Sunday, December 23, 2012

Pain and Injury - further questions from Elise

What is the difference/similarity/benefit/purpose/meaning/etc of pain, soreness, opening, and injury?

The purpose of yoga is to overcome unnecessary pain - physical and psychological pain - and to become indifferent to it as it arises. Yoga is a means by which we learn to navigate our life and our bodies differently - so that we stop doing that which causes us to suffer. Whether these are mental patterns or physical symptoms - only we have the power to change them. Thankfully yoga provides us with many tools to achieve this.

Pain is a highly subjective experience. When anxious we are intensely sensitive, when relaxed we are much better able to bear discomfort. When we pay attention to the pain, look at it, scrutinize it, we often enhance it, when we put our minds elsewhere, or on the breath, it diminishes. Those who are detached feel less pain, those who are passionate feel everything intensely.

Sometimes when we experience intense pain, the only way to deal with it is to become numb. Sometimes aspects of ourselves remain numb for decades. Numbness is a level below pain where we lose awareness of the cause and its consequences - it leads to morbidity of the mind and the body. 

When we start breathing prana (through asana practice) into these deepest recesses of our bodies, these morbid processes start to reverse and slowly the numbness begins to thaw. But, in order to heal, the original feelings have to be re-lived and resolved and the pain is re-experienced before it can be released. Through the use of regulating the breath many demons can be released from the unconscious in this way.

When there are matters which trouble us, perhaps cause us anxiety or anger but we do not acknowledge them, we are often literally driven to distraction, become clumsy and careless, and as a result often succumb to accidents and injuries of various kinds. This happens in daily life as well as in yoga practice. It is almost as if our bodies are trying to make us aware that there is something we should be taking care of, paying attention to.

Pain often tells us a lot about our ambition (the more ambitious we are, the less likely we will hear this message). A teacher's role is often to hold the student back from being over zealous and hurting himself. The traditional step by step method of learning the asanas should help protect the student from doing too much. However, without daily practice, there will almost always be pain. Even with daily practice, it takes a long time to learn how to practice completely without pain.

Injury is when some damage has been done to the tissues of the body, almost always resulting in pain. An injury is usually regarded as a set back, however, usually, now that the student is paying attention, it is an opportunity for learning: the student has to start using his body in a very conscious and deliberate way to avoid pain - this translates into a greater facility and awareness of the body. 

An opening is probably a moment where the body experiences something like a chiropractic adjustment which allows for a greater range of movement. These experiences are often intense - both blissful and often accompanied by intense feelings, sometimes tears etc. Usually these openings are achieved through an adjustment. 

In Mysore on my first trip, I received what many people would consider to be an injury while being adjusted by Guruji. Following Guruji's instructions and continuing to do the posture, the injury was healed within 10 days. In another asana, I received a profound opening the first day but the asana was painful for two years. Guruji adjusted us very deeply and we were almost always in pain when we were there with him. 

We used to call Mysore a karma accelerator - it was working with Guruji in this intimate setting which taught us so much. We were confronted with our demons - pride, anger, jealousy etc and were able to let go a great deal of baggage, transform and heal with his guidance - there were often tears in the finishing asana room - a release of accumulated sadness and stress.

Brad Ramsey: "Well Manju always says no pain, no gain. And there is a great element of truth there I think.  The pain is almost necessary.  The pain is a teacher also."

Interviewer:  "Usually pain you take as a message to stop what you are doing because you are about to do some damage."

Brad Ramsey:  "Yes that’s the American way, probably the rest of the world is the same way, but for Americans especially. In a lot of schools of yoga, if it hurts you are doing something wrong.  And if you were a perfect physical and mental specimen already then I can see how that might be true.  If you are altering the status quo in an unpleasant way you might want to stop, if you were already perfect.  But if you feel growth coming from it and see things changing that need to be changed… The series is just a mold towards a body that meets the requirements for spiritual advancement, I believe. I don’t think you can get there without pain. I never met anybody who really did. Even David (Williams), I know, in India, he had pain. Everyone did. Now for his own practice probably he doesn’t do anything that hurts him.  But for me it was never that way. It hurt from the first day to the last, at least something hurt, there’s always something."

Guruji used to adjust us very deeply and we used to practice to the limit of our endurance under his supervision. There was a sense of urgency to learn and absorb as much as possible because we were only there for relatively short periods of time. It was a very intense experience being in the small room with him. I think this added to the intensity of the practice and the tendency to feel pain as a result of "trying hard". The indian students used to practice in a much more relaxed way, and I think the way they were taught, since they were there week in week out is more the model for the way we have to teach in the West. In the West we do everything we can to avoid pain and injury. Many students do not practice every day and so they will always feel some unnecessary discomfort.

avidyāsmitārāgadveṣābhiniveśāḥ kleśāḥ
avidyā kśetram uttareṣāṃ prasuptatanuvicchinnodārāṇām - YS II 3 & 4

According to Patanajli the fundamental cause of pain is ignorance - this ignorance has arisen from an increasing attachment to the body and its pleasures that the human being has experienced over thousands of years. 

Because of ignorance (of healthy diet/habits/lifestyle/behavior) we pollute our bodies and minds with unhealthy influences which result in pain. Even undesirable feelings such as greed, anger, envy and so on cause hormonal secretions which lead to unwanted actions, such as bad food choices which also result in pain. 

The way to correct these habits is to understand and follow the yama and niyama as best we can - in this way we eliminate unwanted thoughts, words and actions - until this point we need to practice asana to eliminate pain caused by these samskaras.

A few years back my dentist told me a story about two yogis who had been patients in her care. The first, a western yogini, refused any pain medication, took the lotus position in the dentist chair and endured the entire surgery through controlling her breath. The second was Pattabhi Jois - when asked if he wanted pain medication he said: "Yes, lots." She found this somewhat bemusing.

Over the years, and you have to remember that Guruji was already an old man, we often saw him in pain. He suffered terribly with his teeth, hurt his ankle, had a cataract removed and lost his wife. He always continued teaching (he stopped for 3 weeks when amma died). I have done the same thing and we discover that when we do not think about our own suffering and are concerned with the healing or helping of others, we also become healed through the processs. So, often, pain is unavoidable and has to be tolerated. But pain that can be avoided should be avoided.