The Bitter Potion’s Power.
Pain as Harbinger of Transformation
For millennia, cultures have recognized pain as a harbinger of transformation. Menarche (potentially painful or scary) as the start of womanhood and physical feats (usually difficult) as a sign of maturity are exemplify this role pain often plays.
The coexistence of all living beings necessitates some violence. Predators must have prey. Human childbirth is painful. Ecosystems require the balance that births and deaths provide. Plants, in order to obtain nourishment from land, use various toxins and chemicals to battle each other and animals. Coral must grow on the hardened remains of predecessors.
Painful experiences often define people most clearly. Lance Armstrong frequently comments that “cancer is the best thing that ever happened to me.” Taken literally, this sounds a little crazy, particularly given the extraordinary source. He is an athlete who’s both dominated and defined his sport in a way that rarely occurs in history, a father of five and the founder of an influential foundation. Yet he claims that cancer trumps everything else. Taken emotionally, however, his sentiment is completely understandable: though the experience was far from pleasant, the pain doesn’t render it meaningless.
If transformation were easy, we’d have no need for any spiritual practice. Often, the most compelling testimonials about yoga come from people who’ve changed themselves and their lives drastically, utterly altering what was most recognizable. Though some people disparage yoga as “soft,” the Indian perspective is quite the opposite: yoga has immense potential on many levels, not just the physical. The entirety of yoga challenges practitioners mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. Some people learn that jobs, relationships or lifestyle routines do not actually support the path to improved well-being. In the process of abandoning that which does not serve, pain frequently ensues. Triumph and its accompanying freedom, by definition, cannot occur without challenge.
The Many Faces of Pain
Semantics often limits meaningful discussion about pain. Pains, really, because many sensations can be labeled as “painful.” Moreover, “injury” and “pain” are often used interchangeably, when in fact the distinction is vital for clearer understanding.
Flourishing in times of ease comes naturally, yet life presents struggles. The discipline of any practice, by definition, entails moments that are not always enjoyable, even if the results are. Mastery, from athletic or mechanical to musical or creative, brings some frustration. Any Olympic athlete can confirm that dedication is not always fun. Self-mastery through yoga and meditation are no different. Far from always pleasant, they frequently bring up scary and painful experiences within the process of transformation, not just physically, but mentally, emotionally and spiritually. Moreover, the many ideas of pain spring not merely from direct occurrence in the past, but even the idea of or potential for pain. In other words, physical pain strongly resembles fear or frustration, both of which are types of mental pain.
Depending on the definition of “pain,” the phrase “no pain, no gain” can be a gritty truth or a harmful misconception. Certainly pain unchecked, pain unmitigated by mindfulness, will not precede healthy transformation—the harmful misconception. Yet pain that results from meeting challenges and handling them constructively is powerfully conducive to growth—for those who wish to avoid literal growing pains, the gritty truth. A more descriptive version could be “no growth in comfort, no comfort in growth.”
Asana [the physical practice of yoga] pushes the body’s limits of muscle lengths and joint ranges of motion. Consequently, many yoga teachers in the West are hyper-sensitive about pain. (Again, the semantic difficulties of “injury” and “pain” can be problematic.) In the beginning, this awareness aligns with ahimsa (nonviolence), the first of the yamas (ethical abstentions). However, many yoga teachers both literally and figuratively bend over backwards to shield students from all discomfort, taking the principle of injury avoidance too far. This mentality can easily slip into the lure that all forms of yoga should always feel pleasurable. By that rationale, pain or discomfort demonstrates that a person is not practicing correctly. Again, different types of pain have different significance. Deep intuition that something is harmful should be heeded. However, the Yoga Sutras repeatedly emphasize that the mind can and will mimic intuition. This can manifest in various types of painful emotions, such as fear, discomfort or uncertainty. Acknowledging this tendency yields a more complete understanding; namely, that some painful experiences can signal that one is practicing correctly.
An Unrecognized Gift
Like many perspectives on practice, our confrontations with pain function as a good mirror for how we conduct our lives. Using painful moments in yoga practice as opportunities to learn and grow allows pain to serve rather than punish us or prolong our suffering. Life provides pain and will continue to do so until we learn its deeper lessons. By that rationale, to move through pain, instead of trying to escape it, we inevitably experience pain. In this case, however, we also derive the gift of growth. In the words of Kahlil Gibran: “Much of your pain is self-chosen. It is the bitter potion by which the physician within you heals your sick self.” A yoga practice that faces that pain, channels through it constructively, allows us to penetrate more profound levels of knowing and transcendence, catharsis and healing.
In that context, pain can be welcomed through acceptance. As Clarissa Pinkola Estés, a Jungian psychologist, explains, we begin to learn when pain becomes conscious. We reveal our truest selves, the most honest exhibition of our characters, through adversity. Thriving amidst adversity is a far greater challenge than avoiding it altogether. A life or a yoga practice based in avoidance of pain indicates the avoidance of not just challenges, but also the loss of potential for growth.
A committed yoga practice provides moments of pain, in many faces, with varying levels of intensity. A specific posture may trigger pain or fear or frustration. Facing the practice as a whole may intimidate. Regardless of the situation, a consistent yoga practice teaches the consciousness necessary to transcend the tendency to avoid pain’s many facets. In this sense, discomfort and difficulty are essential—sometimes the only way to learn certain lessons. Practice demonstrates the transience of pain on a yoga mat, and we can use that same perspective for difficult situations in our daily lives. Thus we may observe feelings and responses more objectively. Stepping back, so to speak, from the mind’s conditioned responses to pain allows us to develop more constructive approaches to facing pain not only within practice, but in any context.
Stephanie Kohler and Todd Roderick are yoga instructors in Atlanta, GA. They are strong proponents of the power of food, breath and sound. Accordingly, Todd grows much of the food he eats. (Stephanie always appreciates when he shares it.) They started Atlanta’s first and only traditional Ashtanga studio, and both are active in the local music community, particularly theraputic sound.