Practice with Pain




This post is dedicated to one of the toughest men I’ve ever known:  the inimitable, unforgettable, irreplaceable Kenneth Jerrett.  I’m not really qualified to speak to a topic like this in Ken’s company.  But screw him.  He can’t do shit about it.  He’s in Newfoundland.  I heard they don’t have airplanes yet. 




Six months I languished in Canada, fat, dumb and happy, and now I’m floundering around Southeast Asia like a rookie.


Last week, I pulled up outside the door of an ice cream shop with Chubs sitting in front of me and Babymama behind, and I made three mistakes in about five seconds.  First, I stopped the bike but left it running.  Second, I left it in gear.  And third, I let Babymama lift Chubs off the bike without a scrap of assistance or even attention from me.


And Chubs put her hand on the throttle to balance herself as she lowered, and gunned it as she reached the ground.


No kill switch on the bike.  My feet were on the ground already.  My right hand snatched the handlebar to claim the throttle and brake as my left reached across to turn the key as the front wheel of the bike bulled through the door into the ice cream shop, garnering, I imagine, a little attention from the handful of customers inside.  But my biggest, worry, of course, was the girls.  They were both on my right and in close proximity, and my only control of the bike was my right hand on the handlebar.


So I squeezed that bitch with my legs as hard as I could, and spent a second or two getting matters in hand while my right leg, pressed hard against the exhaust pipe, sizzled merrily and I bellowed like a gelded bull.


Bike stopped, leg pulled off the tailpipe.  A quick glance to my right revealed two ashen-faced but unhurt girls, and I hung my head in a wild whirl of euphoric relief and searing agony.  The young security guard came over to ask if I was okay.  The ice cream shop girls came over to tell me that I couldn’t park there.


I knew I was burned pretty bad, I had to be, and I felt no hurry to look at the thing.  I backed out of the doorway, we got helmets and masks and safety glasses off and racked on the bike, the young guy parked it for me, and then I pulled the first-aid kit attached to my dad-stuff bag off, dug out a vial of iodine, and looked down.


Gross.  Over a four- or five-square-inch patch, the skin was completely gone, revealing gleaming white subcutaneous fat, very lightly pan-seared, with a couple of little yellowish scraps hanging off.  I expended all available iodine into the ragged hole, slapped on a temporary bandage, and followed the girls into the ice cream shop, where I discovered that a big bowl of ice cream is fully as palliative when you’re just barely the right side of 50 as it was when you were 5.


On the way home we picked up an armload of gauze et cetera, and Babymama and Chubs both helped me clean and bandage (after photographing to gross out Facebook, of course.  I note that Chubs tackled the process with more coolness and aplomb than her mother).  The next morning, I climbed into the shower, and calculating that the gauze would have stuck to the wound overnight, decided to soak it thoroughly.


Rookie mistake #4 in the series:   a deluge of untreated tropic-climate, developing-nation water into my open wound.  The evening bandage change featured an appreciable mound of green pus, and it was straight back to the pharmacy for antibiotics (and thank God for a country where you can buy amoxicillin and tetracycline without the written blessing of some douchebag in a white coat.)


(Interesting note:  the Vietnamese use amoxicillin not just orally, but as a topical, and it works a treat in that application.  But don’t decide to add tetracycline to that mix after a couple of days.  Tetracycline doesn’t appear to work as a topical.  Rather, it forms a hard, yellow shell of tetracycline-crete that does nothing clinically beneficial, and which you will have to pry off in chunks a few days later with a scalpel blade and cut away all the dead tissue underneath.)


Anyways, the infection hurt worse than the original burn, and for a few days, down dog got real interesting.  My mind didn’t wander a bit.


Day 12 now, and it’s healing nicely.  I went off oral antibiotics three days ago, but Babymama still demands the right to dust the wound with amoxicillin every bandage change.  Things might be a bit Freddy Kruger-y down there when the dust settles, we’ll see, and there’ll likely be a little patch that’s a couple millimeters depressed from the surrounding tissue, but as usual I’m healing like Wolverine, so it looks like I got away with it all again, touch wood.  Short and sweet, this one.


