There is a difference between pain and discomfort. Pain should absolutely be avoided, in fact your body will do it’s best to avoid pain. Your body will respond automatically, it will ‘jump’ you out of a movement that brings you experienced pain but discomfort can be a wonderful place where our inner strength is discovered and developed.
What is Yin Yoga?
I learnt how to stay in discomfort in yin yoga practice. While I was living and teaching in Kuwait, I worked with a yoga teacher who had a love for yin yoga. At the time, I didn’t know a lot about it but I am grateful to Sara for teaching me what I now know and use in all of my classes and with all of my clients. I now teach yin yoga myself.
In yin yoga we hold poses for up to 10 minutes. We use props- blocks , bolsters, blankets, to bring the ground up to mould into your body’s version of every pose, never going to your full stretch (only up to 70%). During these long poses, although supported, the body begins to soften more and more and release over the supporting props, meaning the stretch can actually become quite deep and feel intense.
Here’s why: (skip this bit, if you just want to learn about discomfort)
You see, when we do more dynamic stretching, we have these things called ‘golgi tendons’ and ‘muscle spindles’ that essentially work together to create reflex contraction of the stretched muscle (known as stretch reflex). It is the muscle spindle that provides information to the central nervous system regarding the length and rate of length change in skeletal muscles, creating this ‘stretch reflex’ and resistance to overstretching.
However, yin yoga is a meditative practice, when we are in a more meditative state, we ‘sooth’ the central nervous system, meaning we can have more control over this stretch reflex and that it’s action is essentially less urgent. Meaning… You can hold a stretch for a longer period of time and the stretch can be deeper too, without causing damage.
Back to discomfort:
So, when we are in these deep, often intense poses, we are encouraged to hold stillness. But when something feels uncomfortable, we instinctively don’t hold ourselves in discomfort, do we? We move!
Yes we do. But with mindful practise there are many benefits as to why we should not.
Becoming the observer
In my yin classes, we practise becoming the observer.
Being the observer is a powerful way to tame the monkey brain- The part of the brain that speeds off down a ‘what shall I have for dinner?’ side road and drowns in an undercurrent of chattering and commentary.
We learn how to separate ourselves from all sounds. Be that sounds outside of the room- birds singing, gravel under tyres, leaves knocking each other in the wind. Sounds inside of the room- music, the hum of the building, the person next to you breathing. And any sounds that you can hear on your mat- your own breath or heartbeat and the sounds inside of your head. We all have sounds in our mind, or we wouldn’t have a mind but we can observe them without adding further commentary or opinion.
We learn how to let all of these sounds come and go, like clouds floating in to view, they all float away and out of view again.
We don’t chase clouds. Why chase thoughts and opinions? Tomorrow they will be gone. And if they’ll be gone tomorrow, they can be gone in a moment too. It’s the attachment to a thought that keeps it alive, and here’s a trick: It’s not the thought you need, it’s the result of the thought, learn what you need and move on. Let that thought go.
Why let go?
The very best way this has been described to me is during a ten-day silent meditation (NOT a retreat)! In Indonesia. The type of meditation I did is called Vipassana meditation. You hand in all your possessions at the start, taking only basic clothes and a water bottle, share a dormitory and live like a monk. You are silent the entire time and you aren’t even supposed to look anyone in the eye. [I wrote about this at length HERE]
It is here, that I learnt about ‘akashas’ (or so, I remember them being called akashas but I can’t find anything more about them under this name, please tell me if I have this wrong!).
The dorm room at the Vipassana center
Akashas were explained to me as this:
Imagine a piece of sandstone and I draw a line in the stone with a sharp object like a key. This line is a thought. The more I think, the deeper the line. This is an akasha. Positive and negative attachments will always equal misery, so whether this is a craving or an aversion, both thought types will cause an akasha. The law of nature means that the top layer will erode and continue to erode with time until the akasha completely disappears, but only if we stop the continued thought process otherwise the line continues to be drawn and stays. No craving no aversion.. No craving no aversion.. No craving no aversion.
