The Philosophy Of Pain: A Most Persistent Teacher

Posted by on Mar 27, 2013 in

Recently, while reading Light on Life by B.K.S Iyengar, I came to a section of the book that focused on pain. I found myself underlining, double underlining, and starring even more than usual. Something about this topic really had my attention!

“Pain,” Iyengar writes, “is a great philosopher. It thinks constantly how to get rid of itself and demands discipline.”

He goes on to talk about how pain focuses our attention, and can be a very persistent teacher. Some key lessons from pain include the following:

Avoiding pain is not the same thing as coping with it.

As Yoga teachers, we work with many people who have pain. One of my clients, a dancer, came to see me in my psychotherapy practice with immense pain due to an injury. He tried using anything he could get his hands on to cope with the physical and emotional pain of not being able to do what he loves. After several rounds of attempts to block out the pain using food, drugs, and even physically pushing himself beyond the limits of his body’s current state, he finally realized his efforts were futile. He was not getting anywhere. Frightened, confused, and at the height of frustration, he finally came to the realization that he needed to go into the pain.

Yoga does not cause the pain; rather, it reveals it so it can then be addressed.

We are often told by people who are curious about trying yoga that it hurts too much. They don’t want to be in pain. “It is not yoga that is causing all of this pain,” Iyengar writes. “The pain is already there. It is hidden. We just live with it or have learned not to be aware of it. It is as if your body is in a coma.”

We must acknowledge pain in order to heal.

When I lead a meditation at the hospital where I work, one of the things we practice is scanning the body and noticing where there is physical (or emotional) pain. And for that moment, make no attempts to exorcise it, but just become fully aware of its existence.

Acknowledge the pain. And then ask your students what needs to happen to resolve it. This can take a great deal of time, patience, persistence, and careful listening. And as teachers, we all know this is where the practice of yoga can be so helpful.

This is not to advocate, “no pain, no gain.” It is my belief that the intention of this statement, words I used to live by as a professional dancer, results in over-demand of the body and often results in injury, frustration, and burnout.

What can you learn from the pain?

Pain is a part of life. We all feel pain at any given time.

Ask your students: Do you have any pain right now?

The question in yoga becomes, “What can I learn from the pain I experience? What is it trying to teach me?” In this way, we guide our students to the precipice of pain with intelligence and respect during yoga practice. The mind and body come together in awareness, exceeding limitations, and ultimately cultivating a deeper relationship with ourselves.

How do you approach a student who claims that something hurts? Do you modify the pose right away, or do you explore what they mean when they use the word “pain?”