On Pain, Awareness, Self-Regulation, and What People Want in Yoga

Pain in yoga practice is an enduring paradox. I’ve written about it here, and here and here and here.

In Neil Pearson’s Mettaversity presentation on how pain science can inform yoga practice, the paradox sharpened. This is what I gathered:

In the broadest terms, awareness and self-regulation are the primary skills we want to develop as we encounter pain and its meanings.

However, pain easily distorts body awareness through both interoceptive and proprioceptive pathways. Whether pain is acute or chronic, it can steal away both internal neutrality or comfort, as well as your sense of where you are in space.

When this happens, self-regulation practices – steadying the breath, lessening body tension, developing a “monitoring” attitude – can mitigate pain.

However (again), this mitigation can go far enough that it overrides awareness of pain. If pain is a protective mechanism, this can have its costs.

Paradox: in seeking to manage pain, you can diminish its protective function.

In everyday life this might be a worthwhile trade-off if you’re naturally reducing exertions and risks. But on a religious or spiritual path that is explicitly about the encounter with many levels of pain – from the physical to the existential – “playing the edge” (to use Joel Kramer’s phrase) between pain awareness and self-regulation is often positioned as the whole point.

I once interviewed a practitioner who told me they were able to advance in postural practice because they learned to use ujjayi breath as an analgesic. Her concentration on the warm sensation of her breath was so focused that it could erase the debilitating pain she was in for the duration of the practice sessions. I heard of another elite practitioner musing on whether the postures they practiced hurt. They said: “I’m never sure: my body might be fooling me.”

These are extreme cases of heightened concentration and bodily distrust. Are they wrapped up in contemporary performance ideals and the psychological tensions of inadequacy? Probably. But these practitioners could also be speaking from another era. Their attitudes throw a core premodern yoga premise into stark relief.

So many Indian wisdom paths begin with the assertion that typical, mundane life is by nature rife with suffering. So many practices try to teach self-regulation in relation to this fundamental condition, while holding out the promise of altered awareness. Pain science confirms this all in a way, although it spotlights the potential costs of altered awareness on future health and functionality.

But isn’t moksha the end of the future? A permanent alteration of awareness in relation to the fact of suffering, and who that suffering happens to?

“Self-regulation can override awareness.” The modern aspiration of functionality seems to be looking for that sweet spot where you can be respectfully aware of pain messaging, while cultivating the self-regulation tools to lessen its distorting effects.

But certain streams of premodern yoga, it would seem, hinge on the value of gaming or even hacking this precise relationship. Learning how to self-regulate with such concentration that, allegedly, you become incapable of being aware of pain, inconstancy, fluctuation.

So if you change or even lose awareness of pain, do you also lose awareness of time, and identity? This is what conscientious practitioners of BDSM report about “subspace”, but I’ll leave that for another time.


Addendum: After I published this to Facebook, Neil added the following comment, which was so concise-but-elliptical that I’ll end with it:

“I am not certain, but the heart of the matter may be that we can use these practices in more than one way – as escape from the salient, as distraction from the aversive/noxious, as exploration of life, as a path to loving self, to develop equanimity…

When we use self regulation to override awareness of pain I don’t think we are finding the sweet spot. At that point our complex protective systems are likely to respond with – “well, if I am going to protect you, I will need to enhance the protection”, and thus we end up in an ongoing escalation of conscious overriding and autonomic vigilance. The sweet spot might be using self regulation to play with the automatic responses to pain – do I need to hold my breath so much right now, do I need to tighten my body so much, do these negative thoughts serve me now, does this emotional response and its intensity match with what’s going on inside me and outside…

Through gaining better awareness we can start to be curious about how we respond to pain, and though regulation we can play with the autonomic responses – since they may not be accurate indicators of danger. In an ultra simple explanation (though more lengthy than your “that sweet spot where you can be respectfully aware of pain messaging, while cultivating the self-regulation tools to lessen its distorting effects.”), we learn that this organism in which we live has many subtle physiological processes to keep us safe. We learn to attend to them well without hyper vigilance, in part because we learn that the alarms and autonomic responses associated with the alarms are not always accurate or appropriate responses, and we learn to use all this information to make conscious decisions about how much regulation we require, and we learn how to make the appropriate adjustments to the alarm systems and the autonomic responses to them.


Addendum #2, somewhat related. This dude thinks everyone should just suck it up.


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