Pain As A Path To Yoga

Pain As A Path To Yoga

Pain is not a pleasant thing to think about, but it is one of the great unifying forces of the human condition. It’s the cause and core of many actions and beliefs, personally and universally. And more important to the topic I am writing about, it’s the thing that draws most people to yoga. Emotional pain, physical pain, mental pain. In some form or other, it sparks our interest in this practice which promises a release from the experience of pain, whatever level that might be. Even the person who comes to yoga wanting nothing more than a firmer, slimmer body, is looking for relief from the pain of living without having that firm, slim body.

So how does yoga promise the release from pain? Through physical postures that open and restore the body, reducing the amount of physical pain we experience day to day and creating strength and flexibility. Through breathing practices that flood the body and brain with oxygen and remove waste products from the delicate cardiovascular system, helping us to feel comfortable and at ease on a deeper level. By developing concentration through meditation to help us arrest and still the mental chaos we all experience, from any combination of  disposition and circumstance. And, of course, yoga promises, if you stick with it long enough, a spiritual awakening that will overwhelm suffering by giving it all a deeper meaning, a noble purpose, and a profound beauty.

This is all fine and good, but as one first begins the practice of yoga, none of this is really forthcoming. Well, maybe the physical aspect of the practice is apparent, as most people feel good after a yoga session, but the mental clarity and ability to still the mind do not present themselves immediately.

Many people, after going through their first month-long yoga membership, back out, claiming yoga hasn’t helped at all. Sure, they feel good after a class, but that good feeling fades away by the time they drive home, or by the next morning, and they sure don’t feel any more grounded or in control than they did at the beginning of the month, and they’re not at all enlightened, and they’re still fighting with their partner or child or boss, so why bother staying with it? It’s not solving the problems.

The thing about yoga is, it can do all of the things it promises for you, but you have to do the work to meet it halfway. Despite the way yoga has been portrayed in popular culture, it is not a magic bullet. You can’t walk into a studio or watch a YouTube video and expect that all of your troubles are going to melt away effortlessly in an hour or so. Yoga is about discipline. Meditation is about discipline. The “magic”, as it were, isn’t going to happen in one session. It’s going to happen through weeks, months and years of showing up, day after day, regardless of your mood or attitude or obligations. There will be times when you just don’t feel like it. Even after all these years of study and practice, I still have days when I just don’t feel like it. But I show up.


Near the end of my teacher-training, I was teaching a few Intro classes a week at my teacher’s studio. At the time, I was going through a rough break-up, I was unsatisfied with myself physically, and with the direction my life was headed in. I wanted to leave my job, say “forget yoga, it’s not doing what I want, I’m still suffering, wah wah wah,” and take myself home to eat garbage food and stare at the TV, or go out and get drunk with my drinking buddies. You know, typical human stuff we all do to avoid reality.

But I would walk heavy-hearted to the studio – mostly because I felt I had no choice – and practice for an hour or so before people started filing in for class. And over time, no matter how worn-out or heartsick I was, I started to look forward to that little chunk of time I had to bend and twist and breathe and stand on my head, because during that little chunk of time, I didn’t have to think about my suffering.  I didn’t have to focus on what was wrong. I was too busy trying not to fall over and to keep breathing. Or, as a teacher, too busy trying to keep others from falling over and making sure they kept breathing. Sure, the pain was waiting for me at the door as I locked up and made my way to the bus stop, but there was a buffer between us that made all the difference, giving me space to curate my thoughts and feelings, guiding them away from problems, conflicts and pain. To me, this became the essence of yoga: creating space, creating a buffer zone, so the pain wouldn’t be so immediate. So I had the ability to decide if that pain was even necessary. So I had control.

Pain is a part of the human condition, but yoga is a multi-layered system of practice that can reduce that pain, and maybe over time, remove it altogether. But, as with any practice, it requires discipline. It requires you to show up. Without that discipline, without a commitment, yoga is not yoga, it’s just fancy calisthenics.


Yoga Instructor, Jason Cummings