When I first began exploring yoga therapeutically around 2011, there are a couple of assumptions I made:
A) This will be interesting because all of these other people have pain and I have none. Well, maybe I have my funky neck stuff that has been around since I was a kid but that is just there. It’s part of how I am.
B) This talk of “yellow lights” and signs that I’m going to have a flare-up – that might be true for other people but not for me. My neck stuff just appears out of nowhere.
Oh, how I don’t know what I don’t know. But for now, 6 years later, what I know about pain in my practice and in my every day is this.
We all have particular patterns of tension that our brains cue in our bodies in order to get through stressful periods of life. Many of these same patterns of tension are cued when we try to do something physically that is actually beyond our current capability. I feel these patterns in my tendency for migraine headaches since I was 9 years old, reoccurring neck pain, and sneaky shoulder blade / rib tension. Yet, because I’ve developed awareness of my yellow lights, I can now see how those old patterns (that turn into pain) are doing their best to help me. Those full out pain flares are saying,“STOP. You are a car that has no fuel left and all you’ve got now is this steep hill that you’re careening down on momentum! And I think our brakes are getting overheated now….eeeeekkkkkk!!!!”
Now, before that dramatic turn of events, these yellow lights include a myriad of signs ranging from Yield to a Speed Bump to a Stop to a Sharp Turn Ahead… until if I ignore them all then I run out of gas, careen down the hill, my brakes go out and I drive off a cliff into a place of intense pain and more prolonged recovery. Which to be frank isn’t fun with three kiddos under 6 plus the rest of this crazy beautiful world.
“But I don’t have any signals before my pain.
What kinds of yellow lights do you feel, Rachel?”
Initially, they might be more obvious than you think.
I discovered my very first yellow light years ago in relation to my neck / shoulder blade pain flares. I began to notice that when my son wanted something in the backseat and I wanted to help him immediately (i.e. immediately decrease his whining!), then I would crank my right arm back while driving to reach the second row while my torso and head continued to face forward. If I had waited two minutes for the car to be at a stoplight or stopsign, then I could have rotated my whole torso around. Instead, while driving I was trying to extend my shoulder AND internally rotate my arm bone at the same time. And quite frankly, I did not have the mobility to do those two actions to the extent it takes to reach a kid in the backseat. As a result, my shoulder blade jammed in toward my spine and a whole domino effect of lockup started which included the space just inside my shoulder blade between the blade and my spine, my upper traps on the right, and my neck rotation. It wasn’t and still isn’t fun. (Yes, I still do it sometimes… read on.)
I used to think, “Well, I can do it just once.” But for me myself and I, I was wrong. If I do it once, I will do it again. And if I do it once, it isn’t about my lack of range of motion. It is about my patience. And my patience is all about how honestly I’m coping with the current stressors in my life.
If I can’t wait 2 minutes until I get to a stoplight to help Ruthie or Nora, then at least one yellow light (in regards to my pain) actually probably came about earlier in the morning when I was rushing to get out of the house instead of leaving with ample time. Or when I kicked toys out of my way as I walked through the playroom with a huff and a puff. Or even when I growled in meditation practice as I heard Ruthie wake up early and jump out of bed to play in her room next to mine – frustrated it wasn’t perfectly quiet for me now. (I sound like a witch, don’t I? Speaking truth about yellow lights is not pretty.)
Now to your practice. When you check in at the beginning of class to breathe and be, explore getting honest about how you’re showing up on the mat. Don’t tamp down the feelings and thoughts from your day. I get the whole “See them and let them pass” but I want to propose a second option: “See them, feel them.” When you feel the yellow lights from your day blink at you here in centering at the beginning of class, honor them as you move into your practice. Are you in a day where everything is going smoothly and you can thus exert more effort right now on the mat? Or are you in a day where you’re irritated by everything and everyone and thus need to invoke compassion right now so as not to continue the car careening down the hill?
Likewise, as you move through the practice, if you feel pain, excessive tightness or shortness of breath (all different representations of yellow lights) don’t just “fix it” by squirming around or randomly remembering to breathe. Get honest as you did in the initial centering. Recognize you’re in the midst of yellow lights. Then, exit the pose. And come back in honoring the yellow lights this time. Go only so far that you do not feel the yellow light. Then experience the pose from this new perspective of less tension and more ease.
What could you do with less tension and more ease? Well, for me, I’ve discovered more energy, stamina, and rationalism. I have choice now. I have freedom where I felt stuck before – in my body and in my life.
Want to come along? Start by seeing your yellow lights and responding with compassion. We can’t change what we’re not aware of. Get curious.
Take good care,