person with back pain

Attending to the Messages of Pain: Part 1 Pain in the Body

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Pain in the Body – Pain in the Mind

I could write volumes on pain. It is a mysterious and multilayered subject. The reason being is that pain is not only the product of the body but the mind also. In fact, (as many people are starting to recognise) it makes little practical sense to separate the body and mind, they are interwoven and deeply affect one another. The yogic model of the panchamayakoshas reflects this apparent truth, unlike our Western philosophies, which mostly seek to divide the body and mind for political and religious reasons.

Pain Relief or Pain Supression?

Pain is also little understood by modern medicine. It is true, thankfully, that medicine is good at alleviating pain. However, long-term use of pain-suppressing medication is not recommended, it can even cause more pain and other unwanted conditions. This article is not about the scientific thinking around pain, more on that another time. Instead, I’m exploring my own experience of being in pain, and teaching people in pain, through the lens of the yoga philosophy.

The First Message of Pain – Stop and Get Help!

So what are we to do about pain? It is wise to first seek help from medical professionals (e.g.a doctor, an osteopath, a physio). This is the first message of pain. Ignoring pain does not make it go away. Pain is a message that something is wrong and we must take action. Also, discovering a clear reason for the pain is invaluable. Medical guidance can help us to know if we need to keep the area still (if bones are broken or tissue is torn) or keep moving mindfully (in most other cases). Knowing why we are experiencing pain can help us to make sense of it, come to terms with it and address it.

Acute Pain and Chronic Pain

If we have pain due to an injury, we have a sense that in time the injury will heal and the pain will recede. However, people with chronic pain, often do not have the luxury of knowing when the pain will end. Some conditions such as fibromyalgia, arthritis or a diagnosis with a “syndrome” are less well understood. It is much harder to discern the message of the pain as it is not directly related to an injury. Sometimes, chronic pain can move around to different parts of the body, with no rhyme or reason. The pain can intensify, we call this a flare-up (see my article What is a Flare Up and How to Manage It Safely) or disappear for periods of time.

Second Message of Pain – Become Aware

Both chronic and acute pain are messages that something is out of balance within the field of the physical body. As you might recall from last week’s article, in yoga our unchanging consciousness (brahman) is associated with a field of energy that is our body, mind and spirit (the panchamayakosha). Pain is playing out within this field of energy. Our consciousness (brahman) is aware of the pain within the field, but it is not in pain. Realising the nature of our true self as not being identified with the pain, but aware of the pain, can help us to gain some perspective. This might seem like a petty distinction (particularly if you are in pain at the moment). However, if we acknowledge there is a part of us that is less identified with the pain, we put a bit of distance between ourselves and the pain. This makes it easier to tend to those parts of us that are in pain.

Third Message of Pain – Tend to the Body

When the body is in pain, we must turn our attention towards it, not away from it. I liken the mind and body to a roomful of children who need care and attention. When children are ignored they tend to be ok for a while. However, after a certain length of time, they will get hungry, tired, upset and they’ll need a helping hand. Their discomfort causes them frustration, and hence they can boil over have arguments, fights and hissy fits. Some children act up, clamour for attention or bully others. Other children go silent and retreat, they might express their suffering at a later stage.

Our body is just like this roomful of children.

Turning Towards the Body

Many people with chronic pain see their body as the enemy, as something to avoid, ignore and distract themselves from. Exactly the opposite is true. We need to turn towards that field of energy, that roomful of children and identify the needs of each one. We then proceed to engage in meeting each child’s needs as a parent would, with love, care and attention. In this way, our consciousness turns to the panchamayakoshaand discerns where more balance and nurturance is needed.

Needs of the Body – Hydration

We often ask too much of our bodies and give too little. Most of us regularly ignore the body’s need for hydration, it is very easy to live in a state of constant and chronic dehydration. Tea (including herbal), coffee, sugary drinks and alcohol are diuretics. This means you’ll lose more fluid than you take on board as a consequence of drinking them. If you, like most people, rely solely on these drinks for your hydration you’ll gradually get dehydrated. This means your tissues, including intervertebral discs and other collagenous tissues around your joints will dehydrate causing stiffness and pain. Taking a glass of water with each other drink is a good way of meeting your body’s needs for fluids. Yes, you will have to visit the loo more often, but you will have more energy, a clearer mind and less pain.

Ancient Diet for a Slowly Evolving Body

Our bodies evolved on a diet of local plants and wild animal protein. We can mimic the healthier diets of our ancestors by eating more seasonal fruit and vegetables, supplementing with algae (such as spirulina, chlorella); and eating more unusual foods including herbs, seaweeds, and different varieties of mushrooms and the like. If we choose to eat meat occasionally, we could make sure it is from a farm that has high animal welfare standards. Having small amounts of a diverse range of foods is much better than eating a lot of one type of food – eg wheat, soya, dairy and sugar. These changes will lessen the likelihood of inflammatory responses in the body, and provide more micronutrients to be used for repair.

Needs of the Body: Rest is Best

So, not only do all those children inside us need hydration and a good healthy meal they also need plenty of sleep and rest. If you are in pain, sleep can be hard to come by. Try taking a magnesium bath before bedtime, with candles or low light and prioritise rest. Or take a warm shower, use magnesium spray or a hot water bottle resting on the painful area (don’t do both). Self-massage (abhyanga) sends a message of love and care to the body, that is soothing and kind. I really like using China Gel or arnica oil, which both help relax tense muscles. Try reading, crafting, listening to music or journaling instead of watching the telly before bed.

Nurturing Ourselves

Learning to devote time to nurturing and nourishing your physical body will have a positive effect in the longer term. It might not immediately reduce your pain levels. However, taking the steps above will, over time, improve your sleep, nourish your tissues and increase your ability to recover from stress. Your body will spend more time in the parasympathetic (rest, repair and restore) mode of the nervous system, which is where healing happens.

Movement Brings Improvement

Just as we need diversity in our diet, we need diversity in movement. Most of our days are spent sitting or standing. Occasionally we have to reach for something, carry something or push something. Modern conveniences have greatly reduced our necessity for movement. Most of us don’t hand wash our bed linen, dig up our own vegetables, climb trees, ride horses or walk long distances. When you do get to move your body, relish and enjoy it rather than seeing it as a chore. If it is painful to move, then slow down, ask yourself: “Am I putting any unnecessary extra tension into this movement?” “Is there a way I can do this without causing myself pain?”

Diverse Movements of Yoga

Yoga of course is a great way to bring a diverse range of movement into your everyday life. Some days the body will want stronger movement, some days it will require a more subtle approach. Our yoga practice can be an opportunity to connect with those children within (playing around our spine, living in our joints and sitting quietly in our organs) and find out how they are and what they need. In this way, we can use our gentle movement to nurture, reflect upon and be mindful of the body’s needs in the moment. This will help our body to feel more settled, nurtured and in a state of dynamic balance at a cellular level.

There’s More to Taking Care of Your Body…

In this article we looked at the physical needs of our body, to support it as best we can in the process of restoration, repair and renewal. Next week we’ll look at the field of energies of the non-physical layers of our being and how we can best attend to these fields of energy, if we are experiencing pain.

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