Yoga practice has discomfort within it, but one that is “practiced”. You enter into the practice, and the practice is mostly under your control, unlike the day-to-day world, in which all sorts of unexpected variables are at play, within and without you. Yoga practice allows us a controlled environment in which to observe our experiences, reactions, and sensations.
One of the sensations that invariably comes up is discomfort or pain. Any yoga practitioner will feel discomfort in the practice: a challenge in the beginning is simply discerning the difference between 1. discomfort, and 2. pain which is causing damage. Once you can tell the difference, you have to be vigilant so as not to go beyond your limits, from discomfort into pain.
To revisit briefly something I mentioned in my last post, all pain can be attributed to the five Klesha, as described in Patanjali’s yoga sutra. The fifth Klesha, abhinivesa, is the fear of death. This includes all fear: fear that we’ll feel pain, that we’ll be hurt, that we’ll face an unpleasant situation, that someone is lurking in the closet, that we’ll die. The literal meaning of the Sanskrit word, abhinivesa, is “that which completely covers the interior”. Could it be said that fear, and the sensations we fear and thus avoid, completely obscure our view of our interior, our essential selves, and our ability to feel free?
What to do if we are confronted by pain, or even the prospect of pain, which elicits fear and keeps us from connecting with ourselves and others in an authentic way? BKS Iyengar suggests that there are two options. The first is to live with the pain forever. For instance, if when you do a particular asana, you feel uncomfortable (slight pain), one way to deal with it is to not do the asana, or to move in such a way that you always avoid the shape that creates the sensation. The pain remains: any time you return to that shape, you will feel it again.
We have all experienced this in the patterns of our own behavior, or in relationships with others: each time you find yourself in a particular situation, it is uncomfortable, and you may, in a relationship for instance, move away from that situation, but then eventually it comes back, and you find yourself experiencing the same thing again, in exactly the same way.
One option available to us is to continue in these same patterns forever. The downside is that this route will cause further samskara (repetitive behavior) as we habitually avoid the painful area/situation, re-experience it, avoid it, etc, digging a deeper and deeper groove of habitual behavior we ‘can’t help’ sliding into.
The other option BKS Iyengar suggests is to work with the pain, and endure it as you experience it, to the point where you can possibly eradicate it. This may take time, patience, and initially more energy than avoiding the pain, but by freeing that area, you will also free yourself from the avoidance/pain cycle, and having to dedicate energy and attention to it. You may be free of that pain, and free of that pattern.
In this type of endeavor, we must work gradually, changing habits slowly so that we don’t take on too much at once or cause damage or shock to the system. Respect your own limits, but visit them regularly, and the things that seem impossible today may seem just difficult tomorrow. The things that seem very uncomfortable today may not raise a reaction in the future. In some ways it is a matter of acceptance and familiarity. As we accept what we have to work with, and get to know ourselves intimately, things are not so alarming because there are not so many unknowns. We can look at ourselves clearly, accept what needs to be done, and slowly work at it, bit by bit.
If we work with something for awhile, yet we find ourselves unable to unravel a pain or solve a problem, again we are confronted with the choice Iyengar suggests: live with it, or address it. When pain is deeply rooted, or difficult to get perspective on, we may need help. Again, the same choice: 1. admit the problem is bigger than you are able to deal with alone (seeing it clearly) and seek help (from a teacher, counselor, doctor, or guide) or 2. To continue cycling through your cycle of pain, avoidance, now joined by frustration and arrogance, alone. Of course you may be able to avoid the particular posture/situation/dynamic that causes the pain, nevertheless it is still there.
This all sounds like a good plan, until the moment we are confronted with a difficult sensation, at which point we might freak out and flee the scene. If that happens, wait until you've regained your composure and try again.
On this new moon day, I hope we all have the patience to accept ourselves, fortitude to endure discomfort, courage and resources to find help when we need it, and that we may find freedom, love and peace.
(referred to here was BKS Iyengar: “Find Comfort Even in Discomfort. … It is not just yoga that is causing all this pain; the pain is already there. It is hidden. We live with it or have learned not to be aware of it. It is as if your body is in a coma. When you begin yoga, the unrecognized pains come to the surface. When we are able to use our intelligence to purify our bodies, then the hidden pains are dispersed. As long as there is tightness in the body and mind, there is no peace. Internal mistakes such as forcing, acting without observing, tightening the throat, blocking the ears, create habits, and these habits create lack of awareness, constriction, heaviness, imbalance, pain. There are only two ways to confront pain: to live with the pain forever or to work with the pain and see if you can eradicate it.”
Light on Life, page 49. BKS Iyengar.