After nearly a decade, Gary Kraftsow returned to Seattle for a weekend workshop: Yoga for Chronic Pain at 8 Limbs Yoga. For anyone unfamiliar with Kraftsow, he began his yoga journey in the early 1970’s with T. Krishnamacharya and T.K.V. Desikachar in India. He is the founder and director of the American Viniyoga Institute and he is very influential in the yoga therapy movement.

The workshop began on Friday evening and ended on Sunday and included lectures and practices focused on back pain, fibromyalgia and headaches. Over 100 people attended the workshop, including Viniyoga teachers, yoga students, medical practitioners and people with chronic pain. Like all great teachers, Kraftsow has a great depth of knowledge. He has many stories to share and wisdom that was gained through life’s many twists and turns. His instructions during our practice sessions were precise and easy to follow. I experienced profound effects throughout the weekend on many levels, both internal and external.

On Friday night, Kraftsow presented an overview of chronic pain and the Viniyoga philosophy towards pain and healing. As yoga therapists, we should not view our clients as their diagnosis or dwell only on the pain and symptoms. Instead, we should focus on each individual and their unique relationship to their pain. Some pain can be eliminated completely, whereas other types of pain can only be reduced or at best, managed.  Pain inhibits the relaxation process and therefore may hinder or slow down the healing process.

Yoga and yoga therapy can help people experiencing chronic pain in a number of ways. Kraftsow stressed the importance of a breath-centered asana practice as opposed to a form-centered practice. Each person has unique movement patterns they have developed over a lifetime; our asana practice often reinforces dysfunctional movement patterns. The result is that pain may be reinforced rather than alleviated by yoga. Conscious movements can take the yoga student or client beyond the structural level and into the autonomic nervous system. Several times Kraftsow stressed the fact that we are not teaching asana, we are teaching people.

Yoga and yoga therapy have several objective strategies to deal with chronic pain:

  • muscular activation–contract/release and stretch
  • increase circulation of prana and blood
  • breath regulation
  • build prana shakti (vital energy)

Asanas go beyond alignment and function and help re-educate our bodies on how to move.  In Viniyoga, muscles are contracted and released through repetition before stretching. Relaxation is used to reduce muscular tension and create inner space. Meditation can help a client shift their attention from the locus of their pain to other senses. With certain types of pain, it is effective to first focus attention upon the center of the pain, then draw attention outward and away from the pain.

Kraftsow explained the importance of energy in yoga. A yoga practice can be designed to nourish, build and energize (brahmana); eliminate, reduce, decrease, calm and purify (langhana) or balance. Examples of asanas that are more brahmana include back bends, standing poses and shoulder stands. Poses with a more langhana effect include forward bends, twists, seated, supine and prone positions. Breath work that stresses inhaling and retention is brahmana; breath work stressing exhale and suspension will be more langhana. A practice intending to balance energy should include back bends, twists, seated, supine and prone positions as well as extensions. Inhalation and exhalation should be equalized. He noted the difference between heating and cooling versus nourishing and eliminating. I was struck by his comment that an evening practice should begin standing then transition to the floor, whereas we should follow the opposite sequence in morning.

Since Viniyoga is a breath-focused practice, Kraftsow spoke about the importance of breath and pranayama. Breath is the only physiological body system we can control. In Viniyoga, we use breath as a medium for movement and create a relationship between the flow of breath and movement of the spine. He has noticed a general confusion in the yoga community about yoga breathing. The key phrase to remember is Krishna’s instruction to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita: “inhale where prana is offered to apana.” This creates a downward movement-inhale expanding the chest, then the ribs, then expand the belly. The yoga therapist or teacher can set the intention to address the student or client’s situation. For instance, a belly inhale is better for stress or anxiety associated with back pain; chest inhale is better suited for structural back pain and creates more intervertebral space.

Kraftsow also spoke about the importance of meditation and mantras. Meditation is more central to yoga practice than asana. The purpose of asana and pranayama is to build an energy reserve, therefore enabling the practitioner to master one’s mind. Mantras are found in nearly every religious tradition and help us move beyond ourselves. I found our practice with breath, movement and chant to be the most powerful.

The workshop ended on Sunday with lectures and a couple more short practices, including pranayama and meditation. I left with new ideas, new connections to our Seattle yoga community and a deeper understanding of Viniyoga and yoga therapy. Although the workshop was long and full of information, I did not feel drained, but reinvigorated. I hope Gary Kraftsow does not wait ten years for his next visit to Seattle!

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