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The Gateway to Living

Learning to live with a chronic illness involves finding joy in chaos.

I have been experiencing a tricky time recently, with a reactivation of symptoms, including my mental health, and the feeling of impending doom that is carried in the pocket of denial. Then last night I remembered that I wrote a book, in meditation, that was quite useful for people in this kind of crisis.

The chapter I read is called "The Gateway to Living", and describes a path and tools to living not existing that seemed to ease the angst I was feeling. It reminded me that even in times of suffering, we can choose to live rather than survive.

I offer the chapter, in the hope that it also will have some meaning for you.

 

 

 

The Gateway to LIving

Module 5 was the gateway to living rather than existing. It was now July and it was becoming clear my recovery was not going anywhere; in fact to the contrary, my condition was continuing to improve. Now I felt some obligation to do something with it and I had no idea what or how or even why.

However, my psychology was still in the mode of ‘existing’, even though I had given back my power chair and cancelled my disability allowance; in my mind I was still disabled.

In the medical crises of my life I had had an ambiguous relationship with death and through my mentoring with Andrew had discovered I was more afraid of living than dying, a little like the mortality version of being more afraid of success than failure (which I have also experienced). So now I needed to learn how to live, like a crawling baby learns how to walk – I think sometimes I still fall.

The reason module 5 was so integral in this process of learning to walk was twofold: firstly I felt like the practices worked on stimulating and unblocking the centre of dynamism and enthusiasm; and secondly it was the interim assessment: our opportunity to sit an assessment that would allow us to teach classes as student-teachers, if we passed.

The practices included action postures like the eagle, sitting spinal twist, warrior sequence and the cleansing breath, and as I practiced them over the next few months (and still today), they filled me with a strength and a courage to act as I had never experienced before.

The eagle locks at the base of the spine with legs crossed over and the thoracic spine with our arms crossed over, then builds up energy between using breath with the spinal wave and folding over from the hips. A few breaths in this folded, locked position, enables intense focus and stillness. Then in one graceful and powerful motion, unfold and unblock.

It releases energy into the whole body-mind complex, for me focusing on my dynamism centre and my heart.

Andrew demonstrated this posture in the module and I was in the front row. When he did the dynamic version, the unfolding was so potent that the person next to me screamed and jumped backwards a step and we all gasped. I am sure I wasn’t the only person in the room who wanted some of what he had.

The eagle has been with me ever since and whenever I perform this posture I feel such an infusion of power and strength, not to mention clarity and focus.

The sitting spinal twist is a posture I used to do with the television after Romper Room when I was three. I loved twisting my body into knots and still do. I first encountered it as an adult in Bellingen with a lovely yoga teacher who encouraged us to move our internal organs around, getting the twist in the lower back.

Learning the Dru version took the posture to a deeper level as I became aware of the twist as it moved up my spine, releasing tension gradually as each vertebra twisted around and the muscles around my spine released. Finally, to rest with my heart open was and remains beautiful. On return there always seems to be a sucking in at the heart.

This posture never ceases to make me feel energised and generous, while bringing a satisfied smile to my face. I have learnt, practice and teach a version of the Sitting Spinal Twist for anywhere you aren’t doing yoga (see Workplace Sitting Spinal Twist).

The Warrior sequence speaks for itself. Warrior 1, 2 and 3, together or in isolation, never cease to give me courage and strength when I think I have none. Somehow, even if my legs are shaky, I can relax into the warrior and feel strong; and if I am visualising, my posture becomes straighter and my head is held higher.

The cleansing breath just made my brain feel like it was in a brain version of a carwash – I so loved this practice I used to do it all the time when I first learned it (unfortunately perhaps too much as I strained my breathing muscles in the process). However, it did seem to clean my thoughts of some pretty limiting ideas of how I could live.

And, well, the interim assessment was a validation of my practice and my capacity to share this, perhaps more so than approval of my teaching skills.

