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Aching versus breaking: Pain and discernment in yoga

Aching or breaking: discerning whether our yoga practice is helping or harming

My Dad observed recently that when he turned fifty, some part of his body was always aching, and now that he’s eighty, several things are aching at the same time—so now it’s a matter of tending to what hurts the worst. As I age, I appreciate more and more that the body has a mind of its own, and we can’t control what happens a good deal of the time. So where does that leave us?

Practicing discernment…

After years in the rehabilitation and exercise world, I’ve decided that what we need to focus on is discernment: figuring out which issues are helped by movement and which ones are not. Often, both scenarios can be happening in the same body, for example your shoulders feel much better after a yoga practice but your hip feels worse. Figuring all of this out takes patience, a sense of humour, and a good relationship with your teacher.

I am a huge believer in movement, but movement can include a huge range of options, from isometric muscle contractions, to strength-building repetitions, to slow, yin-focused stretching, to alignment work. What works well for one body, at one particular time, might cause discomfort and irritation for the next body. In some situations, yoga asana (postures) might not be the best choice, and a practice focused on the other seven limbs of yoga would be more beneficial. 

Hold up or fold up? (shout out to Kris Kristofferson)

So how do you know when to push through, or when to stop? I wish I had a wise or definitive answer, but it’s a process of trial and error. I have a few tips that I have found helpful however:

  1. Use a pain scale. If you research pain scales  you will find dozens of them, but it can be as simple as imagining a scale between one and ten, where one is no pain, ten is unbearable pain, and five is mild discomfort. Then figure out where you are on the pain scale while practicing a pose, and decide where you want to be. I ask my students to stay in the six or less range, but I have encountered people who aren’t happy unless they’re at nine. (I have to have chats with those people lol). 
  1. Keep notes. If you wake up the day after a class feeling like you’ve been run over by a truck, make a note of it on your calendar. And let your teacher know. Last week I taught a class with lots of kneeling. This week four students complained that their knees hurt for days afterward. I value that feedback! I won’t teach that sequence again in that particular group. 
  1. Practice differentiating between the sensation of muscle stretch or muscular work, and pain. (This could be a blog in itself). Start with a gentle activity that doesn’t cause discomfort, such as holding an arm out to the side, and explore the range of sensations that arise as you continue to hold it there. Note that what starts out as a benign sensation can gradually turn in to pain if you sustain it for too long. 
  1. Examine your “preset” attitude towards pain. For example, were you raised to believe that exercise should cause pain or else it’s not doing anything? Do you equate soreness with achievement? Or conversely, do you tend to freak out when you’re sore? 
  1. What are your unexamined beliefs about certain medical conditions? For example, many people believe that once you have a diagnosis of arthritis or degenerative disc disease exercise won’t make a difference. (Not true). 
  1. What is your anxiety level around pain? Last Sunday I started experiencing a fairly sharp pain in my knee while I was out hiking. I caught myself falling into the rabbit hole of self-diagnosis. I thought about arthritis, then knee replacements, then I decided it was patella-femoral syndrome, and then,…knee cancer. But a week later, it’s fine. 
New world order…

The long and short of it is that navigating discomfort is a practice in itself. As we age, we deal more and more with impermanence, and it’s uncomfortable. Some aches and pains improve with exercise, and some don’t. But exercise can still be valuable for the parts of the body that aren’t complaining. Sometimes you need surgery to correct an issue because no matter how dedicated you are, all the down dogs in the world can’t fix missing cartilage or a ruptured ligament.

No two bodies are alike. As the buddhists say, “everything arises from causes and conditions.” Some of us were dealt bad genetic cards and have chronic and incurable health conditions. Some of us have suffered injuries, accidents, or psychological traumas with effects that cannot be reversed. Rather than being disappointed with our inability to turn back the clock, we can carve out room for change within our new-world reality. We might not be able to return to running, but we can run in the pool. We might not be able to lift thirty pounds, but we can mindfully manage ten. 

Yoga gives you tools, and they are simple, low-cost, and available to you anytime you want to use them. In the last few years I’ve been quite obsessed with myofascial release. (“Myo” refers to muscle and “fascia” to connective tissue). Although thought leaders in this field (Tom Meyers, Ida Rolf, Jill Miller, Gil Hedley and others) have hypothesized about the importance of connective tissue for decades, new scientific research is corroborating what they have figured out by feeling and observing. My recent Yoga Tune Up ® certification has me more excited than ever about our potential to make positive changes in our mobility, even when things hurt. And years of occupational therapy experience lead me to believe that even when change can’t or doesn’t happen, we can still get to where we need to go with mental flexibility and adaptation.

Yoga is the yoking of mind and body. Yoga is cultivating attention and contentment (santosha) in  constantly changing conditions. And finally, yoga is about studying the self, so that we can discern whether our ideas about how things should be are holding us back from dealing with how things actually are. 

Yours in yoga,

Elaine

PS I’m really curious to hear from those who are dealing with limitations or stumbling blocks in their yoga practice. Are any of the tips above helpful? Do you have tips or ideas for others? Join the discussion in the comments below. 

PPS If you haven’t seen it already, check out this video about the new research on fascia. It’s fascianating!

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