Saturday, April 24, 2010

Comfort and discomfort in poses

I've been thinking recently about the feelings of comfort or discomfort while practicing the yoga poses.   I'm fairly sensitive to the temperature while I'm practicing -- I may fiddle with space heaters or fans (or both) every few minutes, or slow down my practice until my body temperature is "just right".

That's not what I need to be focusing on while practicing.   Of course some comfort is good -- I don't want to be shivering in a 57F. room in quiet poses, and I don't want to sweat in my standing poses in a 95F. (or hotter) room (although either is fine for those who prefer those temperatures!).   But I don't need to fine-tune the temperature as much as I often do.   I don't need to work so hard to avoid discomfort.  

I'm guessing that most of us practice some sort of avoidance techniques when we're uncomfortable.  In yoga (practice or classes) many of us want to get away from this discomfort as quickly as possible, whether it's from temperature, or from working hard and stretching more than we're used to, or from boredom, or from worry that we'll be uncomfortable in the future if we hold our poses for any longer.  

But if we shy away from this discomfort, we don't change; we don't grow in our practice!  If we always strive to be "comfortable" then we slide back in our progress!   We have to go through discomfort to improve. 

I know it's easier in class not to "run away" from discomfort when the teacher is there watching you and telling you what to do.   I tell students that they can always come out of poses if they hurt or if they get really tired, but for the most part people try to hold the poses until I tell them to come out.  It's harder to do this in our home practice when it's so easy to stop if we're feeling tired, hot, hungry, or bored.

What can you do to work through the discomforts you feel in class?
  • Focus on keeping the breath easy.   Don't breathe heavily, but keep your awareness on smooth inhalations and smooth exhalations.   Don't gasp the breath.
  • Watch your feelings of discomfort.   Where are you feeling discomfort?   What can you do while still in the pose to maintain the integrity of the pose, but with more ease?  Do you need to work harder in some areas, or relax certain areas more?  (Focusing on the breath is always useful.)
  • Sensation is different than pain.  You will feel sensation (maybe intense sensation that is uncomfortable) when you're stretching and working the muscles.  If you shy away from most sensation (i.e., from the feeling of stretching, or tiredness in the muscles, or heat or boredom), you may not be working hard enough to progress.   Again, go back to focusing on the breath, but without giving up the integrity of the pose. 
So, if you're in Triangle Pose, and your arms are tired -- before deciding that you have to rest your arms, take a few extra breaths first, and see if you can hold them in place a little longer. Take your shoulder blades in more firmly and stretch more fully, while relaxing the shoulders down, and practice keeping your face relaxed and your breath relaxed. 

And in Head Balance -- observe what's happening when you want to come down.   Is it because you're tired?   Stay another couple breaths.   Or bored?   Stay a few more breaths.   Or starting to feel a heaviness in the pose?   Lift the shoulders, press the shoulder blades, lift the legs, don't give up on the active aspects of the pose!  But if there is pain, and not just discomfort, come down, and let me know.

It is fine to work hard!   It is okay to be hot and sweaty!  It's fine to have some soreness in the muscles the next day or two!   Don't shy away from discomfort, but analyze it and decide what you can do to work through it.   If it is pain, then you need to stop!  But discomfort often is not pain.

Part of the work of yoga is to learn more about ourselves -- this is svadyaya, or self-study.    We observe in ourselves how we react in uncomfortable situations in yoga classes, and we learn to work through the discomfort rather than run away from it.   We can take this practice into our daily lives, and learn to mindfully work through our discomforts in our daily lives.

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