Discomfort is just another part of us. We can avoid it, or we can learn to greet it like an old friend.
I remember my first yoga class very well.
Though I had occasionally practiced the postures in the high school gym, I wasn’t physically fit by any means when I walked into a yoga studio that fateful afternoon. From the outside, yoga looked so relaxing. Easy, even. Wasn’t it just a lot of interesting ways to stand? I wasn’t expecting it to be much of a challenge.
Boy, was I wrong.
That first class was a real shock. Far from graceful, I tipped right over in tree pose and my arms shook as I moved through a vinyasa. Wasn’t downward dog supposed to be a resting pose? I had spent the first 20 years of my life actively trying to avoid discomfort, and here I was voluntarily tying myself into unbearable knots. In yoga—as in the rest of my life—it was a struggle to find strength and balance. As I fought to keep my hips back in utkatasana that first time, clenching everything, a grimace firmly set on my face, my teacher said the words I would return to, time and time again:
“Relax, and breathe into the sensation.”
With every class, with that in mind, I learned to slowly relax the parts of my body that didn’t need to be working. Though my quads, triceps, or abs were often shaking, my shoulders relaxed, my teeth unclenched, and the grimace of pain slipped way. I was calm.
As I got to know by body through yoga, I began to feel more aware of the connection between my body and my mind off the mat. I was working in a stressful environment, and while I sat at my keyboard throughout the day, I felt my shoulders creeping towards my ears—I was tense and uncomfortable. When I noticed my body physically manifesting my stress, I heard those same words that had been repeated to me in yoga class. With new mindfulness, I was able let go of the tension. Just because my mind was uncomfortable didn’t mean that my body had to be!
Next, I started to notice the way body manifested other types of discomfort. I noticed the way my stomach would drop when I had to speak up in meetings; the nervous twitching of my lips when I had to introduce myself to a stranger; the tingling in my hands when I had to make a difficult phone call. No matter what I was feeling, I found comfort in those simple words repeated so often by my yoga teacher: Relax, and breathe.
Since yoga never actually assigned a value—discomfort—to that sensation in my quads, in my shoulders, in the pit of my stomach, little by little I stopped being afraid of it. That discomfort, like an itch or a sneeze, was just another way that my body was physically reacting to the environment around it. Though unpleasant, it isn’t inherently good or bad. It’s not something to avoid at all costs. It’s just a part of life. By relaxing and breathing into it, we face it head on, and come to know it as a part of us.
In yoga, when our bodies feel that particular sensation, that shaking, burning feeling, we know that we are getting stronger. Off the mat, the same is true. By facing the things that make us uncomfortable, we will get stronger. We will grow. When we accept fear and discomfort as a part of us, when we can greet that feeling like an old friend, we can meet every seemingly impossible task, from an arm balance to a job interview, with strength, grace, and even a smile.
We can relax, breathe in, and let go.
Jess Wallin is pretty outdoorsy for a Brookyln girl. Visit her online at fitandhippy.com.
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Ed: B. Bemel