Practice Diary: on discomfort

Tittibhasana is not comfortable for me. But it teaches me a lot.
Tittibhasana is not comfortable for me. But it teaches me a lot.

I’ve been thinking a lot about discomfort. I’ve seen workshop descriptions about removing the struggle from poses and teacher instructions to get comfortable within a posture. I’ve seen great effort in the yoga community to make poses as benign and non-threatening as possible. And in many ways, understanding how to modify and reduce effort can be appropriate, especially for therapeutics. But, whenever I hear the advice to get comfortable, I remember one of my teacher’s admonitions that if you tell a student that they should be comfortable they’d be thinking about reclining on their sofa. It’s a bit of a joke, because fundamentally most of the postures we do in active vinyasa yoga are not comfortable. They are damn hard and meant to be that way. If perhaps you’ve gone Rambo in over-efforting your practice, then some advice to take it down a notch might be warranted, but I imagine most of us need to step it up a bit. We live sedentary lives and are disconnected from the experience of active physicality.

Seeking guidance from the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, TKV Desikachar’s translation[2:46], sthirasukhamasanam: Asana must have the dual qualities of alertness and relaxation. Sometimes this is translated as effort and ease, or steadiness and comfort. But it’s never just comfort or letting go of tension. So we need to be careful about vilifying discomfort or strong effort.

I often return to Pema Chodron’s great work When Things Fall Apart and was struck by this passage last night:

Generally speaking, we regard discomfort in any form as bad news. But for practitioners or spiritual warriors – people who have a certain hunger to know what is true – feelings like disappointment, embarrassment, irritation, resentment, anger, jealousy, and fear, instead of being bad news, are actually very clear moments that teach us where it is that we’re holding back. They teach us to perk up and lean in when we feel we’d rather collapse and back away. They’re like messengers that show us, with terrifying clarity, exactly where we’re stuck. This very moment is the perfect teacher, and, lucky for us, it’s with us wherever we are.

So I think there is great value in being discomfortable. In working our asses off on the poses that challenge and frustrate us and learning how to deal with it. If physically appropriate, we should push our edges – lengthen the stride of our warrior IIs or hold handstand a little bit longer. We should work on poses we think we can’t do, or know that we have strong restrictions preventing us from creating magazine-cover like expressions of them. How we manage the stress of this effort, alertness, and steadiness may be a great teacher to us. Like anything this can go too far, but we must play the duality of opposites.

Once physical discomfort and edges are explored and tested (we use the physical because it is usually most accessible) this instructive work can go into the depth of the mind through meditation or more quieting restorative work – which by the way, if it’s more than nap time for you, can also be extraordinarily discomfortable and difficult for chattering minds. So each one of us may have different discomforts to explore and learn from.

We must learn to push the edges. Life is often not very comfortable, so we need to learn to reside in stillness within the extremes.

So, go get uncomfortable and see what happens.