Breathing for Pain Relief, Part 2

Pain Relief Pranayama Yoga

“Learn how to exhale, the inhale will take care of itself.” – Carla Melucci Ardito

Restorative yoga, reclined bound angle

In Breathing for Pain Relief, Part 1, I shared my opinion that there has been an over-emphasis on what the breath looks like and an under-emphasis on what the breath feels like in the prescription of breath work as a tool to reduce pain. This post offers guidelines for working with the breath in a more experiential way.

Meet your breath

Before you explore shifting your breath, learn more about your breath. Understand where you are starting from. Many people have developed chest breathing patterns (hence, the emphasis on abdominal breathing in treating pain, stress, and illness), but after years of chronic pain in my upper torso, I had the opposite. It took me years of practicing breath work to find an easy breath in my chest. Try to let go of preconceived ideas about how you should or shouldn’t breathe. If I had considered abdominal movement to be the gold star of breathing, I would have unwittingly continued to breathe in a very restricted way.

When you begin to meet and observe your breath, here are some things you might pay attention to:

  • Where is the movement in your torso when you inhale and when you exhale? Is it consistent from breath to breath?
  • How long is your inhalation and how long is your exhalation? Are they equal, or is one longer than the other? Is the length of your breath consistent from breath to breath?
  • What words would you use to describe your breath? Some sample words are short, long, shallow, deep, free, or constricted, but the words don’t need to make sense. There may be a colour or an emotion that describes your breath.

Notice your breath in different contexts. How do you breathe laying down versus standing up? How do you tend to breathe when you are in a lot of pain versus when you are feeling better? How do you breathe when you are with other people or when you are watching TV?

The more you understand about how your breath is naturally responding to things, the more empowered you will be to intentionally use your breath to influence how you respond to things.

Dance with your breath

Picture two eloquent ballroom dancers circling around the dance floor. One partner is leading, but to the untrained eye, it is virtually impossible to see anything but unison. I want you to cultivate the quality of this dancing when you work with your breath. You are leading your breath, but there is no force, there is no strain. You can feel your breath willingly follow your lead.

Here are some ways you may explore leading your breath:

  • Bring the length of the inhalation and the exhalation into balance. Find a length that feels accessible and sustainable, and maintain this balance for ten or more breaths.
  • Breathe with a longer exhalation. Again, find a sustainable count, and maintain the extended exhalation pattern for ten or more breaths.
  • Visualize different areas of your torso moving in response to your breath. Don’t worry about whether or not they actually move – just stick with the visualization of a particular area for ten or more breaths.

After you lead your breath in a particular way, pause and notice the effect. If you are wanting to use breath work to reduce pain, pay particular attention to how relaxed you feel. When you find ways of breathing that help you feel more relaxed, actively start to weave those breath practices into your day. Less is often more, but in the face of persistent chronic pain, when it comes to breathing in ways that calm your nervous system and help you feel more relaxed, more is most often more.

Happy Breathing.


The Yoga of Dealing with Difficult People

Living Yoga Yoga

“If you think you’re enlightened, go spend a week with your family.” – Ram Dass


Every month I write a piece for the YYoga blog. A member of the marketing team sends me a list of topic ideas, and I pick one. The topic I picked for March was: Deal with that difficult personality gracefully – and it was initially a difficult one to write about. After thinking about it for a few days and trying a number of different approaches, I woke up this morning with the clear sense that the best way to write this piece was to simply share ideas.

Here are some thoughts I have about how to be more graceful when you find someone difficult to deal with:

See the bigger picture

Last October, I wrote a piece about why it is challenging for us to focus on the things we are grateful for. Simply, it is because we are programmed to hone in on the things that are potentially threatening to us. Scientists refer to it as a negativity bias.

If you have ever been in front of room full of people for any reason, you can likely relate to the tendency to fixate on the one person who doesn’t seem happy with what you are doing. The room might be full of ninety-nine happy and encouraging people, but if one person is scowling and crossing their arms, that one person has a way of capturing 99% of your energy. This is the negativity bias in action.

