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We will all, at some point, experience pain. Sometimes the pain is physical: a sprained ankle, a toothache, a pulled muscle in the low back. Sometimes the pain is emotional: grief, anxiety, a broken heart. There is no denying this reality, and yet, so often we make our pain worse by fighting against it, by rejecting our experience of it. In this way, we cause ourselves more suffering.
As the saying goes, pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.
For instance, last spring my back injury flared up and I was in constant pain. I was in pain when I woke up in the morning, and it worsened throughout the day. It lasted for weeks. At first I was in denial about the pain. It’s not so bad, I told myself. It will go away soon. But as the weeks stretched into months, I spent a long stretch being mad at the pain. I felt resentful of this injury because I see myself as “healthy”, as someone who “cares for my body” and who didn’t deserve this pain (a decidedly ableist point of view, I can see now.)
Finally after several months of low-grade but constant pain, I started coming to terms with it. This was my reality, and though I could make small improvements, nothing within my control was making the pain go away. I simply had to live with it.
If we can meet our experiences of pain with willingness and acceptance, our suffering is relieved. The heart or the tooth may still ache, but the stress associated with it is reduced. We are no longer arguing with reality. I wish I could say that when I stopped fighting with God about my back pain that the pain improved, but it didn’t. But I felt better anyway! Regardless of the pain in my back, the pain in my mind was relieved tremendously, and this made a huge difference in my day-to-day life.
This is not to say that we should welcome discomfort needlessly. When my back was flared up, I was investigating from all angles--what was causing this pain? What could I do to prevent it? Once it started, what could I do to lessen it? I spent all my energy throwing solutions at the pain. I went to acupuncture. I saw a chiropractor. I did yoga. I stopped doing yoga. I took herbs. I ate anti-inflammatory foods. All gave some relief, or at the very least, some sense of agency. I was actively trying to change the circumstances that caused the pain, but doing so without rejecting my experience of the pain itself.
The same stands true for social justice movements--while you’re actively working to dismantle oppressions in our society, can you also practice being present with and accepting of whatever emotional experience you’re having in relation to them? For example, if you, like many of us, feel anxious about our incoming president, I encourage you to sit with your anxiety in the moment. Allow yourself to experience it fully. Meet yourself with compassion if at all possible. Then, of course, fight like hell when the anxiety passes! But remember:
Fight the circumstances. Don’t fight your experience.
We can practice getting comfortable with discomfort in yoga poses. When you do Warrior Two until your thighs burn, or when you practice those awful toe stretches, or the first time you lay over the tall blocks in a backbend, you have the opportunity to practice allowing yourself to experience discomfort on purpose in a controlled environment. First you set up the pose in the best alignment you can manage. Then after a breath or two, see if there’s any adjustment you can make to be more comfortable. Then simply be in the pose, allowing whatever sensations arise to just be.
Contemplate this in your life. From the smallest irritations (someone cuts you off in traffic; you have a hangnail, etc) to the largest of life’s losses (a loved one falls ill or dies), the practice of acceptance is radically powerful. While we’re actively working to change the circumstances, we’re also accepting the experiences that we’re having now in each moment. In this way, the world gets a little brighter and our collective and individual suffering is reduced.
P.S. IF YOU FOUND THIS HELPFUL, I'M LEADING A WORKSHOP SERIES ON USING YOGA AS A TOOL TO MANAGE ANXIETY. ALL THE DETAILS ARE OVER HERE.
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