I’ve practiced with pain for longer stretches in stranger circumstances.  About fifteen years ago, I sprained my wrist at Mugs & Jugs, that lamented New Westminster institution and show lounge that my buddies and I used to live at.  There was a punching bag game at the back, one of those idiotic carnival-game contraptions that display the force they’ve been hit with as a number, and I was drunk and competing with said buddies.  I hit the bag off-center and rolled my wrist.  I knew I’d fucked it, but of course I went another three or four rounds, and the next morning had a purple mango for a wrist.  So much as turning a door knob made me whimper.


It was three months healing.  Then I fucked it again getting bucked off the mechanical bull at Big Star in Burnaby.  I was in my thirties.


And for four years, I had to wrap that wrist for everything, the gym, yoga, everything, and every compression, whether it was on a bench press or a down dog, was accompanied by vicious, stabbing pain.   Combative sports were completely out of the question; I couldn’t even contemplate hitting a heavy bag or submitting to a wrist lock.  Yes, yes, I rested it, for as long as a couple of months, but there was no change at all, and it just wouldn’t heal, which was absolutely unique in my experience, profoundly inconvenient, and not a little disturbing.


And then one day I was at Unity Yoga in Vancouver, chatting with Reno before the class.  He commented that I was still wrapping my wrist, and started talking about wounds of the heart manifesting in the body.  I forbore from rolling my eyes or patting him on the head or from saying “That’s nice, hippy, but I sprained it on a punching bag.”  But the seed was planted.


And a few weeks later, I was sitting before (and, as recall, to the left of) the incomparable Sjanie McInnes as she spoke before class about wounds of the heart manifesting in the body, and she turned her head almost ninety degrees, looked me in the eyes, and said “It’s no accident you’re here today.”  Those precise words, I’ll remember them forever. Something inside me bounded forward and crouched to jump again.  I didn’t know why.  It was weird.  And we began.


And there was no pain in my wrist.  Down dog, no pain.  Plank, no pain.  I was freaking out a little.  I tore the wrist wrap off.  Side plank, no pain.  Crow, no pain.  No pain, none at all, not a twinge, for the rest of the class.


Or thereafter, except, I was soon to note, when I was spending time with a specific woman with whom I had a passionate, turbulent, on-again, off-again thing.  When it was on, my wrist ached.


These days, it complains a little now and then.  A glucosamine/chondroitin/msm stack often puts it to bed.

Two very different stories, there, one a simple, external pain with a short but memorable impact on my practice, the other a long, complex pain that absolutely could not have been diagnosed and treated except by the practice and by the help of two unusually talented and intuitive teachers.


Baby stuff, both of them.  I’ve heard a story of years of vinyasa practice sustained after a back injury expected to be crippling, of a hard man weeping silent tears of agony after (or during) every practice for interminable months.  I’ve seen cancer patients on their mats, I’ve seen students turn up in all kinds of braces and splints.   I’ve seen people practice with serious, intense pain.


That’s a phenomenon problematic to contemporary received wisdom.  “Don’t do anything that hurts” must be spoken thousands of time every day in yoga studios around the world, I say it myself all the time.  Many teachers try to articulate or codify a good pain/bad pain dialectic to caution their students against injurious practice, and that’s laudable, because too many of us are hurt practicing our allegedly therapeutic pursuit.


But many of us do, and should, practice with pain.  Some of us with intense pain.  Some of us with pain every single time we practice.


It’s always our call to practice or not, and in the matter of those who experience pain exposed or intensified by the practice, that call will usually not be made without consideration; humans avoid pain and seek pleasure, it’s how we’re wired.  For those in circumstances of chronic pain that are properly diagnosed and analyzed, be it by x-rays or MRIs or whatever means necessary, and who make the informed decision to practice through their pain, I have the profoundest respect.



At the moment, I’m more preoccupied with what the pain gives us.


