yoga for pain

Blessed be the cracked, the weary, the sore. Yoga and pain.

12 years ago I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia.  This was not helpful. The diagnosis was this: you hurt, you have brain difficulty, there are questionable and various causes, it will always be this way.  My response: no shit, thanks much.

My pain - breaking, physical, unexplained - ran right alongside my depression - breaking, physical, consuming.  It was and is entirely possible that I do not have fibro, but my symptoms are caused by my major depression.  Or that I have fibro, for whatever reason, and this has played a role in my depression.  Throw in active alcoholism and I was just plain broken.  Why would I take up the diagnosis of chronic pain when I already lived with the chronic depression and the chemicals?  I didn't.  Other than to know in the back of my head that body, brain, pain are things I seem unable to explain to others.  That medicine has no very good answers.

And that from the earliest days of my yoga practice I began to feel better.collage  Not cured.  Not fixed.  But breathy and sweaty and tolerable.

Some days, though, I hurt profoundly.  I hurt like my muscles have been soaked in battery acid and my bones are ashy.  I hurt, today.

I want to write about pain, and yoga, but I'm not exactly sure how.  If you look for answers or help, you are hit with a daunting arrayof 'conquer the pain' and 'pain free' and 'beat the pain forever' palaver and self help books.  These set you on a cycle of hope and deeper despair when they don't work.  If you talk to doctors, you are overwhelmed with inadequate answers and the frightening realization that medicine doesn't know much and won't necessarily help you.  More despair.  I do not want to contribute to that cycle.

I don't want to say yoga will make the pain go away.  But it does help.  It can.

Three days ago, at the tail end of my teaching week, I came home exhausted and having a hard time thinking clearly.  I tried to list to myself the errands.  I tried to gather the laundry.  I began to cry.  It was too much, I was too tired, I could not do laundry.

Go ahead.  Say that's melodrama.

I eventually did do the laundry.  Not that day.  But I did it.  And walked around like a cripple, using chairs and walls and countertops to support me, hunched like a centenarian, placing my fingers and feet gingerly.  I started to berate myself.  Myself, yoga teacher.  Myself, woman who stands in front of the room and glides through sun salutations.  Myself, crying because the bed hurts.  Sound hurts.  Clothing hurts.

Whatever.  I limped through it.  I worked harder.  I recognized I wasn't eating very well, but shrugged it off because at least I was eating.  I woke up and wanted to sleep.   To sleep for days.  I 'conquered' tasks in two minute segments followed by half hour cringes.

Yesterday, I went to a family thing.  I hurt.  I held my niece, I laughed with cousins.  We joked about the spring that doesn't seem to come.  On the drive home, battling my tiny car over roads that were blown with icy snow, I hurt more and more.  I couldn't move my wrists well.  My shoulders burned.  And my spine felt like it was breaking, down along each vertebrae.  I stopped the car, stood as best I could and stretched, then drove again.  I stopped, I cried and cussed, then drove again.  I stopped, used both hands to heft myself out of the driver's seat, laboriously set both feet on the highway, held the car with both hands, and vomited because it hurt.  I don't know what hurt.  All.

I want to remove limbs.  I shake.  I want whiskey.  I want cigarettes.  This is stupid; I haven't had a drink in four years.  But I want it, just the same.

In the vernacular of chronic pain, this is a 'flare up'.


Somehow, though, it is okay.  It's too familiar.  I know it, by now.   And I knew, sitting crouched alongside a tiny blue car in the middle of a snow ice storm on a landscape blown to invisible, that I want to write about it for all those students who have told me about pain, too.  I want to say it hurts like blinding light, the body seems rot and spoil, but it is okay.

I made it home, I slept for fifteen hours in a sleep that was more exhausting than nurturing.  And then I read some little checklist for fibro flare ups.  A possible causes kind of thing.

  • cold or wet winter weather
  • too much or too little physical activity
  • stess
  • poor sleep

Which is as unhelpful as was that original diagnosis.  But, honestly, true.  There I was in the middle of an ice blizzard, after having taught seventeen classes a week for months on end.  I'd just navigated my way through a move, tax season, and a few familial stresses which were okay, but emotional none the less.  And I don't get any more than four or five hours of sleep on any given weekday.  Check, check, and check.

Still, I say it's okay.  This is life.  I want more of it.

My theory that doesn't mean anything, unless you're in it

I say yoga works.  It works through breath, movement, system wide, meditation based, give us a reason to go on ways. I don't have the degree or the credential to say why.  But I have this body.  I can make it fly, sometimes.  My theory is that yoga works in ways nothing else will, but it will change your ideas about who you are and what life is.

