In Spirit: About Physical Pain

Pain is commonplace for all human beings on this planet. For reasons of illness, body aches, somatic pains, tensions related to a shock, each of us knows it. There are two types of pain, and that’s what is interesting to learn to identify through this awareness and deep respect for this space that allows become more sensitive. There is the pain that saves, the one that provides from hurting oneself. And the other pain, the one that is caused by reacting against the physical pain.

Last week, I was working with an artist from Iceland who is performing in the water and on the icebergs. When I asked her about her experience of the cold, she told me that the body, when in thermal shock, even light, has a tendency to stretch and tense, which blocks the circulation of blood, therefore, preventing oxygenation and warming of the body. In a way, the body has the same reaction to the tension. It stiffens against the pain it experiences as a shock, especially if it is intense. This is where it is interesting to see the mechanism: finally, what one feels is the reaction to pain, more than the pain itself. It requires a form of training, in the sense of exploring, living and visiting this space, to learn to see the reaction, to feel it, to let it dissolve so one can really meet with the pain that exists behind it.

On the other hand, this young woman was explaining to me that at a certain moment, when the body becomes too numb, the performer has to get out of the water right away because he can hurt himself and not feel it. The sensation of pain is necessary as it indicates when the stop or to not do something. It is a natural survival instinct to keep the body alive and healthy. So, in a way, the discrimination one has to make is to learn how to recognize those two spaces. In this article, we are talking about the pain and the psychic reaction that accompanies it, because it is the experience of almost everyone and the one that generates the most questions. If the pain was clear, it would not bother us, we would not need to ask the question. The act of questioning is also the presentiment that something deeper is hidden behind the pain, the possibility of meeting oneself.

Actually, when I feel the pain that appears, there is no many choices but to let it be. The more you are available and open to receive it, the more you will be able to listen to it. The act of trying to eliminate pain, as if it a bother, that’s what we want to observe. Everyone knows this sensation that there is something to absolutely change or correct. See how we are used to anticipating before the pain actually arrives, and prepare subterfuges so that it does not appear. That means there is a form of compensation, something that I do not want to feel and see. If I rectify, I will maybe make the pain go away, but since its origin is deeper, it will settle elsewhere. So when one understands this mechanism, a posture of letting be will naturally be adopted and a presence to observation will begin. Pain has its right place.


Pain is a sensation that can be an extraordinary guide in the exploration, as long as it does not take a form that throws the body into a state of total reactivity, an area where the sensation becomes annihilated. One can discover a space where the sensation of tension can be explored and felt in the moment that it appears and releases. The moment of the passage from the apparition to the disappearance is very important. That’s why when one practice, it is important to start by feeling the spaces of relaxation of the physical structure, so that the body learns, little by little, to tame and to know this simultaneous sensation of space, relaxing, with another part of the body that can be tensed. Usually, by reactivity – as one can feel it with the cold – when a part of the body contracts, instinctively, it is the whole muscular structure that tenses, a little like a chain reaction. But it is absolutely possible to feel a zone of tension and at the same time, another part of the body that experiences relaxation. I feel the pain, but the reaction does not appear, there is no longer a chain reaction. And this experience is only possible by allowing the body and the mind to totally give themselves to the sensation of the present moment, to the place where there is no longer any opinion or belief about how the body should be, how it should react or not. It is about giving oneself completely to what is there, embodying the sensation, in every sense of the word.

I have had injuries in the past, and without them, I could have never discovered some subtleties in my bodywork. I realized with time that they are gifts to listen better. When I started yoga, I was 20 years old, I had a body naturally very available and flexible. When I first discovered kashmirian yoga practice, we were told to raise one leg to the ceiling or to explore de space with the body in various postures, and my teacher guided each movement by talking about the sensitivity, inviting to feel the contractions and the limit, the tensions. But I did not feel anything at all. I would bend my back, touch my toes with my head and do the split, but I did not feel a thing. I did not understand what he was talking about because my body had few limits, but mostly because I had no sensitivity. It took me years to find out to which extent my body was a complete structure of reaction and my flexibility was a compensation hiding pain. So sometimes, a body that looks flexible and healthy may actually be the opposite on the internal most subtle level.

One always thinks that practicing yoga requires to be flexible and have a very open body. It’s true if your goal is the performance, but it’s totally wrong if you do work from the internal perspective. Everyone needs functional flexibility, but too much flexibility breaks the body, it does not help. It is still very rare in everyday life that you need to make the splits to close the trunk of your car with your foot because we have a baby in one arm and your groceries in the other … so apart for YouTube videos or impressing the neighbourhood, we do not really need it. All that to say, that the flexibility, which is usually associated with a relaxed and painless body, can as much be a subterfuge and a reactivity, that a body which presents tensions. What helps the most is the limit, where the tension will appear. That does not mean that one has to look for it at all costs, no, it just means that pain should be trusted as a guide: it will spontaneously present itself, and when it does, then it must be listened to because it will help me become more subtle and sensitive in my everyday practice and life. 

