Sunday, May 1, 2011
Good Pain/Bad Pain
“This doesn’t hurt,” says my yoga teacher, as we squirm our way into the forward-splits. “You know what hurts? Stepping on a thumbtack. No one ever steps on a thumbtack and says, hmm, interesting.”
He squishes the ball of his foot back and forth against the floorboards, a pensive look on his face.
“Hmm, yes. Maybe I’ll just push this a little further.” He grinds his foot hard into the floor.
“No one says that. If you step on a tack, you say, Ouch! Get this thing outta my foot! That’s how you can tell it’s pain. You want it to stop.”
Any yoga student needs to learn this lesson: the difference between pain and not pain.
But if you think it’s pain, doesn’t that make it pain, you might ask? Isn’t pain nothing more than a perception?
Okay, then, point taken. Any yoga student needs to learn the difference between good pain and bad pain. Good pain is the pain of breaking through things that bind you up and restrict your motion, bunchy muscles and scar tissue. Bad pain is the pain of injury, of debilitating yourself. Good pain makes you better. Bad pain makes you worse.
It’s similar to the difference between sorrow and depression. Sorrow is horrible pain that you don’t really want to go away. I just need this time to be sad, we say. I’m not ready to be cheered up yet. You’re sad about something, and you need the sadness to help you understand that something.
When you’re depressed, you would give anything to stop it, which is why it’s really cruel to tell depressed people to stop wallowing and pull themselves out of it. Your painful emotions aren’t helping you understand anything, because they’re illogical and disconnected from your experiences. It’s odd to even call them emotions or sadness, because those terms indicate a response to something in the world, and depression is a response to nothing. It’s bad pain, pain that tells you something is wrong, pain that is a sign of damage.
If we are too frightened of pain that hurts us, we may shy away from pain that helps us. Dropping your body weight onto your tight hamstrings feels horrible at first, like you are going to rip your muscle in two. This isn’t an irrational fear; stretch too far, too soon, and it might happen. But without pushing the limits of your physical comfort, you’ll never become more flexible and mobile. So you need to learn how to relax with the discomfort, and know when that discomfort crosses the line between helping pain and injuring pain.
As my yoga teacher talks about pain, I look over at a young, attractive South American woman who has worked her way into a pretty nice-looking split. She looks familiar, and then I remember: she used to come to my kickboxing school. For a few months, she was my frequent training partner, often the only other woman in the class. She had never done martial arts before, but she had an appealing enthusiasm for kicking and punching, throwing her full weight into her techniques and laughing happily as her fist smacked against the pads.
The only problem was, she fell in love with someone in the class. I could tell, because she began training with her hair down, her long, brown tresses slapping her face each time she threw a kick. Then one night, when she waved at me from across the room, I didn’t recognize her—she looked like a different girl, with a blanker face, a photoshopped version of herself. Upon closer inspection, it turned out she was wearing a full mask of evening makeup, her cheeks rouged, her eyes shadowed in deep, smoky gray. The next week, she showed up to a wrestling class wearing pearl earrings and a cashmere sweater that felt soft against my cheek as we took turns throwing each other onto the floor.
The day that the object of her affections rejected her advances, she stormed out of the school with the jaunty walk and forced smile of a woman who wouldn’t let a man get her down. “Goodbye!” she exclaimed to me and another student as she passed us, in a voice that held back tears.
The toughness of her exit—the exaggerated spring in her step, the grimness of the smile—made me hope that she would triumph over this pain, that she would be back the next day, or next week, to show her beloved that she was too proud to let him scare her out of a class that she seemed to be enjoying.
But she didn’t come back until a year later, only to repeat the same pattern: more makeup each night, tighter clothing, until two weeks later she left in a huff, this time for good. I never saw her again, until now, when she had appeared in my yoga class.
I could imagine why this girl didn’t want to continue attending a school with someone who had rejected her. I have dated people from my kickboxing school. When we broke up, it was painful to see them in class, to have my private unhappiness infiltrate the space where I usually escaped my problems. The awkward greetings at the beginning of class, watching my ex-boyfriend wrestle with a new female student, waving goodbye on the way out the door as he listened to a message on his cell phone—every interaction was like a sharp little punch in the stomach. But these punches were more like the splits than the thumbtack. They hurt for a minute, but then I got used to it, and really it wasn’t so bad.
Maybe that South American girl could have worked through the pain and continued training. But the very fact that she didn’t shows that martial arts wasn’t the right discipline for her, anyway. Learning to fight is all about expanding your notion of good pain to include things that would normally be seen as bad pain: getting punched in the face, kicked in the stomach, slammed on the floor. It turns out that that the boundaries between these types of pain are blurrier than you’d think. Good pain can cross over into bad when you get a little bruised, or bleed a little, or sprain your ankle. Or those things might be good pain, pain that strengthens us, depending on how much discomfort we are willing to accept. I consider black eyes and broken noses to be too much pain, but I’ve seen people I train with shake them off like a stubbed toe. Maybe a bruised ego or a bruised heart is too much pain to encounter several nights a week. It becomes a question of weighing damage against growth, judging how much you can stretch before you snap.