Another way to think about pain in the Ashtanga practice

The question of pain — perhaps even more precisely, the value of pain — in the Ashtanga practice has been a popular one here. I think our most popular post on the topic was this one: “Why Ashtanga won’t ever be popular.”

David Williams probably is the most famous for promoting a pain-free practice.

Bobbie and I have, for similar but not exactly the same reasons, staked out a position that pain is a necessary aspect to the Ashtanga practice.

Arguments about this idea tend to fall into one of two categories: There are those who affirm or deny that pain is inevitable in the practice, and there are those who want to dissect what someone means by “pain.”

I suppose that latter argument strikes me — to be fairly blunt — as a yogic form of Sophistry. I don’t think it is that hard to agree on the meaning: It hurts, it is something one wants to avoid, but it is something that, at times, has to be endured or experienced in order to learn. It can be physical, emotional, spiritual or psychological.

I’m not sure why some people seem so averse to acknowledging there is some pain to the Ashtanga practice.

At our recent workshop with Tim Miller, he touched on this idea of pain in the practice. He even pulled out a David Williams impression, briefly, as he noted Williams’ anti-pain position.

Tim’s of a different perspective. But he made it clear that we aren’t talking about the pain of forcing the body during asana practice. It is the “overall intensity of the experience of the practice.” There is some discomfort one has to endure, he said. (Clearly, pushing the body is part of that experience.)

And he contrasted that to a lot of modern, Western yoga, which doesn’t seem to want to do too deep — doesn’t want to polish the mirror or peel back the koshas — for fear of what it might find.

For fear, I think it fair to say, of the pain of experience and self-knowledge.

Posted by Steve

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Two Ashtangis write about their practice and their teachers.

One thought on “Another way to think about pain in the Ashtanga practice”

  1. I missed out on commenting on the pain issue with ashtanga yoga the first time around and naturally cannot help but put my 2 cents in….
    Let me start start out by saying that I believe one of the main purposes of yoga practice is to open the possibility for change –
    It’s probably not healthy to deliberately push through your pain in yoga asana therefore causing injury to yourself whether that’s physical, mental, emotional, subtle. There are all kinds of injuries and slights that can come up in yoga practice. It’s learning to listen and discern when these injuries or pain arise that is the true practice. Many people have said this already and I think they are wise in understanding this.
    What to say to people who think practice shouldn’t hurt, I don’t know that is their opinion. But when confronting a new posture or practice (like pranayama and meditation!!) often the body (again that could be physical, mental, spiritual,etc) has to adjust to this new stimulus. Some people want to rush this adjustment time for whatever reason and others dont want to adjust at all. Still others are in the gray area. I say whatever your natural inclination maybe it’s a good idea to challenge yourself and try a different approach.
    I can understand the no pain reactions because often what I see as a teacher is people wanting to try more advanced asana than they are ready for and will push through like mad to make it happen. Or just have the worst alignment ever and wonder why their shoulder hurts. And I also run into a number of students who refuse to listen or uNderstand good alignment cues. And this I think has to do with people not willing to face themselves for fear they will see themselves as unworthy because they can’t do “it”.
    What is “it”? Ashtanga yoga is about the breath(which includes the bandhas), the posture and the drishti. As far as I’m concerned someone could stand in samastithi all day long and as long as the awareness is there they are still doing the “practice”.
    Besides we all probably need to work harder on that pose anyway. And wouldn’t that bring up quite a bit of pain: boredom!

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