As a lifelong migranaut (an often-used term for the experiencer of frequent and incessant migraine debilitation) the practice of yoga came to me in an intriguing way. No, I wasn’t hit by a low flying copy of the complete works of Patanjali. Let me explain.
As long as I can remember I had experienced migraines on a regular basis – I mean, we are talking here as far back as I can remember, as a child throwing up in my toy box. Right the way through my misspent youth, to days spent in virtual worlds (see my last blog entry). However, being the adventurous type I was up for almost anything in my pursuit of living a pain free life.
First, let’s explain what a migraine actually feels like. We aren’t talking here about the casual tension headache you receive from listening to Radio 1 via the builders next door. No, we are talking about the kind of cycle which begins with that vague feeling of impending doom, or further along, a pain which begins at the base of the neck and crawls, like some xenomorph from Aliens over the top of your head depositing itself over your eye. Cue flashing lights, tunnels or curious visual disturbances which march merrily over periphery of your vision. Okay, so it may sometimes bypass this stage and head straight for projectile vomiting, dizziness and the urge to exclaim, “stop the world, I want to get off”.
But, I hear you say, there are triggers to such things?! Yes, there are, but the vastness of chemical, and emotional or psychological stressors encountered in daily life mean that finding precise combinations that induce a migraine cycle can be difficult. In short, for myself, while particular triggers were important, it was that such things seemed to increase or reduce a threshold, at which migraine began.
The prevalent pharmaceutical approach, as I grew up, was initially based on hitting the cycle at an early stage with a suitable dose of painkiller – usually based on codeine. Only, this is not good for several reasons, not good for your body, your attention or general outlook on life. A wry smile from the chemist when asking for a large amount of such painkillers and the comment “you know there are other drugs now, go back to your doctor!”. So, enter stage left for Sumatriptan and betablockers.
While these do work, much of the time, and certainly take away addictive inclinations which creep in with painkillers, they are simply not the answer and don’t address what’s actually going on – what’s causing the problem and how to deal with it in a sane way.
So, how did I actually deal with the problem? A clue to gaining control over the migraines, once they had begun, came during a particularly nasty attack. I noticed that singularly watching the breath while slowing it down and prolonging the outbreath had some effect at the worst stage of pain. I found the pain itself would recess, then after a while, back away to nothing.
It was at this time I knew little of yoga. I knew that various physical exertions (for example, intense activities such as running) would affect the frequency of attacks but why would this be the case, and why would something as simple as breath have a dramatic effect? At last, I had some clues to resolving a condition which was extremely detrimental to my life. I realised I needed to form a regime which incorporated aspects of what I was finding out in my experimentations.
This led to looking at systems of thought that tackled conditions on a holistic basis, as my problem, as far as I could see, was present at several levels – physical, emotional, mental etc. Eastern philosophies seemed to capture this view, in their whole being approach and integration of bioenergetic systems.
My first sessions of yoga were hit and miss, but I instantly noticed a difference. These ventures were very much like dipping my toe into the water and realising that this was a huge area to explore. But the more my simple practice was held with regularity, the more impact it had – it required discipline and an amount of self-reflection. What worked? What didn’t? One of the problems with this approach is that it is not always immediately evident that something is “working”, and you should rely on your teacher for guidance. It’s often likely, that you are too close to your problems, and repeat destructive, or at least detrimental, patterns subconsciously so, what’s needed is that outside perspective.
I incorporated more practices beyond the simple asana I was ascribing myself to – breathing (pranayama) and meditation. It seemed to me, in my rather simplistic way and unknowledgeable view of the time, that each part of the yoga was indeed, acting on essential parts of the self. It felt rather like I was being stripped back to my basic core and rebuilt inside-out.
There appeared to be an unwinding, and much of what seemed important before fell away as background noise, as more essential elements of life arose in their place. Awareness grows, for a yogi, through avenues which would often appear unrelated. A good example of this is people asking me how I lost so much weight – it was not so much the exercise, as the awareness that arose of the quality and quantity I was eating which came about as a consequence of being that much more connected between aspects of the whole self – including the physical, mental and emotional elements.
So, having gained control over the “thorn in my side”, what have I learned? It’s a curious thing that illnesses and our “dis-eases” can teach us so much. This is not to say we should deliberately seek out discomfort or believe that every illness can have a life-affirming ending! These unpleasant aspects of life can, I believe, have a self-revealing consequence and lead us down paths we wouldn’t necessarily have chosen but do actually lead to radical transformation for us as individuals and society as a whole, albeit sometimes, in a subtle way.