As a committed practitioner of the Ashtanga system of yoga for almost 20 years, I have certainly experienced my fair share of physical pain and injury. Over time I have come to understand that my injuries have allowed me to find depth and strength in my body and in myself. Ultimately this physical pain brought me into a more intimate understanding of who I am and how to best support myself, on and off the mat,
In my early days of Ashtanga, my practice revealed a weakness in my lower back that persisted for many years. Sometimes it would be a dull ache and other times the pain was so excruciating that I could barely walk, never mind practice asana. What a devastating feeling this was as now my whole life centered around yoga practice. I felt like my body was betraying me and that the practice couldn’t support me.
Despite the pain I continued to practice, ignoring the body’s signals hoping that I could move through this weakness and” get on” with things. My ego mind was saying one thing and my body was screaming another. I saw my back pain, and ultimately my body, as an obstacle in the way of my path.
In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali offers us the opportunity to look at all symptoms, all physical pain, as areas of weakness that need attention and one-pointed perseverance to understand and ultimately overcome. Here, he is reminding us to go into our pain or discomfort and to use it as an access point to better know the self. Patanjali invites us to meet all that arises, not as an obstacle, but as a messenger that alerts us to a new discovery about ourselves and names persistent practice as the means to getting there.
Patanjali describes asana as “steady, comfortable, and relaxed” and states that the yogi should be able to hold the body in posture for a long period of time without feeling instability. This is the ultimate goal of asana practice but it doesn’t happen overnight and few of us get there without meeting some challenges along the way. We inevitably will run into those parts of ourselves, physical, mental, or emotional, that are weak, compromised, or asleep. Finding stability, comfort, and ease in posture takes time, commitment, and perseverance. It requires us to accept exactly where we are before we slowly, through consistent and persistent practice, open to a deeper potential. If we push through injury or painful sensation we are acting violently towards ourselves, causing further damage to the physical structure and further disturbance to the mind. This is not Yoga.
For me, in the beginning, my physical pain did become an obstacle in the sense that it got “in the way” of practice as I knew it. I could no longer go on auto-pilot and just perform asana. I had to be willing to find new ways to connect to my body that supported my particular areas of weakness. Some mornings I did the traditional practice with full vinyasa and deep back bending, while other mornings I was lucky to make it through a modified version of the sun salutations. I found this initially, very difficult, mostly for my ego and due to my belief of how things were supposed to be. Over time I came to I realize that my practice had deepened and transformed and had become more focused and fulfilling. And slowly, my pain subsided, and my back got stronger. My pain and physical limitation forced me to take a very deep look at my practice, my body and my approach to both. Ultimately I was led to a deep understanding of how to best meet myself, in practice and in life.
When we are willing to listen to the body’s signals physical pain and injury can help teach us how to most intelligently approach our bodies, our practice, and our lives.
If Yoga is, in its essence, the awakening to the inner reality of our being, than everything we encounter along our path is a messenger that brings us back to a deeper understanding of who we are. So stay interested and curious. Be willing to face all you encounter. Modify as necessary but never stop practicing.
As Gurujii always said:. “ Slowly, slowly…Do your practice…and all is coming.”