One of the most significant bits of guidance I have ever received was imparted to me during my first ever yoga class.
The instruction was to “simply notice the pain, don’t judge it.” It was then that I looked to my best friend, who was also struggling to shove her foot behind her head. We exchanged a series of facial expressions culminating in stifled, closed mouthed bursts of laughter.
Don’t judge pain? The concept was Alice-in-Wonderlandesk. It didn’t correspond with what I was feeling nor with the worldview I had come to know and, reluctantly accept—pain is pain and, when possible, is to be avoided at all costs.
The contents of my thoughts for the remainder of the class essentially revolved around the illogicality of the teacher’s statement: A. why should I seek to deliberately put myself in a position that is uncomfortable (i.e. why would I ever again take a yoga class?) and B. how could this sensation of agony be perceived as anything but suffering?
Rationally, I was able to concede to recounting instances in which I had inadvertently allowed myself to experience pain—lacrosse pre-season, permitting Kristin to pierce my ears, tequila—but I saw no good come from those experiences of pain, nor was I able to fathom how I could have possibly withheld judgment of them.
Looking back on those words of wisdom, revealed to my yet unripe ears and psyche, I again laugh at the situation. And yet, the insight made possible by the years succeeding the infamous asana practice, in conjunction with a deeper understanding of yogic philosophy, now allow me to see my reactions as the first step along a winding path toward understanding—beginning to understand—the nature of suffering.
Far from mastering or living the concept in full, I have come to appreciate the difference between pain, the physiological actuality of a situation, and suffering, the way in which our minds react to that objective reality. And even more than that, I appreciate (if at times only on an intellectual level) the value that the experience of pain can play in our lives.
In The Art of Happiness, co-authored by the Dalai Lama and Howard C. Cutler, M.D., suffering is presented as both a part of the natural condition of human existence as well as a mental creation determined by the perspective from which we experience life. The authors cite research done by Dr. Paul Brand in his work with leprosy patients. Leprosy dulls the pain receptors in the extremities and therefore individuals with the disease lack the warning system that prevents further tissue damage from occurring. If one does not experience pain, one is prone to neglect certain body parts.
Dr. Brand asserts that, “We may not be grateful for the experience of pain, but we can be grateful for the system of pain perception.” Sensation, be it in our yoga practice, in relationship, or in association with our daily world, may be valuable and instructive, but will certainly not always be pleasant. Yet if we chose to experience those times of suffering from a constructive perspective, then pain has the potential to serve as a reminder of our aliveness, to show us areas that need attending to, and to soften us to humanity by connecting us to others through experiences of empathy.
We come to yoga because it makes us feel good, and yet there are inevitably moments and poses that make us want to roll up our mats and call it a day. The irony is that it is such poses and moments in life that are our greatest teachers. That is what I think brings many of us to the classroom setting for our yoga practice. Because even though we may know every yoga pose presented in Light on Yoga (in Sanskrit), if left to our own devices we (okay I) have a tendency to only practice those that feel/look good.
In the forum of a group class we step onto our mats and intentionally open ourselves up to new asanas and sequences that might be awkward or difficult, or seemingly pointless, but that we know (somewhere deep down) are beneficial. If we only practice what we have mastered than there is no room for improvement—we deprive ourselves of the possibility to see improvement, experience new sensations, and connect with community.
In yoga, in life, in love, we constantly put ourselves out there. We become vulnerable knowing that growth is at times a challenging, and perhaps even painful endeavor, and yet when we closely examine and are watchful of what happens in both mind and body we often do find hidden meaning.
So whether you signed up for that level three Ashtanga class or not, whether you live happily ever after or your heart requires a cast and 37 stitches, you are still alive, you are still able to experience that pain, and therefore the next move is yours!