Transcendence on the Rack: The Yoga of Pain


The noble eight-lash path? Cultura RM/Steve Prezant/Getty

Julie and I originally discussed the idea of "transcendence on the rack" during the 2011 podcast episode of the same name. We contemplated the religious ideal of a tormented martyr finding bliss amid the licking flames, but ultimately came up a little short on answers.

Can pain bring us to higher states of consciousness? Can the lash bring us closer to god?

Fast-forward a few years and 2014 study from Northern Illinois University provides us with some interesting insight -- and I want to share it with you hear so the goods don't remain buried in my "Hellraiser" post.

Pain Don't Hurt

We covered pain more exhaustively in our episode "The Future of Pain," but just to cover a couple of quick points: Pain and pleasure share the same pathways, the sensation is largely subjective and the brain sometimes jumbles things up.

A consenting BDSM enthusiast is restrained with barbed hooks at the 2012 DomConLA convention in Los Angeles.
David McNew/Stringer/Getty

What's more, according to a 2013 study from the University of Oslo, pain that hit's less severely than expected ("You didn't spank me as hard as I thought you would...") may give us a rush of release or even something like pleasure. To say nothing about the rush of endorphins.

But the main study I want to highlight revolves around consensual sadomasochism, which is obliviously differs drastically from violent religious persecution.

We're talking about sane, consenting adults who engage in varying degrees of painful and pleasurable physical stimuli: whips, ropes, chains, piercings, masks and maybe even a hook or two.

It's not always about the painful end of the spectrum, but that's what concerns us here.

Elevate me to a Higher Human Form

The 2014 study linked sadomasochism to altered states of mind in keeping with those achieved through yoga or meditation. The researchers administered cognitive tests to S&M participants following a switching scene and, based on the findings, they suspect that pain alters blood flow in the brain, particularly to the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which plays into our ability to distinguish self from other.

As such, intense pain may result in a feeling of oneness with humanity or even the universe.

The researchers intend to dig deeper into the topic, exploring the physiological and psychological connection in the everyday sadomasochist. And that's key. Forget gimp masks and European sex dungeons. There may be more S&M in all of us than previously acknowledged.

The spirituality of pain: "The Cutting Scene," a painting of the O-kee-pa hook suspension ceremony of the Mandan tribe by George Catlin, 1832.
© Corbis

About the Author: Robert Lamb spent his childhood reading books and staring into the woods — first in Newfoundland, Canada and then in rural Tennessee. There was also a long stretch in which he was terrified of alien abduction. He earned a degree in creative writing. He taught high school and then attended journalism school. He wrote for the smallest of small-town newspapers before finally becoming a full-time science writer and podcaster. He’s currently a senior writer at HowStuffWorks and has co-hosted the science podcast Stuff to Blow Your Mind since its inception in 2010. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling with his wife Bonnie, discussing dinosaurs with his son Bastian and crafting the occasional work of fiction.