Deciding to reduce my hours at work to start really focusing on teaching yoga and Tai Chi was a hard decision financially but to start enjoying life again, there was no real choice.
I am so pleased that I did begin teaching. As a mental health professional in my “day job” I can see on some level, having chronic fatigue / Fibromyalgia is like having a mental health problem. You cannot see it. You can still look well on the outside that is, if you have the energy to look after your make-up and personal care, but like mental illness other people don’t really “get it” unless they have experienced its effects first hand. If I had a broken leg then I would get empathy, others can see that and imagine what it must be like….and it will get better in a few weeks. However, something internal, that’s hidden, is more difficult to get your head around or to imagine what it’s like. With fibromyalgia and chronic pain, it’s usually persistent and long term and when your GP doesn’t get it… you really do feel on your own and as if “it’s all in the head”. There are few things more draining to a person with chronic pain than hearing someone say, “it’s all in your mind.”
One thing I have discovered in my many years of searching for a “cure”, spending enormous amounts of money and time on physical therapy which had short term benefits, but within a short time the pain returned, that there might be something in this. and it is actually not meant to be an insult to you, or a suggestion that you are not trying hard enough, or that you are not actually feeling the pain, just imagining it. More evidence is showing us that chronic pain is in the mind and the sensation of pain in the body is real. Pain has a biological basis but the experience of pain can be debilitating. It’s just that the source of pain isn’t limited to where one feels it or thinks it’s coming from. So when tissue heals but pain persists, we are dealing with the persistent brain imprint of the ‘pain experience’. If this is so that one of the ways to manage it is to “unwind the body”, relax tight tissue that seems to get ever-tighter, especially when we constantly think or worry about it and when we think how it will affect our future or remember the past, how agile we once were. Our body just gets tighter and more tender.
So modern medicine, yoga, tai chi and mindfulness teachers agree: our present pain and suffering have their roots in our past pain, trauma, stress, loss, and illness. We can feel this in our body a long time after the issues or injury appears to have healed. At one time doctors believed that pain in an area of the body where the physical trauma existed, e.g. a slipped disc, a torn muscle, would directly link to an area in the brain by the nervous system. However, mindfulness research points to a second source of chronic pain; the very real biology of your thoughts, emotions, expectations and memories. It’s true that most chronic pain has its roots in a physical injury or illness, but it is sustained by how that initial trauma changes, not just the body but also the mind-body relationship. I constantly refer back to an inspiring book called ‘Mindfulness for Health’ by Vidyamala Burch and would recommend watching her YouTube (Watch Now) interview with Ian McNay, ‘Living Well with Pain and Illness’ and in it she explains this amazingly well. Personally, I find her work very easy to read and relate to. You can also view numerous videos about her and her work and about how she has used yoga, meditation, mindfulness, and some other coping strategies to live with daily levels of what was at one-time intolerable pain. The pain has not gone but the way she lives her life is no longer ruled by it.
My classes are now adopting a lot of the principles of her work. I`m hoping that the people I attract are supported in their management of CFS/Fibro by adopting habits that support them in daily life. It also incorporates the work of somatic yoga educators, Martha Peterson, James Knight, who believe that being gentle with our body, experiencing pleasure rather than keep straining, punishing or judging ourselves when we can’t do what we “should or ought to be able to do”. The exercises are gentle, quiet, calm, nurturing and relaxing. The people who attend know what it’s like to be living with stress, pain, disability or chronic fatigue. It’s such a relief not have to “perform” or “keep up” but to experience an oasis of calm for a couple of hours each week.
There is a silver lining if we adopt this theory. The complexity of chronic pain is actually good news. It means that trying to fix the body with invasive interventions or surgeries, pain medications or physical therapy is not our only hope. Taking time to understand chronic pain and how the mind and body can be supported to manage pain is the premise. Using yoga, tai chi, meditation, mindfulness and other healing practices—including breathing exercises and restorative poses and gently flowing movements—with some simple habitual behaviour changes, can help you to find true relief from pain and begin to reclaim your life. There may not be a cure but there is definitely a way of living a whole life and in a much more pain-free way – in a supportive environment with people who understand.
Carol Muir is an experienced mental health professional, Yoga and Tai Chi teacher and massage therapist. She works from her private Health & Wellbeing Centre at Drayton Cottage located in North Warwickshire (Nuneaton, Hinckley & Bosworth). You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or by visiting draytoncottage.com.