I arrived at the module realising perhaps I had not done enough technical preparation. I knew the postures intimately and had visualised them, practiced them, read about them and written about them but I hadn’t studied them. And vitally, I hadn’t practiced teaching them.

After a little cramming with my yoga buddy, I decided to just do what I do in my head, but aloud, and hope for the best. For the second time in the yoga course (and possibly my life), I turned myself inside out and spoke what I had only internalised until then.

It was quite bizarre and feels vaguely pretentious, but strangely it felt comfortable; for those moments of teaching my ‘class’, I felt like a yoga teacher even though I was just sharing what I did in my head. I got the first glimpse that maybe I could do this.

Over the next few months, I started a small class and began to teach. I had shared bits with my maths students but now I started to actually teach full hour and a half classes.

 

Workplace Sitting Spinal Twist

  • Sitting with your buttocks on the edge of your chair and your spine straight and relaxed.
  • Breathe out and engage core stability.
  • Breathe in and lengthen through your spine, lifting your breastbone and raising your right arm to shoulder height (or your own comfort level).
  • As you breathe out, cross your left hand over to the outside of your right thigh and begin twisting you lower spine then middle spine to the right until your right arm reaches the back of the chair.
  • Rest as you breathe in.
  • Breathe out and use your arm to lever your upper body around into the twist a little further.
  • If it is comfortable, stay in the twist for a few breaths before returning to the centre on an in-breath.
  • Repeat to the other side.

This stretches the muscles of the back, and neck, opening the muscles of the chest, while massaging your abdominal organs and improving digestion. Fab on many fronts!

A Journey to Peace through Yoga, Lynnette Dickinson

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From anxiety and insomnia to self-love, thank you menopause

In the early hours of the morning a couple of days ago I woke up in the grip of anxiety. It was a feeling I am very familiar having suffered insomnia as a child then for most of my adult life, until my yoga practice changed my sleeping patterns I thought forever…until menopause.

Menopause has brought so many ‘gifts’, including the return of my old friend 2am spirals of anxiety, sometimes descending into sheer panic. It may have begun with a surge of heat that even in the middle of winter in Canberra necessitates all bed coverings thrown off or perhaps a nightmare that I have jerked myself awake to leave. The predicted path of the next couple of hours would have been tossing and turning, more heat surges and little sleep, getting up close and personal with my deepest fears and descending into panic.

Over the last six months my friend’s visits have become increasingly frequent and all of the tools I had used previously were increasingly ineffective, breathing in particular seeming to make the anxiety worse, not better. I have been growing dark circles under my eyes, MS has been returning and people have started to remark on my tiredness.

Then at around 2am one morning in the grip of anxiety I started to use a Yoga Nidra format of rotating my consciousness around my body but this time using the detailed anatomy I had been learning for yoga therapy, starting with the deltoid muscle on my right arm and remembering as much detail as I could.

I made my way around my whole body, externally and internally, so I didn't gain much sleep but I was certainly more relaxed and didn't feel so tired the next day (and I felt slightly righteous for studying). Each night I woke after that I repeated the same format and sleep increased.

Again, this was not to last. about a week ago anxiety returned with a vengeance, bringing its two best friends, insomnia and menopause. I felt wretched.

Then a couple of nights ago I woke with both heat surge and nightmare, and each time I began to rotate my consciousness around my body, the anxiety and/or heat returned to distract my concentration. I prepared myself for another descent … until I thought about the opposite of anxiety.

Anxiety is the expression of fear, the opposite of fear is love ergo the opposite of anxiety is love. What is love? Unconditional acceptance. What if I held my anxiety in my arms like I would a baby, with acceptance instead of more fear?

This time it was anxiety that was derailed rather than my attempts to alleviate the condition but I still wasn't asleep.

So I began to rotate my consciousness again but this time with the warmth of love and each time a fear arose I held it in acceptance and went on, and before I knew it I was asleep. The same a short time later and then again the same night. I woke in the morning feeling soft and rested.

The next night the same thing happened but I only woke once. Then again and again. And I am looking forward to sleep tonight.

