Exploiting Pain for Personal Gain

Exploiting Pain for Personal Gain

It has been a while since I’ve written anything here. I have to say, I’ve really enjoyed not sitting in front of my computer, and I think this is something I’m going to be doing more often. Maybe you’d like to try it, too?

In fact I’ve been up to some fun things in the real world, like trying out circusy stuff at the Collingwood Circus Club and sharing some movement/strength goodies with them, and learning how to sing.

In this pic I am doing what is supposed to be “swan”. My left splits leave much to be desired…

Much as I like the “real world”, I don’t want to let my unwritten words fester in my brain where they might start to rot and stink (Yes, I used deodorant today. Yes, I’ve showered…. I just haven written for a few weeks).

Let’s get down to it. (Fair warning, this post is long)

SEVERAL CONSTRUCTIVE USES FOR PAIN

They say “no pain no gain”, and “rest is for the weak”. However, this can potentially lead one to Broscience based evidence.

I prefer, “exploit pain for personal gain”. As is the topic of today: Living completely free from pain may be unrealistic, but we can meet it with our understanding and find that it can enrich our lives in many ways.

Writing this blog post brings me back to first year university anatomy class with one of my favourite professors of all time, Sam Booker.

It was in this class that the idea “pain is information” was first introduced to me. To paraphrase Sam’s words, “Pain is a sign from your body that you need to listen up and stop doing something because it feels bad”. Or something along those lines.

At the time, this blew my head off. You mean, pain isn’t just the annoying feeling of something hurting? Pain is trying to tell me something useful?? NO WAY!

And then, as per 19-year-old-Monika’s style, I memorized this fact for a test (aced it), neglected to further consider its practical application, and, for the next 4 years of my dance degree, I endured, ignored, and disregarded that my near-daily pain could be information worth tuning in to. 

A few years ago I came across the work of Lorimer Moseley, the pain research guy from Australia, and read his and David Butler’s book Explain Pain. Explain Pain, again, describes pain as information about something our system is experiencing that could be potentially dangerous. Not that it is absolutely dangerous, but that we perceive it could be.

Image result for explain pain lorimer moseley

Our body uses pain to try to keep us from getting into too much trouble. Like the smoke detector that goes off just in case that smoke from the bacon you accidentally overcooked is actually a life-threatening fire (the actual story of my morning). Thank goodness the smoke detector is that sensitive, just in case.

Pain is a construct of our brains. Not to say that it isn’t real, or that it is imaginary. Our experience of pain is very real! But it’s not our finger that feels pain when we slice it open chopping onions- it is our brain that interprets the information from receptors in our finger as “danger” and produces a sensation that we call “pain” to let us know that “that was dumb, don’t do that if you want to keep living with all your blood”.

That’s great, Monika… But pain hurts

It’s all great to say: “Pain is just information. It’s in your head”. Ok… So how does that actually help us? How do we decode this information and use it  to our advantage when we are injured, hurting, or sore?

(As you read on, keep in mind that if you are currently in a state of pain severe enough as to affect the quality of your life, get some help from someone you trust. I’m not a medical professional and I can’t help you through the magic of the internet.)

As my friend Rob Sawyer from aussie-land, recently wrote, living with the expectation of being completely pain free may not even be realistic.

Being pain free is a preference you and I are likely to both have, but it is just that: A preference. And pain, as I have learned, can be an enriching experience that helps us to learn more about ourselves. I used to think I could not be happy until I was completely out of pain. Why wait to be happy until that hypothetical, unrealistic date?

Rob wrote a lovely little piece comparing “pain-free living” with “balanced living”, which I will copy below:

I am surprised at how often the term “Pain Free Life/Lifestyle/Living” is used to lure in people who are experiencing pain in their lives… This terminology sounds extremely attractive… A life free from the experience of pain… But is that realistic?? Can we delete it from our existence? Mmm I think not.. So why is this continuously advertised? To prey on those that are hurting?

 

Is pain something we should be free of in this lifetime? Or might pain be a valuable experience that can help guide us?

