Pain In My Asana
“Oh man, you like to make us hurt!” A student said. “Yeah, Em really like to make it tough on us!” another student chimed in. I could see the minor frustration on our teacher’s face one day during a yoga class. It was a standard yoga class, nothing too out of the ordinary and nothing I would find challenging. That says nothing for my fellow Yogi’s experiences as they chimed in their comments during some hip openers. Em is a seasoned teacher and would remind people to listen to their bodies above anything else. So, what was going on with my peers here? As I read Pain: The Science of Suffering, by Patrick Wall I have come to understand this scenario a bit more.
Often when I am leading a yoga class I remind the students, “If it feels like a punishment, change it, come out of it a bit or take a moment of rest.” As Wall discusses in the chapter, “A “Normal” Pain Response,” he opens with a section on heroes, and how we perceive stoicism as a major virtue. When we grow up with the preconceived notion that to “be a man” is to take pain as if it you are not experiencing it, we respond in a funny way. The person experiencing the pain, may or may not feel it as much as we would expect on the outside, but how they express it will be different. Not only that, but medical professionals will often cater to men when they experience pain more than women, because women are perceived as more emotional and expressive in their pain responses. The other thing about pain is that, it really varies, like really varies, from person to person. Not only that, but also, how emotionally comfortable they are and if they know what to expect can change the whole perception of what they are feeling.
So back to these two, expressive, and wonderful ladies. Are they expressing their “pains” because they are wimpy women who can’t help how much yoga hurts them? No. I do not feel so. They were fairly new to yoga, so it is an unfamiliar environment and even new way of being in their bodies. If they are not as bodily aware, they may not know what to expect to feel or even what to look for in their limitations. Where, comparatively, I have been practicing yoga for a very long time. I know the postures are, how to feel them in my body and the balance between comfort and finding my edge in them. I don’t believe my pain threshold in all actuality would or could be that much more than theirs, I am just in a familiar place that I know brings me happiness.
Wall does mention a possible genetic component linked to pain tolerance. Studies done on mice show it is more so random selection as to why these mice do or don’t have it. He also mentions how scientists want to isolate the gene for pain tolerance/relief. I feel there is also another factor to all of this. As creatures who have language and can express many things by it, I feel we are very limited in our abilities to describe sensations. My favorite example is between pain and discomfort. Pain, by definition is, “Localized physical suffering associated with bodily disorder as a disease or an injury.” -Merriam Webster’s Dictionary. I am unaware of any disease these ladies would have and any injuries, past or present, were never mentioned. Discomfort is defined through being uncomfortable or causing annoyance. I feel this would be a better descriptor for many of our in-between physical feelings.
The next time you find yourself in a yoga class, at the doctor’s or the gym and you are “feeling the burn” check-in with yourself. Analyze the sensations you may have going on, and then see if you are willing to push it. You may find you make much more progress or find that you injure yourself less just by understanding your own individual pain threshold. Often, when I cue Hero’s Pose in a class, I will give all variations along the way and say “stop where you need to, if you try and go farther and it isn’t for you, come out of it a bit. I guess this should be called, don’t be a Hero’s Pose.” I usually get a few chuckles from that, but I truly do mean it. Let’s improve and make ourselves feel good in the process. That is something we can do by taking a moment to understand ourselves better and not letting this idea that we have to suffer silently to gain virtuosity or strength. In the end of the day, “It’s just yoga.”