You see, just before my anxiety returned I had realised I had been expecting the outside world to fill my need for love and it is my thought that menopause has brought me to the next layer of my recovery in this area; my fear of not being loved and my neediness in the face of that fear.

The thing is, self-love is not a prescription that can be filled by anyone else but until a few days ago I didn’t know how. Holding the 2am spiral in love, holding my deepest fears in love, holding my anatomy in love is dissolving the fear and filling me with love. Who would’ve thunk it?

And during the day I have noticed that my background reactivity has also dropped. This has given me the space to reflect on the content of my inner dialogue and a deeper understanding of acceptance – another circle. Allowing the reaction and pausing in the reaction gives me choice and a moment to understand the judgement or self-criticism. My life has become peaceful again and my sleep and health have again improved.

As a culture we have successfully stigmatised and/or medicalised menopause, anxiety and insomnia. Menopause is a thing, anxiety is a thing and insomnia is thing, and together become a very big, toxic thing, particularly if we ignore them or feel shame to the point of silence. Let’s open the conversation to include all the possibilities of experience and therapy, without shame or exclusion.

So, I have been reminded that menopause can be a current, albeit a bloody uncomfortably strong one. It can carry us to a place we can transform fear into love. And most importantly for me, I have been reminded of the tools I have that can help me navigate the current, and the power and my obligation to share those tools.

 

Lynnette Dickinson is the author of A Journey to Peace through Yoga, and teaches yoga, relaxation and meditation in Canberra and via Skype or phone. Classes, personalised programs and yoga therapy. Visit www.splendouryoga.com. Listen to Lynnette telling her story click here for Part 1 and here for Part 2, and be inspired.

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The Yoga of Skiing


Two years ago I was crying like a baby, gripped by fear, two months ago I skied my first black run with freedom and love. In this excerpt from the second edition of A Journey to Peace through Yoga, I describe using meditation to overcome fear.

I think the best way to illustrate not only the distance I have travelled in the last five years but also the impact of sharing my story, is to once again share – this time about sliding down the side of a mountain on two sticks of fibreglass with Nicola, still by my side, no longer on my lap.

Nicola and I arrived on the ski fields of Nagano, Japan, courtesy of a Christmas present from my partner, who had also booked us group lessons; kids for Nicola and growed up for me, both beginners. We were both feeling a shirt load of fear as we put on our ski boots for the first lesson.

A quick kiss and cuddle and off we went to our different classes. I have never been so bad at anything in my whole life! Each time I moved I fell and each time I fell, I had to be helped up – I just didn’t have the strength to get up, sooo disempowering.

I started down the slippery slope of comparison and identification with being crippled. “I am the worst in the class.” “Why did I think somebody like me could ski?” “How could I been so stupid?” And over and over again, “I have MS. Why did I think I could ski?” An hour and a half into my lesson, I baled and when I saw Nicola at lunch, discovered so had she. we both cried like babies.

My partner exchanged our group lessons for a fewer number of private lessons that we would have together (thank you!), and we could start in the afternoon of the next day. Nicola and I played in the snow all afternoon but my mind was filled with the undercurrent of every negative comparison I had ever held in my life – essentially I was less-than everyone at everything.

So in the early hours of the following morning, I meditated: meditated on being strong enough to get myself up when I fell, meditated on holding fear and courage in the same hand and meditated on joy.

And the next morning woke up, yoga-ed, dressed and meditated again, this time I realised that just being there was an extraordinary achievement and privilege, and I focused on gratitude for each moment. I set an intention to engage with each moment and learn as much as I could, rather than on how I was compared to other people, acknowledge my fear and ask any question that came into my mind, no matter how silly it seemed.

It’s funny how much this intention eased the pressure and fear. I felt light and very committed. This lightness and fear enabled me to support Nicola on the shuttle to the ski fields.

The lesson went well and the ski instructor was excellent (thank you, Henry). Nicola got it almost straight away and I was able to get myself up, lasted the whole two hours, found it difficult to coordinate the two sides of my body and discovered that I really was determined to learn as much as I could.

