The Problem of Pain in Yoga

The Problem of Pain in Yoga | El problema del dolor en el yoga

This essay first appeared in Yoga International: thank you to Kat Heagburg for editorial help. 

You’ve probably heard a number of translations for the haṭha part of haṭhayoga.

“Forceful” is commonly cited. Others prefer a more esoteric take: they say that ha- and -ṭha stand for “sun and moon,” or “inhale and exhale.” They propose that practice is aimed at the integration of opposing forces.

According to yoga scholar Jason Birch, the esoteric translation is probably a later addition to the early literature of haṭhayoga. “Forceful” is the older meaning.

But what kind of “force” were the originators of haṭhayoga describing?

Birch writes that the hugely influential 19th century Sanskritist Monier Monier-Williams, along with other European Indologists of his era, “confounded haṭhayoga with extreme practices of asceticism (tapas) that appear in the purāṇas” or epic literature. Together, they put forward the notion that haṭha implied the force of violent exertion or self-mortification.

Traces of this meaning elide with the “no pain, no gain” heroism of the modern fitness era—and with the notion of moving, or being pushed by teachers, toward the “edge” of tolerance—usually at the end-range of a joint’s motion. The edge is typically viewed as a potential threshold of revelation, perhaps because its shadow is the threshold of injury.

But as Birch carefully points out, the consistent refrain of the early haṭhayoga manuals is that if practices are done śanaiḥ, śanaiḥ —”gently, gently”— spiritual awakening will inevitably occur. In other words, with enough gentleness in your practice, you’d be forced to wake up. Continue reading “The Problem of Pain in Yoga”

WAWADIA Update #19: Thomas Myers Misdefines Pain. But Why?

Please consider supporting this IGG campaign to fund the two years it will take to finish the book that will emerge from this research.




[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he ideas and trainings of Thomas Myers (of Anatomy Trains fame) have been popular amongst the yoga therapy professional class for over a decade. What Myers says carries weight in hundreds of yoga teacher training programmes throughout the world. In many ways, his impact is positive. In general terms, it has expanded the language of embodied mindfulness for many practitioners by opening a horizon of deeper anatomical consideration. Specifically, it has enriched the lay understanding of tissue connectivity, and of how loading patterns track systemically through living structures.

Looking carefully, we might say that Myers’ work is resonant in the yoga world because he has built his ideas in true modern-yogic fashion: charismatically weaving an inextricable fascia of intuition, metaphysics, and claims from complementary and alternative medicine that appear to intersect with the hard data more often than they actually do.

When it comes to his ideas about pain, for example, Myers’ followers may not be any better off if they’d gone to neuro-anatomy school in the 17th century. On November 4th, he released a sun-kissed and breezy video called “Why does Massage Hurt?”

Amongst many other things, Myers says that:

  1. pain is “a sensation accompanied by the motor intention to withdraw”,
  2. pain consists of three types: “pain that enters the body”, “pain stored in the body”, and “pain leaving the body”. Although he says at (4:30) that he doesn’t share the no-pain-no-gain ethos of many of his fellow Rolfers, Myers implies that the “leaving” kind of pain might actually be therapeutic, because “stored pain” must be felt as it’s “coming out” (6:45)

The claims are poetic, and might be inspiring for many. But they also avoid or ignore the last fifty years of neuroscience. Additionally, they might actually be dangerous in a therapeutic context, if they create the expectation between yoga teachers and students, or bodyworkers and clients, that pain is an inevitable part of the healing or “releasing” process, and should be provoked and/or tolerated to prove that the therapy is working. As this project so far is showing, this sacrificial description of pain is common in yoga discourse.

Nick Ng debates each one of Myers’ pain claims in this thorough article of November 10th. Joseph Brence makes some additional refutations. I encourage you to follow both links, but I’ll also summarize the critique here, as best I can (not being a pain researcher):

Pain does not necessarily involve the “motor intention to withdraw”. Several types of pain – including chronic pain, or the excruciating cramp of a phantom limb – do not provoke any such intention. Additionally, nociception – “the neural process of encoding noxious stimuli”, according to the International Association for the Study of Pain – may not register as pain at all, as in the example of the quick, pre-pain withdrawal of one’s hand from a hot surface. If pain seems to saturate the burned tissues over time, it does so after the reflex to withdraw has activated and completed the protective movement. Most mystifyingly, pain can also emerge in the complete absence of a noxious stimulus, or tissue damage.

