Pain: a story to rewrite with yoga.
Many people have experienced that practicing yoga helps recover moving with more ease and decreases pain. These improvements are typically attributed to physiological changes such as strength, flexibility and posture, or to psychological changes such as decrease anxiety or lightening of depression. Yet, pain and changes in it subsequent to practicing yoga should be considered from many more perspectives.
Clearly pain is not easy to understand. Ask a group of people to complete the sentence, “Pain is …. (blank)”, and you will receive many answers. Some say it is a noun, some a verb, and others an adjective, yet all agree it is a moving target and life-changing experience.
One unique way that some contemplate pain is that it can be a story. As professionals, we might share inspiring and surprising stories of patients who have found their way to yoga because of pain. Sometimes we share stories of people who having found more peace in life through yoga and are finally able to regain movement and purpose in life. These suggest that we should consider not only the story of pain, but pain as a story.
Scientists tell us that when we feel pain, the brain has concluded that there is evidence of danger and that we need to change our behavior. As such, the experience of pain is both an alarm system and a sophisticated protection system. Yet when we look deeper into out personal experiences of pain, we realize that pain has an intensity, a location in the body, and we can usually describe its qualities. Our experience of pain also has many other aspects – we feel changes in muscle tension, breathing patterns, thoughts and emotions. And pain impacts our ability to move and interact with others. It can even change our perception of our body so that it feels bigger, smaller, or even less defined. Putting this all together, we can consider that it is as if a complex multi-faceted story has been created, all with the purpose of protection. After an injury, and as time passes, this story typically changes. It becomes less powerful and less important. We move from being able to attend to little else in our life but the pain. It’s almost as if the story gets old and tired, or as if the pain story is old news and we don’t need to attend to it anymore. Other times though, the story grows in strength, like a tragedy unfolding inside us.
Whether the story loses power or gains, it is important to see that the story is changing, and therefore it is changeable.
We can change the pain by changing the story. But how do we do this rewriting?
The rituals, techniques and practices of yoga provide us with mechanisms for rewriting aspects of the story, and sometimes to rewrite the whole thing. We can notice if the story is playing over and over, and learn to influence how often it plays. We can explore the details of the story, or in other words we can practice awareness and insight of the story. For many, this practice of noticing without trying to change is a powerful change process all by itself. We can gain more awareness of how the story is impacting each aspect of our existence, and take the time to be curious about how changing each aspect of our existence can impact the story. What happens when we breathe differently, hold our body differently, or change our thoughts or emotions? And what happens when we continue to practice? Yoga, like all movement and contemplative practices is a skill. How long can we continue to influence and make changes to the story?
Each time we look inward we can consider the story of our pain from new points of view. And each time we look inward, we have the opportunity to rewrite a part of the story. As one of my students wondered, “If pain is a product of my brain or some aspects of me, and I have influence over every aspect of me, then maybe it’s time to start rewriting the story ?”
What story arises when you try to move in the face of pain? Does the story include tightening of your body and muscles, shortening or holding of your breath, running from the pain sensations, negative thoughts and unhelpful emotions? Could you change the story by changing any of these aspects of your existence? And can you see the importance of continued practice, and persistence?
Scientists explain aspects of chronic pain through explanations of neuro-immune plasticity. They are able to show that when pain persists there are relatively permanent changes in neural and immune systems and cells. The problem is that attempting to changes these back takes effort, practice and patience. Above all, these neuro-immune changes typically do not change back all by themselves. Our efforts are required, to rewrite this story and to create lasting ‘positive’ neuro-immune changes.
Most pain stories include difficulties moving the body. And most include disruptions of breathing and muscle tension. For many of us when the story has continued to play for some time, it includes changes in our feelings of competence, difficulties in letting go of tension, being out of balance in life, being disconnected from our life’s purpose, or feeling less courageous than usual. These can all be part of the story created by the brain to protect us. And as such, if we direct our yoga practices (or any contemplative movement practice) towards these, we can rewrite the story.
Remember, pain is real. Discussing it as a story is not intended to suggest that it was intentionally created, or all in your head. Pain changes every aspect of us. It is far more complex than what many have been teaching us. When it lasts a short period of time, we can forget about it and let it resolve on its own. When it persists, we need to consider it from many other perspectives.
Yoga allows us a safe place, rituals and gentle practices to explore our pain story. It can allow us to rewrite our stories – a little at a time. We can change how our breathing, and muscle tension, and mind, and heart respond to movement. Each time we find a new way to move with more ease, the story shifts away from a tragedy, towards the happy ending we desire.