Why NO Pain Means MORE Gain:
On Playing The EDGE of Pain, Fear & Resistance
As a brand new or highly experienced practitioner of Yoga, issues of what to do about and how to work with various sensations — mild to intense or unfamiliar sensations, different levels of discomfort, and gradients of pain — are crucial to the process. Some believe a little pain or discomfort is okay, even necessary; some believe in all out No Pain, NO Gain. Others avoid pain at all costs. … Some people avoid much sensation all together.
Regardless, as used by many yoga teachers and yoga students as well as bodywork therapists and clients, distinctions on how much sensation is not enough, too much, or just right, (The Goldilocks Equation), or what kinds of sensations are appropriate or not, and what to do about it all, are often imprecise, even vague.
(Some use a one through ten number system; but, which exact number means Just Right, which number means Too Much? That should be well agreed upon from the start.)
However, there are some very simple but powerful perspectives available to manage this process and, as much as possible, keep people out of trouble. In fact, one could say that working with one’s edges of sensation is one of, if not THE, primary focal points of effective physical/mental yoga.
This is especially important with people who are new to yoga (or yoga-based bodywork), as they often get hurt or dislike the experience enough to not go back to a given class, teacher or therapist. One never hears from them again and never knows why. I have had many yoga students or bodywork clients that had been suffering from pains that had started in a yoga or exercise class, or even a therapeutic bodywork session, many years prior. They had to quit (or at least thought they did) because of pain or dysfunction or a sensation that scared them. Or they would not return to a particular bodyworker because the manual pressure, or the stretching therapy, hurt worse than the condition being treated. … Or a student or client felt not much or nothing at all.
The point is, how much education do most teachers, coach, trainers, or therapists really give their students or clients prior to engaging in their various disciplines? In many cases, very little or none at all.
Most of this Trouble is Unnecessary
Many years ago, Joel Kramer, my primary yoga teacher, taught the concept of Playing The Edge of Pain and Fear. He went into great depth discussing and explaining just what he meant by The Edge, in both the physical and mental realms. And while edges are by their very nature difficult to pin down, Joel’s descriptions were far clearer and useful than most of what I’ve heard or read from most others on how to recognize and deal with such sensations or perceptions.
For Joel, the main objective was to get as close to The Edge as possible without touching or going beyond it. This, what I call the Maximum Edge, is where the greatest intensity of sensation and energy exists, with the least cost. As one sinks into a yoga posture, the increasing intensity of sensation of the edge draws one’s attention to the area(s) of the body being self-examined through the posture (or hands-on pressure in a bodywork session). In this way, you get interested and involved in the sensations, even intimately involved, which naturally draw your attention to the area, rather than exerting or forcing attention via willpower.
(Willpower, by definition, narrows your range of perception in time and space, rather than widening your perspective, as in meditation.)
The energy of this focused attention can, in and of itself, bring about tremendous releases of physical and mental tension and stress in the bodymind. This is, in part, because the very act of directing attention is an actual activation of certain nerve pathways producing sensory/feedback responses that can, all other things being equal, reduce tensions and stresses in the body.
Pain and Fear, from a practical point of view, can be defined
as Anything You Don’t Like; or are not totally neutral about.
This Is NOT About What You Can Tolerate
The object of treating The Edge this way is to prevent any sub- or unconscious reactivity or neuromuscular reflexes from sabotaging your practice. Or if you are therapeutically challenged, or injured, and receiving therapy, the edge can be even MORE useful, even critical, here.
This negative results from going over the edge can show up as pulled or sprained muscles, loss of energy or interest, pinched nerves, the *I Hate Therapy* (or Yoga) Syndrome, increased pain or exacerbation of pre-existing or hidden symptoms, and so on.
In the beginning of learning to practice yoga, some questions to consistently monitor are:
- Am I Too Deep into the posture?
- Am I Not Deep enough?
- Or Am I Just Right?
- Do I WANT to be here?
- Or am I just tolerating it?
- Am I being Honest with myself about all this?
- Do I even FEEL what’s really going on in there?
(Again, it’s like Goldilocks and the Three Bears, some porridge is too hot, some too cold, some just right. And some people are too desensitized, or even in denial, to know what’s really going on with them.)
If you focus on these “edge” sensations, on your interpretations and your reactions/responses, sufficiently in the early stages of learning to practice yoga, your bodymind will learn to perceive, monitor and respond more effectively & efficiently to your physical, mental & emotional edges; maybe even your spiritual edges. As you become more sensitive and responsive, you will spontaneously move in or back out of the postures as your edges move in or out.
Subjectively speaking, the main difference between Spontaneous and Automatic action is that in spontaneity, YOU run the action. When you’re on automatic, the action runs you. One of the things Yoga is, is going OFF of automatic toward consciously spontaneous action.
Pain & Fear versus Intensity of Sensation
Here we have an important distinction, that between pain/fear and intensity of sensation. A paper cut can be painful but not very intense. An orgasm should be very intense, but not (hopefully!) painful. Intensity is useful. Often, what we once thought was a pain, we discover was actually an intense sensation. Other times, the reverse is true.
Pain is actually useful but warns us of many limitations or impending or actually occurring damage to your system. Pain, unless correctly understood, can put up barriers to experience, movement and action. Problem is, no one can actually tell us, precisely, the difference between a pain and an intense sensations. Such things we must discover for ourselves, although guidance from those who are intimately familiar with such feelings can be helpful.
One clue helping you know the difference is when you are naturally drawn into the experience; there is little or no distinction in your mind between you and your sensations, no resistance to sinking deeper into the stretch. You want to be there — without forcing yourself to do so. You are interested in and entranced by what you’re feeling. You are inviting the sensations.
