International nonprofit uses yoga to help communities practice sustainable self-care
Therapeutic yoga is part of the active self-care toolkit for World Spine Care (WSC), a nonprofit organization that aims to offer sustainable solutions for musculoskeletal disorders in underserved and unserved communities. The group’s Yoga Project trains students so they can teach yoga in their own language and cultural context.
The project uses a multifaceted approach that combines movement, meditation, and breathing exercises to help participants prevent and manage the pain and limited mobility that can come with spinal and other musculoskeletal problems.
IAYT-certified yoga therapist Erin Moon is the current director and helped to develop the WSC Yoga Project (WSCYP). Here, she discusses key aspects of the project’s approach, which is informed by yogic tradition as well as research on mobility, physiology, and psychology.
Savor the simple.
Yoga therapy is not, and has never been, about this pose “for” that ailment. Ultimately it’s about looking deeper.
So many yogic practices and philosophies specifically investigate our relationship with our nervous system. As we go about our daily lives, the nervous system is sending information to the brain from the body—and from the body to the brain—in myriad ways. Sometimes the nervous system shouts its messages (“HEY, THAT HURTS,” or “NOPE, not going down that street”), and sometimes it whispers (“I feel a twinge in my knee,” or “Hmmm, butterflies in my tummy…”). As with any conversation, we want to learn to listen and eventually to really speak the nervous system’s language.
Many of us are aware, especially in current times, of how stress can interrupt good sleep and create an environment ripe for depression and anxiety. Stress and pain are also connected, escalating each other in many ways. When stress is high, it can be difficult to notice anything else.
One of the best ways I’ve found to start the journey toward greater awareness is through the yogic principle and practice of svadhyaya (self-study). Through self-study, over time we can learn to more clearly and quickly differentiate between the butterflies in the tummy and a loud “NOPE.” Witnessing our experiences objectively, with more detail, gives us choices about how to respond. The WSCYP practices self-study and other yogic principles that encourage curiosity, noticing, and savoring the simple.
Back to basics
When you are in pain—whether it’s physical or mental discomfort—just taking a deep breath can be a challenge. WSCYP classes therefore begin with pranayama (breathwork) before introducing asana (physical postures). Breath moves the body, and over time we can shift from breath with managed pain (or no pain) to movement with managed pain (or no pain!).
Sama vritti (balanced breath) is probably the breath we focus on the most.
You can do this one yourself anywhere, anytime! Find any comfortable position. Then, breathing through your nose as much as possible, count to 5 or 6 on the inhale, pause briefly, and exhale for the same count.
This ancient breath practice has now also been studied using the modern scientific method. Consistent practice of paced breathing has been shown to improve people’s ability to settle their nervous systems after a stressful event, increase heart rate variability (an indicator of long life!), and create a greater sense of well-being. (This systematic review offers an overview of yogic practices for mental health issues.)
In WSCYP classes the invaluable yogic practice of dharana (concentration) is always guided and simple, focusing on the environment outside and inside. We also practice metta, or loving-kindness, meditations. Guided meditation practices are wonderful for building gentle concentration, especially for newer meditators.* Like the other practices we offer, meditation has behind it both millennia of practice and now measurable scientific outcomes. Perhaps the most significant of these research findings relate to improved sleep and decreased anxiety and depression over time. (See, e.g., research on major depressive disorder, anxiety, and insomnia, which may require a subscription for full access.)
When the time comes for physical practice, we use chairs so nobody needs to even try to get down on the ground and back up again. We focus on a little bit of movement in a lot of places. Even when participants could physically do more, the chair provides an opportunity to notice the details in a different way.
I am a very active person with few limitations from pain or injury, for instance, yet practicing in and around a chair is a whole new way to feel the subtle shifts in my body. I love the opportunity to notice my breath and where my mind is while I perform smaller or supported physical movements. Right now, I am doing a lot of yogic practices in a chair and on the ground!
It doesn’t have to be complicated. Savor the simple.
In this complex and amazing life, what a gift it is to spend time saying to our nervous systems, “This is just as valid a state of being as any other”—this simple breath, this simple feeling of lifting my arm, this simple curiosity of being, this simple act of listening.
*When we begin to learn meditation, it is helpful to be aware that stilling the waters of the mind enables us to see what lies below. Sometimes additional psychological support from a professional is recommended. This is not always the case, but it can be a healthy, normal part of the process of increasing meditative awareness.