Discussing “Pain” in the Singapore context [part 2]

/Please read part 1 before you read this. Otherwise, you will be pretty lost./

When my yoga practice came to a standstill because of my wrist injury, I was devastated. I was never into fitness prior to yoga and when I discovered yoga, it was as if I discovered my calling. It has brought me immeasurable mental health benefits, and I was finally able to feel more comfortable in my own skin. Although it was difficult to accept that I had to take a break for a few months, I started reframing my view of fitness and of yoga. And I came to the revelation that I was not only in physical pain, I was torturing myself mentally and beating myself down.

This brings me to my next observation of how Singaporeans are not willing to admit their pain. Despite our love for expressing how physically in pain we are, we refuse to admit our mental sufferings and struggles. That is because there is a social stigma attached to mental struggles. People are so afraid of voicing their struggles because they are afraid of being seen as weak. Some even try to convince themselves that they are “feeling fine” in an attempt to suppress those thoughts.

I was not an exception. After I came to recognise what I was doing was not healthy, I started becoming kinder to myself. I later learned in my yoga teacher training course that this concept of being kind to yourself is 1 of the 8 limbs of yoga, Yama, Ahimsa. Ahimsa, being non-violent to yourself and to others should not be confused with complacency and weakness. Instead, I have discovered that you need a certain strength within to apply this in your everyday life. I am beginning to see how it is liberating, as difficult as it is.

I guess what I want to say is that pain should neither be celebrated nor condemned. It should be appreciated as a mechanism that protects us and it should be taken objectively.

Chandra Namaskara (Moon Salutation)

Most people who have a regular yoga practice know about and have done Surya Namaskara (Sun Salutation). It is a gracefully linked sequence that energises the body and provides a great cardiovascular workout. On a more symbolic level, Surya Namaskara also allows us to express gratitude to the sun and appreciate it as a source of life.

While I was looking for ways to improve my postures in Surya Namaskar, I chanced upon a similar sequence, “Chandra Namaskara”, the Moon Salutation in Hatha Yoga. For those who have never heard it before, you can take a look here: https://www.yogajournal.com/videos/moon-shine

Even though Chandra Namaskara is a rather recent development (according to my research, late 20th century) and does not have as much of a history as Surya Namaskara, it serves as an opposite to Surya Namaskara, just like how yin is to yang. According to Yoga International, we can pay homage to the lunar energy in nature and within by practising Chandra Namaskara. The 15 steps in the sequence below represent 15 tithis, or lunar days; a 16th step honours the tantric goddess Shodashi, who presides over all the phases of the moon, as well as all that is perfect, complete, and beautiful. When practised with devotion and gratitude for the divine feminine, this version of Chandra Namaskara can become a full body prayer.

This could possibly be part of a daily routine – start off the day with Surya Namaskara to warm up and energise your mind and prepare your body for the day. Then end off the day with Chandra Namaskara for inner meditation to teach us to slow down and to be more receptive to our needs. To create equilibrium in our yoga practice and in our lives, it is helpful to observe the power of opposites. Although Surya Namaskara and Chandra Namaskara embrace different qualities, I feel that they complement each other perfectly.

Essential Oils for Fatigue

As I underwent the 200-hour yoga teacher training course, I could sense the daily practice was instilling numerous changes in my body. Perhaps most notably, the daily physical exertion was resulting in heightened levels of fatigue. My experimentations and research into essential oils was part of my quest to find a suite of solutions which could help tackle this tiredness.
There are a number of studies into the effects of essential oils found in nature and how they affect the mind and body. The ones which are frequently referred to for treating fatigue include eucalyptus, basil, geranium, rosemary and almond oil. Some of these promote circulation of blood to the cranial region, whereas some stimulate alertness or relieve pain.

Among the first oils I tried was chamomile oil. My first impression was that it was quite strong and slightly overpowering for the nose. While chamomile is often consumed as a tea, the essential oil extracted from its yellow and white flowers may offer even more benefits, since its volatile compounds and antioxidants are preserved in a more stable form. Used in an aroma diffuser, it seemed to put my mind more at ease and released some mental and emotional tension.

