Pain and Yoga: A Personal Perspective

Credit: Mandala Healing Project, Folsom Prison

Credit: Mandala Healing Project, Folsom Prison

Lately my social media feeds have been buzzing with controversy over issues of pain, and its real and proper relationship to yoga. Many types of pain have been brought up: physical pain caused by injury, physical pain caused by non-injurious but intense asana practice, emotional pain caused by hearing the careless words of others, the ambient cultural pain experienced by being a member of an oppressed group, the spiritual pain of recognizing the necessity of relaxing the grip of the egoic self in order to grow. The list goes on – and on, and on.

Some confess their hurts with equanimity; others with anger, or sadness, or both. Some accuse others of causing injury. This may be met with silence, or guilt, or derision, or sometimes even empathy. Some lash out emotionally; others spin off into a dense cloud of words, full of righteousness and devoid of feeling.

It can be hard to sort out one’s own personal reactions and projections from the bigger emotional waves washing through cyberspace. There’s no doubt, however, that there’s a lot of feeling out there to surf if you care to take the time and put in the energy.

All this has caused me to reflect on my own experience of pain in yoga. I don’t offer this short reflection as representative of anyone else’s experience, or evidence of a bigger trend. I’ve found, however that my experiences are never as wholly unique as I may imagine – or fear. Some of us share resonant experiences. Others do not, and that’s OK, too. Sharing personal stories can be interesting, and potentially valuable, either way.

 

Psychic Pain

Without question, I feel that the ability to better recognize, confront, and move toward psychic pain has been one of the greatest gifts of my yoga practice.

What do I mean by psychic pain? It’s not easy to describe. It’s not simple physical pain, obviously. Yet it can often be located in the field of the body/mind. It may feel like it’s emanating from a particular place – under a shoulder blade, buried deep in a hip. Or, it may feel like it’s rolling in from beyond my physical boundaries, a disembodied storm roiling through.

Sometimes this invisible force field feels engulfing. Other times, it’s more like moving through a partially cloudy, partially stormy, and all-too-rarely sunny day.

Psychic pain is not simply emotion. Anthropologists have mapped the range of human emotions that seem to manifest across cultures: happiness, sadness, grief, anger, shame, etc. Such emotions are similar in some ways to psychic pain, but also fundamentally different. Most likely, there are elements of many negative emotions mixed into an experience of psychic pain. But what I’m trying to describe is harder to pin down and neatly identify than that.

There’s no question, however, that it’s pain. And that for me, at least, it’s something that I’ve been better able to identify, confront, and move through because of the much greater sense of interiority and embodiment I’ve developed through years of practicing yoga. I understand and experience this as an invaluable gift of the practice.

 

Not Depression

Prior to have a well-developed yoga practice, I experienced these waves of psychic pain more like an inundating depression. Overwhelming. A sense of being swallowed up in darkness. With no center that felt stable, and light. Lost.

 

Healing

The yoga and holistic health worlds talk a lot about healing. Generally, the focus is on physical healing. This is hugely important. To know how to work with your body in ways that reduce pain and build strength is profoundly empowering. The current concern over the incidence of physical injury in yoga is a good thing. Without doubt, there’s a ton of sloppy instruction out there, and far too many unnecessary injuries. Shining a spotlight on this problem and working to address is critical.

But the pendulum swings too far in the other direction if we seek to have everyone stay super-safe by backing away from physically challenging practices, no matter what. Of course, for some people, this is the right thing to do. But for others – including myself – physical challenge, combined with mental focus and regulated breathing, can do much more than build strength and flexibility. It can be a way of opening up the field of the body/mind, while simultaneously developing a strong physic center of gravity. This process – repeated over and over and over again through countless sessions on the mat – is transformative.

It’s transformative because it leverages shifts throughout the body/mind that continue through our off-the-mat time – which is, of course, the vast majority of our lives. So, when I wake up in the middle of the night and feel a tidal wave of fear coming in through the wall of my home to engulf me, I’m much better able to simply feel still, and quiet; watching, waiting. Witnessing without panicking.

I can let it wash over and through me without drowning. I can connect to that sense of what it feels like to breathe, to hold steady, to remain calm through incredible intensity.

Some may think it wrong-headed to say that this capacity can be developed in part by practicing physically challenging asana. But in my case, I absolutely believe that it was.

Does this mean that everyone should have a physically intense asana practice? Absolutely not. It doesn’t even mean that this is what always works best for me – I’ve had to learn, over time, that sometimes going very easy, or simply laying still and letting go is much more challenging that holding a pose until my body shakes.

It does mean, however, that avoiding physical intensity in the name of safety may cheat some of us who are well suited for that form of practice of something that can be vital to our inner growth and development as human beings.

 

Balance

The ever-difficult trick is knowing what brings our ever-shifting body/mind complex into greater synergy, and balance. What works for me may be harmful for you. What worked for me yesterday may be the wrong thing for me today.

This isn’t to suggest that it’s all relative; that we can’t make useful and important generalizations. We can, and should. Yoga teachers need to learn how to sequence poses safely, offer modifications, be sensitive with languaging, understand the physiology of trauma. The list goes on and on. Teaching yoga is not an easy job to do well, at all.

One generalization that I believe we can and should make is that there is, in fact, a place for certain kinds of pain in yoga. Because pain is a part of life. In fact, it is a huge part of life.

The fear of encountering yet more pain has most of us running scared, even if we don’t know it, or won’t admit it. We may be aggressive, or defensive, or passive-aggressive; we may inflict pain on others to try and keep from feeling it ourselves. But we can’t escape it fully. Nor should we want to. Because pain is build into some of the most precious experiences in life.

Sooner or later, every deep experience is bittersweet. We experience joy through love. But everyone and everything we love will eventually die, or change, or disappear. Including, of course, our selves. This is why Savasana is ultimately the most important pose in asana practice – and not just for us as individuals, but for our relationship with others and contribution to our society, and the world.

Erik Erikson wrote that “healthy children will not fear life if their elders have integrity enough not to fear death.” To mature into the state of being he points toward in this passage is not easy. For most of us, it’s at best a continual work in progress. And in my view, it’s one that requires learning to encounter and process physic pain.

For many of us, yoga offers a road map for navigating these very tricky processes of experimentation, learning, and growth. There are many other guides out there as well, of course. And even more false prophets and endlessly hyped dead ends. If you can find something that works for us, you’re blessed. If it’s yoga, let’s keep working to keep it real.

 


3 Comments

  1. alleysarnack

    Thank you so much for your words, Carol! In yoga practice (all limbs), I have found an ability to transform incredible amounts of psychic pain. As a teacher, I find the multifaceted relational field of interaction between teacher and student and between student and Self to be mysterious and inspiring, as well as deeply humbling. In my view, each moment of practice offers us the whole world, if we pay careful attention.

  2. Truth and beauty. Thank you for this, Carol.

    I’d underline the comments on projection of pain into the bodies of others – this is so common. It is done in order to try to “fix it” through analyzing or criticizing *others’* experience rather than one’s own. This isn’t just what’s happening now on the internet… it’s a very common first reaction based in non-acceptance of some first hand experience.

    As my meditation teacher says, suffering is pain multiplied by resistance.

    It is interesting to see this tendency toward projection combined, lately, with an insistence on “private minds.” So at the same time that projection of pain is rampant, there is a solipsistic (anti-empathetic) defense that “we can never truly know what’s going on in the mind of another.”

    But real communication – not just projection – is possible if listening and relationship are really valued and developed in a mature way.

  3. This is truth. That other stuff is for magicians and entertainers. Thank you

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