This thoughtful post was written by Natalie Barrales-Hall, a member of our 2015-2016 Yoga Teacher Training (YTT). Natalie has worked as a community and youth worker, and in February she began teaching Queer & Trans Yoga at Queen Street Yoga. Natalie strives to facilitate safer spaces for students who may not see themselves represented in mainstream yoga spaces or those who may be questioning whether yoga is really for them. Her approach is gentle and permissive, and she invites students to consider a practice of gratitude and self-compassion.
Whether emotional, physical or traumatic, I’ve been thinking a lot about pain. Maybe that is because of the injuries and losses I experienced during the course of the training program (don’t worry, it wasn’t the yoga asanas!), or maybe it’s informed by my work and holding space for people who are hurting, or maybe it’s simply because pain is an inevitable part of being human. Whatever the reason, I’ve been thinking about it and in all my thinking, I’ve started to wonder about the stories we are told and tell ourselves about pain – pain as the cause of loss and disconnection, pain as a source of growth and healing, and what pain says about us and how we show up in the world.
In early 2015, I was struggling to understand and manage increasingly severe knee pain which had, for all intents and purposes, come from “nowhere”. In my efforts to alleviate the pain and restore full range of movement, I was encouraged to pursue further testing to rule out any underlying injury. Thus ensued a 4-month long process which concluded with a visit to an orthopedic clinic, where upon reviewing my MRI, I was reminded of one of the first stories I can remember being told about pain: this is your fault. As the weeks passed, I would be offered many more stories by practitioners who suggested that the pain could be the result of a meniscal tear, pelvic alignment and related biomechanical concerns or energy stagnation.
Anxious to rid myself of the pain and take up a more vigorous asana practice in preparation for YTT, I dove head first into treatment, seeing anywhere from 1-3 practitioners a week. But in quiet moments, I doubted the “new” stories being offered about the cause and cure for my pain, coming back instead to the first one: it’s your fault. I continued like this through the start of the QSY yoga training program, pushing myself in treatment and then pushing myself in my yoga practice, until the pain became the loudest thing I could hear. Until my entire body became unwell and I was forced to rest. Lying in my bed for the second consecutive week, completely overwhelmed by shame and anxiety, I found myself crying in a fit of anger. How had I screwed this up? Why did I think I could do this? Why had I applied to this program in the first place? And somewhere in a mess of anxious self-talk, fitful sleep and tears, it occurred to me to re-read what I wrote in my YTT application:
“Yoga has given me a space in which to re-inhabit my body. My hope is that with continued practice, re-inhabiting my body will evolve into reclaiming my body and the changing space(s) it occupies – something I hope to be able to
share with and support others in doing. […] I have a profound desire to make peace with my body and fully embrace all of its complexities, strengths and limitations. Imagining this new reality is difficult but I believe it is possible and feel that yoga may be one of the most instrumental tools in helping me realize this desire.”
And there it was. My story. So what had really been driving my treatment and practice all these months? Fear. Fear of failure and inadequacy. Fear disguised as shame and “self-improvement”. Fear that I could not trust or be trusted with my body. Fear that above all else, it was my fault, and I was deserving of this pain.
For many people, myself included, the experience of pain often elicits a fear-based reaction: “something isn’t right”. In her book Radical Acceptance, Buddhist teacher and psychotherapist Tara Brach writes that when we respond to pain with fear or fear-based stories, we leave our embodied experience and “trap the pain in our body”. In some instances, such a response is necessary and protects us from unbearable pain or a threat to our safety; however, Brach suggests that if we are to feel at home in our bodies, then “healing comes from reconnecting with those places in our body where that pain is stored”. What Brach sums up so poignantly, has been at the heart of my experience with pain and healing over the course of the last 18 months. That’s not to suggest that I have let go of all fear-based stories about my pain or that I always feel present or safe being present in my body. Rather, the approach to healing offered by Brach and shared by many others, including trauma survivors and therapists, has been resonant for me in that it provides an alternative to the most popular stories about pain; stories that seek to find fault, place blame and use fear to keep pain at a distance.
The more I think about pain, the more stories I remember. For myself, I am slowly unraveling the tired threads of stories that told me I was worth less than the voices that surrounded me. Worth less because of the space I occupied. Worth(less) if not trying to make myself smaller, lighter, better, different: something other than what I was or am in this moment. Unlearning that story is my task, rewriting it and sharing it with others will be my reward.
Reference: Brach, T. Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life With the Heart of a Buddha. 2003. Bantam Dell.