I also used lavender oil, which is well known for its sleep-inducing effects. Similarly, it seemed to lift a small load off my mind and promoted restfulness. While its effects were not directly linked to fatigue reduction, the more restful sleep I had when using lavender oil definitely contributed to a general feeling of well-restedness the following morning, better performance and slightly reduced fatigue.

However, I found that the effects were still lacking. I had to trace the roots of my tiredness to target the problem more effectively. Upon reflection of my daily habits and checking in with my state of mind, it became clear that I was dealing with physical fatigue as a result of frequent practice and also sometimes shorter-than-ideal sleeping hours. With this in mind, I explored natural oils which were known for targeting muscle and joint pain.

Helichrysum, marjoram and peppermint are known for their muscle-relaxing and anti-inflammatory properties. I did not manage to use these, but the presence of these substances in many massage oils and pain-relief ointments could point to their effectiveness in relieving fatigue.

Also on the list is eucalyptus oil – which I managed to get hold of mixed in with sweet almond oil. Almond oil acts as a vitamin-rich moisturiser which helps to effectively carry other essential oils. The eucalyptus had a sharp scent which was mildly invigorating. Massaged into fatigued joints around the knees and ankles, it seemed to aid the relief of muscle tiredness, more so than when I do a dry massage or use a foam roller. My performance at practice subsequently seemed to improve (though there could be other factors linked to this). I feel like almond and eucalyptus oil used as an aromatic stimulant could enhance the massage’s usefulness insofar as self-massage is effective.

As yoga practice demands a combination of the right state of mind plus peak condition of the body, any behavioural change or diet which can aid this will be beneficial. I found that essential oils could be one such avenue to achieving this mindfulness and performance, and would definitely consider integrating it into my daily practice pending further experimentations and research.

Discussing “Pain” in the Singapore context [part 1]

This will be a pretty long anecdote/opinion piece so I have divided it into two parts for your benefit.

With longer working hours, the consequences of a sedentary lifestyle have been observed in the growing epidemic of chronic pain. Observe the working adults around you; you might see them involuntarily cracking their neck or unconsciously rubbing their shoulders in the hopes of temporarily relieving pain. Cases of chronic low back pain have also dramatically increased.

So why have we passively accepted and even accommodated this unwelcome presence of pain in our lives? From my own observations, pain (especially chronic pain) in Singapore has been perceived in the two extremes, however contradictory.

  1. Pain is a sign of hard work
  2. Pain is a sign of weakness

Let me explain myself. In Singapore, where most people are caught up in a rat race to be the best, the concept of “no pain, no gain” has become entrenched. It started off as an exercise motto that promises greater value rewards for the price of hard and even painful work but now it has been applied in all kinds of scenarios, including at our workplace and at school. In a way, that saying validates our competitiveness and justifies our long working hours. However, we have gone too far by glamorising that thinking. We have even begun to use pain to justify our hard work; for example, if you have muscle aches after a punishing workout, that is a good sign that you pushed yourself to the limit. If you have knots in your shoulders from working long hours on the computer, you are an excellent employee.

This is because we have been given the message that in order to succeed, we need punishing workouts, we need to work until we are completely exhausted, we need to work doubly hard to the next person. After all, pain is weakness leaving the body, right? No. In the short term, that might work, but it is damaging in the long run. It is not sustainable and the consequences have begun to show.

Speaking from personal experience, I have injured myself a few times because I subscribed to that belief. I was immersed in yoga for a few months and I feared that I would lose my hard-earned fitness if I took a day or two off. At the same time, I was balancing a time consuming part-time job and my first year of University. I was not getting enough sleep, not eating well enough and as a result, I was constantly exhausted. And in a flow class one day, I lost my focus for a moment and I hurt my wrist. For the next few months, I could not get myself into a proper chaturanga, plank poses and variations hurt greatly and I was forced to stop.

-> read part 2 for my revelations.