 

I have met many inspiring people along this journey who have experienced great transformation in there body and lives, and they often had one thing in common… They gave in fighting and trying to be free from their pain, and began to honour it, explore it, listen to it, let it be a guide.

 

Can we life a Pain free life? A life free of pain?

 
Or a balanced life? A life enriched with the experience of both pain and pleasure?

Pain, in fact, is quite useful, and over the years and injuries, I have found quite a few uses for pain.

The following are some #protips for exploring pain as information, which may be useful if you wish to diminish its threat-status, live in harmony with your body, and  even exploit pain to enhance your quality of life.

Avoid self-pity and subjectivity 

A requisite for balanced living with pain is to be able to stay objective and avoid self-pity. These two bits are crucial going forward with any kind of treatment or therapy. Feeling sorry for yourself doesn’t make using pain as information possible- It makes you resent the pain and wish it was gone.

Of course, I don’t wish pain upon anyone, it’s not that you should ever wish you were in pain, but making up stories about your pain and wishing it wasn’t there isn’t going to help get to the truth either.

Stories I’ve heard:

“I’m broken, and I no one has been able to help me”. Can you absolutely know that this is true? Have you worked with everyone? Or have you tried three therapists and given up hope already? Or, have you tried actually doing the work they asked of you? 

“I’m just getting old.” Well, what about all those young people in chronic pain? What about all the 90-year-olds that live healthy, happy, active lives able to manage pain effectively and live with minor discomfort? Pain doesn’t discriminate by age.

“It’s because of my posture that I inherited from my Dad, he had the same issues as I’m having now”. Pain is not a genetic inheritance, and posture doesn’t necessarily correlate to pain.

Drop the stories and drop the self-pity.

Be open to feeling your pain

It might seem redundant to say, but, for us to exploit pain as useful information we must be open to actually feeling it in order to explore what it means, not wish it was gone or try to dissociate from it, or numb it with painkillers.

“But I shouldn’t be in pain!” (there’s that self pity I warned you about). Well you are. That’s the reality of it. Love that it is there, because it is, and you’re about to learn some useful things from it. 

This sounds a bit cruel, but you can only hide from your own body for so long. I remember needing to take pain killers to get on stage and perform, and I remember getting prescription pain meds instead of getting help from a therapist. Pills are just easier, and ignoring pain is much easier than facing it. For a while…

Dig deep for more descriptive words

It is useful to make pain less “painy” by describing it in as many neutral terms as possible, which I encourage you to try right now if you have something going on in your body.

I have one client in particular who, despite her impressive vocabulary (seriously, she knows ALL the words and corrects me frequently), and my insistence to find different words for her experience, consistently comes back to, “It sucks”, “It hurts”, “It feels shitty”.

Sucks how? What kind of hurt? What’s shitty about it? We need more information if we’re going to do anything with what you’re experiencing. In fact, she uses “it sucks” to describe a lot of exercises that don’t hurt in the “pain” way, but that are just hard to do.

If you currently have something that hurts, what three words would you use to describe the pain sensations? Burny? Grabby? Pointy? Weak? Grindy? Stuck? Dull? Sharp? See what happens as you get clarity on this. Just try not to use the words “tight” or “painful”.

Click here to use a thesaurus, if you’re struggling.

Remember, exploiting pain doesn’t necessarily mean “making it go away”, it means meeting it with your understanding, lessening the threat, and reducing the negative sentiments attached to it so that it can be used as a learning experience.

Pain as an object of meditation

You don’t need a meditation app if you have pain to work with!

The challenge with pain is that we are generally biased to judge it as a negative experience (there are however some individuals who genuinely enjoy pain. I’m not talking about those people). Then again, maybe that’s just my naivete speaking, having never broken a bone, never been stabbed, never fallen from a 10 story building, and never woken up mid-surgery to find the anesthetic had worn off prematurely. 

I’ve never felt I was in life-threatening pain, so, easy for me to talk.

Regardless, we can use “pain as neutral information” for a fascinating meditation.

Similar to noticing a tree over to the left, or a pile of dog poop on the sidewalk, we can notice pain. We can tell a story about the tree or the dog crap, or we can just notice they are there. 

