Off The Mat: Part I • Pain

It’s like there’s two layers of pain: The source of the pain itself; the physical strain on the muscle, the stretch, the loss of breath, and my reaction to it or how the body receives it.

“It hurts when you resist,” yoga instructor Hani Sami told me in one of my very first classes years ago, when I was still exploring yoga. The words stuck with me, but it took me a long time to really live their meaning. Gradually I began to become aware of this second layer of pain: How I really tensed up in anticipation of the difficult pose or the challenging stretch. I was experiencing double the pain and making it twice as hard on myself only because I was afraid to give in to the hurt.

I’d been living like this for years. And this discovery was strange to me, because I actually enjoy the pain of stretching, I like to feel it. But I wasn’t really giving in to it physically. I was experiencing everything distorted, like intentionally putting grey clouds over a blue sky, or closing my eyes on a roller coaster ride.

If awareness is the first step to healing, in this case I felt my cure was to listen to my little fear, drop it, and keep going, allowing the pose itself to do the work. It also helped to imagine this choice of letting go while I exhale. I used to think to myself “allow the pose to do the work, not you.” Every time, with every move I thought of this, till it faded away leaving only the true pain.

This ‘fear tension’ was most obvious in my shoulders and my hips (very common points of tension apparently). When I let go, I can visibly see how my shoulders have opened up, and every hip- related move comes easier now. It’s not only a psychological reaction, sometimes the body just does it on its own to protect itself.

Another instructor and my friend, Bindu (Hi Bindu!), started noticing how my hips were oddly crooked in one side of certain forward folds. It took me a while to make the link with the back pain I was experiencing at the time, and realise that because this muscle was easily ‘inflamed’ my body’s natural reflex was trying to protect me from doing certain poses that would make it worse.

So this time, I took my body’s advice. I stopped doing these movements, which involved extended or deep forward bends, even though I had the flexibility to do them and used to enjoy them. So I had to drop my ego a little bit too.

My back pain and I have since been on better terms. In this case it wasn’t about acknowledging the fear or tension and making way for only one layer of pain, but about walking away from unnecessary pain altogether.

These realisations were one of the first things I took ‘off the mat’ with me. Off the mat, I began to notice how I tensed up emotionally and internally cringed when I anticipated painful situations. Though in my mind I understood pain was natural and important, I didn’t let it run its course.

It’s not that pain won’t be felt when I drop these inner barriers, but by making the essential pain more welcome everything is more enjoyable, honest and gentler - in tune with the natural flow of life’s ups and downs.

Opening up my shoulders is opening up to life with its love, pain, joy, and sorrow. More relaxed hips are a base for more relaxed spines, the body’s centre of balance.

It's sometimes harder to tell, off the mat, which pains should be pushed through and which to walk away from, but having this awareness physically has tremendously helped me find more peace and balance emotionally in times of pain.