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Why Pain In Yoga Isn’t Always A Bad Thing

There's not always a need to run from discomfort—in your practice and in life.

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Shortly after the birth of my son, I was sitting on my bed when a nurse entered the room to check on me. As she removed a bandage from my arm, I said “Ouch!” and turned to my husband and said, “That hurt!” We both started laughing. I had just delivered my second child after an 8-hour unmedicated labor yet I was surprised by the sting of a bandage being ripped off my skin.

That moment illuminated to me how our relationship with pain defines our experience of it. During childbirth, I was prepared for the pain, making a conscious effort to breathe with it and allowing it to open my body so that my child could enter the world. It was absolutely the most intense sensation I’ve ever experienced. Although the pain of the bandage being removed was far less intense, it was unexpected. It was also being done to me rather than something I was embodying. Both types of pain were real. But my experience of them was entirely different.

Our Complicated Relationship With Pain

In recent years, an ideology has emerged in contemporary American society in which pain is considered bad. According to this way of thinking, even the slightest hint of discomfort—whether it be physical, emotional, or relational—is to be avoided. Friction of any kind is deemed intolerable, so we retreat to our corners and find a supposed safe haven in the familiar.

We do this not just with physical pain, but with any sensation or emotion we find uncomfortable. When we flee in this way, thought and behavior patterns become ingrained and our perspective becomes calcified. No space remains for us to learn what could happen if we were to acknowledge pain—our own as well as that of others—and allow it to act as a guiding force toward truth, strength, and connection.

How is this relevant to those of us who practice yoga? As we practice, we learn to build a respectful relationship with pain. A dedicated yoga practice is meant to show us our weaknesses. Physically, it will let us know which muscles need strengthening, where tightness is limiting physical freedom, and if a joint is unstable. How does it let us know this? Discomfort and, at times, pain.

Pain can present in many forms:  A fleeting soreness that dissipates after a day or two; a dull, consistent ache; or a quick, sharp sensation. Each type of pain requires a different response, and this is part of the cultivation of wisdom.

What We Can Learn From Pain

There is no dearth of comforts in modern life for those of us who are privileged enough to have them. Yet there will always be hurt. On the mat, we have the opportunity to practice taking care of ourselves when we hurt. We also have the opportunity to simply witness our discomfort, our pain, and our suffering.

Many of us have been programmed to either run away from or power through these types of sensations. As a teacher, I see this phenomenon play out in the practice room often. A new student begins practicing and feels stronger, happier, calmer. A few months in, some aches and pains begin. The student assumes yoga has injured them and they stop practicing. Or the student experiences these aches and pain, ignores them, and continues practicing day after day in the same way until something quite literally breaks.

A more nuanced and more productive path forward would be the path of investigation, exploration, and healing. When a student comes to me with pain, I first listen. Then I ask questions. What does it feel like? Where exactly do you feel it? Which postures aggravate it? Does anything make it feel better? Does it feel like damaging pain or the pain of expansion? What about this pain do you fear?

Then we work together to come up with a plan to modify postures and transitions so that we can prevent harm. We add elements that might target the root cause of the pain, working toward full, free functionality. In this way, the student learns how to establish that respectful relationship with discomfort and pain.

First, we listen intently. We allow the pain to speak to us. Rather than running away out of fear, we sit with it and inquire. We discern where it may have come from and what might be causing it. If the pain is sharp and we’re unable to breathe, that’s a sign we need to rest and seek the appropriate help. If the pain is manageable, then we find a way to practice yoga that lets our body know that we’re going to take care of it, that it can trust us to not cause harm. The nervous system then has the opportunity to relax as we strengthen and heal through various modalities.

Those modalities could include a deeper connection to the breath, props to offer more support, lifestyle modifications to address more systemic issues, outside referrals to a physical therapist or bodyworker, as well as allopathic medical expertise. It’s up to each teacher to be clear about what she can offer and feel comfortable recommending that a student in pain see a doctor or other professional. It’s also the student’s responsibility to be honest about the level of pain she is experiencing. Healing is an inside job but we need the right tools to make it happen.

Commitment to our yoga practice means we will be undertaking this process time and time again. In so doing, we embrace our vulnerability and excavate the fear that’s often hiding underneath our pain. We then have the opportunity to regenerate and emerge stronger than before. Indeed, this process is the path.

If we can engage in this rehabilitative process in our yoga practice, perhaps we can engage in it when we experience various kinds of pain throughout our lives. Perhaps most importantly, we can engage in this process with our family, friends, neighbors, and others with whom we disagree. The pain in our bodies is imploring us to listen, as is the pain in our hearts. If we can tune in, pain becomes the vehicle for transformation. This is the path of resilience.

RELATED: How Breathing and Meditation Can Relieve Stress and Chronic Pain

About Our Contributor

Pranidhi Varshney is the founder of Yoga Shala West, a community-supported Ashtanga Yoga studio in West Los Angeles. She is also mother to two children who she describes as “courageous and wise little beings.” The thread that runs through all her work is the desire to build community and live from the heart.

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