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How To Improve Your Sleep & Help Heal Your Chronic Pain With Yoga and Ayurveda

Insomnia and Watching the Clock

Sleep Hygiene and You

One of my favorite little bits of science-speak or expert lingo in the CP (chronic pain) arena is sleep hygiene.

Bwaa!

As if. As if it’s just a question of you getting clean enough. Like, “take a bath! you’ll sleep just fine.” And yes, I know that’s not what they’re really talking about when they use the word “hygiene” in this context. They mean the practices and procedures and routines you adopt around sleep.

Still. Bwaa, I say. Like it’s my fault I can’t sleep more than four hours straight.  Like it’s something I did wrong when I hurt so badly that I can’t even get to sleep in the first damned place. Like it’s as easy as brushing your teeth or using the proper wiping technique after going number two. Whatever, experts.

The way I see it, we’ve got three options, basically, when the sleep has left the building . . .

Door Number One …

Suffer. Lie there and suffer. Not appealing.

Door Number Two …

Ambien. Hey, been there, swallowed that. Still do, from time to time, when it’s really bad or when I have a major event the next day and just have to get a good night’s sleep. Still, I try to keep this one as a last-ditch effort. It is a controlled substance, so people look at me funny at the pharmacy when I go pick it up on my third refill. (You know the look I’m talking about.)

(By the way, I tried that other one – Lunesta – about five years ago. It was awesome — until I realized that the horrid taste in my mouth was not something I’d accidentally gotten a lick of but the Lunesta itself and it lasted all. Damned. Day. Nothing would make it stop.)

Door Number Three …

Alternative therapies. And here’s one aspect of CP management where I’m a huge believer in the alternative stuff. (Long-time readers know I’m extremely skeptical and at times highly critical of all the hype and puffery surrounding alt-therapies for CP conditions. But that’s another post. Or four.)

But when it comes to sleep? Alternative rocks. (Hee. I made a pun.) Especially bangin’: yoga and ayurveda, the twin components of Indian health management that have been around for centuries.

Yoga Your Way to Dreamland

The kind of yoga I’d recommend for sleep improvement is not the “Steve Ross on Oxygen”/fast-paced flow routine you might associate with a lot of Western approaches to yoga. Rather, this kind of yoga is gentle, restorative and way easier on the joints.

As with any yoga, however (well, heck, really this applies to any exercise at all but especially with yoga) you’ll want to check with your doc first, if you’ve never done it before, and you really want to start any kind of yoga program under the guidance of a trained teacher. If you can’t manage a live person in the same room with you, correcting your form, and keeping you from hurting yourself — yes, it is possible —  then at the very least, a competently-made DVD or video where such a person demonstrates proper form is highly recommended.

That said, a few poses that I find really helpful are “Legs Up the Wall” and a little number I like to call “Reclining Bound Angle With a Boatload of Props.”

Legs Up the Wall

Just exactly what it sounds like. Getting into position can be tricky, so scout around your house for the best location. Personally, I like to do this on one side of a doorway or open archway. You’ll need a sturdy wall and enough space in front of the wall to accommodate your upper body in a prone position.

Sit on the floor, and scoot your butt right next to the wall. Very gently, lie down on your side, and curl your legs up to your chest as you roll over on your back — nice and easy. Then as much as you can without straining (that part is important), straighten your legs up the wall. Lie there and breathe for a few minutes.  To come out, reverse the roll: bring your knees to your chest, roll to your side, and gently push yourself up.

The doorway variation I like to use: I angle my butt so it’s right against the right side of the door jamb and put my right leg up the wall, and the left leg I extend straight through the doorway. That adds a nice stretch to the front of the left hip and thigh. To work the other side, shift to the left side of the doorway (or the other side of the door, if that’s easier — either one works).

Now, a few notes. This is not a contest to see how straight you can make your legs. It’s about taking the pressure off your hips and lower extremities, and gently stretching out your back, the sacroiliac area, and the hamstrings.

You can also use a bolster to support your back as shown in the photo on this page.

Reclining Bound Angle With Boatload of Props

This one you can do anywhere you’ve got a patch of floor big enough to lie down on. I recommend a soft padded surface, so if you’ve got a mat, carpet, thick rug, comforter you don’t mind throwing on the floor, whatever – use it. Spread it out. You’ll also need the following (OK, perhaps “need” is a tad strong – you don’t actually need these things, but, boy howdy do they help):

  • Lightweight sandbag for eyes
  • Bolster (or thick blanket or large towel folded in half, then rolled up into cylindrical shape)
  • Two thick pillows – preferably foam
  • Another warm, soft blanket (this one to drape over yourself)

Rather than talk you into this one myself, I figure you’d appreciate the experts’ take on it. Get step-by-step instructions here from Yoga Journal, then add the bolster (lean back against it, resting vertically along your spine), the sandbag on your eyes, and the blanket over your body.

Ayurveda for Better Sleep

Yoga Journal has a pretty decent introductory article on Ayurveda and sleep disturbance here. I wouldn’t personally go for the clarified butter massage but you can achieve a much less messy result with any kind of warmed-up massage oil.

It might seem like an odd approach — different treatments for waking up before or after 2 AM? Vata? Pitta? What? — but our philosophy here at the Diaries is “try it all, keep what works.” Honestly, this stuff? Works. It’s a keeper, in my book. As always, your mileage may vary. Obviously, check with your doctor if you have any sensitivities or food allergies before trying ingesting or rubbing any new substance on your body.

