No pain and no gain in yoga
You may know the expression: “no pain, no gain.” I sometimes transmute this for my yoga classes to: “no pain, no strain.” Because in yoga it is possible to have quite a bit of gain, in the sense of gaining strength, flexibility, equanimity and understanding, without either pain or strain. In fact I tell students that I want to hear about any sharp pains, because that’s not what we’re after, and that kind of pain can be a warning sign.
Change in yoga comes incrementally, step by step, little by little. The original expression about “no gain” originates with the idea frequently propounded in gyms that you have to work really hard, you have to sweat hard, you have to push yourself hard, charge over the hill, in order for your body to change. Sometimes you can see a lot of change this way, pretty fast, too. And we want fast change in our society. Dr. Malachy McHugh, Director of Research for the Nicolas Institute of Sports Medicine, explained to the New York Times that flexibility is hard to come by. “Some small portion [of each person’s flexibility] is adaptable, but it takes a long time and a lot of work to get even that small adaptation” (Gretchen Reynolds, “Phys Ed: How Necessary Is Stretching”, September 25, 2009). So we go for the quick fixes instead. But in many cases this approach may be wrong-headed. Pushing yourself can effect change, but so can evolution. And sometimes when you push too hard the body fights back, and you injure yourself.
However, this is not quite the whole story as far as yoga is concerned. Pain does become perhaps even more involved in your life if you walk the not-always-easy path of yoga. You are dealing with the physical body, and inevitably there are aches and pains in the body. Sometimes you can work around the pain, sometimes you flirt with it, but sometimes it’s standing right in your way, challenging you. In “Light on Life” B.K.S. Iyengar says, “When you begin yoga, the unrecognized pains come to the surface” (p. 49). (This is useful to tell beginning students, as a matter of fact.) He goes on to differentiate between right and wrong pain. “Right pain is not only constructive but also exhilarating and involves challenge, while wrong pain is destructive and causes excruciating suffering” (p. 50).
Sometimes in the work of yoga we come across this right pain, sometimes we even anticipate it. This morning I used Padmasana (Lotus Pose) for my meditation. I know that the first minute or so in Lotus I experience mild pain in my ankles, particularly the one closest to the ground. When on rare occasions it is excruciating I back off, but usually it’s not. So I get through it, it’s good pain, it keeps me awake and aware of my condition at the moment. Lately I’ve also been working on Padangustasana, with my raised leg supported on a dresser and blankets, in order to loosen my manly hamstrings. Staying with the pose I experience that pulling, lengthening sensation, and it can be painful. But it’s not agony; I try to think of it as a kind of growing pain.
To some extent we can even seek out discomfort. We start with ourselves. Even if one is a teacher, first one teaches oneself. So we’re looking for where the discomfort is in the asana. The mind has a tendency to back away from the body. If the body aches or hurts but the mind is intent on attaining a shape, the mind just wants to ignore the body, but this isn’t good!
We have to use discomfort to get to know our state in the moment. And we have to address the discomfort. And I mean down to the details. If an arm is at a rather awkward angle, if a knee is jabbing into the mat, if a neck is jammed, these are things we need to be sensitive to.
One learns from these experiences, in the sense of svadyaya (self-study). If a teacher, one uses this knowledge to assist the students in their journey toward relaxation and mastery. So one learns as a teacher to observe where the discomfort points might be and address them. Placing a blanket here or there, using a block, a bolster.
In my study of karate I’ve encountered a somewhat different philosophy. Pain is really inevitable in the martial arts (not to mention the marital arts, but that’s another story!). As in yoga one is preparing to be a warrior, but somewhat more literally, so one must toughen up physically. You need to be hit so that you don’t freak out if that were ever to happen outside the dojo, essentially. So you go to the dojo and you experience this pain, but you learn, on a very basic, physical level, that you survive it, you absorb it. The sensei hits you in the belly, you hit each other in the arms. But because it’s pain with a purpose, it’s beneficial, it’s right pain. In my first venture into karate I was a bit put off by this, I have to admit. But I think yoga has helped me through it this time. Lately I’m exploring the yogic idea that the physical body is merely my outer sheath, and therefore I don’t need to take its momentary pains so seriously.
As a child I realized that it’s important to pay attention to the actual pain, if one were hurt. I observed other kids getting hurt and crying for much longer than the pain could possibly have lasted. I think we do this on many levels, not only the physical. But next time you get hurt, maybe you can try this: go into the pain, feel it in all its awful exquisiteness, and when it lets you go, you let it go.
Speaking of exquisiteness, I’ve seen people seeking out painful experiences because they want to feel life, to be more authentic, to be cool. Then you think, just wait, you really don’t need to go looking for it. Life always metes out suffering, as Gautama Buddha, for one, observed. Iyengar says, “While we must recognize the existence and importance of pain, we must not glorify it” (ibid., p.49).
So the hope is that when we encounter pain, we experience it in order to experience it and then let it go, whatever kind of pain it is. Sometimes physical pain is connected to our mental and emotional pain, sometimes all kinds of painfulness are mixed up. But on all these levels the tools we learn in yoga can be useful: to use the breath, to embrace the moment. To be curious about the moment and what it comprises, to observe the pain, whether physical or emotional, and to ride with it, and to know that like everything it is impermanent. I frame it like this: Physical pain measures our attachment to the body; energetic pain measures our relationship to the material plane; mental pain measures our attachment to form; spiritual pain measures our distance from divinity.
In the West we want to get ahead, we want to get stuff, we want to quickly gain everything we can in life, except perhaps weight (but that’s another story!). But yoga teaches us that there’s nothing to gain, really, except our equanimity and our selfhood, which is there in every breath, in our empty hands. So in a certain sense, maybe we can apply “no pain, no gain” to yoga. Just have to be mindful of the definitions.