The Right to be Well

Sometimes I teach people whose bodies are so broken, or so tight, or so painful to them that they are, without knowing or acknowledging it, physically handicapped.  They live alongside the pain in their bodies as some people live with a noisy neighbour or a troublesome colleague; it's annoying, distracting, but ultimately they begrudgingly accept that there are some things you just have to put up with in life. 

Pain in your body is a sign that something is not right.  It is a signal that you are free to ignore, but at your own risk, for small twinges and stabbing infrequent pains over time become chronic problems with effects that knock on to other parts of your body.  Yogis are not immune to the habit of ignoring pain.  I've been in classes where moving ever more deeply into a pose has, in that moment, seemed more important to me than the niggle in my psoas, or the slight compression in my lower back.

I teach a woman whose body is so chronically tight that it must be like living in a suit of armour, and a painful one at that.  She decided that she was finally going to do something consistent and serious about this (having dabbled with various treatments and therapies over the years, but having given up on all of them without having given them much commitment) and so she found me and came to yoga.

She told me that her back was painful, a kind of chronic dull ache and the occasional stab of shooting pain; she told me that she loved to sew, but could not sit for long any more and had to leave most of the work in her beloved garden to her husband, as she is physically unable to do much bending and lifting.  Everything else was, she told me, absolutely fine.

We started to work and I noticed that her shoulders were out of line and that her arm movements were therefore severely restricted; I enquired as to whether she suffered from shoulder pain.  "Oh yes," she replied, "I had a frozen shoulder on the left and the doctor wants to operate on the right shoulder to release an impingement there."

We continued.  Her neck seemed very tight to me, her shoulders slightly raised and the movements of her neck limited; I asked her if she suffered from tightness in her neck: "Oh yes, sometimes it really hurts and I wake up once in a while unable to move my neck at all."

Onwards.  Your knees?  "Well, I can't bend down in a squat because my knees hurt too much and they ache if I've walked the dog up and down the hill near my house."

We had a lot of work to do.  More than this lady understood or necessarily needed to know about on that first day.  We started with her shoulders, gentle movements to begin to unlock the tight muscles around her upper arms and shoulders and to begin to ease the bones and muscles back into the correct places in her body; to loosen some muscles, stretch and strengthen others.  These are not complicated exercises, but she was committed and sure enough after three weeks she came to see me marvelling at how comfortable her neck felt, showing off her new found ability to roll her shoulders around without pain, to raise her arms slightly above shoulder height in all directions.  She thought it was a miracle.  I told her it was her commitment and approach - she had been gentle, she had done the exercises every day, she had shown patience.

There are many blessings of being a yoga teacher, but this is one of the best ones.  Watching somebody's body unfold, seeing them come to respect and care for their bodies in a way which might be new to them, but which, once started, brings startling rewards relatively quickly.  Working one to one with someone so that we can together come to understand what is really going on in body and mind and how one can be free of pain if one is wise and committed and undertakes to do the simple work of yoga.

I don't know how it is that in the west we view our bodies either as wild creatures to be tamed with diets and sit-ups, weights and punishing exercise regimes, or as annoying encumbrances to be disregarded and taken for granted and occasionally fed with pain-killers when it rebels with pain.  For those of us with the most to learn, it is a combination of the two.

The beauty of yoga is that it serves each individual where and as they find themselves.  With the right teacher and the correct attitude, it works your body against gravity in such a way as to bring grace and vitality to your whole life.  Simple and effective.

The beauty of yoga is that it teaches us about our whole selves.  Through yoga you can begin to decipher the messages your body is giving you instead of overriding them, dulling them with pain-killers, or ignoring them.  Those messages are usually very important on both a psychological and physical level.  What I have witnessed is that if you ignore those messages, you will end up in more pain, more injured, more ill.  Sometimes disastrously and painfully so. 

You are a whole being from the tips of your toes to the top of your head.  You can ignore back pain, sciatic pain, headaches, migraines, insomnia, anxiety, etc. or you can regard them as love letters from your body to your self: they tell you that something about what you are doing needs to change a little; that your approach needs to be different; that you are hurting yourself and that you have it within your power to stop.

Please don't ignore pain.  Please seek to understand it and to uncover its origins, either with the help of a trusted body-worker or a good book.  Tell your teacher if something hurts; if they can't help you, then ask someone else.

Ahimsa is the first of Patanjali's ten guidelines for living well and it means, first do no harm.  It is essential if you are going to live well that you do not harm your body by ignoring what it is trying to tell you.  I have lost count of the number of people that I have met who tell me that they are very well and then, when asked again more deeply this time, admit that yes, well they don't sleep very well, or they have had back pain since their twenties, or that sometimes their migraine headaches are so bad they have to withdraw to a darkened room.

Everyone has the right to be as well and healthy as possible; even those dealing with intractable injuries and chronic pain can improve the circumstances of their daily life in their own body by bringing attention to what needs to change in their body or in their life to bring vitality and free flowing energy to everything that they do.  But it is a right that you have to claim for yourself; nobody can do it for you.  What's stopping you?



  1. Really useful, and I'm forwarding it to a good friend of mine too, V. xx


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