I was also bolstered by another instructor who, when I apologised for being in his way, said “never apologise for being a beginner”, and I didn’t after that. Another lesson and I was further along the way, and Nicola and I went down the beginners’ slope.

I loved watching her graceful turns but I was still feeling the lack of control that came from not being able to coordinate the two sides of my body. And somewhere along the line, I made a vow to share this journey so that it wasn’t just for me.

After more yoga and more meditation, this time focus on postures and visualisations to stimulate communication between the two sides of my brain, I went back to the Magic Carpet. This time I would just keep going down the magic carpet until I got it, no matter how many times it took.

First time I fell. Well, at least now I could get up. Second time and I turned right. The third time it clicked, both sides of my body working together, turning right and left. A few more times to make sure, visualising both sides of my brain working together, looking up and feeling it in my body.

On the ski lift with my partner, something I could never even have dreamt about, and then skiing down the slope with my daughter and my partner, actually skiing, not just snowploughing to the bottom – triumph! Again, after lunch.

More meditation and yoga, much more gratitude and the next day the ski instructor couldn’t believe how much I had improved in a day. I told him, I meditated and visualised but he decided my partner and friends were good teachers - which might also be true.

The next day, our last day in the ski fields we skied again but my legs and knees were getting tired and decided to have a short day on my skis, not wanting to push my luck. I felt such an extraordinary feeling of achievement for myself and pride for Nicola's achievement.

I had learnt so much about myself and my capacity to learn, and Nicola learnt the confidence that comes from facing down fear. Now I am honouring my vow to share my story. If I can accept being a beginner, ask questions, fall over and try
again, completely accept where I am in any given moment and be completely present, the possibilities for my life are endless.

And if I can accept myself, truly befriend myself then I can accept and befriend my circumstances, and then I can accept and befriend each person who crosses my path. I can welcome the full catastrophe of life with a clear mind and an open heart – I think this is peace.

I am still on the journey but I can look back and recognise that in this 24/7 workshop we call life, my spiral is ascending. A spark of the splendour that’s possible…

Order your copy of A Journey to Peace through Yoga, at www.splendouryoga.com, or go to Amazon to purchase your eBook. 

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Pain - Drugs are not the only way

Public health policy desperately needs to re-frame its recommendations regarding the management of chronic pain or we will drown under escalating healthcare costs and effects of the increased consumption of prescription pain pharmaceuticals.

Add to this the treatment of associated depression and anxiety with antidepressants/anti-anxiety medications and people with chronic pain end up taking a cocktail of very powerful psychoactive chemicals, all funded by our public and private health system.

But there is another way…

Two weeks ago, on the slopes of Naeba Snow Resort in Yuzawa, Japan, I began developing a migraine. It was not a normal headache, with pain in the temples and ache across the forehead but a change in the pressure of my skull, altered balance and vision, sensitivity sound and light, breath becoming laboured and the deep ache that begins at the base of my skull.

At the time, I was on a ski lift, on the way to the top of an intermediate ski slope and there was only one way down from there, or at least one preferred way of going down. So, I began to consciously relax my body and breath, taking my awareness inside my body. Meditation was the Ace up my sleeve.

I found the muscles that were holding tension and released the tension with my out-breath. instantly felt my mind become more spacious and the migraine begin to soften, as I focussed my attention on the back of my skull.

Now the more difficult stage of skiing down the slope.

Skiing is still relatively new to me, not yet in automatic body memory. I only learnt to ski two years ago, as a 49-year-old person with MS, so every run still contains a certain amount of wonder and trepidation. The normal unknowns of skiing combined with the extra ingredient of not knowing if any of my limbs or faculties would spontaneously fail.

So, standing at the top of the slope, I once again slowed my breath and awakened all my senses. I centred, pointed my skis down the slope and skied. I stopped thinking about getting to the bottom and simply focussed on the present moment, this turn and the next.

