As I have shared my story about healing pain through dance, I have met other pain patients who self-healed through dance — including a couple who had been paralyzed! How is it possible that we all self-healed from a condition stumping our doctors? A few years ago, I decided to put my journalistic skills to use, on a mission to uncover the science behind the dance.
Martin Rossman, M.D., a pioneer in the field of mind-body medicine, explained the mystery in terms of cutting-edge neurological research: According to the latest studies, acute pain (the immediate “ow!” sensation we feel after banging a knee into a coffee table) registers in the part of the brain that deals with tissue damage. But chronic pain (the “ow!” that just keeps on giving) registers in a different part of the brain – the prefrontal cortex and limbic system, which the brain uses for memories.
Once pain has been hanging around for months or years on end, it gets lodged into a neural circuitry. It’s kind of like a pain train: Movement habitually triggers a “pain-pain-pain” response over time, leading to a deeper and deeper groove in the pain train track. In other words, the more we feel pain, the more we feel pain.
When done mindfully and safely, however, dance introduces – get this – a pleasure train track. The more we dance with comfort, ease, and joy, the more all the neurons hop onto the party train and deepen its funky-bass groove, until one day, the pain train files neurological bankruptcy from lack of use.
At least, that’s how I like to think of it. Dance effectively reframes and refocuses the relationship to pain, rebooting the nervous system. The more we dance with pleasure, the more we activate new, healthy neurological pathways. If we sustain a regular, happy dance practice over the long haul, the pain pathways may become slower and less likely to activate, then eventually disappear altogether.
In case that’s not a “brainiac” enough explanation for you, David Simon, MD, a neuroanatomist and medical director of the Chopra Center for Wellbeing, discussed my transformation in terms of physics: According to modern theory, the entire universe is comprised of different vibrational frequencies, or wave forms. If there is distress in one of these wave forms, there is a dissonance in the vibration, which in the body can lead to dis-ease like chronic pain.
As it turns out, Ayurvedic medicine — an ancient holistic system originating in India – was hip to this theory centuries ago. The system teaches that if we introduce a healing vibration, it will set up a resonant effect on whatever is dissonant — thereby providing the memory of harmony, helping the imbalanced state recall its previously balanced state, and restoring health.
Dance packs a vibrational punch, because it embodies both sound and movement wave frequencies. As such, it impacts our entire system – nerves, bones, muscles, fluids, and tissues. Dr. Simon put it this way: “Dancing creates a kind of heartbeat. If it is a resonant heartbeat, it harmonizes every cell in the body.”
If it is a resonant heartbeat. Maybe this resonance factor is why only particular music gets me going full-throttle: My body has to relate to it vibrationally. Repeatedly, I have found that I will be dancing low-key for a while, to various musical styles, when one song comes on that transports me to an altered state – where the music is in the driver’s seat of my body, and I cannot help but fly around my apartment like a woman possessed, pain zones vanished.
Perhaps for that moment, with that particular vibrational frequency flowing through me, my body is restored to harmony and therefore perfect health. Regardless of why dance works, I know for a fact that it does. Over the years, using dance as my primary vehicle for healing, I have gone from living with pain levels generally around an 8 (on the infamous pain scale of 1-10, with 10 being excruciating) and spending a lot of time in bed, to being more or less pain-free and leading a healthy, active life.
And that is something to dance about.
Want to learn how to dance with your pain? Be sure to check out the Dancing with Pain store, for the “Breakfast Mix,” the first in our series of downloadable audio classes.