The Sensory World of Yoga: Pleasure and Pain

I’ve spent a couple weeks on vacation. Although I did yoga, danced, walked and moved my body upon returning to my mat I’m feeling sore. I feel the aches and pains of a good work out. That doesn’t happen to me very often. My consistent and regular yoga practice keeps my sensation levels in the pleasurable realm. What I am feeling right now would be better called pleasant soreness, but clearly soreness. Muscles responding to movement and work, the results of labor reflected in the flesh the next day.

The English language has insufficient words for the varying nature of sensation. Pleasure and pain are not enough. I’d like more words to describe the myriad feelings in our bodies. For example, a student came in recently complaining about pain in the back of her legs. She stroked her hamstrings and told me “it hurts here.” As we worked together, it became clear to me her hamstrings were strong, flexible, and feeling pretty good as they moved. I inquired further about the pain and learned that she was experiencing something more akin to sciatica than tight hamstrings. With that awareness I had a whole different approach to her problem. A clearer vocabulary of sensation would have pointed me to the cause of the pain more directly. So here is some discussion of sensation, pain and pleasure, and the various qualities thereof.

Good sensation/good pain: is the sensation of stretch deep in the belly of a muscle. It is a rich long sensation that may radiate into surrounding connective tissue. Stretching pain usually fades as one stays in a stretch with time: as the muscle fibers lengthen the sensation diminishes. For example, when I stretch my pectoral muscles (by rotating my upper arm bone behind me) I feel the locus of stretch in the front of my arm pit and into my upper arm. If I listen more deeply I can feel the stretch through my elbow, forearm and all the way out to my fingertips. It is a gently tugging, a pull, it is not a sharp sensation. The same sensations extend up along my collarbone, along the side of my throat and to my jaw. These are satisfying sensations and I want to linger in them, I want to repeat them by pushing into the stretch when the sensations ease. Another example, when I twist my spine I come up against a structural barrier that feels like pushing on a wall. The twist goes only so far as the small muscles along my spine are working at their full capacity to twist. I can feel the length and pull in my abdominal oblique muscles as well a warm sensation of pull in my shoulders, ribs and hips. If I wait and relax into the twist the sensation subsides. I am then able to deepen the twist a little farther and find new areas of sensation in my spine.

Here is another place to listen for good stretch pain and the cascade of stretch with movement: we’ll do a Pilates Roll Down. Stand upright, tall and strong from your core. Drop your head forward to look down your body while keeping the torso muscles engaged and tall. Now slowly, very slowly, allow one vertebra at a time to roll off the spine and join the relaxed stretch of the head and neck. Everything that is in the forward bend is a rag doll, completely released, All the parts of your body that are still upright are strong and steady. Listen as you go, slowly rolling down the spine. You’ll come up against different parts of your spine where the tightness varies, where the sensations are higher. You can linger in these places allowing them to slowly release, or you can push quickly past them and move onto the next area of your spine. You’ll have the most effective lengthening of your back, the most opportunity to improve your flexibility and posture, if you linger in the areas of stretch until they naturally give way, rather pushing forward and through to the next zone of stretch. Reverse your actions to come out of the stretch, using your abdominal strength to slowly and sequentially lift the vertebrae back into place.

Bad sensation/bad pain is like coming up against a stop sign: your joints or muscles say STOP don’t go any farther, back up, yield, move out of this position. Bad pain can often be sharp, harsh, or sudden but it can also come on more gradually. As I sit here cross-legged there is pain in my knee where I had surgery last year. It is a deep ache in the joint not a sensation of stretch or pull. It tells me to rearrange my posture if I want to stand and walk easily after writing. If I don’t listen to this pain it gets louder and increases with time rather than subsiding. If I slump while I’m sitting here my back gradually begins to ache. Again, this sensation is telling me something: Sit up! It is a dull achy groan in my lumbar spine (lower back). Another clear sign of bad pain is nausea: if I push too extremely into an injury I’ll become nauseous. This is a clear warning sign of that I am causing damage to my body. Come out of what you are doing if you become nauseous.

We don’t want to irritate nerves with our exercise either. Nerve pain can be sensations of tingles, sparks, pin and needles or even numbness. These sensations should be avoided. Nerves like to be stretched but they don’t like to be pinched. Pinching the nerves yields these negative sensations. If you feel nerve sensations radiating through your limbs or body it is a sign to back off and realign your joints and muscles so that the nerve is no longer pinched. Repeated nerve pinching can do damage to the nerves themselves.

There is a pain in hard work that can be bad or good depending on the situation. For example when you are doing push ups or chataranga dandasana, your pectoral muscles might start to ache, even scream. Listen to them. You can push a into work for a while, but stop before the muscles scream or fail. When you are working at the edge of muscle failure you are much more vulnerable to injury, particularly if the muscle is bearing weight in a precarious position (eg. arm balances, inversions, chataranga, or one legged balance postures).

Joint popping is generally a neutral sensation, neither good or bad unless it is painful. I have noisy joints and most of them don’t cause me any problems. But if my jaw pops repeatedly, perhaps from eating a large crisp apple, then the pain lingers and is severe. You should avoid any joint popping that causes pain. The same is true for the sensations of ligaments or tendons ‘thunking’ as they cross joints. If the thunk sensation is neutral you are unlikely to be causing any damage. However, you can often realign a joint to avoid the thunking sensation, that is generally a better alignment and healthier for the joint.

Finally, I’d like to address post exercise pain. Normal post exercise pain will peak about 24 hours after you have worked the muscles and resolve completely within 48 hours. Ice, anti-inflammatory medicines, and Epsom salt baths can all be used to treat post exercise pain. Professional athletes routinely ice their muscles and joints after working out to prevent post exercise soreness and reduce the accumulated strain of repeatedly working the same muscles. If you have pushed yourself particularly hard, you can use ice before pain sets in and you might avoid it all together. If post exercise pain does not resolve within a few days, you may have injured yourself. Take a break and rest those muscles for a few more days, if the pain does not resolve it may be time to see a health care provider.

My students sometimes laugh when I refer to sensation rather than pain. I don’t want to avoid the reality of what they are feeling. I do want you to look closely at the sensations you are having. If you listen closely to your body during yoga you are very unlikely to injure yourself. Most injuries occur because we push too hard against our body’s wisdom. But don’t avoid the sensations that yield good change, the pull of a stretch, the work of a muscle. Those sensations will yield longer and stronger muscles as well as deeper awareness in the body.