A first step in dealing with difficult people more gracefully is to stay present with the reality that this difficult person is only one of many people in your life. It is easy to let difficult people become “energy vampires”. Train yourself to focus more on the supportive people in your life and be mindful about how much energy you give to the people you find difficult.

Acknowledge your role

We are inside our own heads. We have access to our own thoughts and intentions. With this insider scoop, it can be easy to side with ourselves in a difficult interpersonal situation and blame the other person for the difficultly. But, it takes two people to create an easy or difficult interaction, and, in any given interaction, we are only ever going to understand half of what happened.

Because we don’t have access to the other person’s thoughts, we might not be able to see or understand how we are contributing to the situation, but we increase our capacity for grace when we hold space for the possibility that we are doing things to make the interaction more difficult for the other person.

Find the good

If our interactions with another person are difficult, we can easily fall into the trap of seeing them as a difficult person. We even speak about difficult people like there are people out there that are universally difficult. It may be true; it may not. But, we don’t increase our own capacity for acting with grace when we fail to see what lies beyond the difficultly.

The next time you find yourself labelling a person as difficult, take some time to consider what else you know about this person. Maybe they are exceptionally creative? Do they have a knack for making other people laugh? Paint a bigger picture so that you can more easily honour them as another human being when you interact with them.

Own your behaviour

When we feel like other people are being difficult, it can be very easy to be difficult back. Instead of making a concerted effort to behave in a way that aligns with our values, we might revert to more passive aggressive behaviour, like making snide remarks. It is also easy to feel justified in our reactive behaviour when we only know our side of the story.

One way to manage this tendency to be difficult back is to commit to holding yourself accountable for your behaviour. Other people can make us feel things, but they can’t control our actions. You might feel justifiably angry in response to someone else’s behaviour, but anger is an emotion and you are responsible for how you respond to both the emotion and to the person who provoked it.

Be emotionally curious

Difficult behaviour often stems from unexpressed emotions like failing to tell someone we are angry or that our feelings have been hurt. Our emotions have a way of creeping to the surface, and they can be quite dangerous when they aren’t acknowledged.

If you are able to be in a difficult interaction without taking things personally, you might also start to consider the possible unmet emotional needs of this person. You might have more success finding ease in the interaction if you address their emotions before their words.

Talk about the difficultly

If you are comfortable being vulnerable in the relationship, talking about the difficulty you are experiencing can be a giant step in the direction of finding more ease. Things are often much easier to handle when they are acknowledged.

Accept the challenge

But some people are just difficult!”

I don’t know if it is true, but it can feel like it! Sometimes I try everything I have outlined above and more, and the interactions are still challenging. What I am trying to learn in these circumstances is how to accept and appreciate that some people will be more challenging to me. It doesn’t mean that there is a problem with these people; it doesn’t mean that I am not evolved enough to find ease with this person. It also doesn’t mean that the relationship is not worthwhile.

Sometimes we just love people who are harder for us to relate to. Sometimes the fatigue and the frustration that can come along with more difficult relationships are more than worth it in the end.

Stay grounded in your intention

Why are you persisting in this difficult relationship? Work? Family? There are lots of reasons why you might persist in difficult relationships, but take the time to clarify why you are sticking with the difficult ones in your life.

Some people fall into the trap of wanting everyone to like them, and they will persist relentlessly to make relationships work for the sake of their own ego or their own sense of ease. Make sure that continuing a difficult interpersonal relationship is a wise use of your energy.

Difficult interactions can be great learning opportunities. They challenge us to look at things differently and to think more about how we come across. They test our courage and our compassion. Difficult and challenging experiences of human interaction also help us to see the beauty and magic in moments of deep human connection.

And sometimes the difficult interactions turn into the beautiful ones.

Sarah Jamieson

The Angry Yogi

Awareness Compassion Living Yoga Yoga

“If I am deeply connected with what I am feeling, there is a greater likelihood that I will be present, and when I am present, there is a greater chance that compassion will arise.” – Judith Lasater


When you think of a yogi, what images and characteristics come to mind?

