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.