When I got to the bottom I felt elated. Not only the best skiing I had done up to that point but for the whole run I hadn’t been aware of the burgeoning disturbance in my Central Nervous System (CNS).

I retired to the nearest café and within half an hour my symptoms slowly returned. I decided to withdraw into meditation for the afternoon to see if I could kick this migraine while my daughter and partner returned to the slopes.

Adjusting my posture again, my breath slowed as I relaxed through my body and withdrew my focus from the outside world. I brought my attention to my brain and consciously created space with my inhalation and softened my attention with my exhalation. Then went inside the pain, focussing on dissolving the inflammation with my breath.

This is how the next hour and a half passed – sitting in a busy café in stillness, dissolving the pain and inflammation in my head with my breath. People came and went, I was aware of their conversation but my choice was to focus my attention inward. One of the terms we use to describe the state of meditation is relaxed alertness and this perfectly describes my mind state during this hour and a half.

By the time my daughter and partner returned my symptoms had diminished considerably. I felt relaxed and at peace. I was still very conscious of keeping myself centred with my breath and my posture but contrary to the predictable path of a migraine, my symptoms further reduced through the evening. I woke the next morning with a crystal clear central nervous system. 

During the whole afternoon and evening, I had taken two paracetamol tablets. I took them after the worst symptoms had passed, more as a prophylactic against further symptoms occurring while I was walking around in the snow trying to find food.

Chronic pain conditions, including migraine, are costing our health systems millions of dollars a year – increasing prescription of powerful pharmaceuticals, lost productivity, increased mental health issues related to the experience of pain and the side-effects of pain medication.

Prescription pain medications are becoming an increasing cause of addiction and death across the US and Australia as doctors use stronger drugs and off-label prescriptions in a desperate attempt to manage escalating rates of chronic pain in our communities. Added to this is the increased risk of liver and gastrointestinal damage, cognitive damage and autoimmune conditions.

Patients want a life without pain and doctors want to provide a solution but as my story demonstrates, drugs are not the only solution.

I have arthritis, three prolapsed discs in my spine and Multiple Sclerosis and I occasionally take a couple of paracetamol when the pain is at its worse and I know I will need to function in the world – three health conditions involving chronic pain and a net cost to the public health system of…well…zero. And my practice not only helps my pain management but also manages my mental health, which directly benefits my family, further reducing cost to the communoty.

Mine is not an isolated story. My clients also report that the meditation and relaxation I teach is a much better pain management tool than conventional pharmaceuticals alone. Some clients combine meditation with pharmaceuticals, often reducing their dependence on pain meds and some have been able to stop their prescription medications altogether, keeping them around just in case.

Added to this anecdotal evidence is an increasing body of independent evidence from respected academic institutions to support an integrated medical approach to chronic pain management. Therapeutic Yoga, meditation, relaxation, tai chi, hypnotherapy, massage and acupuncture have all been shown to have an equal or better impact on patients’ experience of pain as pharmaceuticals.

Pain clinics are emerging in capital cities, offering a range of treatments for pain management (including mindfulness, massage and hypnotherapy) but too often these clinics are private and expensive, out of the reach of the average person. When the services are available through public health, they are usually funded for short courses which simply doesn’t support individuals developing a sustainable personal practice.

Imagine a trip to your local GP for pain and you leave with a prescription for mild pain meds and a referral to multidisciplinary clinic, offering meditation, relaxation, gentle yoga, tai chi, hypnotherapy, therapeutic massage and acupuncture. Everything designed to support the development of your own long term pain management practice.

This approach would not only help to manage your pain but would also support your whole wellbeing, mentally and physically. My story shows this is can be a reality if we personally and publicly take the leap.

Lynnette Dickinson is the author of A Journey to Peace through Yoga, and teaches yoga, relaxation and meditation in Canberra and via Skype or phone. Classes, personalised programs and yoga therapy. Visit www.splendouryoga.com. Listen to Lynnette telling her story click here for Part 1 and here for Part 2, and be inspired.

