By: Kino MacGregor
It is not the physicality of hatha yoga that transforms, but the state of presence cultivated by a conscious effort to heal the body and train the mind that heals. It is actually higher awareness itself that brings about great changes in practitioners’ experience of reality.
One of the biggest challenges along the road to the discovery of presence is pain and injury. Paradoxically every yoga practitioner owes a debt of gratitude to each injured body part and all the accompanying emotions brought up. Most people, me included, have relatively strong egoic minds and need to be pushed to the precipice before they are ready to change. According to the Sanskrit “tapas” that defines accepting pain as help for purification, yoga defines pain as your teacher, but not in the most obvious way. It is not enough to feel pain and push through; actually pushing through some types of pain is pure insanity. Instead pain is your teacher on a much deeper level that forces you to dig deep into the heart of yoga.
Pain is your motivation to learn healthy alignment, better technique and more efficient movement patterns. If the way that you approach your physical body leads to injury and suffering it generally indicates that it is time to use that sensation to motivate yourself to try a new method of movement. Many people take their first experience of pain in yoga as a sign to change styles of yoga, but if the deeper question of technique and alignment is not addressed the same injury will just reappear later. If you can recognize pain as a signal to retrain your movement patterns to an empirically sound method then you will find a new freedom in your yoga practice. Rather than jumping ship from one style of yoga to another the best course of action is to use your rational mind to learn a new approach to the postures and movements that give you pain. Discovering a healthy use of the body and making small adjustments to your approach will alleviate pain caused by unhealthy movement patterns. If you listen and change your approach the pain eventually disappears. When yoga says that pain is your teacher it does not ask you to plow through blindly. Instead pain is your motivation to make the changes in your technical approach to movement in order to be healthier and ultimately free from the kind of pain that will injure you.
As a general rule yoga practitioners should never feel pain in the joints of the body. The joints are made for mobility and need spaciousness to bend and fold. If you feel sharp pinching sensations in your joints it is not an indication to keep going, instead it is an indication to stop and re-learn your technical approach to movement mechanics in your body. Muscles are a different story. A little muscular soreness is an unavoidable sensation when you work your physical body. Doing deep work on an area of the body should produce a bit of soreness the next day. If you work your back muscles in backbending postures intensely with healthy alignment under the supervision of a qualified teacher you can expect that the muscles around your back will be a little sore. Wondering whether this is healthy is like doing bicep curls at the gym with a personal training and then questioning the health of having sore biceps the next day. But if your elbow joint started to hurt while attempting bicep curls at the gym your trainer would ask you to stop and readjust your technical approach. Similarly if you feel pain in your joints such the veterbrae, the shoulder joints or the sacro-iliac joints when trying a complex movement like backbending, your teacher would ideally ask you to modify your approach so that you will be pain-free in your joints and just a little sore in your muscles the next day.
When pain arises in the joints it is the body’s way of asking you to listen and if you refuse to heed its gentle call you will almost certainly experience an injury one day. In this sense tapas purifies you from the inside out. Sometimes we approach our bodies from a perspective of command and control where we dictate from above what we want from our bodies in the name of effort. However this approach that attempts to divide and conquer weakness with brute force leads to wrong type of pain sooner or later and is not actually tapas. Most often yoga practitioners decide to tune out joint pain because they do not want to modify the practice they have grown attached to. But the irony of the situation is such that if you ignore pain when it surfaces mildly it only gets worse until it is so severe that one day you will no choice but to listen.
If find yourself faced with a debilitating injury one of the hardest things to face is your own ego. The egoic mind hates to feel like it is slipping from the front of the pack and will cringe and twist when you lighten your load to go easy on your body. Just let the ego bleed itself to death. This ample serving of humble pie will be just what you need to be free from that little whiny voice in your head that thinks your value is tied to your achievements. And this is the best type of pain to accept on the road to purification. If you find yourself caught in the quagmire of injury try to accept where you are and unroll your mat every day as a commitment to the devotional path of yoga while learning new techniques that keep your body healthy. As someone who has personally gone through a complete litany of painful injuries that have forced me to modify my practice for a period of time on the road to better alignment I really empathize with your ego’s pain. There is nothing fun about suddenly not being able to do what you could once do every day with ease and grace. It feels like a slap in the face and all sorts of nasty emotions arise. Everything including jealousy, anger, anxiety, depression and much more all arrive and try to knock the stuffing out of your yoga practice. But the only way out of the illusion of the ego is go straight through it. If you face a battle of ego when you modify your practice to be pain-free in your joints you can rest assured that you are absolutely doing the deep work of the spiritual path of yoga.
Injury demands that you ask what your every-moment priority really is and requires you to be totally present. The question you must ask is at the core of your dedication to yoga. When you can no longer do the “cool” moves you must determine whether your motivation is truly finding inner peace or just the advanced postures. The honesty that yoga demands forces you into an honest relationship with yourself. Only in the clear light of pure consciousness can you make peace with who you really are underneath your need for achievement and perfection. Only when you release the egoic mind can you actually practice yoga as a healing modality. For when you have passed ambition, goal-orientation, attachment to outcome and the need to achieve you can just be in a state of acceptance and listen to your body. Then you can make whatever modifications are needed and experience the free space of acceptance and non-attachment where all healing happens.