DR. GÜNTER NIESSEN
Our nervous system - integration - coordination - pain
Our nervous system - integration - coordination - pain
Yoga is primarily about the integration of body and breath with the goal of a calm, balanced mind, not about physical fitness. The latter, if practised sensibly and in a balanced way, is only a pleasant side effect.
In our approach within Svastha Yoga or yoga therapy, we see again and again how important good information is. In order to intellectually and cognitively create the right filters and design meaningful changes, a precisely functioning nervous tissue is indispensable. This refers to our central, peripheral as well as autonomic nervous system and their cooperation. In addition to the general measures of healthy nutrition, good sleep and meditation, daily balanced physical exercise is also considered an essential stimulus. The nervous system integrates all stimuli received from the outside via our sense organs and directed to the centre by the organs, filters and distributes the information flowing in from innumerable receptors via the most diverse conduction pathways to all tissues involved. In the process, our nervous system not only coordinates our postures and movements, but also all the activities of the other body systems. For example, the cardiovascular system, the respiratory, endocrine and digestive systems with their associated metabolic functions. All information is exchanged in the interplay between the autonomic and central and peripheral nervous systems and processed in terms of the best possible reactions to maintain our health.
Adaptability as a middle name
Our nervous system is incredibly adaptable in the way it functions. Each individual nerve cell in the brain has between 20,000 and 200,000 stimulus-receiving tentacles (dendrites) and is in constant motion to constantly update the relationships between the nerve cells. In contrast to the past, we now also know that our brain is capable of learning and rewiring itself throughout its life. All this is very hopeful.
Less hopeful is the rapid rise in chronic pain disorders, which can affect even young people under 50. From a yoga perspective, the treatment approaches being promoted today are still in their infancy. Many people and therapists still believe that all you have to do is inflict enough pain on the sufferer to generate freedom from pain in the end. No support from validated studies is apparently not a sufficient criterion to stop such nonsense.
In the context of yoga therapy, we find it particularly useful to avoid any unnecessary pain, whether it is discomfort or intense pain. Non-violence, described in Sanskrit as "ahimsa", is a principle of yoga and naturally means not inflicting pain on oneself or others. This applies to mental, emotional and also physical pain. I would like to talk about the latter in more detail.
Pain is our body's most important danger signal. They are extremely useful, otherwise they would have been abolished long ago in evolutionary biology. The nervous system's ability to recognise pain helps maintain our physical integrity and enables meaningful responses. To do this, the nervous system continuously scans our internal and external environment for danger. Acute pain is an important alarm signal and can be treated well.
Pain is a product of the nervous system
All pain is generated in our nervous system. It is not really "in" the tissue, but a possible reaction of the brain to the damage of the tissue. If we do not take measures to alleviate the pain, there is a danger of chronification. Pain then becomes a habitual pattern of our nervous system as a message from the brain.
Pain is a complex, neural human experience. Many factors influence this experience. Examples include movement, temperature, emotions, thoughts, stress or rest or safety, social interactions/relationship, life events, touch, metabolism, inflammation, nutrition and more.
An important interface for the transmission of pain stimuli to the brain is the thalamus. This area of the diencephalon is also called the "gateway to consciousness". Filtering takes place there and only certain signals reach the sensory (perceiving) cortex. At all levels of pain conduction from the periphery and back again, there are connections to the impulses of many other nerves and perceptual modalities (pressure, touch, temperature, thoughts, feelings...). In acute pain, this mechanism is easy to understand. For example, when you bump your knee against an edge, the immediate pressure or rubbing on the painful area helps to partially override the pain signals and thereby relieve them. We can also influence pain signals in the opposite way. For example, when we breathe deeply in and out, cultivate positive thoughts or practise a relaxation technique. This directly influences the perception of pain in the higher centres of our brain. We usually have a choice - given a brief pause - about how we react to pain, even if many people are not aware of it.
The more chronic the pain symptomatology - i.e. the better the circuitry has been practised - the more difficult it is to influence it. Chronic pain is harder and more protracted to treat because it is often anchored in our pain memory. To relieve chronic pain, our nervous system must learn to change its patterns, i.e. "unlearn" the pain. Therefore, from our point of view, it is counterproductive to go into painful experience over and over again. It is important to understand that the treatment of chronic pain has to be completely different and with completely different means than the treatment of acute pain.
One of the most important skills for us as yoga therapists is therefore to creatively adapt postures and movements on the mat or in everyday life so that they do not cause pain for the practitioner and a learning process takes place. This approach has the advantage of learning new, meaningful patterns, strengthening supportive muscles, increasing control and movement competence, cultivating positive thoughts and emotions and training changes in everyday activities. This influence makes our movement patterns smarter, more skilled and resilient.... and pain-free.
Pain obliges - to act!
And there is more to it
Trust, well-being, safety, being heard and seen, encouragement, respectful treatment and the joint search for possible resources in dealing with the problems at hand are important ingredients of a therapeutic relationship. In terms of bodywork, safe, pain-free or low-pain positions and movements are a good start in dealing with pain of the movement system.
As therapists, we can try to change the perspective on our students' experience of pain, to focus on resources, positive feelings, meaningful life content and ways to change deep-seated habits.
Pain is a lens that shapes our perspective. Many sufferers unconsciously integrate pain into their identity over time. Hobbies, daily activities, relationships, conversations and ultimately self-image are shaped by chronic pain and cause a perception of self and others as, for example, "a person with a bad back". Thus, more and more energy is given to pain, dealing with it and the associated feeling of anxiety, stress or fatigue, instead of devoting oneself to the positive challenges in life or to one's own well-being.
Basically it is quite simple yoga - and in this sense have fun practising - Günter, Katharina & the Svastha Team