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No Pain, No Gain?

There are so many common statements about pain that I don't know how to reconcile them. For example, people often say, "Go to the threshold of pain and then back off a little," or "You can't build muscle without tearing muscle, and this involves shaking or pain." People commonly refer to "overstretching a muscle" versus "stretching it even though it hurts." Then there are the various descriptions of pain—sharp, dull, achy, tight, shooting, chronic, or intermittent versus constant, hot, tingling, and so forth. How do I answer questions about whether a pain is a healthy one or not?

Dean Lerner's Reply:

Dear Pam,

The first of Buddha's four noble truths is, "There is suffering." Pain and suffering are an unavoidable, intimate part of life. So your questions regarding pain and yoga are very pertinent. When we practice asana, we come face to face with pain. There is no avoiding it. For example, when you bend forward in Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Bend), immediately you feel discomfort in the backs of your legs. As yoga practitioners, we should know that pain comes to guide and instruct us. We should develop a reflective sensitivity in our approach to discern what pain has to teach us.

Let's look at your basic question: whether a pain is a healthy one or not. The ability to recognize and distinguish between different types and qualities of pain must be developed. A healthy or good pain will be felt as a progressive stretching and lengthening of the fibers. As we hold a pose and consciously quiet the breath and deflate the brain cells, muscles and fibers release, and the intensity of the discomfort becomes manageable. Attention to proper alignment will avoid overstretching or shaking, which is a type of violence. An unhealthy or bad pain will be experienced as a sharp, abrupt, or pinching feeling, which persists or intensifies. Once this distinction is clear, a proper response will become obvious. When we feel a sharp, unhealthy pain, we should use common sense and forgo the pose for a while. Determine what is wrong and try again with proper alignment and action. When the pose is correct, this type of pain is absent. In a class situation, to stoically tolerate pain until the instructor says to come out of the pose is a gymnastic attitude, not a yogic one.

Initially, pain is very formidable as the body struggles against it. From a yogic perspective, perseverance and reflection are required to dissipate the pain and find ease in the poses. This involves surrendering or softening the body to lessen the resistance and accompanying pain. The head and heart must work together judiciously and intelligently so that, even in the face of discomfort, the consciousness remains undisturbed. This is a spiritual approach to the path of yoga.

Certified Advanced Iyengar instructor Dean Lerner is co-director of the Center for Well-being in Lemont, Pennsylvania and teaches workshop across the United States. He is a longtime student of B.K.S. Iyengar and served a four-year term as president of the Iyengar National Association of the United States. Known for his ability to teach yoga with clarity and precision, as well as warmth and humor, Dean has conducted teacher training classes at Feathered Pipe Ranch in Montana and other locations.

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