Read On!

And if you’re in the mood to read more on this subject, check out my earlier Diaries posts, “To Sleep, Perchance to Lose Weight? Awesome” and More on Sleep and Chronic Pain” (the latter has links to posts at other sites about the relationship between sleep and CP).

Also, check out the cool Zemanta round-up of related articles below:

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The Kerala “Cure”: Do We Have to Travel to India to Feel Better?

Clay Pot With Lotus Flowers Floating on Water

Read this and tell me you don’t want to go. Right. NOW:

The monsoon expends the last of its energy in the Indian state of Kerala, leaving plump raindrops on hibiscus flowers and puddles in the red mud roads. The air is thick but not oppressive, and I begin to understand the words of the local doctor, who says that monsoon season—nature’s own megacleanser—is the best time for treatment. Sipping sweet water from a tender coconut, I feel radiant from an hour-long herbal oil massage. The stiffness in my neck, which I once accepted as a necessary evil of urban living, has disappeared. Listening to the waves rolling up on the shore, I realize why this place, Kerala, is part of my treatment, too.

This, from “Taking the Cure in Kerala” from YogaJournal, makes me long for a round-trip ticket and a few weeks off. (Please note, after my frequent rants here and on Twitter against folks claiming to have the “cure” for fibromyalgia and other incurable chronic pain conditions, that I’m pretty sure they don’t mean “cure” in the Western medicine context but in the “damn, I feel nine kinds of better” sense.)

This made me think: is this what we’re all up against? Is THIS what we have to do to get better for real and for good?

Except – I already know the answer. The answer is “no.” Traveling to exotic locales and subjecting ourselves to round-the-clock spa treatments and yoga classes is not required to achieve health and wellbeing.

What is required, though, is just as out-of-reach, if you look at (A) what we as chronic pain patients know and measure that against (B) what we as chronic pain patients do.

Simply put: we know we need to change our lifestyles. But we don’t.

That’s the sad truth, folks. We all know we have to stop grinding ourselves down into a fine powdery version of our vital selves. We know we have to exercise – to move, often and every day. We know we have to cut out our bullshit and get real with ourselves and our current conditions. We know we have to meditate. We know we have to turn our backs on the sugary, chemical-laden crap in our diets and embrace organic and low-on-the-food-chain vegetables, fruits, and lean protein.

We know this stuff!

And we’re not DOING IT!

What’s the answer, then? If it isn’t a question of knowledge but of action — of actually making the changes we know we need to make — then how are we supposed to proceed here?

There’s something very romantic and enticing about “taking the cure in Kerala” — about making the grand gesture, fleeing our sad, sick lives and making wholesale change in a brand new, exotic locale.

But there’s just one problem with that (well, besides the pure impracticality for most of us and the exorbitant expense): it’s a lie. And it sets us up for failure when we inevitably return home.

It’s a lie because it suggests that the grand gesture is required — that nothing short of this kind of Eat, Pray, Love – style adventure will heal us. And that’s not true.

And it’s setting us up for failure because — well, damn, because it’s easy to put ourselves into low gear and embrace healthy living when we’re being massaged every day and don’t have to feed the kids every night.

What happens when we get back home? How successful will you be maintaining that glow of health and those new healthy habits when the pressures of daily life start clamoring for your stretched-thin attention?

Don’t wait for your ticket to Kerala to get better, is what I’m saying. Create Kerala where you are. Right now. Right this second.

Also? If you get a ticket to Kerala, can I come, too? I’m not crazy.

HUGE Announcement: TTD’s Very First Virtual Book Tour Participation — Kelly McGonigal’s Yoga for Pain Relief!

Regular Trauma Dolls reader Kelly McGonigal contacted me this week with some amazing, awesome news: her book, Yoga for Pain Relief: Simple Practices to Calm Your Mind & Heal Your Chronic Pain (New Harbinger, Dec 2009) is now in stock at Amazon! (Yep, that’s an affiliate link. So is the one at the bottom of the post.)

Even better? Kelly’s going to do a virtual book tour to promote Yoga for Pain Relief and one of her stops? Right here!  UPDATE: Check out Kelly’s guest post right here!

That’s right– Kelly will be the guest blogger here at Trauma Dolls very, very soon — date to be announced just as soon as we pin that down. I’ve already gotten a sneak peek at what she’s got in mind, and it’s good stuff — practical, helpful, and very, very cool.

In the meantime, I encourage everyone to get a copy of Kelly’s book. Just as much as tramadol has, yoga has saved my life in the face of chronic pain. From specific postures that relieve specific pains, to the mental shift that removes the suffering element from the perception of pain, yoga’s been an important part of my treatment plan.

Why should you listen to Kelly? Well, simply put: she knows whereof she writes. Kelly is a former chronic pain sufferer herself (that’s right — I wrote “former”! Aren’t you already intrigued?), and she’s not only a Stanford psychology instructor but also a prominent yoga teacher as well.

Personally, I can’t wait to get my copy of Kelly’s book and put her suggestions into practice.

OH — and if you’re reading this blog because someone you know has chronic pain? This would make a great Christmas present. I’m just sayin’ …

Congratulations to Kelly McGonigal, Trauma Dolls’ first published reader/author! May you enjoy every success.

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