Not everything we do in yoga class is comfortable.
That’s a little weird, maybe, since the goal of yoga is to open the body up so that people can be comfortable while they sit still to meditate.
But getting comfortable with discomfort is part of the value of a yoga practice.
Being comfortable with discomfort allows us to sit with uncomfortable situations peacefully.
This means we can be there for a friend who is grieving without having to change anything. No amount of good energy or intention will bring a beloved back from death, for example, and the urge to make everything comfortable again often causes harm. It’s where unhelpful platitudes like “God wouldn’t have put you through this if he didn’t know you could handle it” or “This was meant to be” come from – the idea that we need to make things better for a grieving person.
Be Comfortable with Being Uncomfortable
We don’t have to change anything to be present, though. Presence, the idea that someone will be with you when you are sad or in pain or afraid, is very healing and helpful even when it feels like we aren’t doing anything, or when it feels very uncomfortable to maintain.
Even in the face of more mundane annoyances, the ability to sit with discomfort can reduce suffering. When you’re stuck in traffic, railing mightily over the unfairness or frustration doesn’t make the traffic move any more quickly. The people in the other cars can’t even hear you scream, and some days you just get stuck and there’s nothing you can do about it.
You can control your response. That ability makes the difference between arriving angry and disheveled and unable to focus, and arriving calm and ready to manage whatever fallout your lateness creates.
That ability to calmly respond to unforeseen circumstances and situations is most likely to create a good outcome – but it’s the thing we sacrifice when we aren’t able to manage our own discomfort.
Uncomfortable Stretching Vs Uncomfortable Pain
Yoga also teaches the difference between discomfort that’s stretching us (which is useful) and discomfort that’s harming us (which is not.) Unlike most of the western idea of exercise, yoga doesn’t ascribe to the “no pain no gain” philosophy. Instead, yoga distinguishes between stretch (which can be intense and uncomfortable and difficult to sit with, but does no damage) and pain, which is the body’s way of telling you to cut it out already.
It’s a subtle distinction, of course, but it’s also an important one. You can stretch yourself and challenge yourself and work beyond your comfortable capacity without doing damage to yourself – but you have to pay a lot more attention to achieve that balance.
Presence, the idea that someone will be with you when you are sad or in pain or afraid, is very healing and helpful even when it feels like we aren’t doing anything, or when it feels very uncomfortable to maintain.
Yoga helps us learn to pay attention, to understand what is and is not working for our bodies; to sit with things that aren’t what we’re used to and things that make us uncomfortable without pushing things to the point where we do damage to ourselves.
Taking Your Yoga Practice Off the Mat
This distinction is useful in our interaction with other people, too. It allows us to sit with people and viewpoints that are different from our own even when they make us uncomfortable. Sitting with discomfort can allow us to learn from others and meet them with compassion – and also to pay attention to when it crosses the line into pain and starts doing damage.
The distinction between discomfort and pain takes practice to understand – but it’s a distinction worth practicing. Yoga gives us an opportunity for that practice.
Lisa Meece began teaching in 2002. She loves seeing students find the sense of peace and comfort that she continues to seek and find on the yoga mat. Join Lisa at 9:30am and 11:00am on Tuesdays at Dragonfly 360.