There is a growing body of research that shows yoga and meditation can help with chronic pain.  For a long while, these studies suggested they help with 'coping', that is, they do not lessen the symptoms at all but give us some modicum of tolerance for what hurts like hell.  Now, though, studies are beginning to show that symptoms themselves may be reduced.

Most studies suggest restorative and gentle yoga.  I believe in restorative and gentle yoga.  I believe there is a style and appropriate yoga for any body.  For me, however, a stronger, sweatier, more intense practice is downright crucial.  I need to go upside down.  I need to challenge the muscles, elongate the nerves.  When I don't for a day or two, 'symptoms' start popping up like ghosts.  I believe 'restorative and gentle' yoga are prescribed because most people don't have any experience with yoga.  If that's the case, it's a good place to start.

Yoga works with the breath.  Breath is immediatelyoxygen connected to the nervous system and the muscular-skeletal system.  Breathing as done in yoga speaks to our tissues and the formation of cells.  I'm not a scientist nor a doctor, but it seems to me those cells are fevered and over taxed and inflamed during pain; to breath as we do in yoga immediately turns on the parasympathetic nervous system, which facilitates healing, balance across our biochemical field, and the processes of healing, building, rejuvenation. Pain responds to the breath.

Nerves.  Oddly, pain doesn't happen in the brain but the experience of pain is considered to be mental, cognitive, brain based.  Let's skip the brain for a moment and go instead to the nerves.  The body scattered map as finely drawn as a universe.  Yoga stretches nerves (they stretch, just as muscle tissue does).  Yoga improves proprioceptive and reflex type things.  It is a way to recalibrate, soothe, and reconnect with reality - here and now demands on the body, sensation, awareness in space, texture and elongation and movement.  It improves communication between nerves and spine, nerves and brain, nerves and endocrine system, nerves and immune system, nerves and hormones.  If all of this is true, and 'pain' is a haywire backfire of those things, than yoga helps.

Inflammation.  Yogically speaking, any 'disease' or 'suffering' manifests somewhere in the body as inflammation.  Swelling, fever, indigestion.  Yogic practices alternately invert, compress, and massage us on a tissue and cellular level.  This processes the gunk of work outs, indigestion, stress hormones.  It directly stimulates improved circulation and lymphatic movement, promotes hormonal balance, begins to work through backlogs of old stress in the digestive and muscular and fascial networks.  Asthma, arthritis, anything rheumetoid is inflammation.  Studies have proven that yoga reduces inflammation.

Brain, but more than brain.  As a culture we roughly understand that depression, fear, wellbeing have something to do with neurotransmitters.  Serotonin, GABA, et al.  Some studies have shown that women have less serotonin then do men, and that fibro patients have serotonin deficiencies.  We tend to think of this stuff as brain based, and certainly they are.  But the stomach and digestive tract produce more serotonin than does the brain.  Our heart and psoas muscles seem to produce chemical reactions much like neural pathways.  And our fascial system, the base from which all chemical reactions across the body mind happen, conduits biochemical reactions in a way more nuanced and less understood than do the axons and dendrites of brain cells.  Again, yoga has been proven to balance mood, prbably balance chemicals, definitely to speak to the release of hormones.  So, if pain signals to the body have something to do with neurotransmitters and biochemical processes, then yoga helps.

Mind body. philosophy, gut experience.  There is something inarticulate about yoga.  At it's heart, it directly speaks to our human condition.  Somehow, it manages both to acknowledge and accept the limitations, sufferings, and pains we human beings face AND to give us a sense of freedom and resurrection.  Unlike self help books, miracle cures, and most religions, the philosophy and lived experience of yoga is an experience of grace under fire.  A strange blend of yes, it hurts to be human and to one day die, but living itself is precious.  There are thousands of books and memoirs about this.  Read those others.  I hurt to much to try to explain it just now, but I believe yoga has given me validation of my individual life and the experience of that individual life as rare and raw and beautiful.  It has given me the ability to face pain and love anyway.  Not to get over it, but to go through it.  And to feel, most days, as if I am dancing.

