I was asked whether pain in asana should be accepted and if it’s worth going through a lot of pain at all? When does discomfort turn into pain, can it be balanced with the higher limbs or should it be avoided altogether?
There is a widespread misconception that postures should be painful. As a rule of thumb, postures should not be painful, which is something that even the ancient masters pointed out. Patanjali states in Yoga Sutra, “heyam duhkham anagatam,” which means that new suffering needs to be avoided (Yoga Sutra II.16). The reasoning behind this injunction is simple. Every experience you have forms a subconscious imprint (samskara). Every subconscious imprint, whatever its content, calls for its own repetition.
This means that if you frequently practice postures in a way that causes pain, you will create more pain in your postures in the future. The adage “No pain, no gain” may work in some areas of life, but applied to asana it becomes destructive. Apart from damaging bodily tissues, you may become more and more preoccupied with pain and with the body if you imprint pain into your subconscious again and again. All intense physical sensations call for more identification with the body. The goal of yoga, however, is not to increase this identification. It is to perfect the body so as to transform it into a capable and reliable vehicle on the road to freedom. Think of your body as akin to your car: the better you treat it, the better it will run. You need to service it regularly, maintain fluid levels, and correct tire pressure. Treating the body respectfully does not mean identifying with it. If you identify with your body, it becomes an obstacle to spiritual evolution, not a vehicle for it. This is nowhere clearer than at the moment of death, one of the key moments in terms of spiritual evolution. If you have not learned detachment from the body, dying will not elevate you. This potentially most powerful moment then becomes a painful experience.
Another scriptural injunction against pain appears in the Bhagavad Gita. The Supreme Being in the form of the Lord Krishna criticizes those who torture the body (Bhagavad Gita XVII.5–6). He, as the true self of the world, lives as the self in our hearts and thus lives in every body. Those who cause pain to the body desecrate his abode. This has led to the notion of the body as the temple of God. We need to treat our bodies as we would the home of the Supreme Being.
There are three types of unpleasant physical sensations that can occur in postures. I call them (1) creative discomfort, (2) unnecessary pain, and (3) necessary, karmic pain.
In asana it is important to recognize the difference between pain and discomfort. When you stretch a muscle or hold a demanding strength posture, there is necessarily a certain amount of discomfort involved. This discomfort comes from stretching the muscle or making it stronger, both of which are among the goals of the practice. In regard to asana, therefore, we may say, “No discomfort, no gain.” (Postures that are to be held for a long time for the purpose of pranayama and meditation are an exception; they need to be completely comfortable.) If the discomfort crosses the line into pain, on the other hand, injuries can happen. This is particularly true if the pain is felt in a joint, ligament, or tendon. If you feel pain, you need to back off or adjust the posture and work more precisely so that you can return to the zone of discomfort. Anatomical knowledge guides this process.
Practitioners should analyze the postures and continually correct their performance of them until awareness is spread all over the body. When that happens, the body is hardly felt anymore. This sounds paradoxical, but you feel the body mainly when something is wrong. The absence of negative feedback means that everything is okay. When the body is correctly aligned, a feeling of stillness and firmness yet vibrant lightness arises. The mind becomes luminous, still, and free from ambition and egoic tendencies. This is the state that you are looking for. It is conducive to meditation. When this quality is achieved in a posture, that posture is fit as a platform for the higher limbs of yoga.
There is no point in waiting for this state to suddenly and miraculously appear by performing the same faulty postures again and again. From a faulty action, no correct result can be achieved. Faulty postures cause more faulty postures in the future.
Any pain experienced in joints, ligaments, tendons, and at the origins and insertions of muscles is likely to be unnecessary pain. This type of pain accounts for the vast majority of pain experienced in asana. It is completely avoidable and almost always due to faulty technique. This may sound like a steep claim, but this type of pain can easily be recognized because it disappears in due time when postural alignment is analyzed and corrected. For this reason, you should always assume that the pain you experience when executing a posture is in the category of unnecessary pain. All such pain can be avoided by applying the tool of anatomical inquiry into posture. If unnecessarily painful practice is continued, an already existing negative tendency — toward self-torture, perfectionism, or egotism, for example — may be increased instead of reduced.
NECESSARY, KARMIC PAIN
This form of pain is more difficult for Westerners to understand, as it involves the concept of karma. Through our past actions, words, and thoughts, we have created who we are today, including, according to Patanjali, the type of body, span of life, and form of death we will experience. When Patanjali stated that future pain is to be avoided, he did not elaborate about past pain. Past pain in this context is the pain that we have created through our past actions. It may be experienced now or in the future. We cannot change our past actions. Once the seeds of our actions have sprouted, the karma associated with those actions cannot be intercepted, and the pain resulting from them needs to be endured — not grudgingly endured but willingly accepted as ordained. If it is willingly accepted, it will lead to a karmic purification, to a burning of the old karma associated with that pain.
Occasionally in life we have to go through letting-go processes, and they are not complete without painful sensations. Grief is an example of such a process. Nobody will doubt that a possibly lengthy grieving process, during which we learn or come to terms with letting go, follows the death of a loved one. These processes can come to a conclusion only if we willingly and consciously enter into them.
Karmic pain in asana is that pain that cannot be removed by anatomical inquiry and attention to detail. If you have done everything in your power to correct the posture and the pain still persists, it may be necessary, karmic pain, something you may have to go through. It is very challenging for a yogini to know that she has done everything in her power and yet continues to suffer. Many people at this point will stop practicing because they feel unfairly treated. If you manage to continue your practice, you are fostering tapas, the ability to sustain your practice in the face of adversity. If you refuse to work through karmic pain and simply endure it, your yogic progress may stagnate.
Yoga in this regard is similar to a marriage. When you get married, you commit to sticking with your partner through good and bad times. The same unwavering commitment is necessary in your asana practice. However, it needs to be an intelligent commitment. You need to be able to clearly identify whether the pain is the avoidable result of faulty technique or whether it is caused by demerit accumulated in the past. You can achieve this by doing everything in your power to make sure that you perform asana correctly and are therefore sure beyond doubt that avoiding the pain that you experience is not possible.
A word of caution: If you do not correctly identify your pain, you may make matters worse. Again, the overwhelming majority of pain experienced during asana is unnecessary and due to faulty technique. Never accept that your pain is karmic until you have ruled out beyond doubt that it is caused by poor alignment. This point shows the importance of anatomical inquiry. If your understanding of the anatomical principles of the body and the posture under discussion are sound, you will know whether you have done everything to avoid the pain. Anatomical knowledge must be used to determine whether pain is karmic or not.
The instruction given in the previous paragraphs may easily lend itself to abuse. Often students are only too happy to believe that their pain is necessary, as this way they don’t have to take responsibility for changing their approach to asana. For the correct identification of pain, consult a qualified yoga instructor steeped in the study of anatomy and alignment. This section in no way constitutes medical advice. If you experience any ongoing pain, consult your physician.
This is an excerpt from my 2009 book ASHTANGA YOGA — THE INTERMEDIATE SERIES.