Does pain, discomfort, or “unsoundness” always indicate that something is wrong?
When I started to learn more about the nervous system and its relationship to biomechanics, my previous relationship with pain, discomfort, or “unsoundness” (if we use a common label we attach to our horses) got turned on its head.
Previously, I’d not given it too much thought beyond the fact that if something hurt or was uncomfortable to the point where your function in that moment was compromised, then you needed to “do something about it”. And that “something” usually involved a fix that rested on the premise that whatever was going on in the body was not what we wanted to be happening. In other words, it was a movement in a negative direction.
I’ve learned, however, that this is not necessarily the reality.
I said something in a Q&A session we had in my membership recently which was: your body is a verb, it’s not a noun
What I meant by that is that the body is always in a process of doing, changing, and responding; it is not fixed, and it is never static. At any one moment in time, it’s in the process of either opening or closing.
Your bones, organs, fascia, everything are either in the process of moving towards the midline of your body as a process of contraction (as seen in the sympathetic response) or moving away from midline in a process of expansion (as seen in the parasympathetic response).
Let’s say, for the sake of example, that either you or your horse have been living for a prolonged period dominantly in a sympathetic state; a state of contraction. If you begin a practice which increases your sensory feedback, where your movement patterns are challenged so you start to move in ways that are novel and unique compared to your norm, what happens is that you are starting to pull and parse apart everything that has been held tightly together for what can be significant periods of time.
And what this creates is discomfort. Sometimes pain. Sometimes a way of moving or a movement pattern that’s kind of funky until the brain becomes more efficient and capable at moving in the new way.
This period of un-ease does not indicate that something is wrong; quite the opposite. It’s the intermediary zone where the body is actually moving towards more optimal ways of functioning.
It’s in the process of opening.
In my work, we learn about black and white structural indicators; parts of the body that are observable, and whose position we can read as either parasympathetic or sympathetic. When we can understand and read these, we aren’t left with our subjective interpretations of what’s happening, but an objective awareness of whether the body is opening or closing in that moment.
Obviously, I think about this a lot in relationship to humans (and a huge part of my work involves starting to decouple negative perceptions to discomfort and bodily feedback that is actually about the body moving towards vitality more than anything else). But I think about it in relation to our horses as well.
If we challenge their movement patterns; work with their feet in a way where the angles are changing; introduce changes to their environment, there may be times where they go through periods of “unsoundness” or “soreness”, but where the experience doesn’t indicate something is “wrong”. Just like us, their body needs time to de-contract, their muscles need to adjust to support their structure while they mobilise in different ways, the fascia needs to increase its length.
We may not have the skill or the eye necessarily to discern in the first instance what is what, but that’s something I’m keen on developing.
As a culture, we are discomfort resistant; we can’t stand it in ourselves, and we are also intolerant in allowing it in others. But it’s something I always hold front of mind now:
Is this a process of opening or closing?