Let's make up a list of fifteen (that is arbitrary and random) things I know to be true: ie, tips and tricks, advice and how to, or just some tools you can cling to:

-When I teach students or answer questions about chronic pain (or, hey, weight loss or sore knees) I am often stuck: I cannot promise a danged thing.  I can't promise yoga will solve your infertility problems or that it will help you lose twenty pounds.  I can't promise the pain will go away or your knee will work.  But I usually do try to insist yoga will make it better.  This gets harder: most of us want a 'cure'.  We want three classes and then forever relief.  Yoga doesn't work that way.  Yoga will give you very specific things that will help.  But they are intended to be used.  If I do not practice for a few days in a row, the bad comes back.  If you want the yoga to work, you have to do the yoga.

- Consistency.  Don't go looking for a three hour yoga practice once a month, or fall into the yoga honeymoon of a season and then run away, or do the on again off again practice.  If you want to see what yoga is, do it every day.  It does not have to be much. It can be ten minutes.  But go for everyday.

-What kind of yoga.  Again, I believe there is a style of yoga for any and everyone.  Keep looking until you find a teacher who works for you, a style that works for you.  In group classes, DO NOT hesitate to make the practice your own and do wildly different styles than the rest of the room.  Most recommendations for chronic pain point to a gentle or restorative practice.  I can see the merit of this.  I know when I hurt like hell even gentle is near impossible.  However.  Those I know with chronic pain that has become manageable are people who manage it with Bikram yoga, running, Ashtanga yoga, or power yoga.  These are considered to be 'intense' or 'strong' forms of physical activities.  We can't do 100% all the time.  But we do push hard and do 'advanced' type things.  Don't assume that you can't do strong things - chances are you already do.  You've probably had children, or moved furniture at some point.  Having a diagnosis does not mean you can't do physical activity.  In my life, and those I know who have a grip on this pain thing, the intensity of a regular run or a hot yoga room is essential to our management.

-For some reason, movement helps.  Fascial studies are showing that a changing practice goes further than repetive, gym style movements.  Because 'trigger points' and fibro pain seems to have something to do with a pain 'remembered' though not actually really present in the moment, moving IN NEW WAYS and in different planes seems to ease and sooth and, for me, show me the parts of my body where pain is okay.  think of adding flowing movements, it doesn't have to be vinyasa but flowing from bridge to the floor, in addition to any repetitive (ie cycling, lifting, runner's movements).  Explore sensation, and find those that are good and interesting.  Try inversion, backbend, forward fold.  Do different things on different days.  Have favorites, but keep learning.  Relish the moments of 'hey, this is sweet'.

Food/supplement things that I've randomly found to work, and when I don't have, I will begin to slip:

-Avoid processed foods, refined flours and processed sugars.  Just do.  Do a little.  It gets easier.

-Eat more vegetables.  Three times more than you think.  Be aware that meat, dairy, wheat are all inflammatory and harder to digest.  Don't kick them, just balance them, and eat more green stuff.

-Figure out what 'inflammatory foods' and 'anti inflammatory foods' are.  Don't try to reinvent your kitchen.  Just try to add one of the soothers, notice if it's working, and add another.

-tumeric. you can find this in supplement form.  You can cook with it. I get the root at a little Vietnamese grocery and I put it in my juice.

-oral aloe vera.

-vitamins b and d.

-fish oil

-epsom salt baths.  lavender.  clove.  vertiver.

Blessed Be.

I do not like my pain.  I am too tired.  I want to teach, I want not to disappoint, I want to muscle through.

But, there is also a level on which my pains are acceptable.  They keep me honest.  They slow me down when I try to be too much to too many people, when I begin saying yes all the time.

And more than this, they have softened me to beauty and appreciation.  Yes, I hurt today.  But most days I'm playing with handstands, and able to teach others to play with handstands.  And I can cuss it all I want to, but it has given me a deep and abiding sympathy when I see the pain of others.  And the fact is, we all have pain, somewhere.  The fact is, we turn our lurching, mincing movements into dance.  We have to, or we get bitter and resentful and destructive.  Beethoven couldn't hear a thing when he composed his ode to joy.  The strongest people I know have survived things that would kill most animals.  And yet they hold children with a tenderness like the dawn creeping into the night sky.  They have bodies that hang together, against the odds.  They manage to get degrees, paint paintings, sing songs.

We are not perfect beings.  But we are good.

So I say blessed be the cracked, for they let the light in.  Blessed be the weary, for they are honest.  Blessed be the sore, for we are all sore, and we go on breathing anyway.














Strong Medicine

More and more I find myself referring to yoga as medicine.  As science.

Of course, I say in class, yoga has elements of a spiritual path.  It has elements of fitness and diet.  But it is not a religion and it is not a fitness program.

