The BodyMind Relationship: Pain / by Shauna Fallihee

In relationships, some pain is inevitable.  One person says or does something that the other perceives as harmful.  Sometimes it’s intentionally harmful, sometimes not. Sometimes the hurt person has misunderstood, sometimes not.  Sometimes, even in a conflict between two people, the hurt is self-inflicted. Both/And. Relationships are complex and intense emotions like pain and fear can make them confusing.

Most can agree that a relationship characterized by frequent or prolonged pain is undesirable and probably unhealthy. There is some valuable growth that can come from painful experiences but in general, we seek equilibrium and peace.  In this quest for peace, we will adapt to pain and stress. If we’re constantly in pain, we might become desensitized but the impact of the pain permeates and ultimately guides our being. Eventually, the proverbial camel’s back breaks.

Our most significant relationship is with our self.  And it can be far more complex, intense, and confusing than our relationship with others!  Our body and mind interact every moment of our life. At times we experience the integration of the two but more often, we experience them as separate entities.  In truth, they are inextricable.

Bodily pain can hurt our minds.  Our mind may worry that we will lose the ability to do the things we enjoy.  Our mind might fear that the pain is permanent and happiness will be unattainable in the uncomfortable physical state.  The fearful thoughts may put the body under more stress, slowing healing and fueling the negative thoughts. A cycle emerges.

On the flip side, our mind can harm our body.  One’s desire to achieve a physical outcome like a particular vocal tone or yoga posture can lead them to transgress body boundaries and cause harm. Mental responses like shame or disappointment about the action or fear of the physical consequences initiates the cycle.  Shame, criticism, or judgement from oneself or others can manifest in bodily harm, without any physical act to provoke it.

Consider: which do you sense more, your body sensations or your thoughts?  Does one have more credibility than the other? Are you more likely to attend to one before the other?  If there is pain in your thoughts, will you sacrifice your body to alleviate it, potentially creating different pain?  Will you create worrisome thought patterns to distract yourself from bodily sensations?

Adapting to appropriate stress is how we grow.  But what is appropriate stress and who decides?  If you report intense physical sensation to your teacher during a voice lesson, who decides whether you should proceed with caution or change your approach?  If you are the voice teacher, do you encourage your student to trust their felt sense and make their own choice or do you take on the responsibility yourself and guide the experience?  How will the reaction of both parties (calm, inquisitive, fearful, dismissive…) influence what happens next?

The expressed intent of many fitness modalities is to break something down so it can grow back stronger.  For instance, the breakdown may be muscular micro-tearing in the context of a squat, a lunge, or a push-up.  One may or may not feel the sensations of the breakdown or rebuilding process. They may simply observe over time that their ability to do the same movement has changed.  More extreme expressions of this break down to build up approach can leave the participant in intense physical discomfort, short or long-term. Again, it’s worth considering what is appropriate stress and who decides.  

If we’re intentionally introducing pain into our lives, what are we hoping to achieve?  Is our intention true? Is it necessary? Is it kind? In the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, the first Yama (ethical practice) is Ahimsa (non-harming).  Non-harming of ourselves, of others, of body, of mind. Yoga practitioners may find themselves having to reconcile this aspect of yoga with a posture that is desirable but potentially harmful.  Who decides whether the yogi is introducing appropriate stress to challenge their mind and body or harming themselves? There’s no simple conclusion but when asking these questions, it’s essential that we listen to all of the answers the bodymind offers.

The bodymind is a lifelong relationship.  Pain is inevitable. How can we find resilience and strengthen the support between the body and mind?  Again, no simple answer but relationships tend to flourish when both parties feel equally acknowledged, valued, and loved without condition.  

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