In defense of yoga that hurts you

So it appears that pain as a topic related to yoga and Ashtanga is a hot one. (Not nearly as hot as music and Ashtanga, of course.) Reading through the comments on our – more correctly, Bobbie’s – two posts on pain and why Ashtanga will never be popular, three main items came to mind, only two of which interrupted my Tuesday morning practice.

The type of pain

There seems to be some confusion about what “type” of pain Bobbie intends (and that I intend, in other posts where I’ve talked about pain). I will quote her:

I was very lucky to have this lesson early on–the “you take it you practice” lesson–from teachers who treated pain as part of the process. Otherwise, I certainly would’ve quit.

If I had landed in any other yoga class, I certainly would’ve heard, “If it hurts, then back off.” Everything hurt. I would’ve backed off, and right out of the room. So I learned from my teachers ShaynaDiana, and Tim that if I were to be freed from the constant pain of the disintegrating disks in my back, I would have to ignore it as part of the process, in order to get stronger. As Tim puts it, “Sometimes you have to use a thorn to remove a thorn.”

I don’t want there to be confusion: We’re talking debilitating physical pain. She came to the mat in pain (she was even using a cane to walk), practicing through and with that pain, and as a result – the Primary Series is about healing, right, yoga therapy, yoga chikitsa – she got stronger and stronger so the pain was less, although not gone. The practice is still painful, but life less so–the cane is gone.

And so it is difficult for us to approach the Ashtanga practice thinking that pain won’t be involved. I recall Nancy Gilgoff’s stories about crying as Guruji moved her, physically, through the poses as she first learned Ashtanga. That sounds painful, and to a certain extent she wasn’t even “doing” the practice at that point. Guruji helped her until she got stronger and more capable.

And that leads me to topic No. 2.

Just what is “ease”?

We all, I’m sure, are familiar with the Guruji quote: “Ashtanga yoga is Patanjali yoga.” As a result, the Yoga Sutras are the fundamental text for this practice. But it seems to me that various sutras, because of their very nature, are too easy to interpret to one’s own point.

Which of course means I’m about to interpret a sutra to prove my point. I’m not saying my take is correct, however – but I’d suggest the following as a way to understand one of the central sutras within the practice of Ashtanga as we perform it.

That sutra? One of the few that mention our beloved asana: 2.46 sthira sukham asanam, The posture should be steady and comfortable.

I understand why this gets translated to mean that our yoga poses should be without pain. However, I want to add a critical aspect to Ashtanga: the sacred fire. Tim Miller often talks about the sacred fire that Ashtanga stokes, agni – the fire in the belly, the fire that burns away the impurities we bring to the mat.

The fire that heals: yoga chikitsa.

The thing is, you don’t get fire without some friction. You have to strike a match with some force, with some pain, to light it.

So I’d look back at Sutra 2.46 and reconsider where that comfort or ease comes from. Is it from the pose, from keeping your body on the happy side of pain or strain? Or is it within you as you find within yourself the steadiness amid the storm? (Note: I’m not saying if you blow out your knee you should keep going. All of this presupposes some level of discrimination, which we’ll get to in a second.)

I say it has to be the latter, otherwise there isn’t the fire of Ashtanga. And there has to be the fire. If you aren’t experiencing some sort of strain, some burning, some pain, you aren’t doing Ashtanga in a way that will benefit you. (Do I get my Ashtanga Police badge for that statement?) No benefit! But more to the point: No healing. No sacred fire.

That doesn’t mean you are stopped by the strain. Part of the practice is learning to find that comfort within the strain. Sthira sukham asanam.

For me, still, every pose involves strain. It’s one way I know I’m doing the yoga at least sort of correctly. Where there isn’t discomfort, there isn’t going to be the heat. If I just drop into a pose and all’s good, I’m not where I need to be.

I’m lucky – as painful as it is for me to admit this – to be as stiff as I am. It’s easy to find the edge, the straining point, in every pose. I can get right to it, from the first surya namaskara. If you’re really flexible, it might be more difficult to reach that point – but if you aren’t reaching that point, aren’t seeking it, I’d argue you aren’t trying hard enough.

As a result, maybe Ashtanga seems comfortable.

If you get injured, it’s your fault

The final point, I can imagine, might be the one that gets the strongest reaction. But I promised to talk about discrimination, so here goes:

If your teacher injures you, it’s your fault.

I agree there are exceptions, and there are caveats, and that’s a bit of a too cut-and-dry statement. But ultimately, we all are responsible for ourselves. And there are some fairly simple ways to avoid injury:

  • Be thoughtful before surrendering to a teacher. Build trust first. Check the person out. Be wary. Slowly allow a teacher more and more control. (This is one of my problems with weekend workshops – it is hard to build that trust.)
  • Be aware while you are being adjusted. I may be judging from a poor perspective as someone who typically is bigger, if not stronger, than the teacher who is adjusting me, but I’ve been able to put the brakes on with some of the strongest Ashtanga teachers. One can resist. And it is up to you to know where the edge is when you should start resisting.
  • If you think someone is a bad teacher, don’t go to him or her. Or at least don’t let him or her adjust you aggressively.

