Friday, July 29, 2011

CD Review: Mindfulness Meditation for Pain Relief

Although the purpose of meditation is not to relieve pain, it often does. I suppose you could call this a beneficial side effect. In Mindfulness Meditation for Pain Relief: Guided Practices for Reclaiming Your Body and Your Life, Jon Kabat-Zinn shares meditation practices that were developed at Massachusetts General Hospital’s Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Clinic. Over 30 years of research has demonstrated the effectiveness of medication for many conditions such as blood pressure, stress and pain relief.

This CD set includes two discs. In the first, Kabat-Zinn explains how and why meditation works and gives a soothing pep talk for those ready to try this for the first time. He outlines the seven principles that underlie mindfulness:
1. “As long as you are breathing, there is more right with you than wrong.”
2. The power of the present moment is a resource that is often overlooked.
3. The present moment isn’t always to our liking. That’s true whether you have chronic pain or not. Most of us spend a lot of energy distracting ourselves from the present.
4. The common two ways to deal with the present are to turn away from it through escape activities or to obsess on it and feel victimized.
5. A third way is to open to and befriend current experience to the degree you choose.
6. Whatever is happening, have kindness and compassion toward oneself. And suspend judgment, which contracts the mind and body and compounds pain and suffering.
7. The purpose is to not make anything go away or fix something. It is simply to find a respite through non-doing so life’s natural propensity for change and healing can take its course.

If you’re already familiar with the history and effectiveness of mindfulness practices, you might be tempted to skip to the second disc and that’s OK, but the first one is quite interesting.

The second disc includes several meditations of varying lengths, starting with a simple, short breathing meditation and one 18 minute practice. Even if you’re not the type to sit still with hands folded in your lap for any length of time, I think the way it is presented is a good start for anyone who is coping with chronic pain.

In The Pain Chronicles, Melanie Thernstrom tells of Franz Mesner who was able to tranquilize patients with his voice, which coined the term “mesmerize.” Jon Kabat-Zinn’s voice has this quality. Just by listening to the CDs, without even doing the meditations, I dropped into the calm, soothing nature of his voice and let go of a layer of stress.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Exercise of the Month: Hamstring Stretch

Almost everyone I know, myself included, complains of tight hamstrings. It’s no surprise since we sit so much, spending hours with knees bent. To stretch, most people try to touch their toes, but that’s not the most effective way to lengthen the hamstrings. This group of muscles (the hamstrings are actually four muscles on the back of each thigh) requires careful attention to alignment to release the entire compartment.

Try this stretch and notice where you feel sensation. If you feel burning, back off. It doesn’t take much pressure to lengthen and align this muscle group.

Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet on the floor.
Keep equal weight in your left hip and right hip.
Bring the left knee into your chest and keep it in line with your left ear. Don’t let your knee fall to the outside or you’ll avoid stretching part of the hamstrings.
Wrap a yoga strap or belt around the left foot and hold the ends in both hands.

Stretch #1
1. Keep your knee in line (I know I’m repeating myself here, but it’s important.) and straighten the knee so your heel presses up to the ceiling.
2. Stop where you feel the first sensation. Hold the stretch and direct your breath into the back of your thigh.
3. See if you can find the amount of pressure that allows the muscle to relax. This is less than how much we usually put into a stretch.
4. Repeat on with the right leg. Then try the following variation to release different places in your thigh.

Stretch #2
1. Again keep your knee in line with your ear on the same side and keep your knee as close to your chest as you can.
2. Straighten your knee without moving it away from your chest. This usually gets deeper into the muscle compartment. Direct your breath to where you feel the stretch.
3. Repeat with the other leg.

By the way, the model for this exercise is my friend and fellow writer, Rebecca Ross of The Composed Domain.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Wide Road or the Tightrope

Everyone has a range of two little or too much exercise. For the average person, one weekend of gardening can cause a back ache. Or it might take a couple weeks without moderate or vigorous physical activity for weakness to turn into stiffness and achiness. Most people do fine with regular exercise here and there with not too much at any one time.

I liken this to a wide road with shallow shoulders. When we exercise the right amount we stay on the road. If we verge to the side of overexertion and strain a muscle, we stray off the pavement and get bogged down in the gravel. It takes some work, maybe seeing a health care provider or doing some stretches or extra time in the hot tub, to get back on the road. Sometimes we get too busy with work to walk, do yoga, lift weights, whatever our usual exercise routine is, so our muscles lose strength, our cardiovascular system loses steam, our organs lose vitality. This is the other side of the road. We’re heading for the ditch of lethargy, aches and pains.

The better our physical condition, the wider the road and the easier the shoulder. With inattention or injury, the road narrows, the banks steepen, the ditches turn to ravines. For people with chronic pain, the road has dwindled to the thickness of a tightrope strung high. This isn’t a glamorous high wire circus act; this is a trembling person, already off balance by pain, who doesn’t want to fall.

Managing the tightrope can be a full-time job. Every activity must be considered as potentially being too much or too little. Vacuuming the house might send one tumbling off the rope into a free fall to the net below, so that an arduous journey is required to climb the ladder back to the rope. Each person’s ladder is a unique combination of treatments. Finding the personal combination of therapy is as relevant as discovering what throws one off balance and into the net.

The other side of the tightrope – inactivity – is just as dangerous. Chronic pain creates and exacerbates weakness. Every day some exercise is required or else one risks falling off the other side of the wire with a similar climb up to the rope of equilibrium.

My teacher, Donna Bajelis, taught me the analogy of the tightrope. My clients, especially those with chronic pain, find it useful to keep on track with activity. They use continual self-care to lower the rope to ground-level, widen it to a balance beam and eventually recreate a broad road. Everyone can broaden their path with regular exercise. If you’re on a tightrope, work toward a balance beam. If you’re on a beam, work toward a narrow path. If you’re on a path, create a road for yourself. If your road is already broad, what will it take to make it an eight lane highway?