Can Pain in Yoga Class Be a Good Thing?

Have you ever wondered what is up with all the talk about “pain” in yoga class? For example in the beginning of a Bikram yoga class the teacher often says, “Pull until there is a pain sensation all over the backs of your legs”.

Every yoga discipline is different and some people are often confused or turned off by certain yoga practices that discuss pain. So what’s really going on here? Are these styles of yoga weird, culty, sadistic freaks or is there something deeper to what the teachers are saying?

If there’s been a snarky thought to be had in class I’ve had it, so I thought I’d shed some light as to what I’ve learned about the concept of pain in yoga throughout the nine years of my practice.

1- The teacher doesn’t want you to hurt yourself

You can hurt yourself doing any type of physical activity. Walking down the street, running, swimming, and yes in yoga. Regardless of what style of yoga you practice, you run the risk of hurting yourself if you do the postures improperly. When your yoga teacher talks about pain, they doesn’t want you to injure yourself, it couldn’t be farther from the truth.

There are different types of pain, the one referred to in yoga is about pushing your limits. Note I didn’t say pushing yourself beyond your limits. When you push beyond what is possible for that particular day, you will injure yourself. This is not what the teacher is advising you to do. Pain that feels sharp, shooting and comes on quickly should be avoided. Sustained, intense and uncomfortable feelings on the other hand are encouraged.

I know the difference between passively stretching and actively stretching. This active stretch does give you a sensation on the backs of your legs, and most would describe it as uncomfortable, but it isn’t hurting your body. In fact, by finding that sweet spot where you are pushing hard enough without moving beyond your limits, you will find infinite growth.

Only you can decide where that line lies. More often than not, we underestimate ourselves and don’t push as far as we can. And who loses out when we do that? We do.

2- The only way past the pain is through the pain

When someone asked Rajashree Choudhry why some people quit practicing yoga, she said it was because it is too hard. The Bikram yoga series is grueling, and it’s meant to be. In the West we like to think of yoga and gentle stretching, meditation and breath work. Those are all elements to a yoga practice, but guess what? That isn’t what yoga is all about in it’s homeland of India. When you practice a yoga class in India it’s challenging, the teachers are focused on the maximum health and mental benefits and there isn’t drops of lavender administered after class.

Yoga is serious business in India, and our Western interpretation of what we think it should be is perpetuated through pop culture, advertising and social media. Your yoga practice should be hard if you want to find health, wellness and growth. If it’s easy, you’re not practicing yoga.

So sometimes class is painful, you sweat, you work through injuries and dark thoughts. And on the other side of that “pain” is joy, light and freedom.

3- Emotional pain surfaces

When you practice in a challenging environment, whether it be a hot room or during a stressful time at work, emotional pain can surface. This pain doesn’t feel good when it comes up, but is the key to releasing and addressing emotional pain.

I can’t believe how much pain and baggage has emerged during class. Sometimes it comes up in my mind, sometimes in the form of tears and sometimes in the form of memories from the past. I can safely say that the only classes where emotional pain has come up (and therefore released) was during challenging classes.

Not all classes need to be hard or painful, but sometimes they are, and that’s ok. The goal of your yoga practice is to become the best version of you possible. That is all the teacher is trying to do. To facilitate that process. Sometimes it’s fun, sometimes it feels good and sometimes it doesn’t.

Remember that teachers are there to help you, they don’t want you to injure yourself in class. They want you to push yourself to where you can in that moment. And you’re the only one who can decide what that looks like.

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