We talk to Jen Stuart who, after suffering a car crash, found relief in yoga for her chronic pain. Now a teacher and facilitating Yoga For Trauma workshops throughout Western Australia, Jen shares with us her experiences and why yoga can help.
Interview With Jen Stuart by Abernethy James
How did you feel when you realised the pain you were suffering was a chronic condition?
As my condition was fluctuating and becoming more persistent I felt upset, hopeless in how to ‘fix’ myself (I didn’t know anything about my body or healing!) I just listened to what the professionals said, until a point. At this point, I knew what was being suggested to me was doing me no good emotionally.
The condition didn’t appear overnight and so it was a process, it was gradual and persistent that then developed different labels and stigma. I decided to be quite strong when it came to doctors calling me telling me about all the dangers of this injury and what they think I should do. I knew that I didn’t want any medication to be pumped into me, it felt like the right decision and I am pleased I stuck with this – for myself.
I understand how it feels to be in constant pain, my neck and lower back were the target areas – each day it might move somewhere else and become a new uncomfortable sensation. My emotions didn’t know how to regulate, stimuli would come up and I almost was scared how it made me react and feel.
I didn’t understand it and I didn’t want to deal with something that was making me feel awful. But knowing what I know now, you have to go in; to come out, and this can be done in a really gentle and responsible way. But ignoring it, blocking it out or masking it won’t help. It will only postpone the emotional aspect of dealing with a chronic condition. After a lot of upset and pain, I was pretty fed up but felt it was an opportunity to reset and take charge. Only you know how you feel. Check-in honesty with yourself.
How has suffering from chronic pain changed your life?
It changed very much, but for the better.
At the time when it seems like you are stuck and going around in circles of ‘situations’ it can be really disheartening. But coming out the other side, I can say.. Notice every day, each moment how you really feel. Don’t let the pain own you, you are not your pain. I ended up leaving a career that I’d been working so hard towards for years, but now I am so grateful that I did. I didn’t ever check in with myself to see what I wanted, I just moved from one thing to the next ‘thinking’ that the fast-paced London lifestyle was what I wanted, but it was not. The car crash was the catalyst to an expansive life, not a cooped up one.
Do you remember how your body reacted each time you tried a new treatment?
This was probably one of the hardest moments, as a uni student I spent all my cash on treatments. Oh it was not comfortable, I didn’t know why I bothered sometimes.. But the truth is.. You can get some amazing help from people but the end of the day, learn how your body feels, how your body moves and interacts with the world. Only you can feel and experience your body and that is why you can’t rely on practitioners, do the rehab, see what resonates for you.
There are so many options out there now, be really consistent with the selection you choose and check-in. I know I am meant to probably write about to heartache the pain gave me, but I will not.
There is no benefit in getting lost in the story.
Instead, notice how you feel when you first get up in the morning, really feel with your body, this is you felt sense. Not what we ‘think’ we feel like. How do your toes feel right now, temperature of air around them, any contact with the ground. Notice. And some treatments are unbelievably amazing, some are not. Get a good recommendation, and notice how you feel before treatment, after and the days to follow. One treatment for someone, as good as it is, might not be the best one for you. Honour that.
Can you talk to us about the link between the mind and the body when suffering chronic pain?
The sensation of pain is different due to the meaning of it that we project. Pain is a construct of the brain. As different frequencies are hitting our retina and giving different messages to the back of the brain, the danger warning gets sent to the brain and we question ‘‘what does this mean?’’. And then, the target area starts to hurt.
Pain is an output of the brain designed to protect you, it is not just about the tissues of the body. When we are in the cycle of pain, it is VERY real. Try to begin a practice of noticing how you react to a sensation as and when it arrises instead of feeling something and directs throwing the label ‘pain’ on to it. We are so interconnected that we can use our physical body to navigate through our emotions and visa-versa. The body has things to say and to heal we really need to start being open to listening. This will help calm the mind and heal the sensitive nervous system.
Fibromyalgia can be very traumatic on the body – what advice can you give about managing the emotional side of this condition?
Try not to block it out. Try not to get distracted in the story. Instead be proactive, while going at your own pace.
Check-in. Explore a practice of mindfulness – start today! Come to a yoga class specific for trauma and see how it can transform your experiences.
How does yoga for trauma differ to other styles of yoga?
I sometimes teach Hatha yoga and here we are deconditioning the mind and coming more into our energetic body, whereas in trauma-informed yoga we are coming into this first layer, the body. Getting to know how we move, how we feel. How our body communicates and interprets us, and the world.
Sometimes I call it unlearning, doesn’t matter if you are a beginner or advanced yogi, we start fresh, a new experience in each moment. An opportunity to come back into the body, into the sensation rather than numbing it. Working with the first sense in the present moment of experiencing. Interoception is at the core of this practice. The practice can be intuitive and there are no expectations nor judgments, just invitations and exploring in a safe space. It is about coming back into the body, to release out of the body. To let go we must first come in.
Sensing muscle dynamics, spatial awareness, sensory awareness, rhythms, everything is a choice. Notice what is actually going on at the moment. We use the breath, different shapes with our body (movement and stillness), gentle direction towards mindfulness and meditation. No expectations just exploration.
How do you stay well connected to your body?
This cultivation does not happen overnight, it is a continuous integration. Open up to start feeling again instead of blocking out and masking those unfamiliar sensations. Sometimes this is not all comfortable because this heightened awareness heightens everything, not just the pleasurable stuff. Enjoy constant connection to yourself each moment, and your present moment experience.
Use reminders to come back to this moment. Perhaps start with a mindfulness practice, just for the time you brush your teeth. How do your feet feel on the ground, how is your breath, how does your tongue move when you brush, what’s the temperature of the water you use etc…
How can we serve ourselves in a meaningful and loving way? Be honest, really honest with yourself. And then the rest will follow. In the Yoga Principles of Patanjali, there is an 8 limbed system called Ashtanga – one of the Yama’s is Ahimsa. This translates as non-violence. But just quickly here let’s look into that… imagine if everything you are comes from a place of love. Every action, every moment is fed from this place of unconditional love and kindness to yourself and others. Not physically harming nature, others, ourselves, not thinking negative thoughts and just living in harmony.
What is the practice of mindfulness?
Mindfulness is the energy of being truly aware, this does not need to be over complicated. It’s true essence is what is underneath all the noise. Touching in with every moment. Coming into this present moment experience. We can learn to cultivate this by practice in everyday living and to be truly alive, truly present, totally at one with what you’re doing – each moment.