INJURY, PAIN & AVIDYA
"I have seen again and again that if you are a type A personality, you will do your yoga practice with the same aggression and competitiveness that shapes the rest of your life. If you are sloppy, your posture will reflect that. If you are easily frustrated, that tendency may get magnified by the challenges of a yoga practice." Cyndi Lee
Many years ago I strained a spinal ligament, limiting movement in any direction. Since I was a serious yoga practitioner, these circumstances did not sit well with me. I saw the injury as an injustice, a disappointment and a burden, and I vacillated between self-pity and self-flagellation. After taking some time off, I sat before my teacher of many years and explained the SITUATION. I must have appeared like a sad puppy being left behind, because he looked at me squarely and said, “It’s no big deal.” And there it was . . . nothing. No sympathy, no dialogue, no suggestions, no feeding the story I had been spinning in my head.
As an ADVANCED yogi, I was -- naturally -- irritated and offended by his neutrality. There wasn’t much to say after that, so I got up and took my usual spot in class. I navigated carefully through the next few months -- omitting many poses that I loved – until things improved. But his words nagged at me long after the injury had healed, because even in my indignation I knew he was right. At one point, each twinge of pain signified another posture that might never again be possible. The mind happily generated a full time job picking apart every aspect of the injury . . . how it shouldn’t have happened, what a terrible loss it was, who to blame, etc. All the while, those grating words 'IT’S NO BIG DEAL' hammered at my consciousness, like the catchy chorus of a Britney Spears song. I was, begrudgingly, being dragged kicking and screaming down the bumpy path of acceptance. In the many years that have followed, my relationship with pain has deepened and I have come to see it as an important ally in the process of making the unconscious conscious.
In pure form, pain is simply a neurological transmission signaling us to pay attention. The mind, however, takes advantage of pain as an opportunity to reinforce attachment (I wish I could do those poses I can’t do) or aversion (it’s not my fault that I got hurt) based on history, karma and one's psychological proclivities. These subconscious imprints are laid down with repetition, and eventually a habit of thought or activity takes shape. With time and patience, however, it is possible to re-route the pattern and pain can help us do that. But first it is helpful to understand that there are different qualities and experiences of pain:
Discomfort is an unavoidable part of a meaningful practice, but our awareness of it is refined with time. Beginners may mistake injurious pain (impingement) for productive pain ('tight'). Generally, however, productive discomfort should not reach the point of intrusive intensity. Backing off results in decreased sensation, while pushing on intensifies it. However, momentary discomfort can become injury over time, with an unseasoned and ambitious mind at the helm.
Unwinding pain reveals old imbalances or injuries. Yoga helps reorganize muscular relationships and compensatory patterns in the body, and there may be some pain along the way. However, his kind of pain is sudden and temporary, moving through the body quickly and leaving behind a sense of relief and – over the long term – facility of movement in that area. These patterns may be confronted repeatedly for awhile, but the trajectory is toward more freedom and less pain over time.
Then there is dangerous pain which is sudden, intrusive and intense. Dangerous pain may have a potentially injurious result, and bears no sense of relief or ‘moving through.’ Increasing or repeating a movement may exacerbate an existing problem or possibly create a new one. To avoid injury, this sensation must be handled with patience and sensitivity. An example would be shooting pain in the lower back during a forward bend. Navigating this process can be particularly challenging in a class setting, where sensitivity can get clouded by a climate of accomplishment or competitiveness. Steady awareness and discipline are required not to do more damage.
The way we handle pain mirrors the inner workings of the mind, and can reveal thought patterns that might have remained in darkness. For me, discovering the patterns of self-pity and indignation after my back injury were distasteful, at best, and self-destructive, at worst. But eventually I also discovered the self-inquiry and discipline needed to re-pattern these responses.
Ongoing pain should be discussed with an experienced yoga teacher or yoga therapist, physical therapist, nurse practitioner or physician. There are simply too many potential issues in the body to assume that 'modifying' postures will solve the problem. Spinal issues, disk degeneration, nerve damage, organ dysfunction and even immune disorders can present as muscular pain or 'soreness,' and obviously cannot be appropriately treated through a garden-variety yoga class. If, however, you know that pain is made worse by continuing activity and made better by cutting back, then you have the beginnings of a meaningful opportunity for self-reflection.
Begin your program of Hatha Yoga with a resolution to avoid pain. Unless you have had years of experience and know exactly what you are doing, pushing yourself into a painful stretch will not only court injury, it will create a state of fear and anxiety, and your nervous system will store those memories and thwart your efforts to recreate the posture later. Pain is a gift; it tells us that some problem has developed. Analyze the nature of the problem instead of pushing ahead mindlessly. H. David Coulter, Anatomy of Hatha Yoga