I wake up at 7:00am to a horribly dreary Sunday morning; the ice storm that began yesterday continues to rage on. I drag myself out of bed and commit to attending my 9:00am morning session with Tiffany Cruikshank. But it’s Suuuuunndaaaaayyy… I want to sleep in but I know this session will be too amazing to miss out on. Once again, I throw on the kettle and hop into the shower. This morning, however, I head out a little earlier than Andrea as I get the feeling she wants a few minutes to herself. Again, I’m in all black. That’s four days in a row; it’s not really a surprise — black is my wardrobe.
The walk to the Conference is dreadful; the intersection where the Rogers Centre, Ripley’s Aquarium and the CN Tower converge, usually bustling and jam packed with tourist or baseball fans, is so completely empty of any other human life, I’m pretty sure this is what Toronto would look like in post apocalyptic times. There’s not even any sparrows or squirrels to be seen. I make it to the Conference early enough to throw my things down and head into Second Cup to indulge myself with another morning tea. The volunteer from Eliot and Kozlowski’s session recognizes me as we pass by each other in the hallway and she inquires if I’m feeling better today. I assure her that, yes, today I am fully human again.
When the doors open for Cruikshank’s lecture, the room fills rapidly. I get a good spot at the back of the room close to a wall and begin to set up. Throughout the whole Conference, I’m the only keener I’ve seen typing notes on a laptop. This isn’t my first time at the rodeo and, especially when it comes to someone as brilliant and articulate as Cruikshank, hand written notes just aren’t good enough.
Cruikshank is both gorgeous and intelligent; she has a petite frame but with an impressively developed muscular structure and fantastic long flowing locks of dark hair. I’m obviously a huge fan of hers and I’m crushing big time. (Inside: Eeeeeeeeeee!!) I took her Myofascial release workshop last year and fell in love with her science and evidence based approach to self care and yoga. Plus, she’s really quite funny. Cruikshank’s brand, YogaMedicine, is a refreshing combination of knowledge from both modern medicine and science as well as traditional yoga practices; her aim is to create a resource for healthcare provides and teachers who understand and recognize the benefits of both Western and Eastern modalities. She wants teachers to work with doctors, not to replace them or their medical care and to make yoga an adjunct to health care. Today’s session is about neuroimmunology, neurodynamics and yoga. Just a really light Sunday morning topic, you know?
“The nervous system is an area we actually know very little about,” Cruikshank begins after a brief introduction, “The brain and the nervous system are areas of the body we’re still learning so much on, it’s mind blowing… so I won’t have all the answers to your questions… In fact, I hope you leave this class with more questions. Hopefully, this will give you something to chew on, if nothing more than an understanding of the body that’s a little different.” She’s frank, down to earth and on succinctly point — I love it. “We have to separate the body to learn and understand it,” she admits, “but the reality is there’s no separation of the major systems of the body.”
Cruikshank’s goal is to introduce us to different ways to train the nervous system, aside from traditional Pranayama techniques or Restorative practices. Why is this important? Because the nervous system and the immune system facilitating communication through the entire body and intersect as part of our health and wellness. These major systems perform coordinated responses within the body on a cellular level, forming and altering our experience in the world (how we feel and interact with our environments). As yogis, we’re aware that the effects of yoga on these systems can be incredibly profound. “Yoga is such a huge powerful modality in so many ways,” Cruikshank gushes with enthusiasm, “which is a big reason why yoga is coming into the spot light of [Western] pain medicine.”
She wants to propose a different perspective on our yoga practice which will prioritize nervous system health, just as much as the health of our muscles and bones. We tend to fixate on what we can feel and perceive, large sensations like stretching, rather than the more subtle and deeper layers, like nervous system function. “But what’s more important? Your hamstrings or your liver?” Cruikshank smiles cheekily because the answer should be obvious.