Yes, there are bad Ashtanga teachers. On a wider scale, there’s the larger debate within yoga, generally, about the efficacy of teacher training programs. Even if every one were terrific, though, it is up to each of us to be aware while we practice, and to react if need be accordingly.

A final thought

OK, so a bonus topic No. 4. What’s “success in yoga?” That phrase from David Garrigues seems to have upset a few people. It isn’t really a difficult question, though, and I’ll quote Bobbie again:

I’m reminded (as usual) of a story Tim Miller tells about Guruji. “Practice, and all is coming,” they heard (as have we all). So they practiced. But one day they asked, “Guruji, what is coming?”

“Samadhi!” he said.

So easy, right? (And, yes, before anyone comments, I know the “samadhi” thing is another touchy subject.)

Posted by Steve

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Two Ashtangis write about their practice and their teachers.

15 thoughts on “In defense of yoga that hurts you”

  1. 2.46 is so obviously about finding
    the ease within yourself… the sutra is about preparing for the other limbs of yoga and ultimately samadhi. in other words, you are ready to move on when the asana is steady. probably asana meant lotus pose , and the author is saying when you are steady in your seat, you can begin pranayama or at least , meditation is now possible. we’re told all the time to work in a posture until the breath is easy. I think this is what it means. you can run into some injury along the way

    1. Vyasa names eleven asanasas as examples, which implies that there were more, in fact maybe a lot more — especially among the tantric yoga masters — but usually, or primarily, for the purpose of meditation (rather than for becoming physically healthy, and thereby fit to sit undisturbed): Padmasana, Virasana, Bhadrasana, Svastikasana, Dandasana, Sopashraya (with a prop/support called yoga-pattaka), Paryanka (bed/corpse pose), Krauncha-nisadana (curlew p.), Hasti-nisadana (elephant p.), Ushtra-nisadana (camel p.), Sama-samsthana (level p.).
      If you are sitting comfortably, breathing with control (freely, softly, deeply, slowly) [Yoga Sutra 1:34 (and 2:49-), rather than 1:31], then there is no need to run into things, like injuries.

  2. You still didn’t describe what you meant by “pain” and why “pain” is necessary in all situations. “Discomfort” and “pain” are not the same thing. Yes, in the case of the woman using the cane to walk, she would have to go through pain to get better. That is an extreme case. However, why should someone who is in great health deliberately try to create pain in their practice? Discomfort happens in the practice and in life when you are dealing with new things and taking your body and mind to new heights. Pain is another level. It is beyond discomfort. Pain is beyond fire and agni. To use an analogy, cooking your food to transform it into something new and flavorful would be discomfort. You are using the heat to cause a transformation that makes the ingredients taste even better at the end. Pain would be burning the food. Taking it beyond what is needed for the transformation to happen. You may be able to salvage it but why take that chance when it is not necessary?

    Also, everyone does not need pain for spiritual transformation. That is a myth. Some people can just feel deep to the core of their being that they are not their body or their mind and still their thoughts without the use of yoga, even much, pain. Even within the realm of yoga, there are many different forms. Hatha yoga, which includes Ashtanga, is only one of them. It is not necessary to have physical pain in yoga or to do a physical yoga practice to find self actualization.

    1. OK, then discomfort. I’m not sure, though, that parsing one word for another is the point, though. I think it is a matter of a yoga/asana practice that pushes people to an uncomfortable place (physically and otherwise) versus one that doesn’t. In the latter, I don’t see where there can be any transformation or growth — just as in life.

      All that said, I would never described a yoga practice as “discomfortable.” I’d say, “Man, that one was painful.” Or: “Man, that hurt.” Or: “That really kicked my butt.”

      I suspect you’re alluding to the Rumi chickpea poem — that’s the experience we’re talking about. Does that clear it up?

      And didn’t I explicitly say what kind of pain Bobbie had been talking about? Isn’t that quote right there? Am I missing something?


      1. Again, being uncomfortable and pain are not the same thing. You may use them interchangeably, but most people don’t. Having a pap smear is uncomfortable. Pushing a 7 pound baby out your lady parts is painful. Uncomfortable and painful are not the same thing! They are not interchangeable words.

        Yes you mentioned Bobbie but then you went on to say how pain was needed in Ashtanga in general for change to happen. Again, why does a healthy person need to be in pain(not be uncomfortable, this is something different but in pain)?

        If you were talking to a scared, newbie in good physical health who wanted to try Ashtanga, would you really go into detail with them about how it causes pain? “Hey I know you arn’t in any pain right now and you feel great and you are in the best shape of your life but you should try Ashtanga. It will cause you great physical pain, your joints will be inflamed 24 hours a day but as long as you trust your teacher, you will be alright in the end. After all that, you will feel just like you did before you started, pain free” .

        That sounds insane right? I know that is not what you are saying…or at least I hope it isn’t…..but anyway… I am saying as a writer or teacher, we have to make sure we are sending clear messages. People take you seriously when you use the word “pain”.

