Psychotherapist, Healer, Life Artist
Yoga is about exploring limits – physically and mentally. Masochism, as a spiritual practice, is about exploring physical and mental limits. Both are perspective-changing and confidence-boosting if done in a healthy way. One could even say that yoga is a form of masochism, when you know enough about both.
To give some background on healthy ritual sadism and masochism, I can delve into years of personal experience and teachings from mentors in the San Francisco BDSM community. That could be a book in and of itself, so I will keep it general to explain the steps that are necessary to process pain in a ritual setting.
The first step is to slow the breathing. When we slow the breath, the body can relax and do more extraordinary things, such as stretching further than we could otherwise. It also slows the pulse and lets the brain know that we are not in actual danger. Then we consciously surrender to the person or persons that we have entrusted with our safety and experience. There are so many scenarios that are possible at this point, but again I will keep it general for the purpose of this comparison. Often, there is a “warm up” period, in which the activity begins mildly, slowly building in intensity. This allows the brain and lymphatic system to release pain-reducing and often ecstasy-inducing hormones. If one allows the mind to surrender, as the intensity increases, the mind is freed of any thought, responsibility, emotional memory, guilt, and worry. Only if we resist the pain do we feel unpleasant. There are waves of intensity throughout the ritual – going up, coming down. At the end, it is followed by a comedown period, also known as “aftercare”. These steps are probably starting to sound familiar. The same ones are taken in an intense yoga practice.
One difference is in the need for an extra person or people involved. With yoga, we can practice on our own (although we do have the option of surrendering to the right yoga instructor). But when practicing ritual masochism, it’s best to have another person involved or at least nearby for safety. The aftercare aspect of the ritual involves emotional and physical support of the masochist’s needs.
In Emotional Yoga, Bija Bennett explains the 5th limb of yoga – Pratyahara. When we draw the senses within, we focus our being and free the mind from distractions. The 5th limb teaches us to direct the sense within to stay vividly aware. It eliminates worries, thoughts, and emotional memories (137). When we focus on something as all encompassing as the high sensation of pain, we have a wonderful opportunity to fine-tune our Pratyahara.
Both yoga and ritual masochism have emotionally healing aspects. Though with ritual masochism, one is often left with bruises, cuts, welts, puncture wounds, etc., there is an advantage to that state. Our physiology increases healing during a peaceful state after such strenuous activities.
As Timothy McCall, M.D. points out; the body has two systems for stress – the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). SNS is the one that we think of as stress, or distress. It raises the blood pressure, shuts down our digestive and reproductive systems, releases adrenaline and cortisol, prepares us for battle, etc. The other, PNS, is the system that allows the blood to return to the GI tract, the body to heal from trauma, the heart to calm and lower blood pressure, etc. McCall says that gentle yoga encourages the PNS system to kick in. But when we do vigorous practices like Sun Salutations and follow them with restorative poses, we actually raise the SNS and then kick in the PNS. He claims that when we do this, it leads to deeper relaxation than doing the purely relaxing practice alone.
When we have an intense, physically demanding spiritual practice, we increase the benefits of the practice. If this is true, then harmony, balance, and peace of mind can be reached in a deeper sense after a state of consensual chaos. This brings a balance to our chemistry. Most people who suffer from chronic stress don’t know how to turn it off. When we practice vigorous things like this and then allow ourselves the relaxing time to heal, we train our brains and bodies how to come down and relax.
Deeply masochistic rituals have existed for thousands of years. In the Dakotas, the Sioux tribe has held an extraordinary ceremony for many generations called the Sun Dance. These men would perform either the “Gaze at the Sun Buffalo”, where they were pierced at the shoulders and performed a dance while attached by rope to a tree, or the “Gaze at the Sun Staked”, with piercings in the chest and shoulders with piercings attached to 4 stakes with buffalo hair rope. Other men, who would perform the most intense version, the “Gaze at the Sun Suspended”, were performing the ritual to gain powers to become a shaman. This was a very high honor in the culture. This included hanging from the ropes, which were attached to piercings in the chest and pulled up and over a tree. All of the men had a constant visual focus on the sun (285). The sun focus goes back to the lesson of Pratyahara. The men were not only engrossing the sense of touch, but of sight as well.
After a Sun Dance, the men would have the respect of the tribe for life, as this was performed in their youth. But there were many spiritual reasons to perform this ritual. Royal B. Hassrick explains that the men believed that they would gain supernatural powers through self-sacrifice. Some did it to keep a promise to the gods, after a child was saved from illness or their life was spared in battle (280). They “subjected themselves to suffering for the well-being of others” (282).
With these powerful points of focus, the performers were able to negate their ego-mind into a place of utter selflessness, suffering to save loved ones and for the chance to gain spiritual insights and power.
In an interview with Fakir Musafar, who has been called “Godfather of the modern primitive movement”, he recalls his Sun Dance experience to “go out of the body” and experience what is called the “Great White Spirit”. Musafar grew up with Native American friends in South Dakota in the 1930s, where he learned of such rituals and wanted to experience them himself. He states that the point of modifying the body and pushing our physical limits this way is not a version of self-destruction, but a rite of passage. When we push our bodies past what our mind thinks we can do, we move energy. We’re not just manipulating bodies, but we’re rearranging all kinds of energy, including psychological and psychic energy.
When the mind lets go, the body can do incredible things. The body is always able to stretch and do more difficult poses, but the mind is what stops us. Emotions such as fear, not feeling good enough or ready, doubts, etc. cloud our perspective of our physical abilities. The same goes for the amount of adversity our bodies can take. We will accumulate wounds, physical and emotional. Our bodies know how to heal. It is often our mind that gets in the way. To get past this mental block releases a great deal of power and awareness, just as the practice of yoga releases power and awareness.
Whether physical pain in the form of hooks or an intense pose is at hand, it must come from a trusted source. That source is within us and in those with whom we choose to spend this journey. Using our intuition, we know we can feel free to release and surrender our consciousness fully into ourselves.