Yoga for Pain Relief — what I read during the snow storm

Cover art of McGonigal's bookKelly McGonigal sent me a copy of her book Yoga for Pain Relief: Simple Practices to Calm Your Mind & Heal Your Chronic Pain (New Harbinger Publications, 2009) and I’ve been sitting on it for nearly two months.

Kelly does not need another review of her book. Eighteen endorsements from yoga experts, health advocates, pain relief specialists, and scientific researchers are spread over four pages. Timothy McCall, the medical editor of Yoga Journal and author of Yoga as Medicine, wrote her foreword. She got a review from Yoga Journal in the March issue and also publishes an article on Surya Namaskar (Sun Salulation) in the same issue.

She has a blog, The Science of Will Power, on Psychology Today (looks like it comes out twice a month), as well as her personal blog, Science and Sutras. Also check out her Facebook page.

She’s giving seminars at the Omega Institute (New York). She’s quoted in Time magazine, the New York Times, and the Washington Post. She’s starting to make appearances on TV.

As a psychologist at Stanford University, she’s uniquely positioned to see where yoga is interfacing with Western scientific investigation and medical practice, both in terms of theory and practice, at a time when neuroscience is redefining and re-dimensioning our understanding of the human mind. She’s also an accomplished yoga instructor and teacher of instructors, as well as the editor for the International Journal of Yoga Therapy.

Do we see a pattern developing here?

She definitely does not need another book review or endorsement from a blogger.

New Harbinger has produced an understated book format, looking similar to the scores of other “Yoga for …. [name your disease, symptom or preferred body part].” Clean design, large font size, gray scale photos. So what sets this book apart from all the stock in the self-help section?

Photo: deepening the twistOnce I started reading her book, it impressed me as an important blueprint for yoga in the United States. It’s a book that I would recommended to anyone who wants to understand what you can get from yoga/meditation. The book hits a kind of “sweat spot:” this is yoga’s entry point with the minimal initial physical investment, the lowest opportunity cost and the biggest pay-off. You don’t have to get in shape, build up your aerobic capacity, muscular strength and flexibility before seeing results. You don’t even need to know what’s wrong with you for yoga to do you some good.

The book is extraordinarily accessible: No jargon, either from the Sanskrit or from the academic/scientific lingua franca, no intellectual arrogance, no magical incantation, no gateway to esoteric wisdom, no complicated sequences of poses. Within the first 25 pages (out of 183 pp), she’s giving you easy routines to start using what’s she teaching, in this case, observing your breath.

One of the things that Kelly said five years ago has stayed with me and she repeats it in the book: people seek out yoga because they are suffering, either physically, psychologically or spiritually. Human suffering is a great motivator and a constant of human existence. The book’s virtue is simplifying yoga down to a concise, clear message: Relieve your suffering; start with these easy steps. If Patanjali had written like Kelly, yoga would have taken over the world (kidding — a little).

Kelly also understands the value of personal narrative alongside the findings of randomized, blind control experiments, and she has included compelling stories of people impacted by yoga throughout the book.

I also appreciate her thoughtful listing of resources: meditation and yoga instruction books, audio/DVD, music for movement, meditation and relaxation, books for people with pain, non-profit organizations supporting people with pain, and organizations supporting research, education, and professional training in yoga and meditation. In addition, she has 50-item bibliography. If you poke around her blogs, personal website or her book site, you’ll find lots of pointers to central reference texts, scientific studies, resource centers and specialized knowledge hubs — stuff that she did not include in the book because they would have gotten in the way.

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