Managing Pain (and other bossy ideas)

By on Oct 21, 2015 in The Unruly Ascetic

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“Behind every beautiful thing, there’s some kind of pain.” ― Bob Dylan

We get a lot of criticism, as a community, for the ‘no pain no gain’ attitude that is encouraged by the Ashtanga practice.  I have had my share of pain, soreness and stiffness as well as genuine injury. It can be difficult to know how to cater the practice to pain and injury and the ups and downs of this past practice year have given me a lot to think about.

Sometimes the body is sick.  Sometimes we have pain or discomfort because the body is not functioning properly, whether it is a simple cold or an autoimmune joint condition.  I have seen many people trying to power through illness as if it should not have any effect on their practice.  I have had 2 serious illnesses in the last year, each lasting about a month. In both circumstances it felt necessary to scale back to (half) primary, some days as little as standing or closing.  I came out the other end of the sickness in pretty much the same state I had entered it.  A month of basic, simple practices didn’t cause me to lose anything that I didn’t find again when I felt well enough to look.

Sometimes the body is genuinely hurt.  I injured my shoulder with some overzealous, probably ego motivated handstand work.  It was fun and exciting and I’d never had a shoulder injury, so I didn’t realize what was happening until I couldn’t do a sun salutation properly. I’ve had other legitimate injuries before and they require rest.  Good health necessitates that we modify the practice in order to give the weak spot time to heal.  This can be hard to do, but pain is a pretty good motivator and a serious injury will keep getting worse or popping back up until we learn this lesson. For clarity’s sake, rest does not mean abandoning the practice, it means catering the practice to what your body is capable of as it heals.

Sometimes, sometimes though, we are not injured or sick.  Sometimes we have pain because we are doing something wrong.  This is the type of pain that we “gain” from and also the type that I think most Yoga practitioners run from.  This is the frustrating, nagging pain that drives students away from the Ashtanga Yoga method.

I have a theory, one that developed from the injury I created in my shoulder (because it was me, not the practice).  The idea comes from the rehabilitation and what the repetition of the practice can teach.  Sometimes we are simply doing something wrong and we have to learn a better way.  When there is pain a significant percentage of the time we have developed a habitual pattern of movement that does not serve us.  Either it is a dead end that will not produce the results we want, which often leads to grasping or overzealous applications of effort that lead to injury, or the movement itself is injurious when repeated over and over again.

The sort of pain this approach creates is a different kind of pain than straightforward injury.

All pain is not injury.  

I am beginning to see that this misunderstanding is one of the primary difficulties we have communicating about the maintenance of practice through discomfort. Most dedicated Ashtanga practitioners have gone through the periods of soreness that come with new work, new approaches and new postures (as the Boss says, ‘new posture, new pain’).  We often encourage each other and newer practitioners through the periods of struggle that require consistent, steady effort to overcome.

What I am interested in is the type of pain that comes from this consistent effort applied incorrectly, resulting in a specific, intense pain that registers to the mind and body as an injury.  This type of pain will not benefit, long term, from modification of the practice.  I can relate to the theory that if something hurts then stop doing it (much) until it doesn’t hurt anymore, then take it back up.  This seems to be a fairly standard approach in other casual american yoga schools: if it’s uncomfortable, don’t do it.

The problem with this is obvious.

The pain is inevitably cyclical: incorrect work leads to pain, leads to full stop rest, leads to recovery, leads to returning to the same method of incorrect work. If we do something incorrectly, and creating pain as a result, the pain will always come back unless we change our approach.

In the Ashtanga Method we don’t get to avoid the things that don’t make sense to our bodies.  When our bodies don’t understand what we are trying to make them do there is often pain,  soreness from stretching and strengthening muscles that have never been used in that way, potentially severe pain from an injury resulting from overdoing the work, and also serious pain from using an un-advantageous (incorrect) approach in an attempt to get the result we want. Pain as soreness is often inevitable and relatively mild, pain from injury has to be approached with compassionate consideration, this third type of pain can be remedied with a new approach (and sometimes minor modification).  Avoiding the work that lead to the pain is not the answer, changing our approach is.

I have spent the last year observing these processes of pain and recovery and realized how often I categorize pain as a one-off injury that requires modification instead of doing the tedious work of rebuilding my approach.

Teaching your body something new, when it already knows something similar that kind of works, is potentially defeating work.  I felt pretty silly realizing that my chatuari was really nonsense and that I was avoiding awareness of my shoulders that felt outside of my capacity to understand.  I had weaknesses when I began the practice that settled into my psyche and refused to allow me to see that anything was possible, if I was willing to face the work.

I have a lot of young students who give themselves days or weeks off when they start getting sore or hurt themselves by stubbornly doing something in the easiest way their body can find.  I try to remind them that the soreness will only pass if they keep up the maintenance work, but the willingness to acknowledge that our bodies have patterns that we have to weed out and change is hard to face. Those patterns are occasionally foundational patterns we have learned to trust, built into our bodies and reflex and difficult to reset.  This work is not only physically arduous, but emotionally trying.  It can be soul crushing to realize that you essentially have to start over with something that you have been taking for granted as correct (or at least acceptable) from day one.

I remind myself regularly that all the work I have let go of was still worth doing.

Sure, my jump back process was a dead end, but the basic strength in the muscles was a useful outcome.  We can’t expect to know exactly what steps it takes to get to a seemingly unattainable goal. The practice is teaching me that if I hurt myself trying it doesn’t always mean that the goal is not for me or that I tried too hard. It might just mean I have to find a different way to get there.