I do NOT believe in “No Pain, No Gain.” Pain is complex. It demands one to feel and explore because let’s face it, not many sufferers appreciate pain. Pain is however an important part of healing, so how do you decide when pain is okay and when it’s not?
You all know how I like to dissect things. Well, pain is no different. It provides and opportunity to be present with yourself in an attentive way. One cannot truly look into sensation without discovering something about oneself. It’s hard work. It’s time consuming. It’s definitely worth it!
I am grateful for my experience with pain because it has helped me to truly understand what it is like to manage and what it takes to come through the other side. The experience, while not fun, has made me better at what I do. This is my story, it’s long, but it ends well!
When I was 16 I started working at a grocery store. After a few years of heavy lifting I had developed severe sciatic pain where my entire leg would go numb and I had pain all the time. Not knowing that the issue stemmed from my spine, a long and frustrating search for the cause of my leg pain came up empty. It was even suggested that I was making it up. Finally, I was diagnosed with a herniated disk and surgery was recommended. Thankfully, this route was not pursued. Several treatments were recommended and nothing worked. Eventually, I just gave up and submitted to the idea that pain would become part of my life. After 2 years of unrelenting pain, I started to feel less and less constant irritation, but would suffer acute bouts from time to time. This was ‘better’ in comparison to what I had previously dealt with.
When I was 26 (and mostly pain-free), I discovered yoga. I began almost immediately practicing 4-5 days/week and was feeling amazing. After about a year of yoga, my pain came back with a vengeance. This time it was all in my back without any effects in my leg but, it was worse than before. The frustration also multiplied because it hurt to do yoga and I felt that my body was failing.
My teacher encouraged me to stay with the practice, so I did. I endured a year of pain before things began to subside. After that year I was ‘healed’ and never felt pain again (stay tuned!)
To explain how pain in healing works, bend your index finger at each joint until it coils completely shut. Now imagine if you tied it up in this position for a day, how long do you think it would take to straighten out at the end of the day, and how painful do you think it will be? This is healing. We have knots like this tied up in our bodies for various reasons. Some have been there 10, 20, 30, 40 and more, years. IT IS GOING TO BE PAINFUL TO UNDO THOSE KNOTS. Do you choose never to use your index finger again because it’s too painful and scary to straighten it? I doubt it, but this is what we do to all the knots we do not see. We allow pain to stop us from proceeding because somehow we believe that pain is bad. The year of pain I endured through yoga was what ultimately untied the knots that had developed nearly 10 years earlier, but this is not the end of my story.
When I began working as a RMT, I had been pain free for 15 years. I thought I was done with pain. It began again almost immediately. Long days leaning over the massage table irritated the weak spot where my injury was focused so many years ago. I never stopped doing yoga, and felt incredibly discouraged that it was not helping me this time around. I tried everything. The problem was, I would do quick yoga practices that were not strong enough to take me over the hump, or I would overdo it out of frustration and irritate my back.
After 3.5 years of pain EVERY day, I decided to get serious about it. Using all of the knowledge I had about the body and movement, I created a yoga practice targeted at my pain. These were the guidelines I used:
1) Commit to 80% effort (experience taught me that more was exhausting and doesn’t help the body heal. Less is a waste of time).
2) When tired, do it anyway.
3) When energetic, stick with the 80% rule and don’t do more.
4) Expect it to get worse before it gets better (oh, it did).
5) Be patient.
It took me SIX WEEKS to come through the other side.
I feel silly because I had these tools 3.5 years earlier, but did not use them. It took me a year the first time and only 6 weeks this last time. I know through experience in the lab, that bodies manage through all sorts of distortions, to put themselves back together. I may always have a weakness in that part of my spine but, I also know that this is not a life sentance to pain. Our bodies want to heal, the problem is that most of us are too busy attending to everything else in our lives to bother with the annoyance of pain. I won’t lie… It’s a tough road to heal and with all the therapies we have access to, the only thing that will truly heal you, is you. What a ‘therapist’ can do is help you find the tools, support you and keep you honest. Your body wants to heal, you’ve just got to get out of the way and let it.