During my teacher training I remember one very interesting lecture where our guruji put up a comparative list showing how Yog Asana was different from other forms of exercise. One of the most significant points on this list said that Yoga does not follow the “no pain no gain” moto. If anything it follows the opposite. Now, the opposite doesn’t mean avoiding challenge or that you should never feel discomfort. Rather it means we are not trying to generate pain but instead trying to generate comfort, even when in uncomfortable and challenging situations.
Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra describes an asana as having two important qualities: sthira and sukha (YS 2.46). Sthira means alert steadiness and sukha means comfort. In every posture, and truly every moment, our practice is geared toward finding these two qualities. I know many of my students have found this suggestion almost laughable as I’m asking them to twist or bend into some new awkward posture. I can see their worried faces exclaiming, “How am I supposed to find comfort in this position?”
One way to better understand comfort, sukha, is by looking at its opposite, duhkha. Desikachar says duhkha is best described as a feeling of being restricted, a certain state of mind in which we experience limitation of our possibilities to act and understand creating a disturbed feeling within. Many factors lead to duhkha and work in us as forces that reduce our space and freedom, ultimately limiting us. The goal is always to eliminate duhkha by keenly observing the play of these forces within and reducing limitation.
Eric Shiffman, author of Moving into Stillness, describes this process of observation and adjustment as playing the edges. We have both physical and mental edges that when pushed lead us into discomfort. In yoga we intentionally push on these edges, not to generate pain, but to gradually reduce limitations. Shiffman says, “Your skill in yoga has little to do with your degree of flexibility or where your edges happen to be. Rather, it is a function of how sensitively you play your edges, no matter where they are.”
The key here is sensitivity. If we push at our limitations too hard we end up creating more duhkha in the form of pain, anxiety, strain or stress. If we don’t work with our limitations at all, over time they close in on us, again creating more duhkha. We aim to create a certain level of intensity within that grabs our attention making us alert (sthira), then use our breath to calm the mind and body and find a level of comfort and joy in the intensity (sukha).
We gain little from pain, but a lot from intensity, specifically when learning how to take the pain out of an intense experience. The more we practice experiencing intensity without generating duhkha in the safety of a yoga class, the greater our capacity to deal with intensity will be in all aspects of life. That includes unexpected intense experiences as well as intense love and happiness. Gradually our bodies and minds open and strengthen, and our limitations, rather than closing in on us, dissolve.
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