Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Working with pain: a natural part of the healing process

Physical pain is an inevitable part of life. As my husband likes to say, "Pain lets you know you're still alive." More than that, pain lets you know how you've been living. You can have pain from both overuse and under-use of your body. Either way, pain is usually a good indicator that something is amiss in your body.

Yoga students often ask me what they should do when the feel pain during a particular pose and what it means. There's a variety of answers to this question. The main thing is to determine whether the pain is just discomfort or potentially damaging to the body.

Usually, discomfort comes in the form of strain or an achy feeling in the muscles that are being stretched or strengthened in a pose. This kind of pain is normal and signals that you are at the "edge" of the pose. Translation: you shouldn't push any farther in the pose because you are hitting your body's boundary.

Sharp pain, shooting pain or the feeling that something is about to tear is damaging pain. If you feel this kind of pain you should stop right away and come out of the pose. It could mean that you are misaligned or you aren't ready for the pose. Often a simple adjustment or modification is needed to make the pose safe and accessible for you.

But what if you are dealing with an injury as often is the case with many yoga students? Unfortunately, there's no rule of thumb for healing. Everyone heals at their own pace and depending on the type of injury and some injuries can become chronic. Joints and bones take longer than soft tissue because of the lack of blood flow to these areas.

In most cases, when an injury first happens it's best to rest it for a few days at least and then see how it feels. Depending on the severity, a little bit of rest might be all that's needed. However, there will come a time when you will want (and need) to gradually easy back into activity again. You will need to regain your range of motion and strength in your injured body part, all of which yoga offers which makes it a good starting point.

Pain will be a part of the healing process. Learning to work with it is essential. The fear of pain is often what holds us back. Just as in a healthy yoga practice you will experience discomfort and have to decide if it's time to keep going or stop, you will face the same decision with an injured yoga practice. The sooner you make peace with pain and accept it, the easier it will be to decide if your pain is helping you heal or hurting you more.

This isn't license to ignore pain and do it anyway. That's even more counterproductive as leaving an injury alone too long. Getting better involves a healthy balance between pain tolerance and pain avoidance.

As I write this, I'm recovering from a bout of bursitis in my knee from running. I've rested and done yoga poses to help strengthen my knee for almost three weeks now. It seems to be working but today it was time to run again, albeit slowly and not as far. Yes, it hurt some, but it was manageable. I could walk without limping afterward which is a good sign that I didn't overdo it. I knew that to run without pain was expecting too much as was expecting to run my usually speed and distance. This was probably the hardest part of starting again.

And so it goes with yoga. There will come a time to push a bit more to help the recover process along but don't expect it to be pretty. Your downward dog might not look like it did pre-injury. It most likely won't feel that way either. The point is to try and see how it goes. Give yourself permission to stop if you need to and go slowly. Lose those expectations and just see where you're at. Then you can decide to go for more or if it's still too early and you need to modify or need more rest.

But try...