So you are starting to get some discernment between discomfort and pain and you are willing to work your butt off in your practice. You are willing to deal with the discomfort of the demands of your Yoga practice and you are still having pain… now what?
You need to know that your pain is a workable situation. This means that you have some alternatives to pain pills, surgery, and “just living with it”. Of course all this depends on expertise and I highly recommend that you find a professional to work with. Most of us need someone who is able to give us a proper assessment, diagnosis, treatment plan, and feedback. The reality is that even the best of us have a limited internal ability to sense, feel, and track all the parts of this human situation; our form and function, especially when it comes to pain. For the most part, we simply cannot do it alone.
Acute pain and chronic pain
Acute pain is pain that comes with cuts, bumps, bruises, breaks, bashes, and all sorts of life events and goes away within weeks of onset. Sometimes acute pain takes moments to pass and sometimes weeks. Its pathway is from body to brain via the nervous system.
Chronic pain is pain that last for longer than a few weeks. Its causes can be and are usually much more sophisticated than acute pain. Chronic pain pathways fire from brain to body rather than from body to brain. Chronic pain is also known as “learned pain”. Sometimes chronic pain is in the same region that has been injured and sometimes it shows up in a region of the body that seems to have no relation to the injured area.
The Pain Cycle
A lot of us have been there. We incur an injury, we do not fully recover from it, and yet the pain in the region of injury goes away temporarily or totally. If we have not yet fully recovered it is likely that we are actually in the pain cycle still and avoiding the pain unconsciously through the body’s own natural reactions to the sensation of pain.
When the body senses pain, it instinctively moves away from it. This moving away from the pain can be as simple as walking on the outside of your foot or with a slightly different tilt in your foot, adjusting the angle of your knee as it moves over the ankle. It can be a favoring of weight on one side of the body, a slight twist in the spine when bending over or picking something up… you get the picture. These are what are called altered mechanics. Altered mechanics change the way you move through life in order to avoid some pain. Sounds benign enough…
Altered mechanics in most cases creates a weakness in muscles, muscle groups, connective tissues, or joints. It does so by not allowing those parts of the body to do the work they could be doing to support the entire body system in its functioning. And this is motivated by the instinctual avoidance of pain played out through altered mechanics. This is starting to sound a little ominous… just wait.
The weakness of muscles, connective tissues, and joints do not in most cases stop a body from barreling through its appointed tasks of the day, including Yoga classes. Weakness in any part of the system of a human body come with a partner, compensation! Compensation is the overworking of a muscle, group of muscles, connective tissues, and/or joints. Compensation shows up in a myriad of ways depending on how much weakness it is compensating for and for how long it has been happening. It can show up as overgrown, hard and short muscle tissue, tight fascia tissue, achy and/or compacted joints, and/or worn down joints. These are few of the major compensation patterns we see in the pain cycle. Now your interest may be peaking a bit with the dark tones of where this is going…
Compensation invariably leads to pain. Though likely not in the region of the body or body tissue that was originally injured, creating altered mechanics, weakness, and thus the compensation, leading to more pain, more altered mechanics, and the cycle just keeps going.
This is the pain cycle:
Pain —> Altered mechanics —> Weakness —> Compensation —> Pain
It gives us a governing principle when working with pain in the body:
“Where you think it is, it ain’t!”
Working with Pain
The good news is that you can work backward through the cycle. First you admit that you are in pain and agree to face it head on and get help if need be. Once you are working with an honest and relaxed attitude about your pain, it is going to be way faster to change. Notice I did not say easier! Start to track down the compensation patterns you notice in your body: one leg bigger and stronger, one hip more stable and/or mobile, one side of the sacrum able to tip forward easier than the other…Things like this. Get an honest and clear picture of what you suspect are your major compensation patterns. Once there do a little research. Go to Google and type in the muscle groups and find out their function and most importantly their opposing muscle groups. It is very likely that the opposing muscles and muscle groups to compensation patterns will be weak. Make a skillful plan [with guidance from a pro] to strengthen those muscles. Note! These muscles may have been weak or even dormant for months or years.
You cannot strengthen a muscle that your brain does not recognize!!!
If a muscle or group of muscles is dormant, you must learn to ‘awaken’ it before attempting to strengthen. Otherwise you will most likely misfire and compensate to achieve the exercise that aims at your goal of strengthening the weak muscle.
Watch out for altered mechanics. This is a tricky one. It requires a lot of skill, patience, and honesty. One key that has helped me to unlock the pain cycle is to do exercises slowly and carefully with low weight to begin, be extra diligent about form and function. This is basically an alignment issue. One needs to know the optimal mechanics of the body’s function and understand through feeling when it is and is not happening.
Note: The sensation of building strength in an atrophied muscle or muscle group is pain. Make sure it is manageable and not causing you to spiral into the pain cycle through altered mechanics etc.
When the weak and mechanically altered parts of the body start to do their job properly, the rest of the system responds. It is as if the pain was just waiting to be released. The process of getting free from physical pain is an ongoing one and it is worth the effort. It is liberating to come to know more about yourself and your abilities and limitations in this regard. It builds a large degree of wisdom and sympathy to acknowledge and work with pain and getting free from it.
I wish you luck on your journey to living free of physical pain. Having experienced some of the highest degree chronic pain from severe injuries and worked my way out of it [with help and without surgery] I can vouch for the possibility and potential in this process.
By: Brent Kuecker – Yogi. Musician. Educator.