You will often hear yoga teachers say in class that you should “take care of your body” or “listen to your body.” I think this is more or less pretty good advice. But all too often, I think this advice is taken by students as license to wimp out. Taking care of your body or listening to your body does not mean “come out of the pose the instant you feel any discomfort.” In fact, my own personal philosophy with respect to discomfort and pain in yoga is “push your edge, and then some.” If we don’t push or test our edge in yoga, our practice becomes stagnant, as will our bodies and our minds. This is not yoga, in my book. This is something like guided relaxation, and, unfortunately, this is what is being called yoga in a lot of places today.
So why push the edge every time we do yoga? This sounds like some kind of draconian “no pain, no gain” mantra that your typical gym rat lives by, and to many people, this sounds very unyogic. The teachers I’ve learned from, however, adopt a similar kind of mantra with respect to yoga, and, despite appearances, I think this is a very yogic attitude to take towards physical pain, discomfort, and exertion. I think the mantra can be summed up as “no pain, no Samadhi.” In the following paragraphs, I’ll try to summarize what exactly this mantra amounts to.
In our asana practice, we are of course working towards Savasana. Indeed, every class ends in this way. So we are in effect working towards a place of stillness. To become really still, however, the mind and body need to be strong and steady. In order to achieve this, we push our bodies and minds to the extreme, causing sometimes tremendous discomfort and stress. If we can stay calm under such conditions, when we finally get to Savasana, we’ll find that this final resting pose is just that much sweeter, that much deeper, and that much more peaceful. This is, I think, a very nice little life lesson packed into the structure of a yoga class. If we try to become happy by avoiding all the challenges, stress, and discomfort in life, we actually have more difficulty being happy. But if we can directly face the challenges, stress, and discomfort in life, and if we can be steady and calm in the process, we don’t have to run around left and right, high and low, seeking happiness; we’ve already found it. In the same way, we don’t run from discomfort or pain in yoga; we face it straight on.
There is another, more philosophical reason to push our edge when we practice yoga. By stimulating the senses — for instance, deliberately causing a burning sensation in the legs during a 2-minute hold of Warrior II — we are training ourselves to no longer identify so strongly with what occurs in our bodies. Instead, we meditate on and observe the sensations, and we meditate on and observe the activity of the mind in response to these sensations. My teacher Raghunath says frequently, “I’m not my body; I’m not my mind. I have a body; I have a mind.” Raghu echoes what many Western and Eastern philosophers have surmised, namely, that the “I” which is the ego or self that we so strongly identify with is not, in the end, either our bodies or our minds. Indeed, as many people from ancient Buddhist monks to David Hume have claimed, it’s probably true that our sense of a static, enduring self is nothing but a mere fiction or construction that we believe in because it’s (a) convenient, and (b) perhaps even necessary for the conduct of human life. But it’s still important to realize that our bodies and the activity in the mind do not ultimately constutitute who we are. Otherwise, we tend become trapped in our own bodies and minds, being pulled this way and that by our bodily sensations and our never-ending train of thoughts. So when we are uncomfortable or in pain in a yoga class, we try not to become attached to the sensations and think “Ow, I’m hurting…this sucks…when the hell can I get out of this ****** pose?!?” Instead, the mind and body are both alert but meditating – i.e. not passing judgment on the sensations, not fearing them, not running from them, not embracing them, but just allowing them to be.
As I’ve stated before, I’m a skeptic about a lot of things, especially when it comes to religious or spiritual claims. I don’t believe in an everlasting soul, nor do I believe that we are communing with God in any way through our yoga practice, through our chanting, our mantras, etc. So, given that I don’t believe in a true essence of a person that is his soul, it is plausible to me that the “I” that is the centerpiece of all my thoughts, concerns, actions, etc. is really a kind of fiction, albeit a very useful one for day to day life. When I do yoga, however, I try to train myself to really experience in my mind and body a kind of detachment from my mind and body. Or, as one of my yoga teachers puts it more aptly, by pushing, twisting, sweating, and working hard in our yoga practice, we are in effect “smashing the false ego.” In this way, I think of the asana practice as philosophy in practice.
Now, if none of this philosophical stuff makes sense or if it sounds totally implausible, there is still another really good reason to push your edge in your asana practice. Namely, you won’t get any better if you don’t. This is the same in all other physical activities. Runners don’t get better by slacking off. Weightlifters don’t get better by putting down the weights as soon as they feel some burn. And swimmers don’t improve by getting out of the pool as soon as they feel a little bit winded. Likewise, in a physical yoga practice like Ashtanga or Vinyasa Flow, you won’t see any improvements in your asana practice if you don’t push your edge. Of course, it’s important to do this in a safe manner so that you don’t hurt yourself. And it’s important to know the difference between the kind of pain that will lead to a nice soreness tomorrow and the kind of pain that will lead to injury. As I’ve found, however, your edge is a lot further out there than you may think.