Listening to the Body: The Language of Sensation

An ever-increasing awareness of your body can be one of the many benefits of yoga. It helps us to bring balance to the body by working neglected muscle groups. It improves our overall strength and flexibility. It helps us develop a better lung capacity and focus of mind, among other things. It can.

Yet, we live in a world where performance seems to be everything. Competition infiltrates what is meant to be fun. Striving, self-improvement, and “doing it right” can all lead us down a path toward injury, away from a deeper body awareness, away from the true meaning of yoga, “union”.

One of the most critical aspects of body awareness is recognizing when something we are doing is causing (or will eventually cause) us trouble. Sometimes, pushing through discomfort makes us stronger, as when we add a few extra squats after the thigh burn sets in. Sometimes, that pushing injures us, as when we ignore the knee about to snap from one too many squats! Body awareness is about learning to distinguish the difference. Here are some important things to keep in mind.

No Pain No Gain is a Load of *%&$!

First of all, pain is NEVER a good thing. Who ever started the rumor “no pain, no gain” had ultior motives, perhaps to prove something to his own ego or perhaps to get others to bow to his (or her) biddings. Think about it, how deeply that meme has rooted itself into our consciousness! Consider how many times you’re heard it on TV or in movies, read it in books, heard it in gyms or even said it yourself to justify self-abuse. “Pain? Abstain!” is far more helpful a mantra. So the first and foremost rule of movement is that pain means you must modify or stop. Period. There’s no such thing as “good pain”.

When is Discomfort Okay?

When is discomfort okay in our workouts or routines? It might be helpful to distinguish whether we lean towards under or over-achievement in our lives. If we’re big strivers, then discomfort may be a little too close to pain. If we are underachievers, enduring some discomfort can help us break out of our limitations.

One way to think about it is whether or not the signals coming from your body are shrouded in thought or not. When we are pushing against the mind more than the body, the mind will grumble loudly about how difficult something is and that it doesn’t want to continue. As long as you don’t have pain sensations telling you otherwise, it is usually safe to push past a resistant mind’s discomfort. This is how we build endurance and resilience. Problem is, for many of us, we’ve lost the ability to distinguish mind from body. In fact, the mind is just as likely to tell us we can push a little bit harder. It can’t be trusted! Well, maybe mind over matter comes in handy in crisis situations when walking on a broken ankle is the difference between life or death, but that’s exceptional.

Pain, actual pain, tends to send a very clear signal that the mind doesn’t need to interpret. Discomfort, absent of actual pain on the other hand, is trickier to decipher, so don’t leave it to logic. The body just knows, intuitively. Trust what it communicates.

Other Danger Signals

Are there other sensations, apart from what one would label as “pain”, that are pretty good signals that we’ve entered dangerous territory? Yes!  If we experience intensifying pressure, feel dizziness, start buckling under the strain, notice we’re holding our breath when we’re supposed to be breathing, or are gripping in such a way that there is more tension than ease in the body, we’ve already pushed ourselves too far and need to let up! Stop. Release. Reassess.

The Language of Sensation

When we develop a vocabulary that helps us identify what we actually feel, it can help us determine a course of action. When you get feedback from your body, can you describe it? Does it burn or sear, tingle or pulse? Is it shaky, prickly or clenched? Numb? Radiating? Disconnected? Are you feeling nauseous, is your muscle tender, or is your heart racing or fluttery?

I’ll often ask students, “Is it the good kind or a bad kind?” when they express discomfort with a movement or pose. This helps them clarify whether what they are experiencing is benign or harmful.

Chest pain doesn’t necessarily mean a heart attack nor does a throbbing ache mean you’ve pulled something. Usually, it just means we need to relax and let go for awhile. Rest, recover. Developing a sensory vocabulary can help us more deeply feel and understand what’s going on inside of us, help us regulate ourselves back to ease and comfort, and if necessary, help us describe the sensation to someone else, be it a teacher or health practitioner, making it easier for them to help.

We can’t fix what we don’t notice! Body Awareness is a multidimensional skill that takes time and consistent willingness to awaken and hone. The more we do it, the more we notice what is and isn’t working, what does and doesn’t feel pleasurable. It is crucial for our well-being as well as an impetus for creativity and change. What we discover on the mat we eventually take with us into our daily lives as we learn to live with more ease and pleasure, too.

 

 

The Message in Pain

There are all kinds of pain. There’s the pain we choose to ignore, even though we know it is there. There’s the pain we block unconsciously or because we don’t have the awareness not to. There’s the pain we consciously overcome because we must. And there are extremes of pain, from what we can to what we cannot tolerate, too.

But what is pain? Does it always mean that we’ve hurt something? What is it trying to tell us?

Many years ago, perhaps about 2006 or so, I went to one of those workshops where everyone walks on hot coals to demonstrate the power of mind over matter. It was winter time in the mountains of North Carolina, and there was snow on the ground. And good thing too!

I watched as everyone’s excitement grew, the energy being raised higher and higher with drumming and chanting. I was amazed as one person after another got in line for their turn and then walked across. Some walked very quickly, like it hurt, others just stood there in the middle of the blackened, red-hot coals as if they were defying the heat to burn them.

I observed and did my best to clear my mind. I neither wanted to hold a thought of fear that we were all nuts and that I was about to regret this,  nor one of certainty that I would succeed unscathed. In fact, I didn’t want to think.

When something in me drew me forward toward the top of the six to eight foot long track of hell, I took a deep breath and walked. I was deliberate but did not tarry. Man, was that hot! I was so relieved when I got to the other side and stepped off onto snow.

My joy at having overcome my fears was quickly diminished by the growing searing pain coming up from my feet. I pretended as if everything was fine. I looked around. Was I looking at other people pretending everything was fine? It didn’t seem so. Some people were going back for seconds! I kept blessing the snow, standing there in my bare, burnt feet, in agony and growing fear.

Following the ceremony, I confessed to the facilitator that I was in serious pain. She helped me hobble back to the house and shared her certainty that I was not injured and that it was more about the massive energy I had just experienced. I wasn’t so sure in that moment, but she turned out to be right. She said I simply needed to receive that energy, be with it, allow it to flow. I didn’t quite know how to do that, but I set that intention. And I  was absolutely fine the next day.  I ended up with one teeny, weeny blister that didn’t even hurt when I walked.

Why am I sharing this? It’s a great story to remind us that pain is not an indicator of actual damage. Pain tells us that something is a threat, that we may be injuring ourselves. It alerts us that we need to change what we’re doing or become aware of something we’re missing. For me, it was an indication of two things: 1) once across the fire was enough for me and 2) there was a surging energy that I needed to allow to flow. I’ve no doubt that if I hadn’t worked with the energy of the pain I was feeling, I would have woken up unable to walk the next day, the soles (and souls) of my feet scorched. And I am also sure if my ego had convinced me to walk across the fire a second time, like everyone else, I would have regretted it.

It is natural to feel averse to pain and not want it in our lives, but it is not a mean or evil thing. In fact, it is entirely necessary, protective and loving. If we ignore it, we certainly pay the price, especially long term. But we need not fear it. Nor should we buy into the story that it is a life sentence that means more than it does. Today’s pain can easily evaporate tomorrow. Pain calls us to reflection, evaluation, and action. It’s that simple. Everything else is what we build around it with our disaster-fascinated minds and egoic pride.

So  the next time you find yourself experiencing pain in yoga class, consider the message. You may still have time to heed it and prevent a bigger problem.