Posted by: Yoga in Borve | February 19, 2017

Yoga practice for coping with chronic pain, illness and stress

Full Catastrophe Living: How to cope with stress, pain and illness using mindfulness meditation.  It doesn’t exactly sound like a yoga book, does it? And every time a new edition comes out, it gets bigger, which I reckon must put a lot of people off:

Yes, it's a huge tome...

Oh dear yes, it’s a huge tome…

Another rare (hence blurry) selfie to show in ‘real life scale’ the size of the book:

....but it's an easy & interesting read!

…but it’s an easy & interesting read!

But. I think everyone would benefit from reading this book. I realise you might be more motivated to crack on and read the thing and do the programme if you’re currently living with some kind of long-term issue which affects your health and wellbeing – whether that’s back pain, migraines, anxiety, arthritis, a heart condition, or whatever. I also know from personal experience, however, that there’s good reason to read, understand and ‘do’ the book before you’re having to deal with an intensely stressful situation – as we all inevitably have to, at some point in our lives.

Jon Kabat-Zinn first published this groundbreaking book about the groundbreaking work of the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachussets Medical Center in 1990. Back then, what he and his colleagues were teaching and researching was so far from mainstream that if you’d said ‘mindfulness’ to almost anyone in Scotland they’d have replied ‘eh?’ Even the physical poses of yoga were still considered a bit hippy and niche. Since those days, yoga has grown and grown in popularity, while in recent years ‘mindful’ has become quite the buzzword. I would guess, though, that most people are unaware Kabat-Zinn’s evidence-based programme has been adopted by hospitals and health services worldwide, including our own NHS. Every year, there is more research into the applications and effects of the MBSR (mindfulness-based stress reduction) programme – which is why each edition of the book gets a little bigger! Although large, it’s written in an easily readable style and there’s quite a bit of repetition: it’s intended to be a practical handbook, so I think Kabat-Zinn assumes people will read the first few sections then cut to whichever of the later chapters speak most directly to them (e.g. insomnia, or phsyical pain, or work stress, etc.).

Full Catastrophe Living was one of the key texts recommended on the massage therapy diploma I did about 16 years ago. I bought a copy thinking it would be useful for my partner at the time, who suffered from serious, chronic, lower back pain. It quickly became apparent he wasn’t inclined to make the time to read the book, let alone do the programme or make any lifestyle changes – he preferred to hold out for better drugs or a miraculous new form of surgery. Since I had the book, I decided I might as well work my way through it and the 8 week programme myself.

Bear in mind I was BUSY at the time – a full-time lecturer at Edinburgh University, plus studying for assignments and exams for the massage diploma, plus completing another certificate in university teaching.  Along with all the usual outside-work relationship and family stuff. So I am living proof of what Kabat-Zinn says – it’s not easy to make time for it, but it is simple and can be done, if you want to do it enough (I just made myself get up an hour earlier each day; you could also do it by cutting down on TV or Facebook or whatever your personal timesuck is).

I enjoyed doing the yoga, relaxation and mindfulness meditation, and found it helped me take a step back and think about what I wanted to do in life – which led me to move from Edinburgh to Skye a year or so later. But having done the programme really came into its own when I suddenly had to deal with major emergency surgery for a very rare and poorly understood type of ovarian tumour. During the emotional stress and physical pain of this, and the long haul of convalescence, I found that without consciously thinking of it, I drew on the breathing techniques and underlying principles of the MBSR approach – and they really helped me get through a tough time.

Since then, I’ve bought many copies of the book to give to friends going through their own tough times. And now I’d like to encourage folk who come to my yoga classes to consider reading it, because I’m increasingly aware many people start coming to yoga (and keep up their yoga longer term) as part of their attempts to deal positively with their own version of the ‘full catastrophe’ – whether that’s work-related stress, physical pain, emotionally difficult family responsibilities, ongoing health conditions – or, all too often, a mix of several such factors.

The current edition of the book is £24. You can also get a set of four CDs to support doing the full programme at home, narrated by Jon Kabat-Zinn himself. That sets you back roughly another £24 jkz-cdsso I never felt I could justify getting the CDs too, since I am happy working from books. However, people in my classes often ask me for recommendations, so after all these years, I’ve finally bought the CDs to see what I thought of them.

If you really hate to read and can’t face the book, there’s an 8 page summary of the MBSR programme in the CD sleeve notes! The CDs themselves comprise:

  1. Body Scan Meditation
  2. Mindful Yoga 1
  3. Sitting Meditation
  4. Mindful Yoga 2

Each CD is about 45 minutes long. I’ve been enjoying using them the last couple of weeks. One thing I’ve noticed is the yoga routines are more effective for me when done listening to the CD audio guide. In the past, I’ve used the yoga routines (which are also illustrated in the book) as gentle daily practices. But being a person who is inclined to be busy and zoom through things, they’ve taken me probably 20 minutes tops when I’ve done them from the book. Having Kabat-Zinn ‘there’ teaching it makes me slooooow right down – which of course makes these gentle yoga poses much more profound and effective.

I’ve decided to offer a couple of drop-in practice sessions for people currently coming to my classes who are interested in experiencing the CDs to see if it might be something they’d like/use at home. These will be held during the first weekend of March. On Saturday 4th, at 11.50am, we’ll do CD2: Mindful Yoga 1. This is more supine/prone/all-fours yoga poses. On Sunday 5th, at 10.30am, we’ll do CD4: Mindful Yoga 2 (with more emphasis on standing poses) followed by CD1: Body Scan Meditation. The Body Scan is the core of the MBSR techniques. It’s basically like the lying-down-comfortably guided relaxation at the end of a yoga class, but longer. You may feel 40 minutes is too long for you, but honestly – the time passes quickly and you feel great afterwards! I’m not including the Sitting Meditation CD in these ‘taster’ sessions, partly due to time constraints (I’m teaching 10.30-11.30am on the Saturday) and partly because I feel 40mins of sitting meditation is physically quite difficult for people who have not done it before. If you come to either of the sessions, you’ll experience enough to know whether the CDs are for you or not, and it’s easier to do the sitting meditation CD at home, where you can move without worrying about disturbing others, or do a shorter session if you prefer.

So – the Saturday practice will last about 45mins and the Sunday practice will be more the length of a standard yoga class, i.e. 90mins. All you need to do is arrive 5 minutes before the start time, with your yoga mat. There will be no charge for these sessions but a donation in the collection can for Skye & Lochalsh Young Carers would be much appreciated. Please email me if you need any more information.

UPDATE – I knew there were audio downloads available of these recordings but hadn’t realised they were much cheaper – you can get an app version for about £10 (thank you, J!).


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