Cruikshank outlines the structures of the central and peripheral nervous system. Instead of describing the sympathetic and parasympathetic divisions of the autonomic nervous system with the traditional “fight or flight” vs. “rest and digest” categorizations, Cruikshank renames their purposes as “create” and “heal.” A simple change but with brilliant intention: there’s more to the sympathetic division than just panicked survival and there’s more to the the parasympathetic division than sleepy bowel movements. The sympathetic division is not a bad thing, per say, it’s just got a different function. “The body is intelligently wired to deal with stress,” Cruikshank explains, “However, chronic stress really becomes a problem… usually, the response is more damaging than the stress [and] chronic stress can accumulate in the body because it’s a hormonal response [ie, cortisol secretion].”
Cruikshank pivots towards discussing pain and provides the new standard medicalized definition for an incredibly complex and subjective concept:
“a perceptual influence, whereby the experience is considered an output into consciousness that reflects the best guess estimate of what will be an advantageous response [for the tissues]; the tendency will usually be to err the side on protection”
“Pain exists when credible evidence of danger is greater than credible evidence of safety,” Cruikshank summarizes. “However, pain often exists long after the threat or even the damage to the tissue is gone. All our pain involves the nervous system and pain only happens in the brain.” Our perception tells the brain that something is a threat and then the brain decides, based on its best guest decision. It is critical that teachers recognize that each person is fundamentally unique in their experience of pain. Bottom line: pain happens in the brain based on a kind of subjective and interpretative calculation. We continue on, discussing the significance of pressure gradients of the nerves, the theory of double crush syndrome and the beneficial effects of meditation on our perception of pain.
When we get to neurodynamics, Cruikshank proposes practicing nerve gliding as an effective way to mobilize and train the nervous system. Nerve gliding can help change our perception of pain by improving circulation, normalizing pressure and boosting immune effects. She introduces us to several nerve gliding exercises in Table Top Pose, Cat and Cow Pose, Sphinx Pose, Low Lunge, Standing Splits, Seated Twist as well as others. Throughout each exercise, she emphasizes avoiding falling into the trap of chasing sensation in the poses and transitions. “Act with compassion,” she cues, “Commit to smaller, more refined movements. Explain to your students the importance of taking care of the health of the nervous system. The power of the mind is extraordinary; your students need to believe in their treatment; it’s our responsibility as teachers to create trust and confidence in the process.” How true.
When Cruikshank is finished her lecture, I finally feel satisfied with my experience at the Conference this year. I have hit a point of cognitive saturation, my brain can’t possibly absorb anymore new information or ideas. I decide to skip my final session. (Sorry, Travis.) I head upstairs to the vendor booths and pick up a couple presents for friends and family, something generally mindless. I head back to the apartment go straight to the gym, a great place for me to sort out my busy mind. I work out until I am absolutely exhausted, leaving me just enough time to get ready for dinner with my girlfriend. Andrea heads to the airport after her final session; I’m surprised her flight isn’t cancelled given the horrendous weather. It was so nice to have her stay with me.
After dinner, I make my way home and feel a rush of relief as the apartment door closes behind me. Phew, alone time. I make a cup of tea and switch on Netflix, just to allow myself to zone out. When I do, I feel overcome with the cursing sensation of anxiety; it’s literally breath taking. I make the decision to turn off the television and give meditation a shot. I come into a comfortable seating position and fix my attention on the three candles burning on the coffee table in front of me.
My left hand takes a hold of my right thumb, my tongue presses to the top of my mouth and my teeth come together softly. I begin to breathe and soon I begin to cry, the long hard sobbing kind of cry. I stick with the meditation despite the overflow of tears, moving through all five digits and letting all my emotion pour out. The sensation of holding my digits does something for me, I feel anchored and present with my intention, to be here, to meditate. As I switch digits, I feel sensations of worry, anger, fear, sadness and pretentiousness bubble up and fizzle out, rising and falling, ebbing and flowing. My tears have dried out by the time I release my pinky finger. I feel a sense of stability, calm throughout my nerves. In ten years of practice, I think this is honestly my first experience of a legitimate meditation. Maybe Cohen wasn’t full of sh*t. I think this stuff might actually work.