chronic pain
Between a Rock & a Hard Place @ Asilomar

I realize I have never shared my “Chronic Pain Story” in it’s entirety.


Here goes. (I like to refer to it as Persistent Pain these days…Chronic Pain has too hard of a sound to it. I only use the word Chronic Pain throughout this post for SEO)


I was hired as a customer service rep for a biotech company in San Diego. The year, 1999. A year after I graduated from UC San Diego. Super excited to have my own “cubby,” equipped with phone, headset, filing drawers, typewriter. Yes, excited about my own private cubby (this was before the new age of open floor plans). And yes, a typewriter (this was before the age of fancy processing machines to print up shipping waybills).


After a year, I advanced to “Supervisor of International Customer Service.” Fancy title. More responsibility. Filled with LOTS of email correspondence with our international customers from Japan, to Brazil, Australia. And LOTS and LOTS of product entry to complete orders, sometimes 20 pages long. No joke. Preparing shipping documents and making sure they were out on time. Then, having to fix mistakes as they came in–a chemical was shipped without ice so it spoiled, or they packed the wrong product due to mis-labeling, or the shipment never arrived. And on international time, one day late is now 3 days late.


Connecting with people from other countries–Cool. Constant time on the computer–Not Cool.


Data entry. Emails. Stress of deadlines. 7-Eleven coffee. Sitting in front of screen all day. Hour lunch fueled by banana and Cliff Bar, followed by a quick walk out in the dry trails behind our building. Back to typing–yes on that typewriter. Mid-day soda. Answering phone calls with my not-so-fancy headset (because sometimes I got called back to help out with domestic calls).


The year, 2002.  My arms were starting to feel the wear of this work life. And my neck. Nervy pain down my neck to my chest to my arms, into my hands. Migraines. Got an ergonomic evaluation of my desk–included fancy new split keyboard, document holder, rolling mouse. Advice to take stretch breaks.


Now in the workers comp system. Eventually to physical therapy. Given ultrasound on my arms. Put on foam roller. Hand physical therapist–sat in front of her while she ultrasounded my arms and massaged my hands and then sent me on my way. Doctor put me on birth control for the migraines.


This was a time in my life when I was hanging out at bars on the weekends (and some weekday evenings)–livin’ the life near the beach in my 20’s and 30′s. Up at 5:30am to work out at Bally’s Fitness so I could get to work by 8am. Eating sugar-free, fat-free, soy-full everything. Did I mention the rashes I was getting, from who knows where?– (likely stress-filled inflammatory reaction, stemming from pitta overdrive). And my face blowing up the size of a chipmunk with his cheeks filled–a reaction to over indulging on soy nut butter–resulting to a visit to urgent care for a steroid shot. Sitting at my computer with it’s “perfect” ergonomic set up, legs crossed, hunched shoulders, shallow breath. Stressed out of my mind.


See anything that is stress “reducing” here? Me neither. No PT or doctor ever asked me about that. Never guiding me to connect the dots.


The year, 2003. In addition to my International Customer Service responsibilities, I was put in charge of the Customer Service Department while we were on interim between department bosses. OMG. Everyone called out sick. Phones were ringing without end. Back up on line 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8. Can’t even get to my shipments for international customers. But they need to go out NOW. On the phones, no break in sight. When does anyone have time to take stretch breaks? My arms and neck are killing me. Everyone in the department is looking weary, distressed and about to crack. Me included.


And I did. Crack. Big time.


Sobbing in my new bosses office. “I can’t do this anymore.”


Taken off phone duties. Back to my data entry, emails, minimal nutrition, over exercising, coffee, poor nutrition.  Reducing my activities like riding my bike because it hurt to carry it down the stairs and I’d surely pay for it when I got to work after the weekend. Arms and neck still hurting.  Accessorized with wrist braces.  Taking muscle relaxers. Now on a amitriptyline (an anti-depressant often applied for migraines). Stopped taking that because they were making me depressed. Ugh.


But I had shifted. “I can’t do this anymore.” I made a commitment to see what it took to get in to Physical Therapy Grad school. Took pre-req classes. Decided I was going to get out of this job that was taking my body and spirit down.


And that surely being in a different situation, my now chronic pain (persistent) would go “away.”


Fast forward into PT school. The year, 2004. Arm and neck pain still present. Shit-canned my workers comp case because I didn’t want to be reliant on where they would send me and what care I sought out. Now having tried chiropractic. And gym yoga classes (with 30 other people)—now seeing those fast flow Vinyasa classes, not tailored to me, were part of the problem. Asking my PT grad instructors what they thought–feeling like I wasn’t getting any answers.


And pain clinics where I was offered cervical xrays. The doc looked at me and said, “did you see my waiting room? You don’t belong here.” I ended up not even going for those xrays.


Then where do I belong?


I made a 5 year plan in grad school. It included a dream of working in an integrative wellness center, incorporating yoga. And my path certainly led that way. While both practicing as a PT in an outpatient clinic–in pain most days, not wanting to see patients or spend time hand writing notes in their charts, wondering how can I be this PT that is in pain all the time–I began to be certified in Yoga Therapy. One to help myself. Two to use it with my patients–who I could see needed something more than I was able to give.


The year, 2011. I attended my first Symposium for Yoga Therapy & Research (SYTAR), offered through the International Association of Yoga Therapists (IAYT). I went in so much pain. Running down my arms, into my neck and shoulders. Nervy kind of pain. The kind of pain you want to rub out, but when you do, it just feels worse.


