No Pain, No Gain

No Pain, No Gain

Recently, three days into a week long yoga retreat I woke up in the morning with my lower back practically seizing up. It was a bit a of shock because I’ve been going to classes regularly for years, and although I’m not the world’s bendiest yogi, I am used a reasonable level of flexibility. Although I managed to get through the morning session moving somewhat gingerly, as the day went on my back continued to tighten and I noticed my mind going into overdrive. What have I done wrong? Did I push too far the day before? Why have I wasted so much time and money on yoga? It all added to the tension to the point where I could barely walk. Luckily, the afternoon session was a meditation – and although I had to lie down because it was too painful for me to sit in the classic cross legged position, I felt it ease off a little as I relaxed. Later that evening, the teacher explained that many students suffer some sort of pain – usually around day three of the retreat and that it was a psychosomatic reaction. It was not something I wanted to hear. I just wanted to relax and take it easy.

Yet once I was back in my room, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I realised this familiar nagging pain in my lower back was something I had experienced intermittently over the years, particularly during times of stress. Actually, I remembered it was one of the main reasons I’d started yoga in the first place. I hadn’t ever needed medical help for it, and It was unrelated to injury or a particular physical condition, so I had put it down to desk posture. However, the fact that this particular flare up subsided with the meditation was surely a sign it was held as much in my mind as my body. At home, I’d usually ignore it and skip the yoga postures which seemed bring it up, but it began to dawn on me that I needed to ‘go there’ in order to release that tension. I did not want to be stuck with this pain, and luckily I happened to be in the right place at the right time to face it head on. Plus, I had the encouragement of a great teacher, and, over the next few days I was able to gently move through the discomfort to gradually let it go. It was painful, and brought me to tears, but it was a huge relief. By the end of the retreat, it was amazing. I felt like I had new hips and lower back and a massive spring in my step.

When we bring the mind into the equation, pain becomes a uniquely personal, emotional, sensory experience. No one else can feel our pain. For me, the key was to be very gentle. It was almost as if I had to wrap myself in cotton wool because I felt so fragile. I moved through the postures slowly and carefully, particularly the ones I normally wouldn’t do because of my tight hips and lower back. I also had a couple of super gentle massages which helped because they seemed to soothe my mind and body. There have been times in massage treatments where I’ve tensed up and gone into fight or flight mode from the pain – in this case somehow both I and the therapist sensed I needed an ultra soft touch. It was a great lesson in ‘good’ and ‘bad’ pain. Even the labels suggest that we judge our pain as if it’s a black and white situation, often as harshly as we judge ourselves. My instant reaction when my back seized up was to ‘blame’ myself, the yoga, anything to avoid the situation. This was a behaviour pattern I had to break and I had the perfect opportunity to do so.

It felt like a massive journey. Pain is often described as the body’s way of trying to tell us something. In my case this discomfort was a real wake up call – it had been humming in the background for ages, then suddenly the volume went up to full blast, and I couldn’t ignore it any more. I had to slow down, listen and allow it to release. Of course, when we have an obvious accident or incident where something snaps or breaks it is a sharp searing sensation, that definitely is ‘bad’ pain and for that we need medical help. In that case, I’d be the first in line for some proper pain relief. But I’m thankful for the experience I had on that yoga retreat. It was worth all that time and money I’ve invested in classes. I now really understand a different side to the mantra ‘no pain, no gain’. A little suffering can go a long way to making us listen, change and grow.