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Letting Pain Be Your Teacher

Posted Dec 28 2009 4:39pm

Taking some quiet time during the holidays has left me with a renewed sense of excitement for the coming year. My mind and body are alight with enthusiasm and energy for new projects, new experiences, new creative endeavors. And in the spirit of new...

I'm doing something that I've never quite done before -- I'm featuring a guest post from a yogi that I greatly admire -- Kelly McGonigal. Kelly McGonigal is yoga teacher and health psychologist at Stanford University and the editor in chief of the International Journal of Yoga Therapy. Her topic is one that I feel a deep affinity for -- looking inside ourselves for guidance. The practice she offers in this post is a wonderful one that belongs in your daily/weekly/monthly schedule. I can't think of a better way to start the new year by looking inside of ourselves and tapping into the wisdom of our body. So, without further ado, I offer you an adaptation and excerpt from Kelly McGonigal’s new book, Yoga for Pain Relief.


Most of us are used to looking outside of ourselves for guidance. We
turn to experts, authori­ties, doctors, and, yes, even writers of
books that promise you pain relief. This is fine when you need to
gather specialized information or opinions. But the yoga tradition
also holds that there is an inner guide that transcends the collective
of experts. This inner wisdom can tell you more about what is
true for you, and how you can experience peace of mind, than any
outside authority could ever know. This perspective is often missing
from the medical profession, and many people with pain or illness have
been taught to discount their intuition about the causes of their
symptoms or what would be healing.

In the yogic model of body, mind, and spirit, wisdom is more about
intuition and mindfulness than about knowledge or intellect. It is the
ability to see what is true in this moment and what is needed in this
moment. It is also the ability to see through the habits of the
mind—including stress, disappointment, self-criticism, and worry—that
create suffering. Yoga teaches that every person has this ability and
it is an important part of who you are.

You can develop this ability by paying attention to the inner guidance
of your breath, body, thoughts, and emotions. Yoga, and meditation in
particular, will teach you how to distinguish between guidance from
inner wisdom and unhelpful habits of the mind. Yoga also develops your
self-care instinct, helping you understand what your body needs to be
healthy and free of pain. When you reconnect to this guidance, you
will have a deep source of strength and insight for coping with life’s

You can get started listening to your inner wisdom with this 5-min
meditation on self-care and healing.

Another yogic approach to wisdom is to consider the possibility that
pain and illness can itself be a source of wisdom. Difficult life
circumstances often inspire self-reflection. In yoga, this idea is
captured in the Sanskrit verse guru devo maheshvara, which can be
translated as “illnesses, accidents, traumas, and losses have the
power to bring us from darkness to light.”

The idea that pain can be a guru—bringing you from darkness to
light—is simply a reminder that everything you experience can make you
wiser and stronger. Pain has a way of cutting through bullshit. It can
show you very quickly what matters most in your life, and it can force
you to take stock of how you have set up your life. Pain can reveal
how strong you are. It can shine a flashlight on your fears and your
hopes. Pain can teach you patience and courage. It can teach you how
to take care of yourself. It can awaken your compassion for yourself
and for others.

You can view your past or present pain as a teacher even if you would
abandon the teacher in a second (and who wouldn’t?). Viewing your pain
as a teacher is not a commitment to staying in pain. It is simply a
commitment to using everything in your experience—even your pain—to
learn how to end unnecessary suffering.

To view the darkness of your pain as a possible source of insight and
light, consider these questions:

1. How has your perspective on life been influenced by your experience
of chronic pain?

2. What feels more or less important now than it did before you were
experiencing pain?

3. What have you learned about yourself while trying to live with and
treat the pain?

4. What helps you get through a particularly intense pain episode?
What have you learned about supporting your own health and well-being?

5. How do your thoughts about your pain contribute to or reduce your
suffering? Are there ways of thinking about your pain that make your
suffering worse? Are there ways of thinking about your pain that help
you find some meaning in the experience?

6. Is there something that you have learned from your experience of
chronic pain that you no longer need pain to remind you of?

After completing this reflection, acknowledge that whatever lessons
you have learned from your pain, you are ready to be free of
unnecessary pain and suffering. Wish for yourself, “May I be free of
this pain” and “May I be free of this suffering.”


Beautiful! I'd like to thank Kelly for contributing this wonderful content. You can find her new book, Yoga for Pain Relief, on Amazon and in bookstores now.

And I echo Kelly's sentiment -- may the coming year be free of suffering!


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