Zumba and the Yoga of Pain

moonlight sonata mp3 10-19-11 (it’s probably best to listen through headphones. If you want to use this as part of an “experiment” – try listening starting at the line below, “and I started watching”.  You’ll probably find at first that your attention seems split, with the music almost as a kind of distraction.  At some point, if you just keep gently attending to the words and not fighting or struggling with the music, you may find your attention widens and the music and words flow together. This open, wide attention is a very good foundation for “listening” to pain. I could have chosen a more bland “New Age” type music which might have seemed easier to use – most pain management guided meditations use that kind of music – but I thought a more complex music, particularly one you’re likely to be familiar with, would be more of a challenge. I often find that kind of challenge helps to push me past my usual learned habits of attention)

PART I: Zumba

It started when I was almost 52.  I had been slender most of my childhood into my early 30s.  Somehow, as grad school approached, the weight increased, and I found myself in 2003 almost 35 pounds overweight and with a blood pressure of 160/100.

I immediately set to work – didn’t want to poison myself with too many BP pills.  With weight training and cardio, I managed to lose 25 pounds and kept it off for most of the last 10 years.  And for the last year, the BP has been under 135/85.  But there was still those last 10 pounds –

I tried many things over the years, but nothing seemed to work.  Recently, I started the 5:2 intermittent fasting diet – not only started losing weight, but my BP has been more stable than in years (average 130/80; often down as low as 115/70 – just one pill, a diuretic, and my doctor is encouraging me to stabilize the BP enough so as to get off medication altogether)

I tend to be a bit – well, stubborn (“foolish” might seem a more appropriate word, as you’ll see in a moment) so I upped my exercise routine considerably. I started doing the most advanced “Fitness Blender” exercise routines (see www.fitnessblender.com; over 250 videos to choose from).  I found a high intensity interval mini-trampoline routine on youtube, and incorporated that for cardio. And I figured, “hey, what the heck, I’m 61 but I feel like I’m 31, I can do that hardest Fitness Blender routine: burn up to 1000 calories in 88 minutes. “

But was that enough?  Oh no, we started Zumba classes. For those not familiar with it, this fellow, Carlos, from Colombia, South America loved to dance, and loved music from all over the world.  Over the last few years, he has created a world-wide franchise of dance/exercise classes, mixing music from Latin America, the Middle East, India and Africa, among others. And I have to say, they’re really good. We did six classes in the last few weeks, and loved it.  And it was kind of cool being the oldest ones in class and still keeping up.

And I did the 1000 calorie Fitness Blender routine last Wednesday, and we went Thursday morning for what was probably the toughest, fastest Zumba class we’ve taken. I woke up Thursday morning with an ache in my lower back, but heck, I’m “really” 31 (in spirit, though 61 in chronological years:>) and I figured I could just take a hot bath, and if the pain was gone, I’d be fine.

The pain was gone and after class I was fine.

Friday morning I woke up, and I couldn’t lift myself up in bed. I’ve had a few brief bouts of back pain before – but nothing like this.


This was the kind of pain that you’re lying down and you know it’s going to hurt so much when you get up that even if you have to go to the bathroom – badly – you spend a few minutes contemplating how you’re going to deal with the searing pain you’re going to experience as you attempt to lift yourself up from a horizontal position.

It was only the second day that I realized we still had the cane that Jan’s mother had used when she was having spells of dizziness – that helped a lot when getting up from being seated or lying down, but it still hurt a lot.

The first day I did a lot of different things – application of cold to the back, hot baths, and lots of attempts at deep relaxation. My mind was so numb from reacting to the pain it was hard that first day to do much in terms of relaxation, though.  But I did try as much as possible, while sitting in the hot bath or with a cold compress against my back, to “dive into” the pain sensations with my attention, just allowing the pain to “be there” without resisting or trying to alter it in any way.

Whenever my awareness was clear and calm enough to do this, the sensations changed in interesting ways, but for the most part, in terms of my attitude and overall state of mind, the first two days were mostly spent in simple recognition of the state of my mind and body without being clear or focused enough to go any deeper into the pain.

Around 1 AM Sunday morning, I couldn’t sleep and went to sit up in a chair with a heating pad against my back. My mind was still quite foggy, but it was clear enough that I was able to focus my attention somewhat more than in the previous 2 days.

And I started watching.

This was when it got interesting.

As the attention came to rest on the pain sensations, all kinds of interesting things started to happen.

There was enough inner quiet and calmness that the emotional reactivity – the feeling, if it were verbalized, that “this is terrible, what’s going to happen to me, this shouldn’t be – lessened considerably.

Then there’s the changes in the pain sensations themselves.  Watching without emotional reactivity, just “being there” with the sensations, the whole sense of them being an identifiable object – “pain” – over ‘there” – starts to lessen.

