Yoga has made a full and in-depth study of pain. The whole aim of yogic practice is to overcome the pain which arises out of our ignorance as to the purpose and reason for life. Without this knowledge we become caught up in the play of our desires, aversions, fears and lack of direction. We fall into the traps of life and may become weak and diseased, as is the case in the majority of people today. Yogic philosophy states that by the practice of regular sadhana you can rise out of the pain and misery of ignorance into the bright sun of inner illumination, awareness and wisdom while still Jiving a normal and routine life.
It seems that without awareness and inner knowledge we cannot steer our vessel properly so as to live a full, healthy and truly happy life. We lose sight of ourselves and begin to suffer, as though we were blind to the true values of life. For some, pain takes the form of mental agony from unfulfilled ambitions, or fear and insecurity. For others, diseases may rack the body, caused by lack of discipline and bad habits of lifestyle.
Lack of awareness makes us more prone to accidents, such as banging our finger with a hammer or in motor vehicle accidents. It is also responsible for many of the accidents which take place in interpersonal relationships. Only when our mind is strong and concentrated can we act with full awareness and true skill in action. This eliminates our pain and helps us to enjoy life.
Yoga understands both the subjective and objective aspects of pain. The brain centres, the emotional and psychic components, their interaction, the different types of pain, have been fully explored and understood by the ancient seers and sages and their course has been fully mapped out. It seems that when life is devoid of the awareness which can be cultivated through yogic practice we build up certain patterns in our mind and brain which create feelings such as self-pity, depression, lack of self-confidence, and thereby dissipate our energy. This has a direct effect on our body function and makes us more prone to suffer pain. With yoga, on the other hand, we have a system that concentrates the mind, that unifies all the diverse tendencies and moulds them into a single, cohesive unit capable of achieving the highest in life.
It is important for science to again come to terms with and understand pain. We are not just talking about the pain that results from disease or mismanagement in life but also of the pain which causes this in the first place. For example, we may want to reduce the unspeakable physical suffering of the cancer patient and reduce the concomitant emotional and psychic anguish, and for this we will need drugs. This is a compassionate quest, but what about the pain that caused the cancer in the first place, that snowballed from some incident in life into a catastrophe? Surely the search to solve this problem is the more urgent and to understand this we will need yoga.
Recently science has discovered that within each individual lies the key to the relief from physical, emotional and mental pain. At the purely physical level the brain produces its own narcotic agent; the most powerful painkillers known today are of this type. The brain's unknown capabilities may include a beautifully efficient warehousing capacity for its own chemicals.
One of the newly discovered brain chemicals is a morphine-like painkiller called 'beta-endorphin'. This chemical, secreted from the hypothalamus in the midbrain, contains another painkiller called 'enkephalin'. These new hormones, discovered as recently as 1969 but not developed for commercial use until 1975 have opened a vast, exciting realm of research on pain, behaviour, fertility, psychosis, growth and learning.
These substances have since been demonstrated to control the pituitary and thereby the entire hormonal system of the body*1
It seems that pain, growth and learning are linked not only at the psychological level but also through a chemical on the physical plane. We see this chemical in action when we are confronted by a situation of numbing pain. David Livingstone reports that when he was attacked by a lion at Mabotsa, in Southern Africa, he experienced no pain though his shoulder was being mauled by a lion.*2 He entered into an altered state of consciousness where everything took on a dreamlike quality and he could even look at the lion mauling him without any fear. The moment the lion released him for a moment, he recovered himself and ran away. This reminds us of the morphine experience.
Most of us, luckily, are not confronted by such experiences, but at the same time we do not appear to have access to the use of this chemical during more mild, but painful, situations. This is obvious, because so many of us suffer so much pain in our lives. This is probably because of disorganisation at the psychoneurological levels. Lack of concentration and co-ordination prevent our bodies reacting appropriately. It is possible that if we could reorganise ourselves sufficiently that we would be able to live pain-free lives. This would require harmonisation of the spiritual, mental and physical components and would result in a blissful state of consciousness.