        Your example of saying, “man that was painful” is your ego trying to make something sound worse then what it is. You want the person you are conversing with to really get what you are trying to say, so you use a word that is loaded with meaning, “pain”. Because saying that was uncomfortable isn’t quite as satisfactory. It is the same reason that people curse when they communicate. For impact. “”Pain” is a loaded word. I practice Ashtanga. I get it. I know what you are trying to say, but a lot of people just read this and translate “pain” into “injury”. Those are two thoughts that go together in their minds whereas they wouldn’t make that jump from the word “uncomfortable”.

      2. I think the conflation you see me/us making with pain is similar to the conflation I see you making between pain and injury. I don’t assume pain and injury go together. I don’t see “pain” being a loaded word.

        And, I’d probably pitch Ashtanga exactly the way you suggest! Truth in advertising! 🙂

        And a final thought: Even by your definition of pain (as opposed to “discomfort), I would say that Bobbie and my practices are painful. Her initial point, what started all this (after DG started things), was there was no way her practice can’t be painful. And so to say yoga should never be painful suggests a lack of compassion or understanding. I think Ashtanga’s incorporation of pain may be the ultimate signal to the compassion of the practice as Guruji imparted it.


  3. Darn. I wrote a whole response and it got lost.

    Anyway, I too agree with Shanna and thank her for tackling this thorny issue 😉

    I will repeat my own opinion on this and that is all this talk of “our practices are painful” is a lot of ego and attachment. As if ones practice is better, deeper, more profound, realer etc than someone else’s because it’s painful. How macho.

    Is my practice painful? Not if I can help it! Is it uncomfortable? Indeed it is. Quite often. But pain? Pain is a signal to back off. I refer you to Kate O’Donnell’s guest post here on your own blog: Why Paining?

    Bobbie’s situation is unique, as are all of ours, really. I won’t speak to her practice because she had a great deal to overcome. Most of us, however, do not face what she did. And I’ll go further to say that we can get off on pain very easily. S&M is all about that. You can get attached to it, as a marker that you are “successful at yoga”, another really compromised idea.

    But now I will stop and reign in my drishti 🙂 Thanks for the reminder to keep my practice right at the edge and no further.

  4. Samadhi will never come as long as you are uncomfortable, or worse — in pain. Any beneficial yoga practice, with the purpose of meditation and finding peace, should reduce and eventually eliminate pain of all sorts. Pain is something that increases stress hormones, and if it does not cause injury at once, it will in the long run. We have good reason to be grateful for the ability to feel discomfort and pain; because of that we can (and always should) avoid injuries.

    Injuries, caused by ourselves and the way we practice, can always be avoided and prevented — and most often healed. The question is if we have the knowledge, ability, and awareness to do just that.

    “Ignorance is to see the transient as eternal, the impure as pure, pain as pleasure, and the nonself as the self.” (Yoga Sutra 2:5)

    “It is to be noted that practicing forcefully will only superimpose a new layer of subconscious imprints based on suffering and pain. It will also increase identification with the body.” —
    “Since the body is our vehicle and the storehouse of our past, we want to practice asana to the point where it serves us well, while releasing and letting go of the past that is stored in it.
    Yoga is the middle path between two extremes. On the one hand, we can go to the extreme of practicing fanatically and striving for an ideal while denying the reality of this present moment. The problem with this is that we are only ever relating to ourselves as what we want to become in the future and not as what we are right now. The other extreme is advocated by some schools of psychotherapy that focus on highlighting past traumas. If we do this, these traumas can increase their grip on us, defining ourselves by the ‘stuff that’s coming up’ and the ‘process we are going through.’ Asana is an invitation to say goodbye to these extremes and arrive at the truth of the present moment.” —

    “Posture must have the two qualities of firmness and ease.” (Yoga Sutra 2:46)
    — “If the posture is to be firm, effort will be required — contraction of muscles that will arrest the body in space without wavering. Ease on the other hand implies relaxation, softness, and no effort. Patanjali shows here already that posture cannot be achieved unless we simultaneously reach into these opposing directions. These directions are firmness, which is inner strength, and the direction of ease, which brings relaxedness.
    Vyasa gives a list of postures in his commentary to show that yogic posture (yogasana) according to yoga shastra (scripture) is meant here, and not just keeping one’s spine, neck, and head in one line. He also says that the postures become yoga asanas only when they can be held comfortably. Before that they are only attempts at yoga asana.
    Shankara elaborates further to say that, in yoga asana, mind and body become firm and no pain is experienced. The firmness is needed to block out distractions since, after asana has been perfected, we want to go on to pranayama, concentration, and so on.
    Mention of the absence of pain is interesting. If the field of perception is filled with pain, the mind will be distracted. Patanjali’s definition of posture as ease automatically eliminates that which causes pain. If you are in a posture and experience pain you will not be at ease.
    The widespread tendency in modern yoga to practice the postures in such a way that they hurt leads to being preoccupied with the body. This is by definition not yoga asana.” —

    (p.188, p.3, and p.225, from Ashtanga Yoga: Practice and Philosophy, by Gregor Maehle, New World Library, 2006)

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