How can we use the teachings of yoga to manage pain and prevent it from controlling us?
There is a well-known phrase about pain which perplexed me the very first time I heard it. It was “make friends with the pain”. For people dealing with chronic pain, these words can have very little meaning. I was diagnosed with endometriosis six years ago, which can cause varying degrees of chronic abdominal and lower back pain. Back then, I didn’t really want to embrace the pain, I just wished it would go away. So, I visited multiple doctors, tried different kinds of treatments, both conventional and alternative. Some helped, but the pain would always return.
I had been practising yoga for a long time when I was diagnosed and I thought “this shouldn’t be happening to me”. It’s only in the last two years that I have been teaching yoga myself, that I have come to understand how to manage the pain, from within. How to accept and acknowledge it, and understand how it affects me so that I can prepare myself mentally and physically to face it. This is not to say that medical treatments should be ignored; they may be necessary for many of us to be able to get through daily activities. But if we can learn to control our reaction to the pain, then we may find that the pain no longer controls us.
If we can learn to control our reaction to the pain, then we may find that the pain no longer controls us.
Experience pain without attachment
When you experience physical pain your mind may respond by telling you "this is going to get worse" or "the pain is never going to go away". You develop a fear (abhinivesha) towards pain. The feelings before, during and after the pain slowly turn into repulsion or aversion (dvesha). The thought of the pain and its consequences get deeply rooted in the mind and affect every facet of your life, your work, relationships and inner peace.
According to Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, fear and aversion are two of the five Kleshas (afflictions) responsible for a disturbed state of mind (citta vikshepa). If we can control this fear and aversion by understanding what triggers them, we can experience the pain without getting attached to how it makes us feel. As strange as it may sound, what if you could ‘experience the pain without attachment’? The pain becomes powerless. Human tendency is to get attached to objects, people and situations that provide happiness. But the attachment to things we dislike can sometimes be even stronger. Aversion and attraction - just like pain and joy - are two sides of the same coin. Yoga can teach us how to experience and acknowledge both in the same way.
The law of karma and how it links to pain or suffering
Pain or suffering, also called dukham in Sanskrit, is a part of life according to yoga philosophy. As long as we are bound by the cycle of birth and death, we will experience dukham. Here, dukham is not just fleeting moments of sadness, it's more deep-rooted and refers to the suffering caused by not being able distinguish between what is real and unreal, permanent and impermanent. At a more subtle level, it is the inability to differentiate between the mind, body, senses etc., (prakriti) and pure consciousness (atman). Pure consciousness, does not “experience” anything – pain or joy. It remains unaffected by these dualities.
According to the yogic philosophy of ‘karma’ (the law of cause and effect) we must experience the ‘fruits’ or consequence of our past, present, and future actions. Vedic texts describe these three types of karma. The first is Sanchita which is accumulated works of the past. The second is Prarabdha or fructifying works which forms a part of the sanchita karma. It is that portion of the karma which is responsible for the current state of body, mind, and the situations we find ourselves in. The first two types of karma cannot be avoided or changed, they must be experienced. Think of it as repaying a debt. The third and last is Kriyamana or Agami which refers to works which will be created in the future. This is the only karma we have the power to influence.
Heyam duhkham anagatam: Future pain is avoidable
This is probably one of the most important, yet simplest, of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. It gives us a sense of hope that no matter what we are experiencing right now, tomorrow may be better. We have to go through the pain today but we can avoid the suffering that is to come, by rethinking our future actions. In a way, this also gives us the strength, physically and mentally, to deal with the current pain.
Yoga offers many tools to achieve this from within, so that we don’t need to always rely on an external force. For instance, just becoming aware of your breath and focusing on lengthening the exhalation while in seated or a lying position can have immense therapeutic effects on the body and mind. Depending on the physical manifestation of the pain, a slower asana practice or a Yin yoga practice maybe helpful.
Training the mind
We can train the mind to react to the pain differently. Through Pranayama and meditation we can reduce the emotional stress that can accompany physical pain. Redirecting your energy towards anything positive and focusing on it intensely is another simple way to divert focus away from the pain. Whether it’s reading a book, gardening, listening to music, or taking your dog for a walk – whatever it maybe – being present with the activity without distractions is a form of meditation that can create a positive and tranquil state of mind (citta prasadanam). Remember, you don’t have to befriend the pain - I have days when that is just not possible. But you can choose to accept it and experience it without attachment.
Remember, you don’t have to befriend the pain - but you can choose to accept it and experience it without attachment.
Take comfort in knowing that you are in control of your body, mind, and breath, and as a result, the pain. There’s a popular Persian adage that I tell myself every now and then - “This too shall pass.” Nothing we experience is permanent – we can change the course of our day and our lives by just being aware of that fact. So, just breath, exhale, and let go...
If you're interested in exploring some of the yoga philosophy referred to in this article, Roopa has suggested the following reading list:
- Heart of Yoga by TKV Desikachar
- The Science of Yoga by I.K. Taimini
- Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali by BKS Iyengar
- Core of the Yoga Sutras by BKS Iyengar
Using Yoga Nidra to manage pain - practise in class
Identify the level of pain you're experiencing and then work through a comprehensive range of Yoga Nidra practices before re-visiting that pain level once again. By the end of the practice, you should not only feel less pain but be confident to continue the practice at home. With James Reeves, 40 mins.
About Roopa: Roopa is a Vinyasa Yoga teacher from Chennai, India. A long time yoga practitioner, she left her full-time marketing job at an IT company to complete her Yoga Teacher Training (YTT) from Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram.
She also received advanced teacher training from Srivatsa Ramaswami, who was long-time student of Krishnamacharya himself. While her training is strongly rooted in ‘Vinyasa Krama’, she uses insights gained from her own yoga practice over the last 14 years to create a unique experience for her students.