The Pain and Hurt of Yoga

“Gaining…wisdom might hurt a little bit, but there’s no better process to dedicate yourself to than mining your own suffering for meaning and truth. And there is no better profession than teaching to witness such beautiful transformation.”

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One fine morning after teaching a Bikram yoga class, a student charged out into the lobby to ask me why I used the word “pain” and “hurt” repeatedly throughout class with regard to the postures.  She clearly didn’t like it.

You know how sometimes some people begin an oncoming verbal attack with a seemingly polite question? You know, they’re “just curious” about something? This was one of those times. I wasn’t surprised by the question as much as I was shocked by her obvious fury, though I shouldn’t have been, as I have dealt with similar people and complaints in my job as a high school teacher.

“…push your head back until your neck hurts a little bit…”

“…you’re back is going to hurt don’t be scared…”

“…creating a tremendous stretching feeling, pain sensation…”

“…your back is supposed to hurt…”

“…elbows are supposed to hurt…”

“…make sure your back hurt…”

“…make sure your shoulders hurt…”

“…neck might hurt a little bit…”

Clearly, she wanted to engage me in an argument. She wanted justice done — for me to eliminate saying the words “pain” and “hurt,” as she believed the terms were misleading at best and flat out wrong at worst; to be telling people they should feel pain during a yoga posture seemed heretical to her. The notion of feeling pain, hurt, or any sort of discomfort seemed counter to her notions about yoga as healing and serene, among her other perhaps stereotypical perceptions about yoga practice— you know, namaste and all that shit.

This interaction presented me with a wonderful opportunity to think about the role of pain and hurt in the process of yoga practice, and more generally, to life and learning. Such thinking has led me to articulate for myself what makes my life as a teacher meaningful.

I don’t recall providing her with a fully articulated response at the time, but upon reflection, this is what I would have liked to have said. The first answer about pain comes from B.K.S. Iyengar who writes in Light on Life:

“…pain is an unavoidable part of asana practice…The pain is there as a teacher, because life is filled with pain. In the struggle alone, there is knowledge. Only when there is pain will you see the light. Pain is your guru. As we experience pleasures happily, we must also learn not to lose our happiness when pain comes. As we see good in pleasure, we should learn to see good in pain. Learn to find comfort even in discomfort. We must not try to run from the pain but to move through and beyond it. This is the cultivation of tenacity and perseverance, which is a spiritual attitude toward yoga. This is also the spiritual attitude toward life. Just as the ethical codes of yoga purify our actions in the world, the asanas and pranayama purify our inner world. We use these practices to help us learn to bear and overcome the inevitable pains and afflictions of life.”  (Iyengar, 871-877)

Iyengar’s words suggest that we remain humble and curious, respectful toward pain, as it is our teacher, our guru. This takes discipline and practice to learn, to get better at, to master, so the repeated reminders about “hurt” and “pain” within the Bikram yoga dialogue seem not only merely warranted or justified but appropriate and absolutely necessary.

Perhaps some yoga teachers will disagree with me (or Iyengar) on this point about pain, and that’s to be expected, but as a high school teacher, I have additional experience with resistance to such assertions.

I have many students and parents (and ,occasionally, other educators) who, like the questioning woman in my yoga class, object quite vociferously to the appropriate and necessary pain involved in the learning process that typically results from failure not only to learn but to achieve desired grades (and, by the way, yes, there’s a very important distinction between the two- a post for another day.)

The pain my students might experience and the variety of suffering they learn to cope with and manage in my classroom is healthy and paramount to their success and authentic growth as human beings, just as it is among the yogis within the asanas in the hot room. However, in today’s cultural climate of “everybody is a winner!” and “snowflake” parenting, such proclamations about pain are considered subversive.

People don’t like pain. They run from it, avoid it, and believe everyone else does the same which justifies such behavior and group think. Nevertheless, as a yogi who has developed an unconventional relationship with pain, I often seem to walk on thin ice, as my attitudes and approach to teaching and learning run counter to local cultural norms and expectations. I do not encourage risk-aversion, and that makes people uncomfortable– which is the point and the thing to practice.  

