Photo: James Jordan / Flickr
“Pain is also a teacher, a messenger directing us to pay attention to our bodies or to move away from behavior and situations in which we are weak to those in which we practice integrity and strength.”
- Carolyn Myss
"My shoulders always hurt!"
"My neck is always stiff - nothing I do seems to change that."
"My low back is always stiff and sore, that's just how it is."
Many of us have areas in our bodies that seem to gather and hold tension, over and over and over again. These areas may be constantly on our awareness, or they may become such a part of our experience of ourselves that we block them from our awareness most of the time - almost forgetting these parts of our bodies exist at all! Many people first come to the yoga mat or the massage table in order to relieve the discomfort or pain of some area of chronic tension in their bodies.
Why does greater tension occur in certain areas of our bodies?
Why does it return to the same places over and over?
From a purely physical perspective, the ways we persistently use our bodies can impose postural habits and mechanical stress upon the body. We are subject to the laws of gravity and physics, after all! In order to change any tension pattern in our bodies, first we must see it, and then start looking for the ways we reinforce it in our daily lives. Here are some examples of things I commonly see in my practice:
A great deal of neck and shoulder discomfort and tension resulting from hours spent in a hunched over, neck-craned position while peering into a poorly lit computer screen.
Pain and instability in the lower back related to slumping on the couch for hours with no back support or abdominal engagement.
Pain in one hip, on one side of the lower back, or around one shoulder blade, related to habitually carrying an infant, toddler or car seat on only one side of the body.
Tightness and restricted motion in the hips related to lots of daily forward flexion (sitting for many hours, doing lots of old-school abdominal crunches) with no counter-balancing (strengthening and working the glutes and back muscles, opening through the fronts of the hips, abdomen and chest).
We want to identify the behaviors creating our discomfort, to begin noticing all of the ways we sustain the pattern through our daily activities, choices and movements. Awareness practices, such as massage and yoga, can assist us greatly in these efforts. Both invite our attention into our bodies and our breath, to notice what is happening within them in any moment. Both massage and yoga create the quiet, the time and the space for us to begin to make connections: between apparently disparate areas of our bodies, between our breath and our feelings, between our feelings and our tension. We begin to make connections on our mat or on the table - we practice there. And then we might start to bring the practice with us when we leave, learning more and more about ourselves in our daily life between massages and off the mat. Additionally, by momentarily interrupting our commonly held tension patterns, massage and yoga practices can offer us new patterns of moving and breathing, allowing us to become more aware of our old patterns as they reassert themselves. We start to notice when our discomfort begins, before it reaches the level of pain. We start to notice where the cycle begins for us.
“Emotional and psychological pain can also be a signal to pay attention. It can be a teacher, whether it originates in our emotions or our physical bodies. It directs our attention to the physical or emotional area that is begging for repair. Drugging pain prematurely or too much can be a mistake, because it can mislead us into thinking that we are healing when we are not. Instead of immediately medicating ourselves in every instance, we should examine why we have a pain or a pattern of physical aches and pains...”
– Carolyn Myss, from Why People Don’t Heal and How They Can
As we begin noticing where and how our physical pain manifests, we can be making supportive changes in our habits. Adjusting our sitting position to allow more ease in our hips, moving the kiddo to our opposite hip every other time we pick them up, giving ourselves lumbar support to maintain an erect spine while driving or working at our desk, creating an ergonomic desk arrangement, taking movement breaks every hour or two, and strengthening our back muscles to endure the daily stress we ask them to meet would all help to alleviate the discomfort of the patterns I mentioned above. Over time, with regular attention, these patterns and their related discomfort would likely improve.
Whenever we have ongoing pain or discomfort that does not change, we need to look a little deeper. In the next post, we’ll look at some of the more subtle – but powerful – contributors to chronic tension in the body.
Until then, breathe deeply, practice often, and be well.
Dana Wyss Healing Arts
Breathe deeply, practice often, be well.