Yoga is a science.  Yoga is strong, strong medicine.

In a world of many illnesses, a country of unprecedented stress, anxiety, mental illness, obesity and cardio vascular diseases, you would think this would be embraced.

It is not.  Western Medicine itself will only refer to yoga as a useful tool for 'stress reduction', in spite of a growing body of evidence that it can reverse heart disease, treat 'treatment resistant depression', and ease carpal tunnel syndrome, to pick out of a grab bag.  Even within the world of 'alternative medicine', mention of yoga is dismissive and scant - perhaps because nothing is ingested or inserted or removed from our bodies and we can't fathom medicine, otherwise.

And even in the world of yoga, it's teachers, authors, and serious practitioners, yoga is called a 'discipline', a 'practice', or a personal path.  I don't mean to suggest it isn't those things.  But I believe it is more.  I believe it is science and ought to be treated as such.

We know it builds strength and confidence, if not character.  We know it improves flexibility and stability, that it fosters serenity and poise.  Beyond its attributes as preventative medicine, we know that it heals - not cures, necessarily, but heals in quantifiable ways - low back strain, chronic pain, MS.

One of the difficulties is financial: studies cost.  More deeply, it is that cultural assumption that healing involves ingesting something, inserting something, or removing something from the body.  The cultural assumption focuses on disease rather than health and has no real way to discuss, let alone understand, yogic well being.

This raises a question.  Call it philosophical if you like.  Wonder about your own, or your best friend's, particular body if you want to be more poignant.

When you have an intervention which appears safe and effective, when it has no negative side effects, when it in fact has positive side effects, should one wait for proof before trying it?

I say no.  I say yoga will help in ways you wouldn't think possible.  I say it will change your ideas about health and wellness.  I say it will heal you, though the healing may not be what you expected.

I am not a doctor.  I will never encourage someone to go against a doctor's advice.  I will and frequently do insist a student talk with a doctor before beginning, changing, or returning to a yoga practice.  But I do believe a yoga practice can compliment traditional medicine, and make us more well.

And I believe yoga's potency, what makes it strong medicine, is largely it's ability to return you to control and autonomy: it will immediately teach you things you can do to relieve symptoms and influence your health, whereas so many of us feel we have no choice, no influence, no way to navigate the body mind other than to 'suffer' it or 'deal with it'.  How powerful it is for the fibromylagia patient, who has been told there are no cures and that she must learn to live with her pain, to realize there are, actually, things she can do for herself.

This is fierce medicine, indeed.

Private yoga sessions with Karin

Traditionally, yoga was ‘whispered wisdom’, a lineage handed down from one teacher to one student.  As yoga burst into the American mainstream, group classes became the norm.  This is wonderful, as it allows anybody anywhere to experience yoga.  It can be a cost effective way to have a consistent practice.  It means we can try out different styles, different teachers, and different locations.  It means you can find a yoga class wherever in the world you happen to go. However, classes can be intimidating, alienating, or too generalized for what you most need and want.  Private sessions return yoga to its heart: the goal of personal transformation.

Let's face it; 'yoga classes' simply don't feel right for many of us.  That in no way means yoga is not an option.

In my own practice and as a teacher, I have seen that a few private yoga classes can teach more than years of group classes.  This is especially true at the beginning of a practice, at a point of ‘taking it to the next level’, or when students have specific physical, emotional, or private concerns.  Private sessions are entirely adaptive, supportive, and personal: any body, with any degree of mobility, can find here the profound healing, restoration, and preventative benefits of a yoga practice.

The basics: $125 per session.  Each session lasts about an hour and a half.  I strongly recommend that you commit to taking these in a sequence- taking a single class will give you a lot of information but no follow through.  To make this more accessible, you can purchase 4 privates and get a fifth for free.

Students New To Yoga

Starting a yoga practice with a few private sessions can rapidly introduce both a sense of familiarity and ‘easing in’.  It can break down some of the barriers of intimidation and alienation we feel in walking into a group of people we perceive to be ‘better’ at yoga than us, more flexible, more strong, or more confidant.  Working with a teacher who will directly answer any question you might have and who can explain yogic concepts and postures as they apply to you and your body, your lifestyle, your experience is an invaluable gift.  It is also entirely possible to set up an ongoing private session as your practice evolves; this can help you assess where you are, how to advance, and keep your practice rather than a synchronized yoga team as the goal.

