The practice of yoga is well-known for it’s capacity to help us relax, de-stress, and restore our sense of vitality and well-being. It is a well-earned reputation, as anyone who’s found themselves slipping into the blissful rest of savasana at the end of a yoga class can attest to. There is, however, another less comfortable side to yoga. That is, the part that surfaces somewhere between warming-up and cooling down ~ the meat of the class, if you will, when we find ourselves faced with the challenge of discomfort.
Which particular postures will present this challenge will vary from person to person. For some of us, it’s the hip openers like pigeon or bound angle. For others, it’s the balance postures, like standing bow or tree. Still others find the back benders, such as cobra and bow, to be their least favorite. Our bodies are different, so it only makes sense that we each should have a unique experience when we enter into each posture. Regardless of which postures we find to be the most challenging, it is precisely those postures that can help us discover one of yoga’s most precious gifts. That is, the gift of learning how to sit at the edge of discomfort.
Now, before we go any further, let me be clear about one thing. At no time in our practice of yoga should we be causing ourselves harm. Yoga is not a competitive endeavor. The intention is not to push past our limits in order to perform a pose the same way our instructor or anyone else in the class is executing it. Quite the opposite, yoga is about listening to our bodies very attentively to find the best expression of the posture for our own bodies. This can sometimes mean doing a modification of the pose, using props for support, not folding all the way over. The key is to find our own edge in each posture, that point when we’ve gone deep enough into it that we can really feel it, and then stopping there, not pushing past to a point where it hurts.
When we sit at our edges in postures that are challenging to us, we are sitting at the edge of discomfort. These typically aren’t our favorite moments in our yoga practice. They don’t tend to illicit a flush of yummy release in our bodies. Instead, these postures ask us to be uncomfortable for a little while. This runs against the grain of our usual instinct, which is to seek out the comfortable, pleasant experiences in life. Therein lies the gift.
As we all know, the truth is life is often times NOT comfortable. Whether it be sitting in heavy traffic when we’re running late, facing a pile of work we’d rather not do, or dealing with strife in our relationships, most of us face challenges on a daily basis that pull us away from our nice, calm, comfortable center. Sitting at the edge of discomfort in our yoga practice, we cultivate the art of being with ourselves in such moments in a supportive way.
We learn to breathe as we sit with it, and that alone makes a world of difference. We learn not to follow our first urges toward aversion and resistance ~ the fight or flight response, which is a stress reflex that can often lead to an overreaction we later regret, or an internalizing of our stress we store in our bodies as tension and dis-ease. What we learn by experience as we sit with our discomfort in certain yoga postures is that the edge of discomfort eventually shifts. Our bodies relax around the posture and give us permission to ease into it, or having held the posture for its duration, we release it and move on to the next. Either way, we have survived it. Those moments of discomfort haven’t harmed us. In fact, they’ve stretched us, little by little.
We can survive the moments of discomfort in our daily lives as well. If we want to, we can even let those moments of discomfort stretch us, make us more flexible, more adaptable, less prone to snap when something goes wrong. Try bringing this awareness of your relationship to discomfort into your yoga practice and your life in general. When you’re on the mat, notice which postures present the biggest challenges to you. Honor your edge in those postures, finding just the right intensity for your body, and then just sit with the sensations you are experiencing as you breathe. Pay attention to the ways in which you tend to resist the posture, as well as the ways in which you find yourself receiving it. There are no right or wrong ways. The point is simply to be aware of what is happening for you. Whether your edge in the posture shifts as you relax into it more or as you move out of the posture, reflect on the fact that it does eventually shift.
Then bring this awareness to those moments in your life when you notice you are experiencing discomfort. First, determine if the experience is an edge you can sit with. If you are being harmed, naturally you will want to take action to protect yourself. But, if the discomfort is more along the lines of a situation not going the way you want it to, having to do a task you don’t find particularly enjoyable, being in an awkward social situation, or facing a professional or emotional challenge, etc, check in with yourself. Might this be an opportunity for you to bring the wisdom you’ve cultivated on your yoga mat into your everyday life? Can you sit with your edge a little, breathe, and be stretched? In moments of stress, a little perspective can make all the difference in the world.
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