There’s a part of the mind – one that develops quite soon when we’re toddlers, that is the beginning of our ability to speak – that very rapidly labels every aspect of our experience.  And when the emotional reactivity lessens, it starts to become possible to see – it’s really kind of a feeling rather than a seeing; or maybe an intuitive knowing might be a better way of putting it – that the mind almost instantaneously labels (though not necessarily verbally; it’s like a grabbing; a mental shaping that occurs) the pain experience.

What’s even more interesting when this subtle mental activity is noticed, is that it is so intimately tied up with a sense of “me”, over “here”, entirely separate from that “pain”, over “there.”

And when the labeling, the grabbing/shaping activity lessens, the sense of “me”, “here” lessens simultaneously.

The “simultaneity” is particularly important.  If inner calm and non-reactivity is maintained, along with complete absence of even the slightest attempt to control or affect the sensations in any way, it starts to become evident that rather than separate, the “me” here and separate “object” of “pain” over “there” are inseparably connected.

And if this inner calm and non-reactivity can still be sustained, a very interesting thing happens, to both the object and subject.

The “object” of pain changes dramatically.  Ironically, this happens because nothing was done in an attempt to change the pain.  What appeared to be a solid “something” dissolves into a bewilderingly complex array of ever-changing patterns of energy (well, not really “bewildering” – it’s only confusing if a part of the mind tries to grasp, label, conceive of what is happening in ordinary conceptual terms).

And what appeared to be a solid “something” over “here” – at the subjective end – turns out to have been a complex array of ever-changing patterns of thought/feeling/memory/reactions, etc.  In other words, energy “here” and energy “there” – an unbroken, non-separate field of varying patterns of sensation, thought and feeling – all in relationship to an immeasurable, unbroken field of awareness.


After almost 90 minutes of this sustained attention, the pain level dropped considerably.  Something appeared to “unravel” in the muscles of the lower back, almost like a spontaneous chiropractic adjustment.  There was significantly more range of motion, and overall, except for occasional periods of intensified pain, the pain levels were lower.

I continued to do cold and hot treatments and various forms of careful stretching, and have had two chiropractic adjustments. I’m happy to report that on my first day back at work, I was able to walk, bend and lift fairly normally.

It’s interesting to reflect on how dramatically an inner stance of simple, calm attention can change one’s experience.  And it’s also remarkable to reflect on how this same calm, inner stance can have equally dramatic effects not only on physical pain, but on virtually every aspect of one’s life.

And that quiet, inner calm – it may be misleading if it’s thought of as a sort of dull, quiet neutral state. There’s a quality of tremendous warmth and caring, what might almost be called a kind of “compassion” towards the pain.  And it has a kind of boundary-less quality – almost embracing the full range of experience rather than being an “observer” separate from what is observed.

8 thoughts on “Zumba and the Yoga of Pain

  1. Hi Don. I consider myself very fortunate to have had a similar experience of pain as a teenager, and discovering, (four decades before stumbling on ‘mysticism’ and its practices), that with concentration and focus there is a place, or state of mind, for which pain becomes, or so it seemed at the time, a more or less neutral sensation. It was a revelation. I hope your back is okay now. Love the Rilke poem. I don’t know him but must read some more. Thanks for the music.

    • thanks Pete. yes the back is almost all better. The question is, have I learned my lesson (“Oh, I may be 61 but I feel fine, I don’t need to warm up or cool down after intense exercise”)

  2. Don: I’m happy to report that on my first day back at work, I was able to walk, bend and lift fairly normally.

    Planning to start Zumba again ? 🙂

    • can’t wait! On Monday there’s a class with a woman with a background in tap and jazz, and she incorporates those moves with Zumba-esque steps. I’ll see how I’m doing, but I suspect it might be better to wait a week before starting. (oh my, I’ll have to write another post after that class too…. hmm, wonder if I could find some other excuse for putting it off:>)

  3. we’ve also got a video prepared – i just have to link this music to it – with an image of a golden Buddha against a background of one of those marvelous NASA galaxy pictures, with a reading of this Rilke poem combined with the moonlight sonata:

    Center of all centers, core of cores,
    almond self-enclosed, and growing sweet–
    all this universe, to the furthest stars
    all beyond them, is your flesh, your fruit.

    Now you feel how nothing clings to you;
    your vast shell reaches into endless space,
    and there the rich, thick fluids rise and flow.
    Illuminated in your infinite peace,

    a billion stars go spinning through the night,
    blazing high above your head.
    But in you is the presence that
    will be, when all the stars are dead

  4. for those interested in technical stuff, the moonlight was recorded entirely using Logic Pro 9.

  5. you might notice, if you listen to the music, that at first it seems like a distraction. One part of your attention is reading, another part is “distracted” by the music.

    But if you continue, you might find the words and the music flowing together.

    Try it.

    See what happens.

  6. hint – listen to the moonlight sonata while you’re reading the second part, the yoga of pain:>))

    (there’s probably some better way to post this that I haven’t figured out, but you’ll probably need to open the music in a different window in order to listen to it while reading – start listening at the line “And I started watching”)

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