Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga is notorious for inducing pain. The postures provoke patterns of tension in our bodies, and when we pull against them, they scour our tissues and nerves. With its linear progression of sequences, the practice leaves no route of escape. It exposes our tension patterns every time. Most people promptly quit Ashtanga for this reason. They go find another, more forgiving form.
The poses of the Ashtanga system, when practiced with proper alignment, are not painful at all. On the contrary, they are exhilarating. But proper alignment does not come easily. It is not the kind of thing that one achieves just through the intellectual application of anatomical knowledge. Instead, proper alignment is the result of an internal, mental rebalancing. It requires that we surrender the many ideas, attitudes, expectations and prejudices that interfere with our ability to settle into the poses and take deep, full breaths.
To be sure, we cannot depose our tensions by force. The more we resist them, the stronger they become, and when they become strong enough, they warp and deform us. This is a lesson that we all have to learn, and the Ashtanga Vinyasa system makes us learn it rather vividly — with pain.
Pain is an adaptive defense mechanism, the purpose of which is to protect us from harm. Pain alerts us to danger, and urges us to turn back. Seizing upon this truth, many teachers of Yoga remind their students to “listen” to their pain. They say that pain is the “edge,” and when we respect the “edge,” we avoid doing damage to our bodies. In the same breath, they remind their students that Yoga requires vairagyha, or non-attachment, which means accepting where we are.
This is a crucial lesson, and urgent for those rajasic spirits who would injure themselves with ambition. Unfortunately, the lesson is often abused. Both students and teachers use it as an excuse to back down from deeper internal work. They want to believe that they can progress in Yoga without having to confront their psychical patterns directly. So they avoid the poses that provoke their habitual tensions, or they work around them with props and modifications, hoping that their tensions will somehow magically resolve.
This approach rarely takes us anywhere. It allows us to practice without causing ourselves injury, but it also impedes our progress. The poses that cause us pain are also the poses that expose our tensions, and invite us to resolve those tensions with our own inner intelligence. They provide us with an opportunity to observe our patterns of tension directly, to breathe through them, and to release them into the ether. This is the simple process of psychophysical clearing that we can effect with Ashtanga Yoga.
Pain and Ego
As indicated, pain helps protect the body from harm. In the context of Asana practice, pain can signal that the body can go no further, that if we continue to push into the pose, something is going to break. But pain can also be the mind’s method of protecting the ego. Our ego projections spread their tendrils into our bones and tissues, thus rooting themselves into our bodies. When we breathe into them, with steadiness of attention, over an extended period of time, their roots begin to dissolve. The ego, sensing its downfall, naturally revolts. It squirms, tenses up, and pulls away from the breath, thus producing pain as a defensive response. When we allow this pain to turn us back from the practice, we leave our ego projections as they are.
The mind is naturally disposed to filter our experiences, and to bring a narrow selection of these into the forefront of awareness. In the psychology of classical Yoga, the part of the mind that performs this function is called ahamkara, the “I-maker.” It organizes our thoughts, ideas and experiences around a particular ego-image and thus provides us with our animating sense of who we are. It draws the boundaries of our psychical and social selves, so that we can recognize ourselves as unique and responsible beings.
The projected images of ahamkara become the center of our agency. We develop attachments and aversions relative to them, and we gravitate toward things that strengthen them, while avoiding things that threaten to take them apart. These images thus come to rule our minds. They determine how we interpret the things that happen to us, and how we feel about them emotionally. They ground our sense of self-worth, and they determines what we care about at the most basic level. Hence, when something appears to threaten our ego image, we become defensive, and when the image is damaged, we often feel pain.
The pain can be quite visceral because our ego images have bodily roots. They are comprised of our patterns of thought and emotion, and these reflect as patterns of tension in our tissues. This is why our images of ourselves can so clearly reflect in our patterns of speech, movement and breath. Every time we enact an ego image, we give gravity to the particular patterns that it represents. These patterns, or samskaras, then settle deeper into our bodies. Thus, while our ego-images begin as subtle projections of the mind, they condense into palpable realities. And the solidity of these realities is a function of how tightly we cling to them. Indeed, the tightness that we feel in our bodies may be a palpable manifestation of what classical yoga psychology would call raga and dvesha, attachment and aversion. Through attachment and aversion we give substance to our images of who we are.