There is no “pain from outside the body”. This is Myers’ most Cartesian anachronism. Simply refuted: there is no “pain” but that the coordination of feeling and naming makes it so.

Pain is the collaborative product of tissue stimulus, nociception, cognitive awareness, and numerous psychosocial factors. It is a neurological and then cognitive meaning that evolves in a person responding to stress. The tissue stimulus may not even be noxious, as in the case of the feather-stroke that causes searing pain for those who suffer from a particular type of neuropathy.

The full background for this non-mechanistic understanding of pain can be gleaned from the work of Ronald Melzack’s “neuromatrix theory”. The upshot is: pain does not “enter” the body. Pain is a relationship between sense and meaning. Like every relationship, it is co-created by its constituents in the moment. To his credit, Myers does elaborate on pain as an interpretational process, which makes his language of “entering” an odd choice.

“Pain stored in the body” might be a misunderstanding of adaptation. In the video, Myers supports a popular claim: that the effects of injury, trauma, or emotional stress constitute a kind of “latent” pain. He suggests that latent pain accumulates silently, manifesting through symptoms that are actually pain itself, though disguised: lack of vitality, distorted posture, or distorted movement. He then goes on to claim (admitting to going out on a limb from 7:15)  that latent pain not only builds through an individual’s gathered experience, but through the social and historical fascia within which the individual is bound.

While this last bit is supremely evocative, and could definitely shed insight into the physiological effects of intergenerational trauma, the larger idea seems to be built on a confusion of terms. Ng’s informant Jason Erickson says Myers is “misinterpreting changes in posture and movement as pain instead of as non-painful co-occurring symptoms.

The problem with identifying postural and kinetic adaptations to stress as signs of stored pain is that it may encourage practitioners to believe that correcting those adaptations will force latent pain out. The likelier reality is that the adaptations are preventing the experience of pain. That’s why they exist. If correcting them is painful (as is likely), the practitioner might believe they’re doing a good job, instead of ignorantly violating the Hippocratic Oath. This leads to the last problem:

There is no “pain leaving the body.” If it’s not “stored”, it’s not leaving. This is more than semantics. Through Myers’ suggestion that massage or other forms of tissue manipulation “release” embedded pain, instead of more likely causing it, the “releasing therapist” becomes more aligned with an exorcist than a health care provider. In this model, both the exorcist and the possessed client are taught that the stored pain will cause as much damage going out as it caused going in. Pain is seen as the angry demon of one’s history – sleeping in repression, a terror when awoken.

The idea of “pain leaving” shares an affinity with the literature and practice of psychoanalysis and psychotherapy, in which the past emotional wounds of the client are actively evoked and perhaps recreated in a transference relationship with the therapist, so that they may be observed transparently and navigated differently. Setting aside the fact that this seems to work for some and not for many others, are all the bodyworkers who use Myers’ ideas also qualified as mental health care workers?

At about 7:00 in the video, Myers acknowledges that the release of stored pain can be “really disturbing” and “really emotional” for the client, but that “it’s really important that they go through it.” It would be ironic if this idea provided cover for the possibility that the therapist is simply hurting the client in the present moment, instead of doing what they think they’re doing, which is provoking the release of an invisible hurt.

We should consider that highlighting the psychic side of the therapeutic equation can obscure a lack of material evidence. We can also reflect upon the fact that this approach is conveniently familiar to the largely science-sceptical (or illiterate) subcultures of yoga and bodywork.




[dropcap]I[/dropcap] don’t know enough about the work of Myers to know how much he might be short-handing his themes for a lay audience here. Nor do I know whether he modulates these views elsewhere. The video doesn’t have an academic feel to it: he might be speaking only to a specialized audience he’s confident won’t take these misdirections to heart.

But let’s say he does actually believe in this three-part model of pain. Where might this belief be coming from, and why is it more important to him than decades of established neuroscience?

To speak of pain that “goes into” and “leaves the body” resonates not only with the psychotherapeutic literature that saturates our entire self-help zeitgeist, but with a very old metaphysics from which we can’t seem to release ourselves, no matter how firm our philosophical foam-rollers are. It’s a belief system that may even be more attractive to Myers’ followers than his specific claims about tissue health.

