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Suffering is Part of Life—That’s Why We Do Yoga

In the wake of last week's anxiety producing news, Neal Pollack was reminded that while suffering is part of our human condition, yoga is there to help alleviate it.

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Last Friday, at noon, I took a yoga class. The Boston manhunt was in full swing, but there was nothing I could do about it; I was more than 2500 miles away. The night before, I’d stayed up until 2 a.m. listening to the police scanner online. Beyond the fact that I have some acquaintances in Boston (all of whom were totally unharmed), the situation essentially had nothing to do with my life. But I still needed a break, because it was making me crazy.


Last week, it seemed like the world degenerated into a chaotic mess of explosions, lockdowns, and political disappointments. The air had become palpably suffused with dread and misery. And, because I’m a nerd, I immediately thought, “What does yoga have to say about all this?”

Well, I’m here to tell you. Though your day-to-day classes are mostly concerned, as they should be, with hip-opening and backbending, yoga is all about suffering, or, more specifically, the alleviation of suffering. The ancient sages, from the Buddha on down, correctly surmised that suffering is the prima facie baseline human condition. They developed the amazing art and science of yoga to help us get through our crummy lives.

According to my teacher Richard Freeman, a learned man to be trusted in such matters, yogic concepts of suffering can be broken down into three basic categories. First, there’s suffering that comes from yourself. We constantly say things to ourselves that make us unhappy: “I suck at my job,” “I’ll never find love,” “I don’t like how I look,” on and on toward infinity. Yoga is about untying your mental knots and dissipating those essential misinterpretations.

Then, there’s suffering inflicted upon you directly by other people, via cruel or indifferent thoughts, or even violent actions. We’re hurt every day by our parents, our spouses, our siblings, our children, our partners, our friends, or random honking people in the Safeway parking lot. Occasionally, those who harm you do it deliberately, but most often, it’s accidental. They’re too busy dealing with their own mishugas. Yoga helps because it allows you to be both more compassionate about other people’s suffering, but also less reactive when they strike out at you.

The third category is suffering inflicted upon you by the world, which never lets up its assault. Your roof leaks. You’re bitten by mosquitoes while walking your dog. Your flight to Charlotte gets delayed for two hours because of sequester cuts. A meteor fragment strikes your small Russian village. Or you’re caught up by a week’s worth of relentlessly bad current events news.

As if the terrors of physical reality weren’t enough, we also all exist inside a virtual world of endless chatter, opinions, fear, and violent images. Yet we need to remember that the media, though it’s certainly part of reality, isn’t really happening to us. While Twitter can occasionally be fun and helpful, most of the time, it represents little more than a swarm of word mosquitoes. It distorts our perception of reality, and therefore spreads suffering.

For the victims of the Boston Marathon violence and their families and friends, suffering is real and tangible, and we all must extend our hearts to them. The same goes to the people directly affected by the fertilizer plant explosion in Texas, and of other violence all around the world. But for the rest of us, the overwhelming majority, last week was just a macabre show, full of gore, heroes, villains, and bumbling comic-relief CNN reporters, a carnival of needless anxiety and tiny sufferings magnified ten thousand times.

That’s why, in times of news lunacy—especially if that lunacy isn’t directly affecting us—we should turn to yoga, if we’re so inclined. This doesn’t mean we should ignore the news. If there are political actions to be taken or opinions to be stated, then we should do as conscience compels. But regardless, quietly sitting with our breath and our bodies helps enormously, without fail. So last Friday, I took a good yoga class, an hour and fifteen minutes of vigorous exercise, calm breathing, and a Savasanawhere I gently snored away the previous night’s police-scanner-induced anxiety.

When class ended, the manhunt was still on in Boston, and would be for many hours still. But from where I sat, the sun was warm, the trees were green, and my hips were sore. Despite its endless and eternal tendency toward misery, the world still moved forward. Then some jerk honked at me in traffic because I’d stopped at a yield sign to wait for a blind person to cross the street. But I didn’t let it get to me.

He was just suffering.