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How can you tell the difference between discomfort and danger?
I’m pretty limited in my shoulder mobility, and for years in my practice certain poses would cause me some degree of discomfort. I would mention this to my teachers and they would tell me: Don’t practice those poses anymore.
It wasn’t until a few years ago that I found a teacher who said, “Where exactly does it hurt? And how exactly would you describe your pain?” And then she’d say, “Here, try it this way. Better? No? How about this? Okay, ah yes, good. Practice it this way.” And when I occasionally resisted she would say, “I know that this is uncomfortable, but it is safe. Please try it anyway.”
This was a revelation in my practice.
Often the worst thing about discomfort is the factor of being unknown. I think about the Iyengar version of Supported Matsyasana (a chest opener over tall blocks). The first time I did this pose, my shoulders, chest and thoracic spine were so tight that it was painful to be in the shape. Having never done this pose before, I freaked out. My mind raced, my breathing got shallow, and I chose to come out of the pose. The sensation was intense and unknown, and I felt endangered.
It’s been a few years since my first Matsyasana, and since then I have learned to be more skillful in my practice, figuring out what is dangerous pain that should be avoided (sharp, sudden, acute, nervy pain in the smaller joints) and what is simply discomfort and can be tolerated to some greater good (broad, gradual, diffuse, muscular pain in the bigger joints or muscles).
Over time, my body and my mind opened to this pose, and now it’s one of my beloved go-tos for reversing the spinal slump of long days of computer work. The discomfort is still there, but now I can see it for what it is, and recognize that the greater danger is actually in avoiding the pose, lest I end up stuck in the spinal slump perpetually.
Which brings us to white fragility. This concept, coined by scholar Robin DeAngelo, states that white people are protected from and therefore averse to racial discomfort. Because our whole culture is predicated on protecting the needs and interests of white people, we experience few instances of true race-based risk, and thus, our scale is skewed for what should ring the alarm bells and what is simply awkwardness or intensity.
Many people of color experience true danger on a daily basis from racial profiling, police harassment, and daily discrimination. Black lives are on the line regularly in a way that is hard to fathom as a white person, and yet we as white folks tend to perceive our own racial discomfort as danger, even when it’s not.
My challenge for us (white folks and other people of privilege) is to begin to put to use the discernment skills we’ve learned in our yoga practice. When engaging in social justice work, can you start to assess what is truly dangerous versus what is simply discomfort?
It’s important to remember that what is simply uncomfortable to one person may be truly dangerous to another, so it’s best to keep our judgments to a minimum. Just as you’re the only one in your body in a yoga pose, you’re also the only one living your life, so you’re the only one who can know for sure.
For example, talking to say, your conservative parents about how their support for Trump is actually kinda racist is in the zone of discomfort. It might feel like an intense, sometimes intolerable discomfort, but it is probably not actually dangerous. Now if you were a teenager and fighting with your parents about politics put you in a position where you might be kicked out of the house, that’s danger, a real risk.
Calling out a co-worker who makes a racist joke: discomfort, not danger. (Again, if calling out, say, the president of your company made it likely that you would lose your job, you would need to do some more assessing to determine if that was the right course of action. Maybe, maybe not.)
For me, using the platform I have as a yoga teacher to talk about race feels scary sometimes. I get really uncomfortable trying to lead a conversation about a difficult topic with a mixed group of friends and strangers in a yoga studio. I often mess up and say things ineloquently. It gets messy! Yet, I know it’s not actually harmful to my well-being to do so, and so I keep trying.
Over time we can build up a level of tolerance for the awkwardness. Eventually the heart pounding, the stomach in the throat sensations might start to subside. What seems dangerous to you now may one day be tolerated as simple discomfort.
Discern the difference. Build up a tolerance. Keep finding your edge. Don’t push beyond it. Just stay there. Breathe in. Breathe out. Watch the edge move. Take a risk. Take another one. Don’t get self-satisfied. Wake up every day and ask, now what? What else? What more? Keep taking risks until they don’t seem so risky any more. Trade in the hypervigilant sense of danger for a tolerance of reasonable discomfort. Get uncomfortable. Do so skillfully.
Love and justice,
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