As I mentioned earlier, my recent boo-boo acted as a point of focus, valuable at a time when my practice is on the re-ascendant and my monkey-mind seems to have got a himself a big baggie of crystal meth from somewhere.  I’ve heard others make the same observation.  Pain focuses attention.  Yogah Citta Vrtti Nirodhah[1].


But branding yourself on the leg to quit your sodding daydreaming is cheating, or overdoing it, or something, right?   Like, you shouldn’t do that every week.  IMHO.


Is there pride in enduring long suffering in the quest for wholeness, in a long, arduous journey from enfeebled to hale?  Of course there is.  Is that a good thing?  Or is it a dangerous ego-plump?  Obviously maybe.


Does it endow us with compassion, empathy, understanding, and the capacity to connect with others we encounter who deal with analogous challenges?  I hope so.   But it could as easily degrade us with an “I worked through it, so quit whining, you should be able to as well” callousness.  I intend to watch out for that.


Maybe it’s all just karma.  Old debt paid off.  Invite the neighbors over for barbecue and burn the mortgage papers.  Sure, if the idea of karma is anything more than the greatest myth-system ever rationalized for staying sane in the perennial rampant orgy of grotesque injustice that is the human race.  Better, I aver, to think deeper, unless you really get stuck, in which case I advocate turning to karma.


Pain is subjective, it’s phenomenological, it’s personal.  Take that as a disclaimer for this:  pain, particularly when I practice with it, gives me something more than the foregoing, and it’s a right bastard to articulate.


Don’t get me wrong, I hate it.  Pain makes me howl, internally or externally, in anguished self-pity, and I escape it as soon as humanly possible.  I’ll drop a fistful of ibuprofen or better in a heartbeat to escape pain.  Maybe I shouldn’t.  Maybe I should just be with it more often.


Because I always feel like I’ve grown somehow when I’ve hurt, in some way that I can’t explain.  Pain is work to me, it’s a sculpting, a sanding, a honing.   It feels like it addresses problems that I can’t yet see consciously, somehow.  Coming to the other side of pain feels like I’ve lifted a rock and let something dark and crawly scarper out of me, and let light fall in, and I feel like somehow, there’s more of me than there was before I suffered.


And every single time I endure it, I’m a little less afraid of it.  Maybe that’s the most valuable gift of all.


Again, that’s all personal.  That may not resonate in any way at all with the person who has dealt with decades of consuming agony that has no escape, ever, due to some illness or injury that they will never see the other side of.  That’s a different deal entirely, and I can only bow down to those people.  That’s as much as I can say about that right now.





I note that in my last post, I stood up on my hind legs and proclaimed that I was going to dial back my physical life, to approach physical training more reasonably, to take it just a little bit easy, and report my results.   Well, that all lasted for about three weeks, then it was straight back to the neurotic, compulsive, eighteen-balls-out-sessions-per-week nonsense.


I did that for a few months until my old army knee and my old steroid shoulder grew stabbier and gristlier than I was willing to ignore (issues not necessarily related to exercise volume or intensity.  Almost certainly, but not necessarily), and I tapped out for a while to experiment with morbid obesity.  Now I’m in the gym four times a week doing barbell and dumbbell complexes, but not until I puke, so I’m calling myself a success.  Stay tuned.




I remembered this story while I was doing v-snaps the other day (still haven’t got that monkey in his cage.)  It’s a story about my good friend and super-human yoga beast Hung Nguyen.  Hung’s a bit like me, just younger, smarter and prettier.   He teaches in Saigon.


Anyways, he was doing L-sit pullups on his home pullup bar, one of those over-the door-casing deathtraps, and it broke loose.  He fell four feet onto tile, fracturing his coccyx.


That’s a notoriously painful injury, and I asked him how it was doing a few days later.  “Not bad,” he shrugged.  “It only really hurts when I’m in navasana.”


[1] The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, pada 1, sutra 2.  Usually translated something like “Yoga is the cessation of mental fluctuations.”

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