I have blogged about this subject before, but this is the time of the year when I seem to get a lot of people mentioning areas of pain they are experiencing in their practice, so I don’t think it will hurt to address the issue of pain in the yoga practice again. I have also read a few articles recently that put forward a very negative view of pain and say that you should not experience it in your practice. So this is to some extent a defence of pain in Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga.
Firstly, I want to differentiate between pain and soreness experienced in your practice, and an injury. There is no doubt that if you are not careful and vigilant, you can injure yourself in this practice. An injury is not some sort of mystical “opening”. It needs to be treated as what it is and dealt with appropriately. In other words you need to see your health professional to ascertain exactly what you have done, so that you can get advice and make a sensible decision on how to manage and heal it. You must inform your Yoga teacher/s of the injury so that they can make the necessary adjustment to how they deal with you. If they expect you to carry on as normal, without modification around the injury then I would seriously look at getting a different teacher.
There is no doubt that a lot can be learned from any injury you get. The most important lesson being “how did that happen and how can I prevent it happening again?” My attitude to the injuries I have had over the years (some from the practice and some from accidents doing other activities) has always been to keep practising. I don’t stop my practice, but I do modify it so as to allow whatever injury I have to heal correctly. I am extremely careful not to exacerbate the problem by pushing through pain.
What about those little niggles and general pain that seems to be an aspect of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga that everyone has to deal with? Again these issues must be addressed with compassion and focus. Every time we experience pain in the practice our body is inviting us to take a closer look at what we are doing in each asana, particularly the ones that are generating the discomfort. Our bodies are telling us that we are putting too much strain on a part of it and that we need to adjust what we do to alleviate that strain. Ask your teacher for some suggestions if you feel at a loss, but do not be afraid to experiment to see what is going to work for your body in your practice. In a lot of cases I find that extra stress is being put on joints because people are pushing too hard and are not generating enough support through Mula Bandha. The strength in the core generated by correct Mula Bandha, combined with Ujjayi breath provides the stability in each asana to allow you to relax the joints and relieve the pressure. Always remember Patanjali’s advice in sutra 2.46 “sthira sukham asanam”. “Posture should be steady and comfortable”. This should be what informs our practice.
Does this mean that we should avoid any position that causes discomfort or pain? No, because that would just be pleasing ourselves and serves only to feed the ego, not to challenge our view of ourselves. There is the rub. We cannot break down the energy blockages in the body without challenging ourselves to extend the range of movement we have in our bodies and to change the bad habits we have got into. We also cannot learn the discipline, courage, strength and compassion that is required to achieve the very difficult goal of samadhi. Pain is an important tool in this. In dealing with pain we are working to conquer our fears and to open ourselves to the possibility of working towards our full potential. The fact is that in life you are going to experience difficulty and pain both physical and emotional, and when we are learning how to cope with this in our practice, without causing injury, then we can apply that to our lives.
Let me lastly address the knee pain issue. This seems to be a common theme for the vast majority of Ashtanga Yoga practitioners. Why should this be so? I think for many of us it is the price we pay for living in a modern society where as soon as we get to school or kindergarten we stop sitting on the floor. As soon as we start potty training we stop squatting. The direct result of modern plumbing and furniture is that we lose the flexibility in our hips that allows us to sit comfortably in padmasana. Our modern lives also generate a lot of emotional and sexual tension that is reflected by tension through the pelvic region. A large amount of what we do in our asana practice is towards being able to sit comfortably in padmasana with the prana or energy flowing freely and correctly around our bodies. We need to be able to do this in order to practice pranayama and the deeper levels of meditation to full effect. The big lesson is to take the strength, the energy to the centre of our bodies and allow the hips to relax. In other words to learn to practice Mula Bandha. Many people seem to forget that this is an essential aspect of the yoga practice and particularly to the practice of pranayama and meditation. We seem to think that these practices are all about what is happening in the head and that we can just sit on a cushion or a little stool when what we need to do is address the core first and do the hard work that is required there, before we explore the deeper practices of the latter 4 limbs of Ashtanga. Much hard work is required, so practice, practice, practice, with gentleness, humility and compassion.