It has been a while since I wrote a blog on the body. I guess mostly because there are so many blogs out there about biomechanics, 5 poses for this or that, 3 ways to tear your rotator cuff, etc.. I generally write about the layers of Yoga practice beneath the apparent physical because well… I am interested in them, and, I don’t see a necessary separation between the physical practice and the mental, the energetic, the spiritual. I experience many times that when I have a deeper insight in the mind, emotions, and spiritual vision which I am living with and practicing, I immediately see a resulting shift in my physical practice.
Now to the body… and PAIN!
Pain is often labeled “bad” in Yoga and something that should not be allowed. The reason for this is largely unknown to the adherents of the “pain is bad” camp. While physical pain being the most sensational and identifiable is where most of our minds go when we consider pain: from stubbed toes, burnt fingers, a punch in the face (on the lighter side), all the way to dying by boiling in oil, in a house fire, or being eaten by ants (a personal favorite of mine), pain goes far deeper than the physical.
There is a type of pain that we feel in life when we are demanded to be somewhere we don’t want to be, when we have to go through an aggressive argument, when we lose a friend, or there is not enough people at our party. We feel this pain when we have to punch a clock, account for our actions, or have to fulfill pretty much any duty. We feel this type of pain when we sit alone for longer than 20 minutes without a task to do, when we miss a green light, or when we have to read something that takes longer than 30 seconds. This pain is much deeper and all pervasive than physical pain and I will pretty much enact countless strategies to stay unaware of its existence. Fortunately for the reader, this pain is not the main subject of this blog and buffers to said pain will not be outed and asked to be looked at here. It is simply important that we admit the truth of its existence.
Which brings us to another type of pain before we get to the physical. At one point in each of our lives, we had no demands on us, we felt connected, taken care of, loved, totally free of burden. Everyone felt this if at least only a few moments while being in the womb, and some people continue to feel this long into their life until one day, reality comes knocking at their door and says, “Hi, I noticed that you have not been living with me, I have come now to live with you.” At this point in life, depending on the resource amounts of denial, self-deception, and parental coddling one has in their life, this feeling of burden can be temporarily or cyclically ignored. Of course we occasionally get free of the burdens of reality when we complete a task we signed up for, when we get off work, when we get out of a toxic relationship, when we feel sane. This second type of pain arise as we go back and forth between experiencing the pain of burden to free from burden, sanity to insanity. It’s mental narrative sounds something like,
“Why is life this way? There must be someway out of this alternation from pain to free from pain!” “Can’t we just automate everything and take away the burdens of being alive!?”
Now we come to the physical pain, which is as far as I can see, labeled “bad” out of the unwillingness to honestly look at and respond to the other two types of pain spoken about above. Physical pain has a close neighbor who is the real time expression of the other two pains, “discomfort”. Discomfort is the product of the pain of burden; the all encompassing pain of separation and loneliness that we all carry as human beings and because of this is often mistaken for physical pain. The good news is that as we gain discernment in knowing and recognizing the distinction between discomfort and physical pain, we are simultaneously more able to skillfully cause less [self-inflicted] physical pain and work on (by proxy of our Yoga practice) the other two pains of our existence.
Think about it. You are doing a Yoga practice and it has challenges, innumerable challenges of breath, muscle engagements, connective tissue limitations, joint mobility, attitude, mental concentration, attention, awareness, adjustment, response to sensation, the releasing of unnecessary strain, and the list just keeps going (if your teacher is worth their salt). These challenges which are demanded of us by practicing can seem painful to undertake, though none of them are physical pain! They are what can be considered ‘burdens’ of practice and therefore come with discomfort as we face them.
The fact is that a lot of people either quit their Yoga practice because it is uncomfortable (outside their comfort zone) or because they avoid taking on the discomfort of the burdens of practice and end up putting themselves into pain through injury.
TWO FUNDAMENTAL QUESTIONS:
- Is discomfort allowed in a Yoga practice?
- Is pain allowed in a Yoga practice?
How you answer these questions tells you a lot about yourself and your view of life and the path to self-knowing.
The writer’s big fat opinion:
- Discomfort is allowed in a Yoga practice.
- Pain is allowed in a Yoga practice, and need not be permitted.
***The distinction between ‘allowed’ and ‘permitted’ is very important here. Mother Nature has given us the pain response to help us learn about ourselves, the world around us, and how to more skillfully navigate the demands of life. She is eternally and infinitely allowing of behavior in life, AND She does not permit just any behavior, thus the pain. She will allow the freedom to touch a hot stove, though She will not permit you to do it without the ensuing pain. She will allow you the freedom to overstretch your connective tissues into unsupporting, unfeeling, scar-tissue, though not without the resulting pain which comes with such instability. She allows the freedom to tighten your muscles and joints to the point where you cannot lift your arm above your shoulder, though not without the pain which comes with immobility and hypertension of connective and muscular tissue.
When we avoid pain at all costs, we tend to avoid discomfort as well and in so doing put ourselves into the subtle agreement to have another type of pain, if not today sometime later. When we allow our self to play the edge between discomfort and pain, we get the opportunity for a greater degree of self betterment, development, adaptation, skill in response, strength of character, tolerance, compassion, and pretty much everything we came to the practice for in the first place (even if that was just a nice ass).
How to mature in your discernment of discomfort and pain
- Start to see that pain is on a spectrum from 0-10. Zero being total happiness and ease (not just satiated or appeased), and ten being the worst physical pain imaginable, ie: being burned alive
- See 1, 2, and 3 as levels of discomfort and 4-10 levels of real, verifiable levels of physical pain
- Come to know the distinction between level 3 to 4
- Give yourself permission to practice in discomfort
- Do not give yourself permission to practice in pain
*** You need to know that level 3 discomfort is easily confused for level 4 pain.
You need to know that slip ups will occur. We will make mistakes in perception and decisiveness; pain will happen. We can allow these experiences to aid in our development of discernment and by doing so cultivate a much wider window of tolerance and compassion for all beings that experience pain.
You also need to know that everyone’s spectrum of pain sensation is different and you will probably have a different discomfort and pain tolerance than other practitioners. Always verify for yourself what is true and maintain a nonjudgmental attitude toward yourself and others in this regard. Your tolerance for discomfort will shift as you gain in strength and stamina and the ability to relax.
Take it slow and practice at your edge.
By: Brent Kuecker – Yogi. Musician. Educator.