We might see a tree and think, “Oh look, my favourite tree! This tree is beautiful. This is the same tree I had a wonderful picnic with my grandmother under just before she passed away. I love this tree and I will take my children here one day, too”. The tree brings back happy memories and so we become happily attached to it. No harm done here. But we can also look at it and see it for just what it is: A tree. No stories or sentiments attached.

As I mentioned earlier, we will also often tell stories about our pain, and sometimes these stories keep us stuck. The key difference: It is not so pleasant to become attached to pain as it is to a tree.

Using pain as an object of meditation is to observe it without the story, without the judgement of “bad”, and feel it for what it is. 

I would argue that it is an equally valuable experience to be able to look at a tree and see it for what it is, not for the story of the picnic with a cherished relative and the fond memories it brings, but for just being a tree. Since the tree is not a bodily experience, this might be an easier place to start than the pain meditation.

For example, in my meditation practice, currently, I am working on observing myself observing: Noticing the thoughts (words and images) that come in, saying goodbye to them without letting my mind get too carried by with them, and noticing the space between the thoughts. My awareness becomes the object of my observation. There are many ways to meditate, but this is what I am working on now. 

If I reach the 15 minute mark, I often start to notice some discomfort in my upper back and knees, and my foot falling asleep. At this point, it is easy to become frustrated with these sensations and wish they were gone because they are distracting me and I find it difficult to ignore them and I just want to get back to meditating! But then I realize that what is distracting me is not the pain itself, the pain is just there, like the tree, but it is my story and thoughts about the pain that are distracting me.

So I bring my awareness to the area of discomfort as I would to the tree. And I just try to “see” it as part of the landscape, along with all the other things in my awareness.

In “mindfulness” meditation, this is essentially what we are doing: Taking in everything with all our senses, and just observing it as it is. The pain is there, no doubt. But if I didn’t attach the “this is annoying, I wish this was gone” story, what would it feel like? 

Interestingly, as soon as I shift my focus as such, the pain and discomfort start to drop off, becoming a dull hum, not so sharp and omnipresent. The painy feelings cease to be as bad and distracting, and I can simply notice that they are there. And then, the pain may even disappear, which blows my mind.

Sometimes the act of observing changes the observed without us having to try to change anything.

Using pain in this way has made for very, very interesting sessions, and makes pain an excellent teacher for being in the moment, focusing on what is real, and practicing non-judgement. 

INJURY AS INSPIRATION

I will finish this long post up with the quick story of how I used some recent wrist pain to enhance my pistol squats. 

Last summer I started rock climbing (bouldering) and it was going pretty well (If you define embarrassing myself a bunch while trying to overcome my fear of heights as “great”…) but recently my wrist has been bugging me, and I’ve had to take a little break from it.

Years ago, I would have ignored an injury and kept performing through it. Monika 2.0 doesn’t do that shit anymore.

In fact, with my extra available time not spent climbing I wondered, “What if I used the passion and time I dedicated to climbing and redistributed it into the recovery process?”.

So that’s what I decided to do, and some pretty interesting stuff has come out of it, and, through the process of body-detectivery, this minor setback has been teaching me a lot about my body, stuff I may not of otherwise discovered.

To borrow the words of Gary Ward, I “interviewed my body”. Even if I do rest from climbing until my wrist feels better, I would also be best served to learn where this issue was coming from. Bodies don’t just start hurting randomly, for no reason. There is probably some good information to dig into here.

I will now skip all the dry technical stuff (but I wrote a few more pages on it, if you’re interested…). To sum it up, the interview process went as such:

  • How does my body hold itself statically?
  • Where is the perceived “center” around which my body is currently organizing itself?
  • What movements am I not accessing?

What I discovered in the process was a lack of ribcage/pelvis opposition in rotation, so I followed that trail. This incongruence in rotation turned out to be a missing piece of my left leg pistol squat puzzle.

