It’s very natural to run from pain. The human condition is to seek that which feels good, and repel that which feels bad. There is a common misconception in today’s commercialized Yoga climate that Yoga is supposed to take away all your pain. It’s true that Yoga alleviates the discomfort of stiffness, and so yes, on a certain level, it does take pain away, over time. But in the process of transformation, when you are moving beyond your comfort zone and into the edge of discomfort, there will inevitably be uncomfortable sensations.
If we react to these uncomfortable thresholds with anxiety, hold our breath, force, resist, or push in order to get deeper into a posture, we will come up against pain. If we surrender via our breath and drop a bit further in, perhaps just a hair beyond our perceived boundary, we may be surprised to find we create a new “edge”, from which to investigate yet further exploration. It’s a bit like getting into a steaming hot jacuzzi. First you put your toes in, and take a deep breath. Once you’ve acclimated to that spot, the legs go in. Another deep breath. And so on, until you’re sliding fully in, becoming one with the heat, letting tension dissolve, in a delicious bath of warmth. We create a “new normal” – or what I like to call a “new baseline” – within each pose, as we experiment with gradually and carefully letting ourselves in, in this way. There is no change, and no transformation, without what we would most probably call “pain.”
So much of our daily lives revolve around repetitive motion. Smart phones, with their constant scrolling and texting, and laptops, with mouse and trackball that are far from ergonomic, wreak havoc on our hands and wrists, and even up into our elbows, neck and shoulders. The asymmetry of the pedals of a car, using only our right leg to alternately accelerate and brake, combined with the high-stakes mental alertness traveling from our brain to that leg at all times, creates untold tension in the entire right side, from the foot to the knee and hip, and on up into the back. The way we lean habitually, the way we stand, the way we roll on either the outer or inner edge of our feet, the familial body language habits that we picked up from watching and modeling our parents’ movements from day one — all these areas are already stressed, contribute to susceptibility to injury, and often hurt quite a lot when activated, opened, or stretched after a long time, perhaps even a lifetime, of using them incorrectly. Our sedentary American lifestyle of sitting for long periods of time creates profound tightness in the body. Sometimes we may misinterpret the uncomfortable, intense “sensation” of opening these locked, tight areas, and confuse it with the notion of pain.
It is up to us to differentiate between a sharp shooting pain, especially in the joints, versus this sensation of discomfort and unease, or fear, which can be dissipated, with breath and trust. Muscle soreness is of course a necessary and inevitable part of Yoga practice. Yoga works new muscles that we were not even previously aware of. It is entirely natural that the new experience of firing those muscles and bringing them back to life comes with soreness and yes, discomfort; but it’s temporary. We must ensure that we are using proper alignment techniques to practice safely, so that we are using the correct muscles for the posture, and not stressing any others that may not be necessary within it.
It’s so tempting to skip practicing when we feel stymied by pain. The wonderful Ashtanga practitioner and teacher Kino MacGregor writes, “If you find yourself caught in the quagmire of injury, try to accept where you are, and unroll your mat every day as a commitment to the devotional path of yoga, while learning new techniques that keep your body healthy.” In other words, keep practicing, but practice differently. An injury is a wake-up call, forcing us to step back from our goal-oriented, achievement-hungry egoic minds, and find a new approach. Moving through and around injury is a fantastic opportunity to learn how to practice: with self-care, self-compassion, self-love, forgiveness, humor, and patience; and without expectation, ego, competitiveness, judgement, and aggression.
At this age, I can’t really even remember a time in my recent years in which I stepped onto my mat free of pain. There is always something. Many, many times I have had to scale back and modify, doing only a fraction of what I’m “capable” of. It’s frustrating not to be able to do things that were previously easy and graceful. But every time, learning to navigate around and through that discomfort is what opens to my eyes to a new discovery, new subtlety, new nuance; within the individual posture, and within the practice as a whole.
I have had pretty much every injury in the book: wrists, shoulders, knees, elbows, hands, feet, ankles, hamstrings, and hips. Every time — and over time — Yoga has healed them all, until there is another area waiting in the wings to surprise me with its tightness. Currently my practice involves slow, gentle exploration to navigate through the challenges of a shaky right leg. Years of leaning onto my left side (and leg) with a heavy guitar slung over my left shoulder has left my right side far weaker than my left. Combine that with hours of LA freeway driving (and sitting), a lot of years on the planet, and that’s the situation. It is what it is. I show up, I practice, I discover, I heal. I let go of layers of expectation and self-judgment, and ego. I find peace and stillness, no matter what the posture looks like. Sharath Jois, paramaguru of Ashtanga Yoga puts it: “You do not do yoga to have a “good” practice. You do yoga to steady yourself.”
My teacher Noah once said to me, as I grimaced in pain from my aching leg, “You can choose to focus on pain, or you can choose to focus on Prana.” I re-directed my attention to drinking in Prana – Life Force, Mojo, Qi, vitality – like a thirsty plant sucks up water. Flooding it through my system, I bathed my leg with this healing energy, consciously and intentionally inflating it with Prana. With deep ujaii breath, we can re-invigorate, from the inside out. Our deep, consistent, fluid breath oxygenates our cells, enhancing circulation and speeding up the healing process.
Self-massage is also a key element for me in the healing process. I use my hands, as well as a trigger point foam roller, massage balls, and a Chinese massage tool called a “gua-sha”, to lovingly dig into the “problem” areas, break up scar tissue deep inside the fascia (with deep breathing, because this can be intense!), and dissipate the pain.
There is no life without pain. It’s how we deal with it, how we choose to react, or not react, to it, that is at the core of Yoga, and of the healing process. One of the useful skills we can develop from practicing Yoga is learning how to train the mind to remain calm, non-reactive, and equanimous, even in the face of great discomfort. Writes Kino: “If you face a battle of ego when you modify your practice to be pain-free… you can rest assured that you are absolutely doing the deep work of the spiritual path of yoga. Injury demands that you ask what your every-moment priority really is, and requires you to be totally present.”
And Sharath reminds us: “For us, what is important is to be calm every day, to have a peaceful life… This is what we are focusing on… Asana will come and go, money will come and go, fame will come and go. What we have to do is keep ourselves calm, steady, and stable. This is what asana gives us.”