Several years ago, while stocking up on reading for a beach holiday, I bought an old Pelican paperback (which has the name Doris Shadbolt written on the cover in a small, round hand).
Yoga, by Ernest Wood, is an account written by an Englishman who came to India in 1910, learned Sanskrit and associated with scholars and yogis while rising to be president of four Indian universities.
When it was published, in 1959, few would have predicted that hatha yoga, the yoga of force, would sweep the Western world and result in Lululemon pants, hot yoga, yoga poses in commercials, and Florida Methodists in church basements practicing asanas, followed by readings from the New Testament.
So it’s not likely he was thinking primarily of asana practice when he wrote:
“If the thought were that there is to be enjoyment only at the end of the path of yoga, and not on the way, the candidate would expect to have a hard time before him. Undertaking the uncongenial, he would miss its value, and fall again and again. But if each part of it as he goes along becomes a pleasure, there will be progress indeed.
“Happiness and progress go hand in hand, with happiness leading. Pain has its use as an indicator of missing the way, and gives direction back into the path of happiness.” (I added the boldface.)
But I think it’s no stretch to apply the quotation to asana practice. The eight limbs of yoga are holographic; all limbs are in every limb. Until you find joy in the poses, it’s hard to make progress. Happiness and progress go hand in hand, with happiness leading.
Still, there’s no glossing over the fact that many yoga poses cause discomfort when we start to learn them. I know whenever I teach Warrior I that students with tight calves will feel a less than pleasant sensation in the back leg as they attempt to press the back outer heel to the floor, and everyone will feel the need for more strength in arms, legs and back.
In Triangle pose, it’s often the hamstrings, in Rotated Triangle, the hips. Whenever we ask our bodies to do something outside of their normal range of motion, the first sensations we encounter are usually unpleasant. Especially for beginning students, the favorite pose is likely to be Savasana (corpse pose, or relaxation pose).
What can we do about that?
It helps to realize that you have your hand on the volume control and can turn it up and down at will. That way you can take your suffering in small doses. Baby steps and going slow help too. So does stretching your tights spots every day so they gradually yield, and working to build your strength for the poses that demand it.
There’s another, less obvious step that’s just as important: find a good way to talk about it.
If you tell yourself, “this hurts my calf,” it’s not likely you will return to Warrior I soon or with enthusiasm. Worse, it’s not even true. Warrior I gives a very intense calf stretch, but hurting, causing pain, isn’t part of it. (Yes, you can injure yourself doing yoga poses, and you should never stay in a pose that causes pain in your knees, back, or neck, but some of the most troublesome yoga injuries come from movements that cause no pain while we’re doing them.)
What’s happening when you work in a pose, as uncomfortable as it may be, is the opposite of causing harm. Stretching your calf muscles increases the range of motion at your ankles, which is good in any number of ways, from increasing your ankle flexibility to preventing injuries to your Achilles tendon. Staying on an extra 30 seconds in Ardha Chandrasana (halfmoon) when your standing leg hip is burning from the work of the pose builds the strength of your hip muscles, which is equally important as stretching them.
So what do you call this discomfort that is not injurious, but is part of the work of the pose?
My teacher Gioia Irwin used to call it “joy pain,” which I understood as the feeling that is close to the edge between sensation and pain, but still on the sensation side.
I like “golden glow,” myself, because I hear it as humorously euphemistic, and somehow round, which particularly suits the feeling of work when it’s in the hip socket.
What I know is that by redefining sensation, I’m not kidding myself, or avoiding a truth. I’m reframing my experience in a way that gives me more control. I can’t negotiate with pain, but I can negotiate with sensation.
How do you talk to yourself about what you feel when the pose isn’t pleasant? Have you experienced a difference in your practice by reframing the way you describe sensation? I’d love to hear from you.