I was in pain for six months of the last year of my life — real, serious, physical pain. It started in my right shoulder blade and migrated down my arm somehow, until I couldn’t feel my hand at times, and would have to squeeze between my thumb and my first finger to get the aching to subside.
Even then, there was only slight relief.
Today, thankfully, I’m not in pain anymore. Between acupuncture and yoga and vacation, I resolved the problem, although I never pinpointed exactly what it was (probably stress). But ever since the pain subsided I’ve been thinking about it, about how those six months of agony felt like such a waste.
Is there a way we can use pain to our advantage?
I practice yoga on a fairly regular basis, usually in my living room with an YouTube instructor and my personal mat in a private space, all by myself. But recently I attended a class taught by a new friend of mine here in Nashville, and as she was guiding us through the poses and positions, I couldn’t help but think about how her instruction gave a voice to why pain matters.
If we learn to do these three things well, I think the disadvantage of pain can become an incredible advantage to us.
Breathe through the pain
It’s funny that we would have to remind ourselves to breathe, isn’t it? Breathing is one of the most fundamental instincts of human life. It is the life source for all of the muscles and systems and soft tissue and organs in our body. But still, when the going gets rough, we forget to breathe.
I ran a marathon a few years ago, and I’ll never forget how, for the last four miles of the race, I had to actually tell myself, out loud, to breathe. The more my body struggled to make it to the finish line, the less instinctual breathing became.
And yet, if we don’t breathe, our body quite literally quits functioning.
The art of breathing is one of the foundational practices of yoga and, if I’m honest, I have to admit I thought it was a little weird at first. I’ll never forget the first time I actually went to a studio to take a yoga class and everyone around me was breathing really loud, out loud. “What a bunch of weirdos!” I thought to myself.
Come to find out, this practice of breathing deeply and consistently, into and in spite of the tension and pain you feel while practicing yoga, is one of the primary ways we flush toxins out of our body and gain strength and healing.
Mastering your breathing is a sign of wellness and strength.
What if we learned to breathe through the pain we experience in life? What if, when we were experiencing pain — physical or emotional — we learned to keep a steady rhythm of breathing, a sense of consistency, a deep inhale of the good things, the God things, the things that bring life and strength and wellness into our world, and a strong, certain exhale of the rest?
What if, when we felt like everything was going to fall apart, we just kept breathing?
Change your mind about shaking.
During the middle of this class with my friend, we were holding a pose that felt particularly difficult for me, and she said something that grabbed my attention. She said, “Your muscles might be shaking right now, but that’s okay. Shaking is a good thing. Shaking means you’re building strength.”
Wow, I thought. Shaking means you’re building strength.
What if we could see “shaking” that way in all aspects of our life? What if, the next time I felt like I was unsteady, or out-on-a-ledge, or barely making it from day to day, I told myself, “It’s okay. Shaking is a good thing. Shaking means you’re building strength.”? If I believed that, I wonder if I would resent myself so much for shaking, if I would keep punishing myself for being “weak.”
I wonder if I would still back off or out of positions, assuming it was “too much” for me.
Or if, instead, I would lean into the “pose” or position or circumstance telling myself, “shaking means you’re building strength.”
Discern the difference between Good Pain and Bad Pain
Part of why I think I resist pain, or resent it, or am afraid of it, is because I’ve spent most of my life ignoring the fact that there are two kinds of pain. One kind of pain is good pain, teaching pain, growing pain, learning pain.
The other kind of pain is warning sign pain, flashing-red-light pain, a sure sign we’re headed in the wrong direction pain.
Sometimes pain says, “You have room to grow here,” and other times pain says, “Get out. This is dangerous. You’re facing serious injury if you don’t listen up.”
If we don’t know the difference between the two, we don’t know how to respond when the pain comes. Either we live our whole lives with injuries we didn’t know we had, backing off from pain without seeking healing, avoiding pain without seeing there is a cure. Or, we miss out on growth because we’re afraid of pain, we think all pain is bad pain, we can’t accept what the “shaking” says about us:
There’s room for growth here… we all have a long way to go…