My left side pistol squat used to be extremely wobbly, and even kind of painful (I mean tight, I MEAN…) for my hamstring (old injury). As it happens, on my left leg, my pelvis and ribcage were rotating the same direction (both to the left, instead of pelvis left, ribs right). In gait, and in most exercises, the pelvis and ribcage should rotate in opposite directions, not the same. I just hadn’t noticed this until I took the time to interview my body.

View from the top down: Skull and pelvis both rotating to the left (L), while ribcage opposes and rotates to the right (R)

Now, with the awareness of my lacking oppositional rotation, I can go just as low into the pistol squat as on my right side (which is still pretty pitiful) with no discomfort, and all I have to do is reach forwards a bit further with my left hand.

And I’ve been blaming my “short achilles tendons” all these years… It was just a rotational pattern I didn’t know I wasn’t doing.

Pretty cool to be able to trace some wrist discomfort to an old hamstring injury, and use the info to revamp my pistol squats.

What’s really interesting to me is that paying all this extra attention to my body over the past week, it feels amazing, in fact, never so good. However, my wrist still feels the same. Not worse, the same. Pain is still there, but I feel enriched by the experience of exploring it.

Patience is truly a most important virtue, as this process has been teaching me.

CONCLUSIONS?

Nope. I’m all worded out. Gather your own conclusions. You can do it! I believe in you!

And seeing as we’re getting towards the 3000 word mark, I think this is a nice place to wrap up.

What do you think? What’s your experience? Hate or love what I have to say? Leave your kind words and/or abuse in the comments section below.

 

Tales From the Dance Academy (part 3)

Tales From the Dance Academy (part 3)

Click here to read part 1.

Click here to read part 2.

Things are getting a little chaotic at the dance school. Students are in full on rehearsal mode for an upcoming show at the end of February and their schedule is getting intense.

In teaching this class, one of my aims is for the students to consider not doing the things I did when I was their age.

Dance Stronger

Self-portrait, Monika age 22

Here are some quick notes from this week’s class.

How deep is your practice?

As I mentioned last week, I wanted to hold a discussion with the dancers on what it means to practice deeply, having noticed that, week by week, their ability to focus has been waning.

Sometimes I read books. I like books about the mind. I particularly like books on the psychology and neuroscience of skill acquisition and mental performance.

This January I read Deep Work (Cal Newport) and Outliers (Malcolm Gladwell). I also read Flow (Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi), and The Talent Code (Daniel Coyle) last year, and as a result, for the past year or so I’ve been contemplating the meaning of the concepts deep practice and flow state, and my own relationship with them,

Image result for deep workDeep Work focuses on the benefits of working and thinking in a deep, focused way in a world in which it is easier than ever to become distracted by our technology, and why we should be doing more deep work. Working deeply saves time, delivers superior quality results, and at higher rate of productivity. Newport remarks, however, that our ability to focus deeply is limited, and, on average, it seems that we can only realistically reach about 4 hours per day, in chunks of about 90 minutes at a time (which in itself takes some training to accomplish).

Image result for outliersOutliers focuses on factors, sometimes random factors like date of birth, that enabled the most successful people to accumulate the 10 000 hours of deep practice he argues are necessary for people to master a skill (although, in his book, he left out the important word “deep”, neglecting to explain that these 10 000 hours of practiced need to be of a specific quality).

 

Flow describes what it means and how it feels to be in the state of deep practice, “flow state”. Image result for flow mihalyCsikszentmihalyi explains that in a state of flow we are completely immersed in the present moment with no distractions, have a clear goal in mind, are aware of mistakes as we make them, and receive immediate feedback moment to moment in order to adjust based on these mistakes. Time begins to distort so that it flies by (an hour seeming to go by in half as much), or even time slowing down as we are fully present in every second that passes.

Image result for the talent codeThe Talent Code explores the role of deep, deliberate practice in skill acquisition through the lens of neuroscience- We are not born inherently with our talents, but those who have mastered a given skill have become that way due to the many hours of deep practice they participated in. He goes on to describe the qualities of deep practice that creates changes in how our brain is wired, which, interestingly, requires that we fail and make mistakes.