Our ego images are in constant threat of passing into oblivion, and because we identify with them, we fear for our own oblivion accordingly. This fear is called abhinevesa. Whenever there is an unexpected shift in our lives, particularly one that involves the sudden loss of something with which we closely identify, we experience an energetic diffusion, a seismic shift in our attachments and aversion. This shift is often attended by emotions of grief, torment, dejection or alienation. And because our ego-images are rooted in our bodies, we feel these emotions viscerally, as if the sap had just been drained from our hearts.
Indeed, the ego reacts violently to threats of dissolution, for it is naturally disposed to preserve and enlarge itself. Thus, when we start to loosen our grip on our ego images, the mind starts reeling with activity. The nervous system gets caught in the middle, and pain is an almost inevitable response. This is the effect of abhinevesa. The patterns of reaction that constitute our egos start to reach more violently through our tissues, hoping to root themselves more firmly. During this time, we experience all kinds of emotional upwellings, and this is a common sign that the Ashtanga Vinyasa method is working. We can take advantage of these upwellings, by pointed control of breath and posture, for when we embrace them with calmness and evenness, taking care not to indulge them, they slowly but surely start to dissolve.
Thus, when we breath slowly, deeply and rhythmically through the postures that trigger emotional release, the body experiences an opening, and the mind experiences a release. This moment of catharsis, though often attended with strong emotions, can be profoundly exhilarating as well. The psychic energy that was holding the repressed emotion or memory is suddenly liberated, and it surges freely through the body, sharpening the senses and broadening the outlook, as the mind discovers a new, more fluid and adaptive bearing.
Pain Without Attachment or Aversion
Many Ashtanga practitioners who experience this release then develop a fixation for pain. They realize that, by breathing through pain, they can temporarily suspend the sense of having an ego. On that account, some practitioners start to seek out pain, as if it were the secret to an enlightened state of mind. They confuse pain for the soma or nectar of Yoga that quickens the spirit and dispatches false identifications. So they attempt to induce pain in themselves by pulling aggressively against their tensions, with injury as the inevitable result. This approach, sadly, has become quite rampant. In some circles, it has become a badge of honor to break a rib! There is no wonder, then, that Ashtanga suffers the reputation of being brutish.
The attempt to abnegate the ego by violence is not productive. It does not liberate one from suffering. It can help one suppress the ego for a time, but the suppressed ego returns with a vengeance. Suppression, after all, is just another way of investing our samskaras with psychical energy, and whenever we do so, we imprint them more firmly into our minds. This is why Patanjali, the author of the Yoga Sutras, list ahimsa, or non-violence, as the first principle of practice. The use of violence antagonizes the ego, whereas Yoga teaches us to develop a relationship with the ego of graceful rapport, so that we can move fluidly through our ego-projections, and gracefully evolve.
Ashtanga, to be sure, does not attempt to destroy the ego, but to disabuse us of the illusion that our ego-images actually determine who we are. Our ego-images are but momentary reflections of the inner workings of our minds, and Ashtanga teaches us to embrace and even support their inevitable dissolution. More pointedly, it teaches us to use our breath to loosen our attachments to our ego-projections, to expose and unravel our psychic knots, and thus to break our inveterate habit of identifying with what we are not.
Learning to accept pain is an essential part of this process. If we cower from pain, we remain slaves to our bodies, and to all the visceral pressures that our samskaras can exert on us. Similarly, if we seize upon pain in an attempt to destroy our egos with violence, we only reinforce the samskaras that our ego-images reflect. And what is worse, we absorb the energy of violence into our minds and tissues. This is the effect of raga and dvesha, attachment and aversion, even to the fact of pain itself.
The Ashtanga method is to accept with a certain indifference pain, to allow it to wash over us, and dissipate back into nothingness. When we feel pain arising, we should indeed listen, and we should be grateful that our bodies and minds are trying to protect our sense of who we are. But we can listen, compassionately and intelligently, without being commanded. That is, we can respond to the pain by telling ourselves that although our tensions are provoked, we are safe, we can let go, and surrender fully to the present moment. In Ashtanga, as in life itself, the present moment might call us to go somewhere that we have never gone before. This ability to detach ourselves from our attachments and aversions in order to meet this demand is vairagya in the truest sense.
Yoga is preparation for dying. And for most of us, the mere thought of dying is so painful that we cannot bring ourselves to confront it. When we learn to confront the fact of pain, we learn to confront that thought, and thus we can prepare ourselves to act gracefully in that final moment, when we are called to release our ego-projections completely.