I think of someone sitting in meditation. I think of a light and peaceful person – with kind loving words for everyone. I don’t tend to think of a person so angry that she is ready to hulk-smash the next person who cuts in front of her in traffic.

Anger doesn’t fit with the image most of us have of a yogi, so it can often feel like yogis don’t – or shouldn’t – get angry. While the idea of not getting angry is lovely (and perhaps, desirable to some), anyone actively practicing yoga is a human being, and anger is a normal human emotion. We all get angry – even the yogis.

Unfortunately, in some spiritual communities, people feel like they need to ignore, supress or deny their anger. The message that anger is not appropriate or okay, whether overt or subtle, can lead to a lot of confusion. Most spiritual teachings also ask us to be present with what is, but sometimes “what is” is a lot of anger.

So, what is a rage-filled yogi to do?

Acknowledge Anger

There is a saying in the yoga world that eloquently highlights the importance of acknowledgement: “What you resist will persist.” Unacknowledged feelings and experiences have power because the things we push away have a way of running our life. We can’t deal with something that we aren’t willing to look at. Anger will not dissipate when it is ignored or denied.

The first step in acknowledging anger is simply to admit to yourself, “I feel angry right now.” A second step may be to notice how anger plays out in your body. Physical reactions may include an increased heart rate and the tightening of muscles, and you may notice the increased energy that accompanies the release of adrenaline.

Question Anger

Anger is referred to as a secondary emotion because it is usually a response to feeling hurt or scared. Anger can be a reaction to a perceived threat to ourselves, our self-image, some part of our identity, our loved ones, or our property. The cognitive experience of anger impacts how we perceive and think about what is making us angry, and it is normal to focus on how what happened to us is wrong, unfair, and undeserved.

You can challenge your experience and perception of anger with questions like these ones:

  • Why am I really feeling angry?
  • What should have happened?
  • Did I feel something before this anger?
  • What do I want from this anger?

By better understanding what is motivating you, you empower yourself to have more control over your behaviour. Unacknowledged and unexplored emotions will persist in influencing your behaviour whether you want them to or not.

Re-Frame Anger

Anger is often associated with a reactive expression of outward aggression, which is unfortunate because reactive aggression is only one way to express the emotion. In looking at anger, it is important to separate the feeling from the reaction. What we feel and how we act are two distinct things. The feeling is where the certainty lies – we all get angry – but there is an incredible amount of space around the reaction. If we are able to look at anger (acknowledge) and get curious about it (question), we have already begun the process of creating space around what it means to be angry (re-frame).

Empower Anger

In creating space around how we react to anger, anger becomes a possible force for good in the world. Anger can motivate us to stand up for ourselves and correct injustices, and the practice of yoga asks us to be in the world and to take care of the world – not to stand idly by.

Well-known yoga teacher Judith Lasater asserts that anger is a response to thoughts about what should have been. She uses the example that we might feel frustrated about arriving late because of heavy traffic, and suggest that a simple interpretation of our frustration is that there shouldn’t have been traffic.

In the case of heavy traffic, your questioning might lead you to the realization that you were worried about disappointing someone by being late or that you were scared of the consequences of being late – not that there shouldn’t have been traffic.

But sometimes it is appropriate to believe that things should have been different. For example, I believe that a government should protect the food supply of its citizens – not the profits of suppliers.

This should be different.

Our desire for quick and convenient things has created a disposable culture that is creating an unmanageable amount of waste.

This should be different.

Animals are raised in cruel and abhorrent conditions so that we can kill enough to allow us to eat meat whenever we want.

This should be different.

Don’t fail to see that hugging a tree is also standing in front of it. Anger is an intense human emotion that we should learn to work with. Reactive aggression isn’t the answer, but neither is denial. In being able to identify and acknowledge our own anger, we can start to use its energy in intentional and powerful ways. Anger gives us the fuel to fight against the things that we think should be different.

Yoga and other spiritual practices should not endeavor to erase or eliminate anger; rather, they should teach us how to hold the intensity of the emotion and develop our ability to respond intentionally.