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Pain and breathwork (2020)

Last week I was writing about BDSM and bodywork, and now it’s time to zoom in deeper to the relationship between pain and breath. First, I should start by defining breathwork. The nerve system governs our being, and depending on how our nerve system interpreted our current state, the body will react accordingly. For example, if we experience pain that we need to accept, endorphins are released. But if there is a pain that we need to fight, adrenaline is issued instead. The current chemical mix in the system will then significantly impact how we perceive the world. So the nerve system is both responsible for analyzing and altering the current state in a constant fluctuating manner.

One of the best ways to influence the nerve system is to adapt the breath consciously. And breathwork is simply this – conscious breathing. It has evolved through thousands of years in various esoteric practices and is today super popular in for example yoga, under the name Pranayama. Engaging in a particular type of breathwork is like learning to ride a bike. At first, it takes patients and exercise, but eventually, it turns into muscle memory and therefore becomes second nature. A result of this is that can be hard to move from one school of breathwork to another. But it doesn’t matter, unless one is very dogmatic, because most breathing techniques are similar enough.

The techniques can be divided into two categories, raising the activation of the nerve system, and lowering it. The medical term for activation is arousal, in a more broader sense then sexual. Raising the arousal makes the body more present, stronger, and rational. The physical results includes a raised heart and breath rhythm, and by temporarily suspending non-vital bodily functions, like digestion. Lowering the arousal makes the body more relaxed, dreamy, and accepting. A sign of good physical and mental health is flexible nerve system that can adapt the arousal level to the current needs. Trauma and stress limits the nerve system to either extreme activation or complete shutdown. You can read more about this in my article about the book In an Unspoken Voice.

Beyond the physical effects of breathwork, it can also move the awareness and current focus. For many people, different areas of the body represents various emotional aspects of life. For example, in many tantric practitioners, there is a massive difference between breathing into one’s heart or one’s genitals. The mapping between the physical and emotional body differs from person to person, even if there are some common cultural aspects. There is a teaching in Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP) that every being is continually bombarded with millions of stimuli from one’s environment, that it is the awareness that acts as a lens, and decides the focus.

Anyhow in BDSM, it is common practice to play with pain, but how one approaches it practically, think about theoretically, and experiences it emotional might differ a lot. Therefore I’ll present three approaches to pain next; a purely physical approach to pain focuses mainly on the release of endorphins in the body and provides a natural high that might last for days. You can read my text about Pain and Kinbaku because it explains the idea in depths. Another approach is to use pain as a tool in power dynamic where it can be both the whip and the carrot by applying pain in different ways. And finally, pain can be a way of meditation and introspection, because of our relationship to pain often reflects how we relate to general hardships in life. In one way, pain is only suffering when compared to something more pleasurable. You can read my text about Zen in semenawa to dig deeper. In all cases, I believe that breath is a crucial component.

I want to end by sharing a philosophical thought – that pain is entirely subjective. No one else can feel your pain, and there is no measurable way to express one’s pain – in one way that makes pain into a very lonely experience. Maybe the subjective nature of pain brings it depths and fascination, especially when it is part of an intricate communication between two people. Comparably language is much more defined, and therefore less mystical. Still, we talk about and experience pain in all aspects of life, all the way from accidentally kicking the door frame, to the heartbreaking pain of losing a loved one.

This was written as an introduction to the second of a series of fifteen workshops on the theme of #the in-between space.