Yoga is the practice of tolerating the consequences of being yourself. ~Bhagavad Gita
The last year of my life has been a mixture of both great pain and great wonder. I started the year off in Nosara, Costa Rica where I was certified by Marianne Wells in Hatha yoga. When I came back home from this delightful experience, I was fully immersed in my practice. Every day, with great enthusiasm and devotion, I took to the mat. Intermingled with knowledge of Ayurveda, holy texts, meditation and chanting, I had a daily routine which would last up to two glorious hours. I was in love. Yoga consumed every part of my life with welcome arms and moments of ecstatic and spontaneous elation.
As the summer blossomed I was working a series of three jobs, an internship, and I volunteered as yoga instructor. My practice was evident in my life, in my manner and in my speech, but my actual time on the mat began to diminish. It was not until the fall, once school had begun, that I lost touch with my practice. Papers began to take president over breath work and sitting in lecture halls replaced my practice of asana. As you can imagine my elated nature began to deflate and my energy began to dwindle. Five months passed like this until my well was dry and I was feeding off of what felt like my own soul. My absence of practice had left a void in my life that lead me into the depth of the shadow self. My kind and patient nature became one of depression, confusion, and unruly ego-feeding. Thus creating a life of discomfort.
The following summer began to bear the fruit of my shadow self: every aspect of my life could no longer be served by my absent practice and demanded modification. My life at work, my choice of career and how to pursue it, my relationships, and my living situation were all up for grabs by the hands of change. It seemed pain was within every encumbered decision and clarity was no where to be found. In Iyengar’s book Light on Life he writes a passage which explains the intricacies of suffering titled Pain: Finding Comfort Even in Discomfort. He begins this section saying, “Pain is there as a teacher, because life is filled with pain. In the struggle alone, there is knowledge. Only when there is pain do you see the light. Pain is your guru. As we experience pleasures happily we must also learn not to lose our happiness when pain comes” (Iyengar 47). It was with this knowledge that my perspective began to adjust. I remember one of the first ways this knowledge was re-introduced to me. I was invited to an Ashtanga yoga class that was taught by my soon-to-be mentor. I didn’t know it at the time, but this class was one of the first dominos to fall in the series of events that would lead me back to my spiritual practice. During this class, the instructor lead us into what seemed to be a version of Prasarita Padottanasana (Wide Legged Forward Fold), only in this variation we were instructed to heal-toe our feet as far away from one another as bearable and lower our forearms to the floor. The pain was real and mind consuming; the kind that stops your breath from flowing with ease and causes your body to shake. I look up to hear my teacher say, “This pose is just like life, right? It’s so painful and uncomfortable, but it’s all about how you approach it.”
In Light on Life and on the mat a new concept had been introduced to me: the idea that intense, heat building yoga was not solely meant to tone the abs or strengthen the legs, but also to create an uncomfortable sensation that teaches us to go beyond the visceral pain of they body and enter into the meditative mind. As yogis, we do this because “practice is not just about the pleasurable sensations. It is about awareness, and awareness leads us to understand both the pleasure and the pain” (Iyengar 48). Recently, I have been able to gain elements of this lucidity. I have begun a mental practice which reminds myself when I reflect on a trying moment that it has passed: it is no longer something the mind has to endure. Thus, I am able to take the role of the observer and can allow the rumination to dissipate and, consequentially, ease the tortured nature of the mind. Iyengar and the reintroduction of my practice has reminded me that “If you can adapt to and balance in a world that is always moving and unstable, you learn how to become tolerant to the permanence of change and difference” (Iyengar 48). Including those pieces of change that carry elements of hardship and mental or emotional suffering.
When I first came back to my practice, I would go to classes where the teacher would by chance say something to the effect of giving gratitude for your life or this breath and it would cause me to cry, for I knew I had spent the last several months forsaking my life. My mind was so wrapped in the webs my ego had spun, I could not even see past the illusion long enough to be grateful for one breath. Surely, it is no coincidence these experiences happened on the mat. Yoga seems to have a way of putting a bright mirror in front of ourselves, which can unveil shocking and painfully disagreeable qualities. However, “It is not just that yoga is causing all of this pain; pain is already there. It is hidden” (Iyengar 49). Even so, the presence of pain can be a welcome visitor. Iyengar moves to speak in this passage about the difference between good and bad pain. He describes good pain as something that is arduous and leads you towards greater growth, compassion and understanding, whereas bad pain can be misdirected, disheartening, and selfish (Iyengar 50-51). As Iyengar expands on his ideology of pain, I am reminded of my favorite poem by Rumi titled The Guest House. In one of his verses he muses: “Be grateful for whatever comes [A joy, a depressions, a meanness,/ some momentary awareness comes/ as an unexpected visitor]/ because each has been sent/ as a guide from the beyond.” It is for this reason these experiences of pain have become my most cherished moments of my life. I have begun to see new love for the parts of me that harbor pain and darkness because they are the reason I no longer have to be afraid of it. Iyengar says “There are only two ways to confront pain: to live with the pain forever or to work with the pain and see if you can eradicate it” (Iyengar 49). These bouts of circumstance that have elicited pain in my life have caused me to see that there is no way out, but through. Like the variation of Prasarita Padottanasana, the things that can elicit some of the greatest pains are not only temporary, but can also lead to the greatest of joy. And again I am reminded why I practice yoga, “not just for the enjoyment…[but] for ultimate emancipation” (Iyengar 52).
Iyengar, B.K.S. “Light on Life: The Yoga Journey to Wholeness, Inner Peace, and Ultimate Freedom Paperback – September 19, 2006.