I recently read an article about the role of pain in the popular style of yoga, Astanga, popularized by Pattabi Jois. This style of yoga is the grandfather of the Vinyasa that I teach, but the strict Astanga style often gets a bad rap because of it’s dogmatic rigidity and the frequency of injury among its practitioners. The author of the article surmised that it is the spiritualization of pain that makes this style so hazardous. Some teachers, not all, encourage students to seek pain in postures as a type of purification technique.
There is a stark purity of insight in pain that is undeniable. Indeed, this relationship with pain is not so unfamiliar. In our fitness lives we “feel the burn”, push past the pain and are encouraged to exceed our limits. In our personal lives as well, pain has an important role. Though we work very hard to avoid it, emotional pain is an important part of being human and alive in the world. It does have the capacity to mold and forge us into stronger versions of ourselves. There is a strong precedent for this within our religious traditions, be they Christianity or Buddhism or any other.
I suppose it seems predictable then that we would turn this powerful tool, pain, to our postural yoga practice. This aspect of asana is not unique to Ashtanga, it’s present in every physical style of yoga that I am familiar with, though perhaps not as prominent. It’s true that pain has played an important role in the ascetic traditions of Yoga. However, within the context of the yoga from which our practice is derived, classical yoga as developed in the first centuries of the common era, we see that the role of pain is actually neutralized. The early sages of Classical Yoga tell us that we react in one of two ways to all stimulus, we avoid it or we cling to it. The early texts say that our propensity to avoid (dvesa) or cling (raga) is the real reason we suffer. The ancients knew that pain is totally unavoidable, so they devised many techniques not to get rid of it, but to transcend it.
It seems to me, that our time on the mat can be a very sophisticated and rich exploration of our propensity to cling and avoid. It can be the fertile ground on which we cultivate equanimity. Or we can feebly reach for the lowest hanging fruit, searching and striving for the very deepest sensation we can tolerate, as often as possible. I don’t know about you… but I plan on living in this body for quite some time. This approach leads to injury and yoga burnout. It’s not sustainable. Breaking the body down for deeper spiritual insight or mental fortitude seems really ill advised.
You can add fuel to the reckless fire of your own avoiding and clinging in your practice and burn it to the ground. Or you can let the yoga meet you where you are. Practicing in the body you have is more than just a marketing slogan. It’s compassion. It’s being totally tuned in to your experience and honoring all of it… while practicing the wisdom of discernment. Not clinging or avoiding. This is a smart practice that will sustain you for decades. It’s difficult but not flashy. No special equipment or expensive yoga pants will pave the way. Though we may depend on teachers to guide us, it comes down to you. It’s deeply personal and will depend on your willingness to trust your own agency. The reward for this type of practice is a deep understanding of yourself and your tendencies. It’s a more authentic and honest experience of being you.