Sounds like useful stuff to know about for a group of young dancers trying to make it in a hard world where only the top few succeed (whatever that means).

I started the discussion by asking them, “What does deep practice mean to you?”. Some of the answers I received:

“Being completely in the moment”

“Having no distractions”

“Doing it right”

This last one is interesting. Does deep practice mean, “doing it right”?

When I asked him to explain what he meant he elaborated with the example of doing a tendu. If you practice doing a tendu but you’re “doing it wrong”, with your leg turning in when it should be turning out (if you’re doing ballet), then its not deep practice, because the technique is wrong.

This is interesting because as we know from Coyle’s work, we need to make mistakes to learn and change. Too, from Csikszentmihalyi’s work, we know that part of flow state is noticing mistakes in real time and making adjustments. So, being “wrong” is a necessary part of deep practice.

Deep practice is a neutral state. There is no right or wrong, there is simply awareness of what is.

Practicing things without technical precision, not caring, not noticing, and thinking about lunch, for example, is not deep practice. However, practicing things with poor technical precision, but noticing, actively trying to change and adapt based on these mistakes, and paying attention to the feedback in your body from moment to moment is deep practice.

Also, it is possible to deeply practice something the wrong way, in which case, you will not have mastered what you set out to master. This is why it is important to have an end goal in mind when participating in a deep practice.

I understand what he meant by “doing it right”. If you practice a skill ineffectively, you will master just that. You get what you practice.

Next, I asked the class to make a list of all their classes in a given week (which was about 15 different non-academic, physical classes), and asked them to reflect on how deeply they practiced in each of these classes, rating it on a scale of 1 to 10 (1 being very shallow, and 10 being extremely deep).

Overall, the dancers found that in ballet and in partnering classes they worked most deeply, and, overwhelmingly, they found that they were practicing the least deeply in pilates. Why?

In partnering, one dancer explained that there was more at stake if you’re not invested in the moment. If you aren’t in the moment, and your partner is relying on you to be there for them, things are not going to go well. I agreed, you wouldn’t want to be paired up with someone who didn’t have a depth to their practice in a partnering class. You would not trust the person with the track record for having a short attention span.

Other dancers explained that they enjoyed ballet the most, and so found it easier to practice more deeply. Makes sense.

As for pilates, the dancers said several things to explain their lack of depth in practice:

“The repetitive actions and rhythm makes it easy to just get it into my muscle memory and then I zone out mentally”

“Lying on the floor makes me tired”

“There’s no music… Wait, maybe that would make me even less focused”.

Interesting feedback.

At the very least, I hoped to get them stoked to focus for my class. I wonder how they rated their focus in my class… I’ll admit, I was afraid to ask (but at least I beat pilates on the depth score!).

Fun with diaphragmatic breathing

Image result for diaphragmatic breathingA few weeks ago I guided the dancers through a check-in of how well they could breathe with their diaphragm. I think I explained that in a bit more detail in part one, so maybe you’d like to go back and (re-)read that now.

Essentially, dancers were to use their hands to feel for 360 fill: Coordinated sternum/belly breathing, posteriolateral (back and side) ribcage expansion, lower abdomen/pelvis fill (just below the ASIS). They chose the one that was challenging to do, but that they were able to change if they put their attention there. Their next task was to simply walk around the room for a few minutes with their focus on breathing air into where they had chosen to use their hands to monitor airflow.

For example, students who found it a challenge to feel their lower abdomen/pelvis fill with inhalation were to put their hands there and walk at a pace at which they could still manage to create air flow into their hands. If they lost the ability to fill, they were to slow down their pace or stop, and were encouraged to speed up when they thought they could handle more challenge.

Its one thing to stand still, or lie down, and breathe with an ideal diaphragmatic pattern, but to notice and adjust it in motion is the challenge, and generally we lose awareness of this when we start dancing or moving with more complexity. An ideal breathing pattern has to become unconscious so that we can carry it into dancing, and other activities, without the extra energy spent micromanaging it.

As Karel Lewit said,

If breathing is not normalised no other movement pattern can be”

Let’s pronate and supinate the crap out of our feet!