Taking it to the Next Level

“I am currently in a teacher training program, and stumbled on Karin’s webpage.  After a single class with her, I knew I had found my teacher.  I learned more from her classes, her insights, and her conversations than I have in any trainings or workshops I’ve attended.  She has clearly made yoga a calling and not a career.  She watches to make yoga work, really work, for each and every one of her students.  You don’t find that in most teachers or studios.  You just don’t.” – Cari S

“I am a yoga teacher. I consider Karin to be a ‘teacher’s teacher’.  She teaches yoga of the heart, yoga of life, yoga as the whole experience of being alive.” David S

“Knowing Karin has taught me how to make yoga real – not a brand name or a thing I do once a week, but real.” anonymous

“I’ve practiced yoga for more than 30 years and I have never understood or felt alignment the way I do when Karin teaches.  Not all teachers are teachers.  Karin is.” Maria K

Sometimes we plateau in a yoga practice.  Sometimes we just wonder how the heck what we do on our mats is supposed to translate to ‘the path’.  And sometimes we need to know more; we become interested in arm balances, say, or we are worried our practice has to change as we age, or we want to use yoga as part of training for a marathon.  I’ve worked with a number of people who are in or are considering yoga teacher training and are hungry for dialogue.  Whatever the prompting, private sessions are a powerful way to take your group classes, your home practice, your path a little deeper.  It doesn’t take much – a private or two every once in a while radically transforms a practice.

Yoga Therapy, Yoga for Mobility, Weight loss, Personal Training, or Emotional Healing

We know – science has proven – that yoga works with things from anxiety to cardio vascular disease to Parkinson’s disease and fibromyagia in ways pills and talk therapy can’t do.  But we may also struggle to feel a group class is right for us, or how we can possibly participate.  Private sessions allow you to learn the appropriate modifications, experience the full benefits of postures, express any and all concerns and have them addressed.  All Return Yoga classes are open to and appreciate the participation of beginners and those who adapt their poses: but stepping into a class means the teacher cannot focus on you constantly.  Taking a private session or two can give you the confidance and information you need to adapt group classes appropirately and safely.  Yoga CAN be practiced safely, promote self healing, and turn limitations into strong points. Yoga IS for you, it’s just a matter of answering to your specific needs.

Life coaching, spiritual direction, philosophy, distance coaching

“Yoga”, real yoga, does not mean yoga class or physical postures.  Long story short, yoga is an eight limbed path, and the physical practice of asana is only one of those eight branches.  Many of us are interested in all those other branches.  This is incredibly important and something I want to encourage.  Further, many of us need time to process and dialogue our yoga experience, ask questions, or get some insight into that vast and often times confusing world that is ‘yoga’.  Many of us suspect ‘yoga’ might help but aren’t interested in the group style format.  Private sessions allow for all of this.  It’s your time.  Sessions can be all asana (physical practices), all conversation, or a blend of both.  Karin has training as a counselor, crisis intervention specialist, and advocate.

Quick FAQs

Who are private yoga sessions for? 

Any of the above (new to yoga, looking to start a home practice, wanting to take it to the next level, or have a specific concern).  Privates are also frequently recommended as a starting point or addition to group classes for fertility issues, obesity, disability, anxiety, depression, PTSD, pre and post natal, stress, chronic pain, cancer recovery, sleep trouble, illness….

Q: Why are Private Sessions Recommended for Herniated or Ruptured Spinal Disks? Many doctors are suggesting yoga to people with disk issues. Yoga can be very therapeutic and provide back pain relief. However, certain postures offered in a group class setting could also aggravate disk conditions. Safety and ahimsa (non-harming) is our first priority. With a little private coaching, someone with a disk issue can learn how to practice yoga safely alone or in a group class. In just one private session, a student can gain a basic understanding of which postures are most useful to their condition, which ones to avoid, and which ones to approach in a modified form.

Q: Why are Private Yoga Sessions Recommended for Pregnancy? Pregnancy is such an individual experience that it deserves individual attention and support. This personal guidance empowers the mother to be to practice safely. She can then attend ANY regular group yoga class at her leisure with the understanding of how to take care of herself by modifying postures to avoid strain or injury to the baby.

Q: What do I Bring to a Private Yoga Session? – What do I Wear? – How do I Prepare? There is nothing you need to do to prepare for your private session. If you have a spinal condition like scoliosis and you may want to bring a your X-rays or MRI report for the instructor to review. Wear clothing that is comfortable and will stretch and move with your body. You are encouraged to bring a notebook and pen. If you can, you may want to write down your questions or concerns in the days before your private to bring with you.