(Photo by Joe Longo Photography)
A student wrote me with a list of 3 debilitating mental/emotional reactions that she goes through when she experiences pain and/or injury in her practice: 1) shame 2) fear 3) wanting to quit. And these reactions tend to be linked together and to play out cyclically, one feeding upon or following upon another. I wager that you too, as a serious asana student, go through this cycle of emotions when you experience pain in practice-especially recurring pain and pain that happens as a result of practice.
Part of the shame comes from thinking that if I were more skilled, more aware, more contented, less angry, driven, dissatisfied, ego invested, etc, then I would not only avoid injury but I’d be pain free. It is common to fall into an illogical conscious or unconscious attitude that says having pain is proof that I am somehow bad or wrong and don’t understand yoga and that not having pain is proof that I am good or right and I do understand yoga.
Your overcoming the feelings of ‘wanting to quit’ depends partly on you confronting this illogic within your self. And one way to do it is to call to mind yoga’s first tenet—All is suffering. Suffering is the given, baseline state of being alive and conscious. This is the statement that is made in Yoga Sutra II-15 that says:
Due to an unavoidable resistance to the given fact of continual change, to the discerning person, ALL IS BUT PAIN.
But the common statement that life is suffering does not put things clearly enough in context, because it’s not so much that life is suffering but your unconsidered approach to life causes you to suffer. Thus despite your best intentions you are the agent of your suffering, and all of the tiny habitual, unskilled, and unreflective responses that you bring to your experiences add up to your perpetual suffering. Consider this Kabir poem (bold italics mine):
I talk to my inner lover, and I say, why such rush?
We sense that there is some sort of spirit that loves birds and animals and the ants—
Perhaps the same one who gave a radiance to you in your mother’s womb.
Is it logical you would be walking around entirely orphaned now?
The truth is you turned away yourself,
and decided to go into the dark alone.
Now you are tangled up in others,
and have forgotten what you once knew,
and that’s why everything you do has some weird failure in it.
Take a careful look and you will see that it is you that swiftly and inexorably takes as true your misperceptions, episodes of wrong thinking, and wrong effort. This profound piece of information sets the stage for your entire study of yoga, when you take up a yoga practice you create a method for noticing exactly how you repeatedly turn away and decide to go into the dark. Yoga offers you a cure, albeit a SLOW cure, that is the means to an end of your suffering. Practice is intended to reveal the ways that you are creating and perpetuating your suffering, and to show you how to come to a perceptual experience of total relatedness that helps you to stop making the choices that cause you to suffer.
But here’s where the twist enters the discussion: according to yoga facing that you are creating and perpetuating your suffering in a host of subtle (and perhaps not so subtle) ways is not cause for you to feel shame or fear- and I offer you a few reasons why: 1) it is common to underestimate the level of skill that is required to break out of your habit patterns, and conditioned responses that lead you into suffering. These patterns assert themselves with strength and urgency at just the wrong times- when you are faced with recurring and personally challenging circumstances.
But thankfully the practice of yoga gives you a new context to fit these encounters into, a space where you can slow down the process enough to learn a different response. Within the space that yoga provides you can see your ego, fears, attachments, and aversions—things within you that cause you to resist accepting exactly what is happening in the moment-like the unfortunate fact that your back is horribly stiff today and just when you were planning to attain new heights of bliss and prowess in your favorite back bend. The yoga techniques that you are learning are designed to help you find a new, better response to your experience, you are in training to respond in ways that bring the result of enjoyment, flexibility, acceptance, relatedness, and bliss—and not the opposite.
But success in sadhana (spiritual discipline) comes only as a result of a long-term struggle to win spiritual wisdom. There is no quick fix, no way to be free of suffering without committing your heart and your energy to a potent practice that gives bliss and knowledge BUT that also requires that you accept the (too) many failures on the way. Attaining a mature practice can only happen through piling up nearly countless failed attempts to become skilled enough in the techniques to avoid the painful consequences that come from wrong thinking, wrong effort, mistakes, misperceptions, and other forms of built in ignorance that you are bound to bring to your daily practice. This brings the second reason why shame and or fear is not the response that you want in the face of your pain. 2) It is vital that you learn to respond to your pain in all its forms with care, empathy, respect and patience-the opposite of shame and fear. You must learn to allow the arrival of new pain in your practice to cause you to redouble your efforts to refine your understanding of your body, desires, emotions, thoughts, and how you apply yourself to the techniques.
The glossy yoga magazines are not entirely misleading in telling you that yoga will bestow upon you the gifts of health, inner peace, and wisdom. They do cleverly avoid emphasizing that these qualities are not at all easy to come by. A tremendous artistic, intellectual and bodily wrestling match must take place within you to gain each instance of health, bliss, and knowledge. Like a sculptor who painstakingly chisels beauty and form out of a gross, stubborn, unformed hunk of rock, sweat and toil, patience, receptivity, trust, and vision win the day in yoga.
When you injure yourself through your practice, do not despair, examine yourself with your most compassionate, logical, eager, problem solving humanity. Trust your inner genius and the perfection that is at hand to resolve each doubt and uncertainty. Hold to this even though healing possibilities may be currently eluding you. Be as objective as possible in analyzing and reflecting on all the variables that make up the circumstances that you are encountering. Each new episode of pain, each new vexing, tiring challenge, each discovery of faulty technique or wrong thinking offers you a new chance to awaken yourself to a more subtle and intelligent layer of awareness about yourself and/or the practice techniques. And in order to reach within yourself to this fount of subtle discernment it is vital that you accept the size and scope of challenge that you’ve undertaken—it is nothing less than to walk through your suffering all the way to the other side of it, all the way to its end, for there the glorious unfathomable mystery awaits.