There are moments when I mention to students that pain is not the enemy, but rather a friend; the friend that elbows you in the ribs and says, “Stop hurting yourself, I love you!” If you are suffering you may be rolling your eyes right now, but I would implore you to consider the statement above just a moment longer. Physical, emotional, and mental pain represent the opportunity for change.
Years ago when playing lots of sports and working out, even when practicing yoga, I injured myself regularly. In March of 2016 I published a blog called, ‘The Rip & Tear Program,’ which described the aggressive approach I took when practicing yoga in my late teens and early twenties. I seemed to need to learn the lesson taught through pain and suffering.
I struggled to learn this lesson as I was resistant to what physical pain was attempting to tell me; “Stop practicing yoga with your ego!” Eventually, I began to listen to the symptoms of pain and realized that previously I had not embraced yoga philosophy but simply wanted to do cool looking stretches. Transcendence of the ego turned out to be vital in the practice of yoga for me to enjoy its benefits.
Something magical began to happen (although it was not so much magic as adherence to the philosophy of yoga found in the Yoga Sutras). I began to heal one injury after another. I was even able to repair stubborn sports injuries from my youth. I was sold on the power of healing that yoga has to offer when practiced with authenticity.
Authentic yoga practice begins with the Yamas, or ethical principles, found in the ‘Yoga Sutras’ written by the sage Patanjali around 2000 years ago. The first ethical principle is Ahimsa, which means ‘non-harming.’ Ahimsa certainly describes not harming others, but extends to not harming ourselves as well. Think back to when you were 2 years old playing in the sandbox. If something hurt, you stopped doing it. Compare this to adulthood, where we say things like, “There’s my bad knee acting up again, I guess I’ll just work through the pain.”
Muscle pain is a sign that change is necessary to avoid physical injury, and joint pain is always an indicator something must change to usher in healing. Pain in the skeletal joints is an indicator of dysfunction in articulation and may be caused by aberrant movement patterns. This is a classic example of how awareness of pain and suffering can be the catalyst for change.
Emotional pain can sometimes be packaged in a life-lesson. The important part of making something positive out of an apparent negative circumstance is to become aware of how the circumstances developed and what changes are necessary. I am reminded of Gandhi’s quote, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” Enabling painful experiences to be our teacher can give us the perspective we need to find our path in life, known as Dharma.
Mental pain is difficult to conquer. Depression, anxiety and other mental afflictions are very real and can manifest in both emotional and physical pain symptoms. In the Yoga Sutras it is stated that mental pain can be overcome by the practice of Kriya Yoga. Kriya Yoga is made up of three observances of integrity, known as Niyamas. These three components of Kriya Yoga include: mustering the motivation to do something about mental affliction, which is known as Raga, then becoming consistently aware of mental pain as it presents itself through objective self reflection, which is known as Svadhyaya, and embracing faith that it will all work out, which is known Isvara Pranidhana. The self reflection needed to rise above mental affliction can only come from the recognition that we are suffering. The pain is the symptom not the problem.