This is the fourth post in a series called Principles of Asana, looking at how to skillfully apply discernment and wisdom in our poses and in our practice. Catch the previous posts here, here, and here.
Is there a point of pain? While I would never advocate the kind of practice that injures you, it’s been my experience that some discomfort in the yoga practice is unavoidable, healthy, and potentially quite useful. As I see it, the purpose of pain in the yoga practice is threefold: to help us learn discernment in the body, to help us focus the mind, and to help us bring softness into the heart.
In our bodies, we must first learn to discern “good,” useful pain from “bad,” injurious pain. Through the asana practice, we get more sensitive in our bodies, and we get clearer about what, exactly, is happening. Sharp, nervy, searing, acute pain in your joints, especially the lower back, neck, or knees? We can qualify that as bad pain that we want to avoid. Dull, throbbing, broad discomfort in the belly of the muscle? That might be useful pain, helping to make our bodies stronger. There is some discomfort that must be endured in order to make us stronger.
(Huge caveat here to say that YOU are the arbiter of what is good or bad pain. YOU and you alone get to decide what is useful discomfort versus what is injurious pain you should steer clear of. Be wary of any teacher who encourages tolerance of all pain without discernment!)
In addition to bringing sensitivity into the body, we can use good pain to help discipline the mind. If what you’re feeling is useful, necessary discomfort, can you focus your mind through the pain? Can you breathe slow and steady breaths? Can you quiet your racing thoughts and just sit in the discomfort?
And finally, if the pain seems likely to be injurious, can you find the softness in your heart to back off? And even if what you’re feeling fits the definition of “good pain,” you might have had a crappy day, or you might be recovering from sickness, or dealing with chronic illness, or any number of other factors that might shift what is sometimes manageable discomfort over the line into injurious pain. Even if it’s not going to screw up your neck or your knees, if what you’re feeling feels unmanageable or if it’s hard to breathe or focus, it’s advisable and totally okay to do less.
Can you let go of the pose in exchange for the practice?
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