What does this metaphysics say? It says that the body is a vessel, built to contain the life-force, its tensions, and its distortions. (“Contain” being the operative term here.) It says that experience enters into the passive flesh, and can stay as long as it likes, until it is pulled back out of the flesh of those who are blessed to encounter magically attuned therapists. Pain as an experience becomes objectified and seen as a thing that has invaded.

In Myers’ model, pain is like the soul, but in shadow form. This anti-soul of pain enters the body, wreaks its havoc on the temporary home it holds in contempt, and then departs to find another home.

It is a dualistic view, to the core. This a paradox for someone like Myers, and everyone in body-mind work who tries to bind embodied realities to psychic realities. (“Body-mind” as a moniker only deepens the confusion.)

These beliefs are as old as time, and they aren’t going anywhere soon. The mechanistic pain theory of Descartes, and the old spirit-flesh split upon which it stands, is not only embedded in the very structure of the social and medical sciences, as well as the grammar of most human languages, but it also resonates too closely with lived experience for us to ever cast it out completely. The work of Drew Leder in The Absent Body is the best presentation I know of the conundrum of dualism in sensual experience, in which the flesh is felt to contain things, rather than express them.

In Leder, the spirit-flesh split is built upon the simple fact that our internal bodies are, in the end, unknown to us. Despite every yogic aspiration we may have, our interoceptive capacity has a hard limit. Where our mindfulness of the internal body ends, our dreams of the soul – along with our intuitive healing theories – begin.

The metaphysics of Myers may compel his students to seek ever deeper for embodied meaning, and to that extent they may have deep value. But they also limit the metaphors that illuminate that search. The nondual body, in which conscious life emerges from material life only to try to refashion it, is not a dumb vessel, or an empty book for experience or God to write in. The nondual body, which Myers and everyone else wants to see, treat, and love, is something his pain theory would miss, something so strange it’s almost inexpressible.

Bear with me:

The non-dual body doesn’t contain anything that’s not it. Its experience or movement doesn’t “enter in”, to animate this slab of meat. Its movement is inseparable from the meat, until the meat stops moving, like a ball stops rolling. Similarly: consciousness is an epiphenomenon of neural activity. Thought doesn’t “enter” the brain, but is secreted by it, like a juice the body itself — and bodies around it — will “drink”.

The memory of the non-dual body is not “stored”, as in a book. If experience wrote upon you, it wrote like a stylus on a wax tablet, and continual reading warms and reshapes that wax.

More than a book, the non-dual body is the reader of experience. It is experience, however, that trains the reading process. If we were to say that the non-dual body is like a book, it would be more like a collectively-written play, unfolding in real time, in which each character has habitual lines and reactions, but none of them knows where the plot will lead.




[dropcap]I[/dropcap]’ll finish with a hard left turn.

The body of our sciences and humanities is not a collection of separable parts. It is, as Myers describes the human body, a single fabric, woven of many threads. For generations we have been aware of the independent action of each muscle: we know the language of religion when we hear it, or physics, or history, or sociology, or geometry, or chemistry, or ethics, or politics. But now, thanks to the dissections of deconstruction, we are slowly becoming aware of the hidden glue.

The conceptual split between flesh and spirit is the sticky fascia that knits our dreams together and makes them move as a fractured whole. Like bodily fascia, this metafacsia is a non-living detritus, the hardened junk of metabolizing uncertainty and fear. It gathers in the spaces of not-knowing, increases with age, and slowly chokes out the imagination.

It’s time to roll that shit out. Gently would be best. There’s probably no point in causing more pain.



Update #2: What Are We Actually Doing in Asana? \\\ Questions, questions, questions!

About a month and two dozen interviews into this research project and I can honestly say I’ve learned more about how folks experience yoga than I have over the past eleven years of teaching. The stories of pain, injury, recovery, and wisdom keep rolling, each unraveling unique twists of psychology along with the tweaks of tissue. Continue reading “Update #2: What Are We Actually Doing in Asana? \\\ Questions, questions, questions!”

Update: What Are We Actually Doing in Asana?

I just completed the first week of interviewing for “What Are We Actually Doing in Asana?”  As I expected, and resonant with my own experience with asana, I heard stories of re-embodiment and renewed courage. Many experienced relief from chronic pain, both physical and emotional. Many felt that physical yoga practice was integral to the most significant period of personal change in their lives. Some people came to asana as though they were coming home.

Continue reading “Update: What Are We Actually Doing in Asana?”