My Pain is Circumstantial

bipsycho2.jpg
 

Over the last twenty-five years, my yoga practice has served different purposes. But if I were to boil down the primary role it has come to play in my adult life then it most certainly is a means of lessening my pain. To many, that means that I have become a “restorative” or “gentle” practitioner who modifies the poses to make them more appropriate and accessible. However, the notion that doing poses correctly is the key to unlocking yoga’s pain-relieving boon very often becomes the obstacle to a more subtle and enigmatic process. The facility in ourselves required to potentially transform our condition is not something accomplished through poses, but rather discovered through the inquiry they might inspire.

First, I needed to get myself off the hamster-wheel of low-level body dysmorphia that most of yoga in the modern world seems rooted in. Having the courage to go against the grain and de-emphasize the execution of forms has been essential. By placing more importance on how practice rituals affect my experience and perception, new ideas about my body and my pain naturally emerged. Changing the way I think about my pain has been the determining factor in addressing it. And as I have sought outside references to support me, much of what is coming out of the cutting edge of pain science coincides with my own observations.

My pain is not a sign of weakness but rather the hallmark of my humanity.

Whenever I hear people refer to themselves as “pain-free” some part of me wants to call bullshit. Sure, I have had periods of time where the physical pains I reckon with subside, or a particular pain that has dogged me for a long time is addressed in a new way and seems to be alleviated or even abated. But the idea that we might be able to reach a state of being pain-free as some sort of accomplishment is problematic to say the least. And I question whether anyone is ever really pain-free. This is not to say that life is only a matter of suffering, as some spiritual traditions might assert, only that pain is an integral part of existence and not something to be shunned or ashamed about.

In the yoga world, pain is often presented as a weakness for which some kind of additional practice or strength training is required. This plays into the economics of selling people solutions and the marketing of artificial hype around yoga’s transformative qualities. Many people, like myself, have borne witness to incredible examples of people healing and finding their way in life through yoga practice. But when these narratives are co-opted to capitalize on our insecurities and traumas, the benefits being touted end up sacrificed to monetary gain. Addressing my pain has had very little to do with increased flexibility or strength training and everything to do with recognizing that my pain is not an indication that I am broken.

The courage to be well means letting go of antiquated ideas and worldviews that stifle us.

Alleviating pain would be so much easier if it were just a matter of physiology. If I could just learn to do the right exercises in the right way and be pain-free and awesome, oh how lovely that would be. But attributing my pain to a pathology, as though my human anatomy can be known as a fixed matter, has mostly produced an opposite effect. Prevailing ideas about our bodies and what we need to be well are ensconced in a primal fear of the mystery that life presents. Consequently, the majority of us tend to relate to our bodies in a demeaning manner that undermines the healing mechanisms inherent to us, rather than discovering ways to nurture and support the majesty of our own being.

Stratified power structures in yoga, and allopathic methods in modern medicine, have fallen short for many of us. These entrenched systems have made a business of taking agency away from people. Surely, there is a lot of work being done to move our understanding forward, even within these frames, but shifting public perceptions away from fear is no easy task. Reclaiming our own authority, and understanding that practice needs to encompass more than its physicalities alone, is essential if we are going to truly heal.

Fashioning circumstances helped my pain more than targeting muscle groups.

How I feel is largely determined by the situation I find myself in, which is often more changeable then I imagine. Just as the results of my blood tests will vary greatly depending on what I may have eaten earlier, or how the traffic was on my way to the exam, so does my pain express itself differently depending on the infinite factors that make up a given moment. Attempting to address my pain through anatomical reasoning has been like trying to hit a moving target that doesn’t even exist. Moving away from a postural-structural-biomechanical sense of my body to a more biopsychosocial-spiritual model of sensing myself and my needs is making all the difference.

Shifting away from yoga as a fitness regime to something that helps address our deeper needs is not just a matter of understanding biomechanics. In order to explore possibilities beyond what is already known, embracing an amount of uncertainty and trusting in our own ability to sense for ourselves is essential. Tapping into our intuitions, and operating from a place of knowing in ourselves, is not a matter of denying science but of accepting its limitations. MRI’s do not reduce pain. Changing the broader circumstances that contribute to pain sometimes does. Deciphering the subtle nuances of our lives so that we might shape them more in accordance with our ideals is the best way I know to address pain, and is what makes yoga powerful.

4 Comments

J. Brown

J. Brown is a yoga teacher, writer, and founder of Abhyasa Yoga Center in Brooklyn, New York. A teacher for 15 years, he is known for his pragmatic approach to teaching personal, breath-centered therapeutic yoga that adapt to individual needs. His writing has been featured in Yoga Therapy Today, the International Journal of Yoga Therapy, Elephant Journal and Yogadork.

