In the post: Iyengar Yoga FAQ, I briefly discussed the issue of pain during practice; here, I want to elaborate on this topic. There are two pivotal statements B.K.S. Iyengar made about dealing with pain:
- Pain comes to guide you. Pain is your Guru.
- The philosophy of pain is to conquer it.
These two statements complete each other and together provide wonderful guidance on dealing with what we inevitably meet in practice and in life – pain. Let me explain:
Pain is a Guru
We don’t often think about pain as a welcomed friend or teacher, and we don’t like this uninvited guest. At best, we say that one needs to bear the pain. Some even say: ‘no pain, no gain’ (which I don’t agree with). But we don’t treat pain with reverence and respect as we do our Guru! So, why did Iyengar say that pain is a Guru?
Think about the opposite situation, in which we won’t be able to sense pain at all. That would be catastrophic, we wouldn’t know when we injure or hurt ourselves. When practicing, we wouldn’t know how much we can stretch and how long we can stay in challenging asanas!
In fact, there is a rare condition, called “Congenital insensitivity to pain (CIP)” in which a person cannot feel (and has never felt) physical pain. Wikipedia says that: “Because feeling physical pain is vital for survival, CIP is an extremely dangerous condition. It is common for people with the condition to die in childhood due to injuries or illnesses going unnoticed”.
So essentially, pain “comes to guide you”. We have to listen to the pain and understand the message it sends us. This doesn’t mean that we should always avoid pain, but we should treat pain with respect and respond to it appropriately.
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The Philosophy of Pain is to Conquer it
This second statement by B.K.S. Iyengar completes the first. According to my understanding, it means that we shouldn’t be afraid of pain. Pain is a normal (and as we read, a vital) experience.
We can stay in an asana, even though we experience pain. We can observe the pain and study it:
I think that we can distinguish between two types of pain:
- Pain that tells us that something goes wrong.
- Inevitable pain which is part of a transformation process.
The first type invites us to look inside and explore what is that we do which is wrong and creates unnecessary pain. Iyengar gives us some clues:
When you are overstretching somewhere to get the optimum movement, have you ever noticed that you are also giving too little attention to other parts of the body?
…In concentration, you are likely to forget some parts of the body… that is why you get pain in certain parts of the body. It is because unattended muscles lose their power and dropped. But you will not know that your are dropping them, because they are precisely the muscles in which you have momentarily lost your awareness
If you have any kind of problem, you have to observe what is happening in the pose. Is there alignment, or is there nonalignment?
… It is not good enough to experience today and analyze tomorrow… Analysis and expermemintation have to go together.
…Analysis in action is the only guide. You proceed by trial and error. As the trial increases, the error becomes less.B.K.S. Iyengar, The Tree of Yoga, “Effort, awareness and Joy
Pain may develop for two reasons:
If you practice to compete with yourself or with someone else, you are likely to injure yourself and suffer pain. As Iyengar said: “the wanting is in the head, but the body can’t do”. If you practice to impress or achieve then you are not really practicing yoga, but some kind of competitive sport. This is over-ambition and this will eventually lead to injury.
Admittedly, even if you are not ambitious, you may still injure yourself because of insufficient sensitivity and attention (as Iyengar so beautifully explained in the quote above – and I recommend reading the entire chapter). However, if your practice is exploratory, and you observe and analyze whatever happens in your body-mind when you perform the pose, then you will most likely be able to correct yourself and avoid causing severe injury. Luckily, the body can heal itself from minor injuries (provided that you don’t keep practicing wrong). Over time you will know your limitations and vulnerability and develop a sensitivity that will allow you to avoid injuries and unnecessary pain.
Even when your practice is correct and not ambitious, you will still experience pain. But, this is a different kind of pain, which every practitioner learns to recognize and even enjoy. This is a pain that occurs while stretching an untrained muscle or opening a contracted region of the body. This kind of pain is non-harmful, and disappears once you come out of the pose.
Every change, in practice or in life, may involve a certain amount of pain. Often it is hard to change a harmful habit (like smoking), and one needs willpower and ability to withstand a certain amount of pain and discomfort. When you want to go deeper in practice, you inevitably meet resistance. If you learn to stay in the pose, to soften and breathe, then after some time the pain will dissolve (if it doesn’t, then it’s the other kind of pain – the one that causes injury and which tells you that something goes wrong).
Often we can grow and develop from pain. Facing difficulty and pain can be a catalyst for self-study and self-transformation. It’s not in vain that spiritual traditions hold that Dukkha (existential pain, see more about Dukkha) is necessary, since if we are unaware of the suffering that life involves we would never want to walk the difficult path of spiritual liberation. So, as Iyengar suggests, we need to move through and cross the pain to conquer it in order to develop and grow!