After playing with edges this way for a while, many people soon realize they had NO IDEA where they actually were on the scale of intensity, pain, or willpower, or what their sensations were actually telling them. It took quite a bit of focused, introspective energy and time — and self-restraint if they were used to going very deeply into a stretch — to get clear about it.
Meditation versus Willpower
When your attention is naturally drawn in, it moves you spontaneously toward a meditative state, rather than having to willfully concentrate your willpower. Willpower is always time-oriented (making something different in the future, even if only a split-second into the future) and therefore thought-based. (Time exists in past-future experiences of thought.) Willpower therefore removes you, to varying degrees, from an actual meditative moment into the thinking mind.
Joel Kramer, J. Krishnamurti, and others, have often said that you cannot achieve meditative mind through its opposites, which are concentration and willpower. They are, at least at one level, diametrically opposed, taking you in opposite directions. (This observation flies in the face of some classical yogic teachings that state that concentration is a stepping stone to meditation, but that’s a whole other article for another time.)
Since much of our tension, stress & trauma is rooted in the past, and held in place by our psycho-physical processes (which always operate in-the-moment * ), increased thought-based activity — such as willpower or visualization — recycles our past trauma, stress & tension. So in many cases, if we use our thinking mind to attempt to dissolve our tensions, we actually achieve the opposite.
* This is why teachers like Joel Kramer and J. Krishnamurti say that it is not the past that gives meaning to our present, but the present that gives meaning to our past. So while it feels, sounds and appears as if it is past stuff causing our problems or challenges (because we are distracted by the content of thought), it is the opposite. Our inner processes, the very structure of thought, operating RIGHT NOW, in the PRESENT MOMENT, are recirculating the Old Stuff over and over again.
This is why the one approach to meditation is not to focus on content of thought (although the content might indeed be there), but to use the content to observe the very structure and flow of thought. Discovering how thought works in the instant moment leads to some profound changes in the way one’s thought works, and the way we relate to the content.
While there is indeed a place for thought-based therapeutic activities, it’s important to know the difference between the various approaches and what they work best for. Ken Wilber’s Spectrum of Consciousness was a ground breaking book addressing that vary topic.
In any case, working with The Edge Principle in both Mind & Body is one way to integrate meditative, mental yoga with physical yoga or the bodywork experience.
At the same time, people who are traumatized or hyper-sensitized — or the opposite, DE-sensitized — in many if not most cases need to work with much less intensity of sensation, aggression and willpower to give them the results they look for. In either case, too much sensation can deepen trauma or further desensitize an individual. With these people, I have found that working with minimum to moderate edges is ideal.
The Minimum Edge is the place where you feel the absolute first bit of ANY sensation or resistance what-so-ever.
The KEY is Communication
In yoga, the communication is primarily within one’s self, or secondarily with the teacher, if in a class. In therapeutic bodywork sessions, I encourage my Clients to communicate with me as to where they are with their edges AT ALL TIMES. They should never (with a very few, if any, exceptions) be over their Edge. This very act of communication also helps initiate and enhance mind/body integration.
That’s because in order to communicate what’s happening, we have to take a look inside ourselves and see & feel what’s actually there. Even if that’s only a brief moment of self observation, it is an in-the-moment moment. So it is, by definition, a meditative moment, regardless how brief. Yet even brief moments of awareness can produce great breakthroughs because of the Right Angle to Time discussed elsewhere in my writings.
This communication can be between the Client and their Therapist, between the Student and their Teacher or Educator, or between the physical and mental aspects of their own selves. Or even between the right and left hemispheres of their very own brain. Of course, if the teacher or therapist has not closely worked with their own Edges, there are, because of the very high level of subjectivity here, significant limitations on how much help or insight they can bring to their Client’s process.
I’ve had more than a few therapists and teachers tell me they work just like I do. Yet in working with me, their Clients and Students tell me our differences in style & technique are significant. One bodywork school owner told me he teaches his students about The Edge like I do. Yet in talking and actually working with those same students, they said my concepts of the edge are very different than what the teacher’s taught them. That does NOT mean he was wrong, only that this is NOT an easy topic to easily pin down to objective specifics.
For the VERY Traumatized
For some highly traumatized people, their Minimum Edge IS their Maximum Edge. …
They need the absolute least amount of stimulation possible; almost anything sends them over their Edge. A few unfortunate people seemingly cannot be touched or even do the simplest of Yoga Postures without locking up, spasming or intensifying the already existing pain or dysfunction. Yet, my experience is that there is always a way in somewhere, somehow, into their bodymind. You just have to have the patience, the analytical skills, and the insight to find it. … Experience is, of course, a big help here.
For the highly desensitized, on the other hand, you sometimes have to start with the question: What does it FEEL like to NOT FEEL? …
Working from that place can take more time, but it must be done to fill in their gaps of lost self-awareness and sensitivity.
Who Are You, Really?
Another way of defining The Edge is to see it as the limits, in that particular moment, of who you really are in all your physical, mental, personal and relational — maybe even spiritual — dimensions. Going over your Edge is an attempt to be something or someone you are not. Pain (as opposed to intensity of sensation) tends to cause the mind to isolate the part of the body experiencing the pain. If meditation and yoga are about Being Fully With What Is and Being In The Moment, and re-owning or reintegrating the fragmented elements of the physical & mental Self, then staying well within your Edges until you’ve built a strong sensory/motor, responsive foundation, is a critical component of yogic activity.
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