by Kelly McGonigal
New Harbinger, 2009
Review by Beth T. Cholette, Ph.D. on Jun 15th 2010
Yoga for Pain Relief offers simple strategies from the mind-body approach of yoga to ease pain--both physical and emotional--and to alleviate suffering. In his Forward to this book, Dr. Timothy McCall, a specialist in internal medicine and author of the book Yoga as Medicine, argues that whereas doctors are not taught how to relieve suffering in medical school, yoga has centered around relief of suffering for thousands of years. In her own Introduction, author Kelly McGonigal describes how pain itself is a mind-body experience; she notes that chronic pain in particular is a learned response. Through the regular practice of yoga strategies, including breathing techniques, befriending the body, physical exercises, and relaxation, McGonigal maintains that one can attain greater control over one's mind and body both to increase comfort and to decrease suffering.
McGonigal begins by providing an overview of the pain response. She explains how pain starts with a threat signal which eventually becomes oversensitized in the case of chronic pain. She then introduces some basic ideas from the yogic tradition that will facilitate further discussion of the yoga healing practices. These concepts are very straightforward, such as the importance of the breath and the focus on the experience of inner joy as part of the practice. At this point, McGonigal is ready to begin reviewing some actual healing practices, starting in Chapter 3 with Breath. (Note: in her Introduction, McGonigal does say that it would be fine for the reader to skip to this chapter if wanting to start immediately with the practices.) Throughout the practice segments of the book, there are detailed descriptions of how to perform the various exercises accompanied by clear, helpful black-and-white photos of McGonigal and other models demonstrating the movements. For example, in the Breath chapter, the practices begin with simple Hands-On Breath Awareness and Freeing the Breath; later in the chapter, McGonigal instructs the Breath of Joy, the Relief Breath, the Balancing Breath (including alternate nostril breath and an alternate nostril breathing visualization), and Breathing the Body. In-between these two segments are a series of simple physical exercises (e.g., spinal wave, seated forward fold, neck stretch, side stretch; virtually all of the exercises are shown using a chair as an option) designed to remove any tension that might be restricting the breath. Finally, at the end of this and every yoga practice chapter, McGonigal includes a "Putting it All Together" section which offers suggestions for how to use the exercises/practices in different ways.
The next chapter focuses on Befriending the Body, or moving from a more adversarial relationship with oneself and one's pain to one of compassion and acceptance. The practices in this chapter incorporate the concept of gratitude, and McGonigal also introduces a basic meditation to produce compassion, including blank pages in the book to record any reflections which may arise. For the physical exercises, McGonigal's emphasis is always on healing. She presents gentle asana (held postures) and vinyasa (movements combined with breath), many of which are performed on the floor or can be modified with use of a chair. After introducing a basic pose sequence which can be combined in many different ways, McGonigal moves on to restorative postures. These poses require props to support the body and to allow for a more complete relaxation experience. McGonigal describes five basic restorative postures, offering modifications for each of these poses. The final yoga practice chapter focuses on Meditation. As with the previous chapters, McGonigal offers several options for establishing a meditation practice. The first is Befriending the Mind, or what is more traditionally referred to as mindfulness meditation. She also describes the practices of Mantra Meditation, Citta Bhavana (Moving the Mind), and Pratipaksha Bhavana (Moving the Mind in the Opposite Direction).
In the final chapter of the book, McGonigal offers suggestions for developing a personal yoga program. I especially liked her encouragement to establish a "homecoming" practice--that is, choosing just one simple exercise from the book that you will commit to practicing daily. She also talks about creating a yoga ritual to start or end the day, designing a longer "protective" practice, and finally, identifying a practice that is healing for you. She provides various suggestions for how to incorporate the exercises from the preceding chapters into the above practices. In addition, McGonigal notes how the short personal vignettes from her students which appear throughout the book provide examples of various yoga rituals. McGonigal concludes the book with a Resources chapter offering information on books, music, DVDs, and other resources for people with pain.
For those who are suffering from chronic pain, this book is an excellent, hopeful resource. McGonigal herself is not only a psychology, yoga, and meditation instructor but also a former chronic pain sufferer. When practiced regularly--perhaps in as little as 15 minutes per day--these easy-to-use, gentle yoga techniques can give you the tools to manage your pain and to reduce your suffering. Dr. McGonigal has written a book that is clear, well-researched, easy-to-understand, and potentially extremely valuable, and I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it.
© 2010 Beth Cholette
Beth Cholette, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist who provides psychotherapy to college students.