And we did.

We went through suspension again, to review our introduction to pronation mechanics last week.

I couldn’t believe how easily this class embraced pronation. Feeling is believing, I suppose. This class reported that pronation actually felt nice to do. After practicing suspension, they reported that their hips felt looser, and their feet felt more grounded. I said to them, “Isn’t it funny? Most of us have been told that pronation is bad to do, but here you are pronating your feet, and saying that it feels nice.”

Very awesome.

This week we moved into new territory: Supination.

To experience this, we went through a movement called transition from Anatomy in Motion, which replicates the phase of gait in which the foot moves from pronation into supination, with the foot tripod on the floor, as we would see in mid-stance.

This day was reminiscent of last winter when I held a jump landing workshop at York University, and all we did was pronate and supinate the crap out of everyone’s feet.

(this workshop footage is available in full for members of Dance Stronger, FYI. It’s in the member zone, under “Support Resources”).

In transition, what we want to feel is, by virtue of rotating the pelvis, that the femur, tibia, and sub-talar joint (ankle) also rotate and pull the foot up into a supinated position (arch with tripod on ground). Its not the just foot we’re looking to move, but to move it in context of what the rest of the body does when the foot begins to resupinate. We could say that what we are trying to do is supinate the body, as a global movement.

Image result for supination

Only one dancer in the class “didn’t get it”. It’s a tough thing to coach a group setting, ensuring that everyone can get a sense of what the movement should feel like in their bodies. This one dancer did not seem to be able to keep a tripod on the floor, rolling all the way to the outsides of her feet, and so losing the supination and going into inversion, aka, ankle sprain city. This is pretty common for people who have had a lot of ankle sprains, and the outside of their ankle becomes lax. Next week, she’s gonna get wedged.

Orthorics vs. "floorthotics": Creative AiM foot wedging strategies with one of my clients

Welcome to wedge city, population, dat inverted foot!

(Transition is a movement we cover in Dance Stronger in more detail).

A story I forgot to tell last week

Two weeks ago, actually.

There is a dancer in my class with a massive amount of rib flare at rest, and a lumbar spine that does not flex (round). It is very noticeable when she dances, and she says that she is constantly getting the correction from her teachers to not stick her ribs out.

Two weeks ago we introduced some breathing check-ins, and we played around with breathing diaphragmatically by reducing rib flare on an exhalation to get to a zone of apposition, and working on using a 360 inhalation without losing their ZOA. This one dancer told me after class that while she was doing this- Not flaring her ribs on inhalation, she got crazy cramping pains in her ribcage. She was wondering what the heck was going on.

While I can’t know exactly what’s going on in her body, I did my best to piece it together, logically.

My best explanation:

In your current position, ribs flaring up, and unable to move down, your most important breathing muscle, diaphragm, is stuck in a shortened, contracted position. So, when you exhale and get your ribs to move down and in, your diaphragm gets a chance to lengthen and relax. This, however, is not currently  within your comfort zone to do, and when you inhale again, you are contracting a muscle from a longer position than it is used to, which could potentially create some cramping.

Think about how it feels to go into a lunge or as I recently experienced, a one leg squat more deeply than you normally go, and try to get out. With the muscles in a longer state than they are used to going into, it requires more force to contract back to center, and you’ll feel the muscle contracting harder than usual, and possibly cramping.

Of course, this is a strange and unpleasant sensation to have going on inside your ribcage. Not pleasant, but good information to work with in a safe way. Work gently, not forcefully with the breath.

I hope that this also makes some sense of why it is so hard to change this pattern of rib flare just by telling dancers in class to get their ribs down- They don’t know how to breathe like that, and when they do, it hurts!

Other thoughts

Focus was indeed better this week. I didn’t ask them to focus more. I didn’t tell them their their focus was poor and they needed to get their acts together. We had a nice discussion on deep practice, and, as it often does, in simply becoming aware of something, that thing started to change. I hope they will consider this idea in their other classes as well (especially pilates!).

That’s all for today’s notes. Thanks for reading this far.