Sharath is fond of saying “no pain, no gain”. It is obvious that since we are using our bodies, sometimes we will experience stiffness or pain and at some point probably injury. There is no need to fear it, but I notice many students so afraid of even minimal discomfort, vowing to give up practice lest they hurt themselves. So much fear! Really we are all going to experience pain and death at some point. Let injuries become lessons in awareness and a chance to slow down and grasp the practice, rather than opportunities to run away. The Buddha basically said that life is pain, but our attachments and reactions to that inevitable pain are what cause us the most suffering. Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional. Sharath says that pain is a reminder that we are not special. It is a teacher and helps you to understand your own body. It brings us more awareness.
It is said that there are three kinds of pain. The pain that is necessary, the pain that is unnecessary and the pain that burns away negative karma.
- Pain that is necessary includes the human condition: living in this world, this conditioned existence with the usual mental and physical aches of life.
- Pain that is unnecessary (and which Patanjali advises us to avoid) includes clinging to the cycles of suffering, aversion, fear and attachment.
- Pain that burns off negative karma (as Milarepa mentioned) might be the pain we cannot categorize. Pain that cannot be avoided and that is manifest in our life no matter what we do might be such. Then we have the choice about how to deal with it in such a way as to cause either more or less suffering to ourselves.
Over the years of practicing, I have had a number of injuries, which passed over time. My general approach is to continue practicing every day no matter what, however little…even if it is merely a broken surya namaskara and the final three seated padmasana closing poses. As I have advanced in my practice the injuries have become fewer and the recovery time less. I attribute this to developing greater awareness and strength. That said, every injury has been a mighty teacher and an opportunity to slow down and deepen my understanding of the bandhas. It is also a chance to grow humility, especially when we are forced to our knees. It certainly makes me a better and more compassionate teacher.
Sometimes too I recognize that injury arrives when there is a lot going on emotionally and mentally, perhaps a physical clinging or need for rest or need for an excuse to rest. Or maybe it is not really an injury, I am just in the mood for whining or feeling sorry for myself. At the very least it seems a good exercise to question whether or not this is the case and to explore if I am willing to let go of it.
This seems very relevant to me at the moment because the whole last year has been beset by injury: shoulders, SI joint and then in March I suffered a severe back injury from which the recovery has been long, slow and hard. For the first few weeks it was a struggle to walk or do samasthiti, never mind surya namaskara or sitting upright. Baddha padmasana became an impossibility. My practice was severely felled. Yet, my first week back doing up to just parsvottonasana felt good, simply because I was doing yoga, moving prana, which indeed is the whole point of the practice. Being slow and conscious, engaging my bandhas and witnessing and harnessing the life force is the only purpose of this asana. It really doesn’t matter how pretty it looks or how fancy it gets. You can do all the gymnastics, but if you don’t understand that, you are nowhere near yoga. True our guru says this repeatedly but sometimes one needs to be down to experience this truth.
It is certainly a reminder to let go of any goals. Sharath tells us not to get attached to asanas, that yoga happens in all asanas, not just the advanced ones, and that even if asana does not happen, yoga still can. Thank God for that! This does not mean we should be lazy or give up. Yoga only happens with effort and discipline.
Samasthiti symbolizes an equal state, something which we repeatedly come back to and try to maintain. It is the embodiment of sukha dukkha, accepting the extremes of life equally. Can we be equanimous when we are in pain and injured? In India on New Years Day neighbors traditionally gift each other a tray of jaggery and neem. Jaggery, of course, is extremely sweet, neem is incredibly bitter, a reminder to accept the sweetness and bitterness of life equally. Another thing our teacher says is that we should use our yoga like a four-wheel drive vehicle: drive all the terrains of life whatever they are, capable and smoothly. Be happy despite your circumstances.
This path is not meant to be easy, it is meant to be difficult. Practice tends to present struggles simply to make us stronger. It finds the weak spots in our minds and bodies and holds them up to us. Nothing can be wallpapered over. So don’t give up on your practice just because you have pain. Of course, don’t show up and do your whole practice with an injury either. Be kind to yourself, be gentle, practice ahimsa, but do not be lazy. You can come to class and do an abbreviated practice and stop as soon as you feel you may be aggravating your condition. This fine line might take a lot of discrimination. It is not about how much you do, it is simply about moving a little, moving the prana. We can always engage our bandhas and they can remain strong despite having to do a shorter practice or even none. In some circumstances no asana practice at all is prescribed. Please follow common sense and professional medical advice as I am not a doctor! Never practice with the flu or fever and there are cases where it is advisable to take rest. Certainly, if it ever feels like the practice is causing more harm than good, use wisdom and a great deal of caution.
Ultimately one day we are going to lose most of the asanas we can now do, as we age. I read somewhere (sorry I cannot remember who said it) that practice is a relationship you have with yourself and over time you will experience difficulty, pain, sadness, joy, love …. because if you are in any relationship for long enough all of these things arise. That is part of the commitment to this practice. Don’t get attached to any of this or to how good or bad you perceive your asana practice to be. After a while you will find you are just the observer of it, the watcher of this moving body, endlessly fascinated by the flow of the prana, the depth of the breath and that soft gaze that draws you inward with perhaps the inner ear hearing the Sanskrit count of each vinyasa.
Do recognize that many people have injuries far more severe and far more permanent than yours, so be grateful and honored to work with the body you have, living in a country that is peaceful, with the luxury of sufficient food and clean water as well as the time and energy to support your practice. We have few excuses not to practice no matter how limited we might perceive ourselves or our ability to be. Just let the injury allow you to check that the foundations of your practice are strong: the three pillars of breath, bandhas and drsti remain whether we are doing one pose or many, whether we are on primary series or advanced.
It helps greatly to have a teacher whom one trusts completely to navigate injuries, not that they won’t arise, but usually, your teacher has experienced them too. I know in my case, my teacher has been a wonderful support and resource and I try to listen to everything he instructs. I often see students doing things they shouldn’t for years, but who completely ignore the teacher and end up injured. Or will not listen to the suggestions to heal themselves. So if you do not trust your teacher completely and constantly feel a resistance to listen to them I would advise you to find another teacher. It is better for you and your practice.
Patanjali says ((sutra 2.7) attachment is that which dwells on pleasure and (sutra 2:8) that aversion is that which dwells on pain. Try to move beyond both in your practice and in all aspects of your life. I know, easier said than done!
A yogi needs to be courageous, brave and a true vira, warrior!
My teacher told me that when he was severely injured, Guruji Pattabhi Jois said to him something along the lines of “Good! Now you can learn what it means to be a yogi”. Pain is an opportunity to really understand this practice. Use this chance wisely, without pushing away, no aversion, no clinging…. this is the path to liberation on a much broader level. By no means seek pain, be cautious, loving and aware, but learn to deal with the inevitable pains that living in this body and human birth require.
No pain no gain
No fear no fun
Thanks. And please reprimand me whenever I don’t hear you the first time!?
Very beautiful and enlightening article. Thank you for sharing!!