Pomegranate season has finally coming to a close here in Turkey. For months I have been filling my string sac here (pictured above) with fat, juicy pomegranates from the roadside vendor near our studio. A pomegranate a day keeps the antibiotics away.
Now, many of the pomegranates still look nice on the outside but are already rotten inside – making for welcome challenge to employ our yogic super powers of discernment.
The early morning group in our studio has been practicing in the twilight for the last few months (see also the new video on our website), and embracing the darkness as a way to turn the attention inward. We have been feeling the postures internally by keeping 1.) the breath full and graceful 2.) the attention on the sensations of the body and 3.) the gaze steady. This is tristhana.
But overall it’s been a mixed bag. Several of us (yes, me too) have been feeling some aches and pains in the body. The truth is that I can not think of any experienced practitioner I know who has never felt any pain in the awakening practice of yoga.
Learning Ashtanga too quickly can be reckless – like learning to drive in a sports car on the autobahn. As a beginner, I went full power even under the guidance of a traditional teacher. I learned the postures one by one, but also experienced quite a bit of pain.
Pain in yoga comes from forcing the body into or out of a posture, or being in the posture, without the necessary attention to and respect for one’s inner state. In the yoga world, this is called misalignment. It almost always happens when the breath is not correct, the mind is elsewhere and the ego is up to its tricks. In our practice, these pains mostly result from misdirected enthusiasm.
Generally, pain indicates that we are too externally oriented in the practice. If you find yourself a) wanting to do and doing postures without first feeling good in the asanas that come earlier in the series b) making funny faces and fierce exhales or c) forgetting/skipping postures, then you are at an increased risk of avoidable pain.
If you are feeling pain, please keep in the mind the following: pain is not a reason to stay home or quit. It is an invitation to practice more intelligently.
Pain avoidance is not the answer. Turning pain into a enticingly dramatic saga of ‘my injury’ is also not the answer. Working with pain can be a lesson in the first limb of Ashtanga ahimsa (non-harming). But we also should be careful not to make ahimsa a reason to hide away from life. Remember Arjuna of the Bhagavad Gita, whose yoga teacher told him to stand up and fight.
Yoga is teaching us to stop numbing ourselves, to FEEL what’s happening, and engage fully. Yoga is the search for the root of the pain, and the knowledge that we are beyond pain. The pain can then take us deeper into our practice.
Pain continues to teach me that just because a posture or a pomegranate looks good (to the untrained eye especially) on the outside, does not mean that it is sweet and juicy on the inside. Just because I touched my toes, clasped my hands, caught my ankles, stood on my head, etc. does not necessarily mean that yoga is there.
Pain can be a teacher if we use it to listen more closely, give purer attention and more compassion. It challenge us to be more patient and persevering. On the mat, often that means slowing down and making very subtle shifts of the body and the breath. Pain is teaching me to refine and purify my attention, to direct my senses inward (pratyahara) and cultivate concentration (dharana).
But I will also be content when this teacher called pain leaves me. Just last month I learned first-hand that meditation with a toothache is too difficult. We should be trying to feel the postures as best we can, and open to the possibility of feeling fantastic in even the most intense asanas.
So, we are still at it every morning, feeling and accepting these sensations with equanimity, and looking keenly for a way to work with them most effectively.