Adherence to the notion that real learning involves pain and sometimes hurt and a little to a lot of suffering is grounded in what it means to be human. I know this to be true through study of human nature and as witness to the amazing success of my colleagues over many years teaching and being a student of great teachers myself. This boldness and bravery is what enables me to be a perennial learner and therefore to walk the walk,  as teacher, without becoming completely discouraged. Such an attitude and disposition is exactly what is required to be effective within the institution of education today– that is, to get people to actually learn about themselves and their own humanity rather than merely achieve high grades or other unrelated objectives that have become fashionable. 

I am with Iyengar, all the way, on pain being the guru, whether it comes to learning math, writing, chemistry, dealing with romantic breakups, social phobias or anxiety, or whatever other dragons people or potential heroes may need to slay in their individual lives. No true growth and change happen without the presence of pain. The sooner you change your mind about it and make friends with it, the better. 

Living out the belief about teaching and learning as painful is difficult, as I am sure many teachers can understand. It would be easier to eliminate the words from the yoga dialogue to appease that woman and anyone else like her, or tell my students’ parents what they want to hear about their child, or inflate a grade to avoid problems with a supervisor. I have to defend my practical philosophy with steadfastness, on a regular basis, and that takes rationality, discipline, energy, and confidence; I am consistently making critical judgments and trusting my gut about when to spare the rod, apply tough love, or witness additional struggling of students. I am always trying to figure out whether to listen or speak, jump in and help, or allow the person to flounder and suffer more to reach their ultimate destination. Sometimes teaching is like sitting next to a terminally ill person and watching them die— because, in fact, sometimes people have to burn up and destroy themselves altogether before they can put themselves back together or be reborn. It’s painful to do, and painful to watch. 

It’s physically and emotionally challenging to be a part of so many people’s pain-filled journeys each day, over the course of many years, in the classroom and in the yoga studio. There’s a lot of energy that a teacher both gives and receives from collections of students each day, each class. There’s a lot of resistance. But, just like our students, we continue to engage with our own pain, learn how to resist it less, and try to be the model of learning our students need. 

Setting limits that cause a student to “hurt a little bit,” like saying no as a parent, or rejecting one good cause to enact a great and far more beneficial cause is something for which teachers need understanding. They don’t necessarily need your blessing or agreement, but fewer obstacles and objections would be nice, so they can continue to “be there” for students, to remain present as the steady witness to the learner on their unique, individual journey. Empathy is all. Suffering, as best we can, together is compassion.

Explaining this process to teenagers (and their parents and other staff) who struggle with the notion of the inevitable pain and hurt of learning— stewarding them through their “school yoga” is an enormous challenge, but one I still believe is worth taking on, even though on many days, the resistance to this process seems overwhelming. 

Life is a series of continual states of brief comfort alternating with disruption, disorientation, and discomfort, yes, including pain and hurt. We are constantly mapping out our lives, and re-mapping when obstacles arise, as they inevitably will. In this constant tooling and re-tooling process, theorizing, or what others have called mental masturbation, does nothing to prepare you for the real, practical challenges you will face in your life.

So the yoga practice? the life learning? Yes, it has to hurt a little bit, it has to be real, it has to be acted out, and even cause a “pain sensation,” because “tremendous stretching” hurts, whether you like it or not, think it’s unfair or not. Bikram’s dialogue is precise and accurate, carefully construed. Eliminating the words of “pain” or “supposed to hurt” robs students of important learning and the potential for authentic mental physical and spiritual growth.

As Iyengar says, “…the practices of yoga show us how much pain the body can bear and how much affliction the mind can tolerate. Since pain is inevitable, asana is a laboratory in which we discover how to tolerate the pain that cannot be avoided and how to transform the pain that can.”

Gaining such wisdom might hurt a little bit, but there’s no better process to dedicate yourself to than mining your own suffering for meaning and truth. And there is no better profession than teaching to witness such beautiful transformation.

*Bikram Yoga Beginning Yoga Practice, Teacher’s Dialogue

**Iyengar, B.K.S.. Light on Life: The Yoga Journey to Wholeness, Inner Peace, and Ultimate Freedom (Kindle Locations 877-879). Rodale. Kindle Edition.

 

 

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