So grateful to be there with some time to myself on the Monterrey coast, at Asilomar. The wind brushed Monterrey pine trees, the sand scape, the foggy mornings. What better place for some introspection.

introspection at Asilomar

introspection at Asilomar

I attended Lori Rubenstein’s class–I don’t even remember the title–something to do with chronic pain and neuroplasticity. I couldn’t even tell you the details of what she talked about.


But what I do remember was something that has forever changed my pain experience and how I work with those in pain. It was experiential. It was not informed by knowledge (though I know this can be powerful too). It was completely sensed in the body.


We were invited to lie down for a guided meditation/body scan. I took the invitation, feeling it would be a much needed rest from sitting in a chair all day, as we do at conferences. I was in pain, even lying there in rest. The neck pain, the arm pain. The uncomfortableness of my skin.


But I stayed with my guide, following her prompts to recognize this part and that part, passing through the body.  And was invited to visualize a time in my past when I felt good–gathering all the colors, textures, visualizing that very moment. I remember it was hard to find that moment. I had to go back to 5th grade, to swim practice–gliding through the water, the sun glistening on my face, the coach who I had a crush on.


And then invited back to the sensation of my heart beating. And the visualization that with each beat, it was sending out all that I needed to heal, right to those areas that needed it most. For me, it went into the sides of my neck, chest, down my arms, into my hands. With each beat, filling all of my tissues with nutrients, oxygen, compassion. Everything I needed to heal.


Slowly brought back to present awareness, it dawned on me. No pain. NO PAIN! OMG, I can’t feel that PAIN anymore. Then the tears (they’re brimming at my eyes still to this day, as I write this).


I had to go up to Lori afterwards and ask her, what was that?” I explained my pain was gone (for the moment).  She asked me to stand with eyes closed and asked if I could sense my arms, did one feel longer than the other? Yes, my right arm felt like it was hanging down to my knee. It was a thin white line, hanging to long and dangly down to the bottom of my right thigh. She invited me to do what I needed to do to make that shift, to make it feel like I was more balanced.


To be honest,  I actually don’t know what her answer was in that moment—for why my pain was gone. Something to the effect of my nervous system making a shift, a “remembered wellness,” I think she calls it.  I guess it didn’t matter.

Crossing the Path @ Asilomar

Crossing the Path @ Asilomar

I was shifted.


A shift out of thinking I was broken.


A shift out of thinking I needed to be fixed.


How could I be broken and needing to be fixed if in THAT MOMENT, I was able to become pain-free? Just how could my nerves be damaged, my tissues be irreparable if I was pain-free in an instant of guided meditation?


This was my MINDSHIFT. This was my way out. So forever grateful for the Yoga Therapy that brought me to SYTAR and for the serendipitous teaching and guidance of Lori. So. Forever. Grateful.


Did my pain return? Yep, it did. But I had a new insight into the healing possibility WITHIN ME. Hope. And with that, I was stronger, more resilient. Less broken.


My quest continued, to learn more about chronic pain, pain science, neuroplasticity, changing the brain. Learning from Neil Pearson, Lorimer Moseley and David Butler. I engulfed myself into this knowledge to know the how’s and why’s. How do we change the language around our experience, so we then change the experience? Why does it matter what we think about our pain? Why does it matter how we’ve been taught to deal with pain? How do we encourage new neural pathways by release of top-down neurotransmitters that inhibit the pain experience? And how can a spiritual practice (feeling connected to others, having purpose) support this whole process?


And I started meditating more. Really meditating. Every morning–a practice I keep to this day because it grounds and stills me and it’s a place where my pain goes away. And I slowed down my yoga asana practice. And I really started to learn about yoga philosophy and Ayurveda and how Yoga Therapy (so different than just the yoga classes I as attending) could be an access point. Because it certainly had been for me.


And I started to change the way I worked with my patients in chronic pain. Because I come from experience, I can empathize. I cannot create that Ah-Ha moment in an individual, but I can lay down a path, plant the seeds, invite exploration to help change someone in that crucial moment, when the tears are flooding down the cheeks. Don’t give up. You are not broken.


Do I still have my pain re-appear sometimes? Absolutely. And sometimes it breaks me down. But most times, you know what?– when I do, it doesn’t scare me anymore. I become more inquisitive, curious. What’s going on in my life right now that’s ramping up my nervous system? Is it a conversation I’m afraid to have with a family member? Is it the inflammatory foods I’m putting in my body? Is it the work-work-work mentality coming back in again, making my breath shallow and my shoulders creep forward?




A shift from CHRONIC PAIN to daily, occasional, intermittent, tolerable pain. And truthfully, I call them “sensations.” That takes them to a whole new level. That completely down shifts them. These “sensations” remind me to be mindful. To tune in. To tune out.


And I’m ok with those “sensations.” That’s empowerment. Taking the power away from the doctor, the chiropractor, the massage therapist, even the PT. And shifting it back to me.


Ahhh, how free that feels.


I welcome your feedback and if you find this information helpful, please share with your colleagues, your family, your friends. I would love to hear what supports you through your chronic pain experienceContact Tianna if you are seeking ways to add a more holistic lifestyle approach, to help you in making your own MINDSHIFT, please don’t hesitate to reach out. Your Body, Mind & Spirit will be forever grateful.

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I was touched by your story. I wanted you to know that I took your pain class a couple years ago, and it helped me immensely. Not only is my body now more limber so I have less pain, but I know how to work with stretching to relieve the pain and with my mind to stop the panic cycle. It has made a huge  difference.–Joan