Real Yoga is Smart Business

Real Yoga is Smart Business

I suppose it’s a natural impulse to want to feel relevant, to feel that the efforts I make are worthwhile and that something I produce will outlive this fleeting body. This last year I poured a lot of myself into a weekly podcast not just because I find it a fulfilling process of learning but out of a genuine hope that others might also benefit from listening. I have attempted to ride a delicate line between self-inquiry and promotion.

Read More

The Yoga Police Are Coming

The Yoga Police Are Coming

The charismatic CEO of the Yoga Alliance, David Lipsius, hired to overhaul the failed industry standards for yoga teacher training just over a year ago, has departed his position right at the very moment his master plan is set to be implemented. Lipsius’ unexpected farewell aside, the proverbial writing has surreptitiously appeared on the wall: The organization is planning to assert new power, but whose interests are being served is not clear.

Read More

Fear and Purpose Amidst a Narrative Collapse

Fear and Purpose Amidst a Narrative Collapse

I’ve had a particularly hard time bringing myself to write. That’s unusual. Two other articles on various topics have already been penned but both feel so entirely inadequate to the moment that I can’t bring myself to publish either. Looking for insights into humanity through an examination of what is happening in the yoga industry has its limitations, and my usual sort of musings seem a trifling contribution given the larger shifts taking place.

Read More

Are We Entering a Yoga Desert?

Are We Entering a Yoga Desert?

Having grown up in the eighties, I have no memories of fresh produce at our dinner table, much less anything organic. Often, my whole family sat around watching tv with individual fold-out trays in front of us, eating Chun King frozen Chinese hors d’oeuvres that were heated in a microwave oven and served in the plastic container we bought them in. Back then, convenience and economy were valued over nutrition….

Read More

Yoga Teacher, Heal Thyself

Yoga Teacher, Heal Thyself

There is a performative aspect to teaching and promoting group yoga classes that sometimes leads to a denial of the teacher’s actual state. The conventional dynamics at play between teachers and students, both interpersonal and economic, are presenting obstacles to the kinds of exchange that encourage effective yoga transmission. Maintaining integrity often means having the courage to buck trends.

Read More

Shell Games Keep the Myth Alive

Shell Games Keep the Myth Alive

Nothing exemplifies the false narratives perpetuated by the yoga industrial complex more than a recent Yoga Journal headline that read: “How to Make $5 Classes Sustainable.” These stories, often well-intentioned, are the product of outdated modes of thinking that turn earnest people into unwitting hypocrites. Challenging the status quo by returning to an earlier stage in the evolution of yoga transmission might be the best way forward.

Read More

Proper Alignment in Yoga

Proper Alignment in Yoga

Generally speaking, when someone sets out to learn a new skill there is a natural human impulse to want to get it right. Being able to do a yoga pose in a certain way often becomes an extrapolated question of safety. Doing it right means safety. Doing it wrong means injury. Unfortunately, anyone who has engaged in a deep inquiry of yoga knows that looking for rights and wrongs to follow when it comes to practice is not a unhelpful context.

Read More

Less Pandering, Less Students

Less Pandering, Less Students

There is a convenient irony to the way the yoga-related industry effectively exploits the weaknesses in people that yoga purports to address. As teachers come clean with themselves on what they are actually doing, and make choices truer to their evolving understanding of yoga, they often find their class sizes begin to wane. Fostering the beneficial purpose of yoga teachings in our society will require us to better navigate trade-offs...

Read More

The Unexplainable Importance of Yoga

The Unexplainable Importance of Yoga

We’ve all heard about the amazing things that yoga can do for us, but try explaining exactly what it is and how it works and you quickly find yourself on shaky ground. There is an innate something at the heart of the matter that simply cannot be measured, only felt. As unsatisfying as this may be, the highly subjective perception of our own experience is the only real basis for any understanding, and the very thing that makes yoga so vital.

Read More

A Case for Anarchy in Yoga

A Case for Anarchy in Yoga

Radical transformation is the provenance of yoga. The promise of bringing about change in oneself through will and determination, being able to derive truth and purpose by observing our own experience rather than succumbing to societal conditioning or the influence of outside authorities, is inherently revolutionary. Truly authentic expressions always seem to retain a spark of the unknown that refuses to be ordered.

Read More

Lineage or Family Business?

Lineage or Family Business?

A lot of people in the yoga world are feeling confused. Changing social tides and startling revelations are calling into question the foundations on which many a career have been built. Deep vacuums have been created with the passing of primary teachers, previously held secrets are being exposed, and the emergence of a neo-orthodoxy is attempting to lay claim to what was once considered an open-source transmission.

Read More