Thursday, December 5, 2013

The gift of Pain

 It seems that I've been having the same conversation with several different students lately. This conversation revolves around why we do what we do, and what does it mean, and how to maintain the practice when there is pain and discomfort in the body. 

I've mentioned before how pain and my desire to be rid of it brought me to yoga initially. While I am in a much healthier place than I was when I started, largely due to the gradual lifestyle and outlook changes that yoga inspired in my life, I am not pain free. I have periods of intense, recurring pain. What is different for me now, is that I am involved in my own well-being. Yoga allows me to engage with pain, rather than run from it. But you see, engaging with pain has always been my preferred method, though not always in a healthy way. By nature, I  tend to move into intensity, rather than away. In the past, this mostly manifested as suffering: depressive episodes, periods of intense sadness, and enjoying the sadness enough to perpetuate it. Nowadays, yoga provides me with the container to be with intensity, even revel in it, and get to actively observe the why, the who, and the how of my particular predicament (or gift, depending on my perspective and mood). Now, on my mat, I relate to my pain. I examine its many facets and manifestations, its root causes, my involvement in its dramas, and I am able to shift it. Before you get the idea that I somehow enjoy pain and chase it, I have to tell you that what I've learned to enjoy is active participation in my life. My practice is a place where I can safely delve into the uncomfortable parts of myself and come out of the other end more or less whole. Pain brought me to my mat, but what keeps me returning to it is the memory of those ephemeral moments of insight, of great pleasure, of ecstatic ease, of letting the pain and its many stories go. Of not allowing pain to swallow me whole. That inexplicable state of flow, our inevitable craving for more of that, the honeymoon phase of our love affair with the practice, is useful, necessary even. It is this physical attachment to pleasure (egoic or purely of the body), that you must call on to see you through the mundane or even unpleasant periods.

Why I do this practice is a question I ask of myself periodically, and the answers are always changing. The layer that was relevant, no matter how embarrassingly un-evolved from today’s vantage point, served its function of bringing me to this soon to shift layer. The more I practice, the more I realize that it is not about the postures. I know this, yet, if I didn’t love to try to figure them out, I wouldn’t continue with asana practice. If I didn’t, all else considered, cherish the sheer physicality of it all, I wouldn’t keep at it year after year, day after day.

You may be different. Your relationship with the practice does not have to look like mine. This all should go without saying, but I realize that it’s good to be up front about the language. What I’m suggesting is that regardless of how you relate to your practice, you must learn to love it. Otherwise, it won’t last. You must form an internal relationship with it; more than trying to figure out the physical alignment of the postures, you must be willing to inhabit the energetics of them. Richard Freeman comes to mind: his way of penetrating the practice is through vivid imagery and subtle energetics. David Garrigues looks at it through the lens of dynamism. Chuck Miller's obsession is with the very concept of sama as it takes shape in the various postures. You must learn how to get inside the practice in your own way. Your teacher can't do that for you. You must take the initiative, you must make the effort, you must want it very very badly and be willing to work for it.

If you allow it, this practice will wake you up. If you pay attention, the practice will show you to yourself. If you don't react, your attitude towards pain will shift. But you must practice presence most diligently.

That's how you will show up to practice whether you are inspired or not. You will be a detective in your own body. You will learn to become a healer of your own ills. You will be grateful for every bit of breath that you manage through your beautiful lungs.

I hear this often from new students: this practice is like a drug! What they mean to say is that I am falling in love. I want more. I'm feeling things that I've never felt before. I feel like I have wings. What I often say to them is twofold: enjoy this phase, and, shift your thinking about it as less of a drug and more like brushing your teeth, or, better yet eating a meal. Something you do everyday to stay healthy and to be a pleasant person. Some meals are going to be mindblowingly amazing; some will be rice and beans. If you think that your practice will always feel like this very short-lived honeymoon phase, chances are when the plateau hits, you won't stick it out; you'll move on to something else. If you think of it as a drug, you'll burn out chasing the high of breakthroughs (physical and emotional). If you practice for a very long time, chances are most of your practices will be uneventful. Manage your expectations early on. 

So, let the honeymoon phase dazzle you; get into it and really revel in it. And, let the uninspired periods of necessary plateau be a chance to get to know yourself day in day out; plateaus are periods of dormant integration. And if there are dips, injuries, and pain along the way, let them show yourself to you fully in your capacity to be with discomfort, because, let's be honest, we all know pain is coming. Whether we like it or not, we do not live forever. If we are very lucky, our bodies grow old and decay. You are alive now. Inhabit yourself fully.



  1. Beautiful! Couldn't have said it better.

  2. Thank you, Boodiba. Btw, I've been reading you off and on for years. Funny how I feel familiar with your practice and we've never even met. Thanks for stopping by :)