The yoga Asana practice—including prolonged holds of sitting poses for meditation—will require your comfort with discomfort. Without such discomfort, we’d never progress in our physical and mental training. There will naturally be discomfort as we explore our edges. But when we bear too much discomfort and push beyond safe boundaries, we can damage ourselves. Thus, it’s critical to learn how to cope with discomfort and how to discern between intensity and pain.
The emergence of discomfort in the body, whether it’s an achy back as you sit in a pose or boisterous hamstrings in a wide straddle forward fold, is an opportunity for mindful observation. Discomfort invites us to assess the current situation, to be fully in the moment, and to make a decision about how to proceed. Discomfort allows us to bring our attention to the distinction between pain, which is a sign that something needs to change, and intensity, which is a sign that we are working hard. Here are some tools to use as you observe discomfort arise.
When you notice discomfort, remember your intention for your practice. In an asana or meditation practice, perhaps your intention is to remain still and centered in the face of shifting circumstance. In sports practice, your intention might be to push yourself to a personal best effort, or it might be to use a workout for recovery or for skills practice. Realigning with this intention can help you ride out the discomfort or adjust your effort accordingly.
As discomfort arises, check your form. Sometimes a form tune-up will ward it off. Check that you are engaging where you need to engage—up the spine, for example—and relaxing where you can to relax—through the hips, say, or through the hands, or around the jaw. Use only the effort you need to achieve good form and no more. Excess work can contribute to your discomfort and can sap your ability to cope with intensity.
Use the breath that suits the demands of the moment. A more focused breath like ujjayi may be in order, or the emergence of discomfort can remind you to use a relaxed, softer breath. Pay attention to how the discomfort shifts as you grow aware of your breath.
Cycle your attention through intention, form, and breath when you feel discomfort, and you’ll be better able to stay in the moment, whatever that moment brings.