The potential value of finding a means, such as yoga, to utilise our inherent faculties to overcome pain is demonstrated by endorphin research. The injection of endorphins by Don Catlin of UCLA, USA, has been shown to bring substantial relief to three cancer patients suffering from intractable pain.*3
Endorphins have also been used in treating the mental pain of schizophrenia, depression, and other psychotic and neurotic conditions. N. Kline of Rockland Research Institute (USA) and Heinz Lehmann of McGill University (Canada) obtained remarkable results from endorphin treatment: "One 34 year old schizophrenic said after treatment: For years I was sitting in a chair, smoking, listening to the radio, not even hearing the words of the song. It was driving me crazy. Yesterday on the beach I cried for the first time in years- from happiness."*4
Solomon Snyder of the John Hopkins Hospital (USA), stated that enkephalins are present in the limbic system of the brain and are therefore involved in emotional as well as physical and mental pain. They are also found in the same areas as the "reward" or "pleasure" centres. Thus depression, emotional imbalance and anxiety may be due to or may cause an imbalance of the chemicals in the brain so as to stop the activation of the "pleasure" centres inhibiting its ability to remove emotional pain.
Physicians and social scientists have long suspected that morphine and narcotic addicts first turned to drugs to counteract profound emotional pain. Snyder's studies imply that they may be attempting to replace an inherent brain chemical and its experience by external means, but subconsciously. It also suggests that if one can find a way to release these chemicals by natural means we may, be able to cure drug addiction. This may explain yoga's great success in reducing drug addiction by replacing the drug with the peaceful, joyful and healthier meditative experience. Addicts find that meditation reduces their internal tensions and frustrations while at the same time helping them to cope with external problems. This is because they feel better and this in turn may be due to a rebalancing of the brain chemical called endorphin.
That these hormones are involved in helping to soothe the brain and mind during troubled times is further evidenced by the fact that they are released simultaneously with ACTH (adrenocorticotrophic hormone) which triggers the release of stress-handling hormones such as cortisone. This implies that enkephalins represent an attempt by the brain to counter the pathological effects of stress on itself.
Whereas research requires that injections of drugs be given to effect a result, yoga provides us with methods to enhance the natural mechanisms and to integrate them back into their correct and most effective alignment. In this way the hormonal and nervous controls of pain can be better switched on when needed so as to alleviate suffering.
Yoga provides us with a means to secure the services of the inbuilt pain modulating secretory systems to progressively impose their function. Through our conscious efforts we can obtain relief from pain with the reward of an expansion of our awareness.
Electrical stimulation has long been a routine method of relieving pain in many western countries. Recently it has been combined with acupuncture for even more effective pain relief. Yoga increases the electrical activity of the brain by techniques such as kriya yoga, kunjal, bandhas and certain asanas and pranayama so as to balance our inner secretions and enhance our sense of well-being.
Hypnosis is another traditional means of dealing with pain. It is akin to, but not identical with, yoga nidra. Yoga nidra uses the same methods but they are self-induced, with our full awareness and self-control. Under hypnosis subjects have been shown to be able to reduce their sensitivity to pain, indicating that the mechanisms to reduce pain lie in the mind and are probably transferred or reflected from there to the brain. Yoga nidra has the same effect but is more powerful because it uses the factor of awareness to enhance our ability to control the internal mechanisms.
We find similarities to yoga in many of the methods of pain relief. Yoga exerts a direct effect on the limbic-hypothalamic-endorphin system. By soothing the turbulent mind, emotions, physical structures (metabolism, etc.), yoga enables us to regain conscious control over our inner processes. The mysterious internal workings of the brain again find their natural synchronous and powerful rhythm, and secretions can then flow out with timed and fixed purpose. We can actually feel a physical change taking place. We also feel an increase in our self-confidence and a strength that we may not have realised we possessed. With this attitude we can face any pain and relax in any situation, at the same time dealing with life skilfully and in the best possible way.
*1. "Endorphin Work Wins Nobel Prize", 'Brain/ Mind Bulletin', vol.2, no.24, November 2, 1977.
*2. D. Livingstone, 'Missionary Travels & Researches in Southern Africa', London: Murray, 1865.
*3. "Beta Endorphin Used for Drug Withdrawal", 'Brain/Mind Bulletin', vol.3, no.4, January 2, 1978.
*4. "Endorphin Tried as a Psychiatric Drug and Painkiller", 'Brain/Mind Bulletin', vol.2, no.22, October 3, 1977.
*5. "Enkephalins: Do They Help to Counteract Emotional Pain?", 'Brain/Mind Bulletin', vol.3, no.1, November 21, 1977.