Why should we stay with discomfort?
Two reasons. Physical and emotional release.
Physically, we feel discomfort, usually because of tightness in the body. Holding these poses, breathing and staying relaxed or ideally in a more meditative state will help to release the tension and give the muscles and ligaments a good stretch, meaning the next time you come to do this pose it will be slightly easier. The more we avoid doing any stretching because we aren’t already flexible just makes it worse! It can also create problems down the line. When people tell me they don’t come to yoga because they aren’t flexible I explain how that really doesn’t warrant an excuse!
Secondly, as well as muscles and ligaments, you are accessing something called fascia. Fascia is a bit like cling film and it is a case that surrounds all of our muscles, bones and ligaments. There’s also a layer under our skin. The muscle fibres of fascia run in lines next to each other, when we get a knot (for example, in your shoulder) it is these fascia fibres that get crossed and cause knots. When we stretch these fibre, they can because uncrossed and go back into place, releasing the knot. So the effects are a lot like a good massage! Fascia can also become stuck to the bone and holding deep poses can help it to become unstuck.
Emotionally we hold or trap past trauma in our cells and tissue. I call it ‘issues in the tissues’. Deep poses access these trapped emotions and set them free. No one knows exactly how or why this happens.
When we hold deep poses for a long time, our mind kicks in to make us move. It is far easier to say to ourselves ‘this hurts, so I have to move’ rather than, ‘I can feel an uncomfortable emotion coming up, and I feel I should move to avoid it’. We simply don’t get taught this in our world! The ‘this hurts, so I have to move’ thought is a misunderstanding.
Once we have learnt this, we can then learn to how stay with the discomfort, to watch it. This is where the magic happens. We give ourselves the opportunity to learn the real reason behind the discomfort. It is very common for students to have an emotional release at the end of a yoga class, often feeling tearful with no real reason why. With practice we do learn why, we learn to identify the emotion behind aversion to particular pose (the issue in the tissue) and once we’ve learnt the why, guess what? The discomfort goes.
This understanding of emotion is incredibly powerful and important. Imagine if you could get rid of all the emotional crap that’s weighing you down by coming to yoga every week (*coughs), you can!
The important thing to remember here is that any emotions that come up in class are not emotions that you are experiencing right now. They are the release of a past emotion. So continuing to be the observer so as not to create or deepen an akasha is key. This is your power, this is your freedom.
Emotions are just emotions, they are tools to understanding,
they do not define or own you.
How can we stay with discomfort?
When we decide to stay with discomfort, we realise that it is the body that is giving the signals but the desire to move comes from the mind.
we must learnt how to calm the monkey mind.
There are different techniques to use here, these are my two most successful with my clients:
- Focus on the breath. As you inhale, feed your body with breath. We do not ignore the part of the body that is asking for your attention, instead we feed it with the breath. Now, as you exhale notice how your body relaxes and the attention seeking part of the body starts to feel safe and become more quiet. If the monkey mind turns up, allow it, watch it come and watch it go while you keep focusing on your breath.
- Break down the feeling as the observer. Do not add commentary or opinion. Give the discomfort a name, it is often more than one and could be an emotion. Imagine this word appearing as you identify the name. Now place this name next to you on your mat.
For example, in a deep hip stretch, I often experience my discomfort as anger and loneliness. I would identify it by simply seeing the word ‘anger’ and as I visually place it next to me on my mat, I say to myself ‘here is anger’. I would then see the word ‘loneliness’ and I say to myself ‘here is loneliness’ and place it next to anger on my mat. It is important to realise that you don’t feel them, you are observing them in the pose and they have now become words, next to you and are no longer part of you.
I hope this helps, as always I welcome questions. Please send them to me and I’ll answer them for you as best I can.
Next time: Your body is talking to you, how and why to listen