Pain, when it comes to yoga practice always presents itself as a topic of inquiry that leads to endless debates and opinions. What is a safe yoga practice? Is it normal to be experiencing pain during or after a yoga practice? Does the presence of pain indicate injury? and if so, does it mean that yoga should not be practiced at all?
A widely consulted physiotherapist and an advocate of myofascial trigger points in Mysore whom I had met and learned a few things from during my last trip addressed the last question succinctly – “Yoga in and of itself does not lead to injury, it is the individual that comes to the practice with his or her own pre-existing conditions, imbalances and tightness without first being aware of these that leads one to eventually experience some level of pain and injury”
I have always approached my yoga practice with a lot of awareness to a point sometimes it borders toward cautious rather than trusting the process itself. My belief was pain during and after practice is unnecessary. These feelings are meant to be heeded by easing off or backing off, resting during periods of prolonged pain until it subsides before resuming your daily practice ultimately acknowledging and honouring the sensations and the limitations of your body.
My views on this however are changing. The more I begin to observe the 6 times weekly practice, the more I talk to other practicing Ashtangis and their own experienced challenges in the practice, and as I begin to lay down my hands on more texts, opinions and views of long-term authorized and certified Ashtangis, there is another worldview that is opening up to me of this thing we call pain.
Gregory Maehle even has different categorisations to pain of which I feel could be information that is largely hard to digest and wrap the head around for those without a consistent yoga practice. This week I have somehow managed to end up with a persistent pain on the left shoulders – the palm sized area around the infraspinatus and somehow, i don’t know how this is even possible, a sensation that wraps around from behind to the front pectoralis. My suspicion is leaning towards rushed chaturangas, falling out of the correct alignment in an effort to maintain breath to movement and a botched, i’m-still-working-on-it chakrasanas.
In the past 2 days it has greatly intensified perpetuated by the fact that I still have to demonstrate these poses in my own classes that I lead. For the first time in all these years of practicing various systems of yoga asanas, I have decided to show up on my mat, however intense the sensation is. Mostly out of curiosity, like volunteering myself as the lab-rat to my own experiment on my mat. What happens if I allow myself to move through the pain instead of identifying with it and cooling off for a few days? What if this is an opportunity to turn inwards further and refine my own understanding of body awareness and limitations?
Before everything else though, there is a clear disclaimer here that I draw the line on the above approach only to myself. And under no circumstance would I ever push such ideals, or even worse my own curiosities to other people who are new to the practice or anyone that comes to me to learn yoga asanas. These are obviously just my own pondering of which I have yet or ever will draw any clear conclusions from.
And so it is, this idea of moving through the pain rather than just sitting with it. Yesterday’s practice was horrible. Today’s painful. Let’s not even talk about how many times I woke up throughout the night every time I needed to turn or move. It is humbling to be assisted into postures that I have never needed help in. Even more interesting to coax past the initial body’s reaction to tense up at the first tinge of pain. And yet the most surprising discovery out of the last 2 days was that my headstand was lighter, less cautious and that much more stable. Perhaps it is the heightened awareness to move through my chaturangas, sometimes modified, sometimes slower, to skip the jump backs and jump throughs and take the beginners version. (And I believe this is where the grey area lies between introducing modifications to minimise further aggravation of those irritated muscles and tendons, or bulldozing your way through the pain with complete disregard of what the heck it is you are actually doing to your body). Perhaps it is the energy reserved through less jump backs and jump throughs that gives me enough at the end of the practice to almost effortlessly come up (to stay up is another story by the way).
But it occurred to me that pain and ease are really two sides of the same coin. I love the Quranic verse that says “Verily, with every hardship there is ease” (94:5) In its simplest form what is implied is that ease comes after hardship. But what if they both exist together, at the same time? And without one, the other cannot be experienced? Or that both are meant to be experienced together? That verse used to imply hope, the temporality of what is, the idea of ‘this too shall pass’. But today I am awarded with a different perspective. Sitting with it implies stagnancy, moving through it on the other hand implies quite the opposite. Moving through the discomfort of pain allows for lightness to be experienced, and when it comes it is that much sweeter.