I have never liked the phrase “no pain, no gain”. It’s a limiting (and not fun!) way to approach anything … but especially moving. That said, pain is inevitable in our physical and emotional lives, and running away from the possibility of it is a fool’s game, likely to prevent us from fully experiencing life. The trick lies in cultivating a healthy curiosity about the sensations in your moving body, so you can begin to decode them.
As a teacher, it is essential for me to set the scene for positive movement experiences, especially if my clients are dealing with chronic pain, injury or health conditions. It is not uncommon for me to hear from a new client at the end of their second or third session, “ I felt great! And, although I felt it in my body for a few days after, it didn’t hurt! I was so afraid it would hurt!” This is, to me, success. The best way to crack the “getting in shape” or “sticking with it” part of exercise, is to make it feel good!
It’s also important to understand that pain is a sensation, not necessarily bad or good, and it can mean many things. We often overlay the bodily sensation with an unpleasant emotion such as fear, that may be recalled from previous similar experiences. Pain is, more than anything, a body’s call for attention. It can be a way of protecting ourselves from potential or further harm, but can also be simply a signal of an unfamiliar sensation.
Clients sometimes tell me that something ‘hurts’ when they do a movement – and when we explore further, discover that the message is really that they’ve never had that feeling in that area before. The arm is moving past it’s usual range, or those muscles are contracting (what muscles?). When their alignment is good, and resistance and range are appropriate, we can often proceed with careful monitoring to move into the sensation a little bit, and explore it, in a safe and controlled way. There is always something new to discover.
I ask my clients a lot of questions when they tell me something hurts – do you feel it in the joint? Does the feeling stop when you stop moving? If you change the alignment of ‘x’, does the sensation change? Have you felt this before? In what part of the range of the exercise do you feel it? Pain is often sending a message, and when we can be specific about the sensation, it can be a very valuable tool in learning more about our bodies.
Many clients have shown me the importance of ‘less is more’, of not pushing through movement into pain. When someone is recovering from injury or illness, or even from a long period of inactivity, sometimes gently guiding them through a series of movements without pain or discomfort of any kind is exactly what is needed. Once they build confidence in their ability to move without pain, then we can progress to increasing range of motion, strength, mobility and endurance.
Other students who have a more sophisticated physical vocabulary and awareness of their limits show me that they need to be guided into more intensity. They can feel the difference between the sensation of a muscle working hard enough to build strength and endurance, and a movement that takes them into a danger area of joint instability. We can push a little harder.
Pain, when engaged with respectfully, can be a great teacher. I’ve learned more lessons from my recovery from injuries than I have from forging ahead with a healthy body. And my newest master teacher is my own aging process, giving me a whole new appreciation for the many nuances of pain. I’m learning not to take anything for granted, to go slowly and feel my way into the movement, and to recognize that every day I have a different body to work with.