When I extend my arm, I should feel that the movement is initiated from the center of my chest, even my hip, or my foot, and not just using the joint. If I create the movement from the joint, if I confront the pain or the blockage in this latter, if I only use my flexibility, then it is false, in the sense that it is not organic to the body. This is only by returning to the sensation of globality that the body will find the right movement and integrated it, and therefore where the tension when it appears will leave no psychological trace or memory within the structure, it will not be anchored in bodily and psychic reactivity. Pain really helps to find the right line when it brings back to the listening. So, never try to make it go away.

Of course, I can only talk about the pains I know, and you have to find what applies to you. A physical pain gives the information that one should stop a movement or get out of a situation, that is why a child, for example, will automatically remove his hand when it’s above a flame. But the reaction to pain, the nonsensing of pain, the avoidance of pain, it is really where everything is happening, because it is beyond the pain actually. Pain hides something deeper, mechanisms of the being that are truly pathways to the heart of oneself. A pain that arises is always a form of an old memory that wants to leave the body.

So you accept, you welcome and say thank you. Without comparing, without commenting. You rarely have the choice. Either you go to war against yourself, and that has never made anyone happy, or you accept that your body is your collaborator, and therefore you will work with it. So, instead of approaching it as if you are the one who knows better how it should be, and that it is wrong, you reverse the roles: maybe it is you who do not think correctly and it is your body which knows what is good for you. It is going to teach and show the path. From there, there is no limit, because there are plenty of areas of sensitivity that open, there are plenty of areas of limits that one will discover. And that is what is beautiful, there is no space less interesting than another … That’s why it is important to address each yoga posture, bodywork in general, without the memory. The body is so fantastic that it can work on very different levels from one practice to another. Sometimes, the body screams in pain, and suddenly the practitioner can experience a form of presence and the vibration emerges where the sensation of pain no longer exists… and an instant later it comes back. This is where one begins to understand that the pain is on another level. It’s something more global that speaks, and therefore you have to listen. Let it come, and leave. When one works on another level with the body, the muscular structure falls asleep, that you stop hanging on to it and that you let go, you will be taken by something else, and that is where the deconditioning of the body happens. The less you hold onto the psychic level, the more the body will reflect this availability. The more you try to dominate your body, to train it, to soften it, in a process of imposition, the more it densifies, and that’s normal because you have totally created a dual relationship with your body. So, you really have to approach the body by listening to it and letting it guide you, that’s the sensation to find and follow. And all the rest will happen from there…

Photos by Mariette Raina, series of testimonials on the body:

Photo # 1 “Jacinthe

Jacinthe is a teacher of body awareness. A few years ago, her body was hit by what appears to have been parasites without a final medical diagnosis, pushing her to work and relearn her body in a different way to rebuild it. Today, she has a daily routine with her body to which she combines art to grow her sensitivity.

Photo #2 “Eva

Eva is a choreographer and dancer. The body of the dancer is a place where everything happens, and the pain is a habitual encounter that sometimes results in extreme or even irreversible wounds. But the consciousness of the body that the dancer cultivates allows him/her, in general, to reclaim the body in a different way, even inspiring for a new and more sensitive work. The dancer knows that it is often in the limit that new avenues of creation can be discovered.

Photo #3 “Suzanne”

Suzanne has had juvenile rheumatoid arthritis since she was 13 years old. Her body is a map of her history where scars and deformities testify about the journey. Suzanne chose writing and body exploration to rebuild herself, teaching others how what seems to be limited is actually a path to greater sensitivity, which is infinite. 

Photo #4 “Rolland

Rolland has a congenital malformation, a consequence of anti-nausea treatment put on the market for pregnant women in the 1950s. Born without arms, without feet, without lower jaw and tongue, Rolland has been the subject of many medical studies among which his body was photographed, observed and examined by many researchers. It is through his work as a model for photographers and fine-artists that he decided to rebuild an image of himself where only the beauty and the greatness of the body persists.

About Mariette Raina
First trained as an anthropologist (graduated from the University of Montreal in 2014), it is in parallel of her 6 years at University that Mariette studies kashmirian yoga and evolved in the artistic circles where she questions the act of perception, the relation to the image, as well as the body as a vehicle of expression, through photography, writing and performance. Since 2015 she has been teaching photography classes at the Activités Culturelles of the University of Montreal. She has been working at Center Never Apart in Montreal since 2016 as a writer of monthly articles and collaborated on various projects such as an exhibition and Dax Dasilva’s Age of Union book. Her various activities are related to the same exploration: the understanding of human beings and Reality.

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