Pain: An Unpleasant Sensation…but is it? At times you have to experience some pain on the road to freedom.
Do you ever find yourself up against an intense sensation in a yoga class and you wonder, “Can this really be good for me?” Maybe on an off day you find that every position reveals an ache in your back. If you are new to Yoga you may feel that the simple act sitting can be quite uncomfortable. You may be a seasoned practitioner and find yourself being reminded of old injuries and stagnation in your body – you begin to question if you are doing something wrong. There may even be times when you are practicing a pose that your body really needs, but reacts with a loud yelp and you instantly want to jump out of the pose and flip to the next page.
If we ignore necessary pain in the moment, we will most definitely create unnecessary pain in the future. Conversely, if we succumb to pain and quit because of it, we lose the opportunity for growth. The art of interpreting non-useful pain is one of the most challenging, yet enlightening steps on our journey within the practice of Yoga.
Carl Jung said that pain does not come from this moment, but it is an accumulation of our past experiences and the anticipation of what is yet to come. Jung often associates this with emotional pain, but since emotional pain lodges in the physical body, the pain we feel today is an accumulation of both our past physical and mental experiences. The practice of yoga, which is a self-reliant healing system, is one of the great tools available to us to reduce not only our current pain, but future pain and suffering as well. As Patanjali states in the Yoga Sutra 2.16 Heyam Dukham Anagatam: it is the suffering that is yet to come which is to be anticipated and avoided.
The word pain is defined as an unpleasant sensation. The refinement in asana practice comes from knowing the difference between pain that is part of the work (good sensation) and pain that is damaging or signaling that we could be working against ourselves (bad sensation). But what is good pain versus bad pain? I hear this question all the time, and it is really such a relative experience. As usual with any human experience, there are the extremes. Some people opt to run away from any hint of an unpleasant sensation and others don’t know when to back off so they push through sensation so intensely that they create injury.
Lets face it, it is ego and obsession that get in the way of really distinguishing between something that is useful or not. There is an emphasis these days in yoga classes to look a certain way in a pose, and to accomplish so many different postures. While there are significant benefits from the countless postures, there are also risks and possible injury that can arise from an unconscious egotistical practice.
So what is the correct path? The first Yama in the eightfold path of Ashtanga Yoga is Ahimsa. Ahimsa means non-harming, non-violence. Often people consider only the macro aspect of the first Yama in the context of doing no harm in action, thought, word and deed, killing fellow humans, global warfare, etc. But we can look at this important Yama of non-harming, non-violence on a much more micro level during the asana practice of yoga to help us distinguish between good and bad sensation.
As an underlying premise, we must accept that not all unpleasant sensations (pain) in a Yoga pose is a sign that something is incorrect, but it could be. Therefore, an integral part of our work is to remain mindful and aware so that we bring support to the imbalances of our body as well as our mind. After all, the practice of Yoga is a process of uncovering the hidden, unseen, and untouched areas of our body, mind, and soul. Often those unknown areas come alive with doubt, question, or fear that something is wrong! The more mindfulness and sensitivity that we embody during our practice, the more intelligent and non-harming our practice will be.
But what is mindfulness? Patanjali suggests that every posture is supported by the breath. Conscious breathing has amazing benefits for the body and mind. It is all at once nourishing and stimulating, yet calming and grounding – the yin and the yang. The mind and body relax and grow quiet with awareness around the breath. The effort and space that we create within a pose enhances and encourages a more conscious breath. A more conscious breath enhances and encourages a balance between ease and effort within a pose. As we learn to relax the intensity of our efforts, we are guided more by our intelligence rather than our egos. Non-harming and non-violence to our own bodies allows us to begin sketching the vague and hazy landscape of our being with awareness and sensitivity. Knowing to begin from where we are rather than where we think we should be or where we would like to be, affords us the opportunity to practice Yoga from a place of integrity.
With this mindfulness, we can then look at the difference between a bad sensation, one that feels compressive in a joint, sharp, stabbing or electric, versus a good sensation, one that feels productive as in a stretch, elongation or tension in the belly of a muscle.
Awakening our senses ignites a clarity that allows us to very honestly feel what is going on. This clarity encourages us to know and to feel if the moment is useful or non-useful, harming or non-harming, serving or no longer serving us.
Our breath is the vehicle to this awareness, to this waking up! Can you consciously perceive the quality of your breath? Can you hear the soundtrack of your breath? Can you feel the texture of your breath? Can you feel how it moves and pulses through your body? If you can deliberately wrap your consciousness around your breath, chances are you will be practicing from a place of intelligence and wisdom, and you will know if the sensations that you are experiencing are good or bad.
This awareness develops mindfulness, and through mindfulness real change and transformation can occur.
Adi Amar is the Co-founder and Co-director of the Teton Yoga Shala in Jackson Hole , WY, and is an instructor for Yoga Today. She has been studying and practicing yoga since the age of 15 and completed her formal training in 2001 at Mount Madonna under the guidance of Baba Hari Das. In 1998 Adi had the fortunate experience to practice with Tim Miller and immediately found her teacher. She considers Baba Hari Dass, Tim Miller, Bhavani Maki, Nicki Doane and Eddie Modestini as some of her most influential teachers. She offers specific tools for each individual to extend his/her own growth, wisdom and healing capabilities within challenging and inspiring classes that integrate the spiritual and philosophical teachings of Yoga. Adi believes that the practice is the teacher and aims to inspire a passion for regular practice.