The way you think about pain and injury and reinforce those ideas through words may have a greater impact on healing than you realize.
At some point or another, whether in yoga class or daily life, we’ve all probably heard someone talk about her “bad back,” “bad knee,” or “bad shoulder.” One yoga teacher of mine liked to follow these student proclamations with, “Ooh, does it smoke? Sneak out at night? Is it really baaad?”
This gentle humor points to the fact that we talk smack about our bodies a lot, calling them messed up, not flexible, or falling apart. And then there are the “toos”: too short, too tall, too wide, too narrow, and so on. The problems with this are many. But mainly, it’s because evidence shows that your body is actually listening to you—and taking notes in the form of increased pain and stress.
Though once considered controversial, most physicians now acknowledge that the body and the brain are linked. Studies show that stress may make you more vulnerable to illness by increasing inflammation; good social relationships can promote cardiovascular health; and that the placebo effect—when inert “medicine” heals as much as active meds—is absolutely real. Physical pain is especially affected by our mindset. One meta-analysis published in the British Journal of Anesthesia, notes that studies have found that many things influence how we experience pain—from age to gender to cultural background. Another major determining factor is psychological negativity, including fear, anger, avoidance, and “catastrophizing,” thinking the worst is upon you. The research cites one doctor who told a patient his spine was “crumbling” to describe a degenerative disk; not a very healing image given what is known about the body-mind connection.
Slapping a negative label on a body part also means you’re dismissing it without really understanding it. Plus, “bad” implies it deserves punishment. Similar to when we harshly judge the people who bug us, we lose the subtleties in this dismissal and, often in that, the hope for improvement. “Note where you see parts of your body as being bad, and ask yourself if you’ve given up on that part, seeing no possibility of it getting better,” says Baxter Bell, M.D., a yoga teacher, acupuncturist, and physician.
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We might shift how we perceive and experience our physical limitations and injuries simply by becoming more mindful. When Bell’s students use the B-word, he asks questions. “‘What do you mean by bad?’ ‘What’s going on?’ ‘When do you notice it?’ ‘What makes it feel better?'” he says. “Then we have something to work with.” He then often has students attune their awareness by focusing on that body part and asking themselves two questions: 1) “What does it really feel like—in a raw, naked, scientific way?” Maybe it’s restricted, tingling, or buzzing more than a blanket pain. And then: 2) “What are my additional thoughts and feelings about that?” What you notice about your body may surface emotions or beliefs about what those sensations mean about you as a person. He’s seen this process alone help people dramatically. “There’s the perception of pain and then thinking about pain—judgments and projections—they can happen very quickly,” Bell says. “When you observe pain without a story it’s usually not as bad as it seemed.”
We can also work on the language itself while still being authentic—no “My limber lumbar!” incantations needed. For example, Bell likes to say of his right knee, “It doesn’t operate the way I would like it to.” This, he says, “leaves it open to positive change.” It also allows more patience for, and acceptance of, the usually slow, sometimes frustrating journey to getting better. “When we declare and label things with our words, we often do not describe the process or allow for the potential of change,” says Devarshi Steven Hartman, founder of Pranotthan Yoga and the former dean of Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health’s School of Yoga. “I lived in an ashram for almost a decade. We never said anyone was ‘sick.’ We said we were ‘cleansing,’” he says. “As ridiculous as it may seem, ‘cleansing’ is more descriptive of the process and describes someone who is healing. ‘Sick’ is a declaration that’s final. So, to call our shoulder ‘bad,’ like it did something wrong and needs to be punished, is not accurate. To say we have a shoulder that is healing, or that requires special awareness at this time, is more accurate.”
Being conscious of the language you use to describe your body can even lead to something more profound than being more accepting of your elbow—or even possibly having it hurt less. “Putting negative labels on your body is just an overactive mind that has lost track of how to see things with heart,” says Judith Orloff, M.D., author of The Ecstasy of Surrender. “Saying wonderful things to your body is more than a linguistic issue. It is a deeply spiritual issue and the point is to learn to love your physical form and revere it.” Naughty knees, rebellious ankles, and all.