teacher and a formerly avid practitioner, it had been at least three years since I'd practiced with any regularity because it just didn’t feel good anymore.

Even in gentle classes, I couldn’t avoid comparing the rather uncomfortable, difficult experience of my practice to what it used to feel like. This would, at times, bring me to tears on the mat. And I didn’t want to face it.

Feeling hopeless that anything would improve, I began to work on coming to terms with the possibility that I might never again use my body the way that I used to or live free of chronic pain. Then one day, I noticed a couple on the streetprobably in their late 60sand they were simply VIBRANT. They were laughing, joyful, and they also happened to be walking briskly and easily. I remember thinking, I WANT THAT! I want it NOW, let alone 30 years from now. I knew there was a chance that having ease of movement might not be in the cards for me, but I also knew that, in the past, I had found relief from my chronic pain. I decided I wanted to at least try to find it again.

Before going on, I want to acknowledge my privilege and honor the people for whom declining mobility by the age of 36 (and younger) is an unavoidable reality. I also want to acknowledge that many people don't have mobility to begin with, and/or have to live with chronic pain that is truly unchangeable. I thought that might be the case for me, but as it turns out, it wasn't. My story feels important to share in case it inspires someone else to discover the same for themselves, but I also recognize that it is not everyone's story.

With renewed hope, I started to practice yoga again in the style that I was trained to teach in 2009, which is a set sequence of poses: 12 of them. I knew the magic of this sequenceit was what had relieved my chronic pain the last timeand that knowledge is what kept me going through the discomfort, frustration, and shame that I experienced as I put my stiff, rusty body into those familiar shapes once again. It felt very different. This was not joyful movement.

The first lesson that I uncovered in this process was just how much patience, gentleness, compassion, and deep listening would be required of me to keep up the practice. Having taught and practiced this sequence for more than ten years, I was deeply intimate with it. I understood the benefits and the intention of each pose, and even if I was unable to do it "properly", I knew how to modify it to my ability. I also knew that if I overdid it and hurt myself, it would be detrimental to my process. So I made two agreements with myself:

1) I wouldn’t even attempt a pose unless I truly wanted to do it. My instructions to myself were that I had to skip the poses that seemed too difficult.

2) I would be on the lookout for any self-judgments arising in my mind and once identified, I would replace them with, “I am doing a beautiful act of self-love and self-care right now.”

I did my best to get on the mat 4-5 times per week and the tiny transformations continued to steadily appear. They acted as signposts that I should keep going, so I did. In July, I noticed the first sign of progress towards my inclined plane pose: my shoulders had opened up enough so that I could get both of my hands down on the floor behind me. Up until then, they hadn't been reaching, so I would simply squeeze my shoulder blades together and reach as far back as I could. My progress continued, slowly but surely. In September, I was able to put weight on my hands and lift my hips up off the ground with my knees bent. The picture you see here is from November, now in the full expression of the pose with legs straight.

I continued to practice. Then one day in December, I was washing dishes and it suddenly occurred to me that I wasn't in pain. Not only that, but I actually felt like I could stand there comfortably for as long as I needed to in order to get the job done, something unimaginable only months earlier. At the height of my pain, I was ordering a lot of takeout and eating a lot of microwaved meals because the pain of standing over the stove or sink was too much to endure. Seven months had passed since I started practicing again, and the pain was gone.

Since then, I have been cooking more and going for increasingly longer walks with my dog. I've continued to keep my yoga practice steady, and I've continued to see more improvements. Each one feels like its own tiny miracle.

None of us will have physical wellness and vitality forever and some of us never have it to begin with, but I am so grateful that I managed to find a way to get back to it for now, however long it lasts.

And now I ask you: what might be possible for YOU in the name of joy, pleasure, ease, and wellness?

It's risky to reach for it because you might fail...but what if you don't?

I am working on a series of yoga videos that will allow others to learn this sequence in a very basic, accessible way, and then progress towards a fuller practice at their own pace, just like I did. If you're interested in getting updates on when they will be available, sign up for my newsletter.

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