I would like to talk about one specific cause of pain in the practice of Yoga [or any form of exercise or body movement practice]. This causal connection to pain is difficult to track because it’s motivation is hardwired into our mind/body. I am talking about repetition; habituated repetition; unconscious habituated repetition. The pain of monotony.
Humans are creatures of habit. Humans have always been creatures of habit and probably will be for the foreseeable future. I want to stress here that it is not so much habit itself which is causing the pain in a Yoga practice, but much more that it is unconsciously repeated. In the human body there are 200+ bones, 50,000,000,000+ muscles, and 45+ miles of nerves [amongst so much other tissue]. This is generally too much tissue to stay aware of and track in a series of moments, especially when one is performing something as complex as a Yoga practice. The vast majority of the activity of these tissues is autonomic and therefore unless you have your attention on them, unconscious. Because of this, it is habit itself which is “keeping you together” as you perform your practice. Your job is to become conscious of your body and movement and witness the results.
The subject of this article is mainly aimed at the parts that are volitional, namely the activity of the 100-300 muscles which get most of our attention in exercise and body movement practices.
The governing principle here is:
‘Any movement performed over and over the same way [even a pleasureable one] will eventually decay into a pain pathway’
My girlfriend is blessed with amazing nails! A highly best most gift for me as I love to be scratched. This is of course a double bonus as my dear sweetie is very willing to perform said scratches quite often. I am eternally grateful and pleased with this relationship perk. Sometimes, as she is scratching me into an ecstatic puddle of relaxed man-ness she will space out, and become unconscious of what she is doing. I can tell when it happens because she will scratch over and over the same spot of skin in exactly the same directions. What starts as a sensation of delight and joy within a minute turns to burning, cutting pain.
Of course in body movement the way the governing principle plays out is often more complex than just scratching the same area of skin over and over… and in some cases not so much. Many of the habits we cultivate in our practice come from the attempt to “release” a charge in the nervous system. It is about the same as far as our psychology is concerned as nervously scratching an itch. When these habits of movement create altered mechanics, they lead to weaknesses and compensation which is invariably connected to pain [see Pain in the Asana part 2]. Other habits, the focus of this blog, are patterns of joint movement and action that habituate by proxy of voluntarily activating a muscle or group of muscles in only one way.
The joints of a human have 3 categories:
- Slightly moving
- Freely moving
In the freely moving category [synovial joints] there are 6 types:
- Ball and socket
The freely moving joints are the primary joints we are concerned about when working with this specific type of pain in the body, because they are the joints that allow movement and thus unconscious habitual repetition.
Muscles have two basic operations as commanded by the nervous system:
- Contract : Engagement of the muscle
- Relax : Disengagement of the muscle
When muscles contract they generally participate in one direction of a joint’s activity, ie. the closing or opening of a hinge, the rotation one way or another of ball and socket. While the effect of muscular contraction on bones and joints grows in complexity parallel to the action of the joints, some basic knowledge of joints and muscular contraction can go a long way in understanding pain originating from repetition and the movements and actions you will perform to balance your system and alleviate the pain.
Open and Closed
While these terms are not scientifically used in describing joint movement, I find that they are easily understood and help a lot in tracking habit patterns which are causing pain. You can easily understand what open and closed is in relation to your hand, your elbow, your knee, and that can be extrapolated to other parts as well.
Flexion and Extension
Flexion and extension are two common terms for describing the movement and operation of joints in the body as well as the muscle tissue that moves them. When you extend a joint, it requires a contraction of the muscles on one side of the joint. When you flex a joint, it requires a contraction of the muscles on the other side of the joint. Flexion is closing a joint and extension is opening it.
Abduction and Adduction
These terms describe the movement of your limbs toward or away from the midline of your body. Abduction moves the bones of your arm and thighs away from the midline and Adduction moves bones toward the midline. Abduction is an opening and Adduction a closing.
Push and Pull
Both the legs and arms are able to push and pull. In the arm a push is an extension of the elbow with an adduction or raising of the arm bone. A pull in the arm is a flexion of the elbow with an abduction or lowering of the arm bone [That is until the elbow gets behind the shoulder, then a pull is the flexion of the elbow with an extension of the arm behind the body].
In the legs a push is an extension of the knee with an extension of the hip. A pull in the legs is a flexion of the knee with a flexion [and sometimes extension] of the hip.
***The practice of Yoga uses far more joint movements and actions that open, extend, and push than close, flex, and pull. Therefore we as Yogis will tend to cultivate unconscious habits of repetition in these kinesthetic areas.
The basic solution here is:
‘Contract the opposing muscle group to your movement before and during your performance of extension, opening, and/or pushing’
- Lift your arm straight out to your side
- Make a fist and bend your elbow to 90 degrees so your fist points up
- Flex your bicep (the muscle on top of the arm)
- Keep your bicep engaged as you extend your elbow to straight
You are experiencing what is called a co-contraction around your elbow and part of your shoulder joint. This co-contraction of opposing muscles is giving the most support available to the joints they are connected to. Co-contraction prevents hyperextension and tends to correct altered mechanics and strengthen weaknesses.
***Added benefit: When you perform this example exercise you are eccentrically moving your bicep (lengthening it) under tension. That is the quickest way to add the most strength to a muscle!!!
I know this is a lot to digest and you need to know that you don’t have to consider this all the time. You can do very focused physical study and apply this method part by part over time to cultivate more balanced habits of movement and action in your practice. Especially when you are having pain is the time to get into your self study and employ these strategies. Also, remember to get help from someone who has expertise in your situation if you need it. You can do this! Get interested. Study your body. Use the resources you have to get free of pain. Remember the most important part is that you are the one who is being conscious of your movements and action and that is the only sustainable way to work with pain. Good luck!
By: Brent Kuecker – Yogi. Musician. Educator.