 

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Recovery is not a place you land and unpack


“Peace is not a place you land and unpack.”
Petrea King, Quest for Life 2016.
… and neither is Recovery.
In stages, the impossible becomes possible.” T.V.K. Desikachar
Recovery from any adversity, whether illness, drug addiction, trauma, mental health disturbance, grief, disaster or major life change, is a process that is ongoing. We don't wake up one day cured rather we continually make progress along the path of recovery.
In my own recovery process, I have often felt like I have been ascending a spiral, often returning to similar issues but at a higher or deeper level of resolution. This appears across all the layers of my experiences and I often don't notice until I am moving out of an experience and may need to reflect on the last rung on the spiral to get perspective and prevent being disheartened.
Yet over and over my students and clients ask why it is taking them so long, wondering if there is something wrong with them or they are doing something wrong. Our society seems to think that recovery from trauma, illness, grief or any kind of life-change happens in distinct stages within a distinct time-frame (usually within 12months), and then we move on.
There have been many occasions when people, having read my book, heard my story or even been taught by me during a particularly ‘well’ phase, will have expected me to be cured and if I fall off this perch they will be distressed and disappointed on my behalf…and perhaps theirs.
I am always moved by people’s concern for my wellbeing and reassure people that I have chronic illnesses that I manage not cure. I manage with the tools I teach and that even if I don't come out of this exacerbation, I will continue to live in peace which for me is what it’s all about and if I do come out, it will be at a higher place than I was before.
You see, this the reality for those of us who have suffered some form of trauma or major life change is that recovery is ongoing and comes in waves. For many of us, the greatest recovery comes from the inner peace gained from the acceptance of our present situation and this too is ongoing.
So, if we accept this to be true, if we accept that recovery is ongoing, how do we support ourselves and each other through this process?
Firstly, find a practice that improves your wellness and then maintain a regular practice, even after the initial flush of recovery. It seems to be a common nature for us to find a practice that makes us feel better only to let it go when we start to feel better. The best way to stay out of the hole is to keep doing whatever it was that got you out of the hole.
And if you fall off the wagon and find yourself in a hole again, give yourself a break releasing as much guilt as you can because you're human. go back to the Same ladder and start climbing again.   
Find a support team and give them permission to keep you accountable. This might be a coach or a counsellor, a yoga teacher, therapist or trusted friend. Choose wisely, not because they will take you out and get you pissed but because you know they will respectfully keep you honest.
It is a friend, colleague, partner or family member the first step is to listen. Stop what you're doing, make a cup of tea and listen. Ask questions – what has helped before, how would like me to support you, would you like me to come with you? Questions that invite the person to consider and find their own wisdom and path. Set an example in your own behaviour. Things not to do: nag and remind them they've been here before - They know, already!!!
The most important things I have learned about recovery is that it is not a place you land and unpack. It happens in stages and requires resilience, acceptance and forgiveness. Whether it is yourself in recovery or someone you care for, it takes time, is ongoing and is often more about finding peace where you are right now than finding a cure.
Lynnette Dickinson is the author of A Journey to Peace through Yoga, and teaches yoga, relaxation and meditation in Canberra and via Skype or phone. Classes, personalised programs and yoga therapy. Visit www.splendouryoga.com. Listen to Lynnette telling her story Part 1 and Part 2, and be inspired.

 

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So What Does My Story Mean?

As I come to the close of this chapter of my journey I am wondering how my story will be interpreted by those who read it.

I am aware there are sceptics who will not give any significance to my yoga and meditation practice and dismiss my recovery as just another chapter in the story of MS – the mystery disease, nothing more remarkable than a spontaneous remission.

There are those who will say it’s a miracle or that I must be extraordinary.

So now I ask to ask myself.

“How do I interpret my journey? What does it mean for me?”

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Is it possible…?

Is it possible to transcend acceptance and embrace the circumstances of your life? Is it really possible to welcome the circumstances of your life, each moment as a teacher? Is it possible to live in this state of freedom, in this state of love?

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