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A Deeper Conversation on Pain In Yoga with Gregor Maehle and Satinder Khalsa

I received a comment on my article, Yogi’s Attitude Towards Pain, that made me realize that I deeper conversation  on pain and suffering needed to take place. The comment centered around the difference between suffering and pain and the meaning of the word “duhkha” from the Yoga Sutras. Reader, Satinder Khalsa,wrote

 “It doesn’t say pain, it says suffering, duhkha, which has not come can be avoided.”

I though this was interesting because the verse is always translated as “pain”. I decided to have a chat with Satinder, my Sanskrit teacher Kokila Kaul, and renowned Ashtanga teacher and Author of, Ashtanga Yoga: Practice and Philosophy,  Gregor Maehle about Duhkha.

Gregor Maehle
Gregor Maehle

 

 

Kokila Kaul, my Sanskrit teacher and fellow yogi, is from India. I asked her about the meaning of the word “duhkha” as she learned it in her culture. She stated,

 

Duhkha, as we (native speakers) use in the spoken language, would indeed translate closer to the English word “suffering.” And you are right, since suffering is a “state” caused by pain, one may be able to deal with the pain while “choosing” not to suffer because of it. Since this is easier said than done, most of us use the two words interchangeably — pain equals suffering, and we continue to suffer while in pain.

 

Our spiritual exercise is to realize that while we can’t stop the pain, we can try to not focus on the suffering! The next step beyond this is to gain a deeper understanding and appreciation of what “experience” pain really provides for us. In fact, some masters achieve a state where they welcome pain as a gateway to reach equanimity.

 

I then went back and talked to Satinder about why he felt the need to make the distinction between pain and suffering. Satinder starting practicing Ashtanga Yoga, the physical practice, in 2000. He studied with Pattabhi Jois during that year and again in 2002 and is currently studying in Mysore with the lineage holder, Sharath Jois, and has done so three times in the past two years.   He  started reading the  Yoga Sutras that same year and is understanding more and more each day.   He can currently chant the first and second pada with no reference and is learning to chant the third one.

 

Sharath and Pattabhi Jois
Sharath and Pattabhi Jois

 

 

I asked him why he felt the need to point it out.

Satinder: I’m not sure why I felt the need to point out the difference, I guess I perceive suffering and pain as two different things.  Pain can be something only physical, or mental and emotional as well, but the suffering of it is a choice that can be controlled the way I see it.

Suffering is optional, pain is not.  It can be there and you can function well and still enjoy life as you move through it, or you can dwell on it and create a big ball of ick around whatever is there.  We can do this with anything and the second sutra says Yoga is the Cessation of the Fluctuations of the Mind, so this is yoga to be able to mentally control how you feel, so you choose to feel good no matter what is going on around you, or not, you can choose to allow things to throw you off.

Pain and suffering are what I would call contrast, as soon as you can recognize the one, you’ll know the other and can then turn your thoughts in that direction.  I believe there is a sutra that also says this, if you’re feeling one way and its not good then cultivate the opposite feeling.  Something like that, and of course those are my words lol, not an “official” translation.

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Then I turned to Gregor Maehle who has written commentary on the Yoga Sutras and recently released, Samadhi: The Great Freedom, a book on the much talked about and misunderstood state of Samadhi mentioned in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.

APP: Does Duhkha just refer to pain, suffering or both pain and suffering? Or is it just not that simple?

Gregor: The English terms pain and suffering are so similar that they denote almost the same. If you feel pain you suffer, whether that pain be physical, mental, emotional or spiritual. The shastras denote three types of pain/suffering: adhyatmika is self-caused suffering, adhibhautika is pain caused by lower life forms such as dog or snake bite, viruses, bacteria infection and pain caused by any lower life forms. Adhidaivika is all that pain caused to us by the higher life forms that the Vedas and Puranas talk about.

APP: Are the words “pain” and “suffering” different?

Gregor: They are largely synonymous but the dictionaries refer to pain as primarily a physical sensation whereas the term suffering is more commonly used to denote a mental reaction.

APP: A common statement is that pain is inevitable but suffering is a choice. Do you agree?

Gregor:  We could read that to mean that it is our choice how we mentally react to unavoidable pain. There is a fascinating book on this subject by the Jewish psychiatrist Victor Frankl, himself a death camp survivor, who describes how differently inmates mentally framed the torture at the hands of Nazi guards. If we would interpret the above statement in that light then we would have to admit that it takes the high level of spiritual development that Frankl was talking about to become aware that you do actually have a choice. In many situations most of us would not be aware that there is a choice.

APP: In Sutra 2:16,  “Duhkha, that has not yet come should be avoided”.  Is it important to make the distinction between the words “pain” and “suffering” as a translation of the word “duhkha”?

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Gregor: No. Have a look at the previous sutra and the case will become clear. In 2:15 Patanjali says that for the discerning one (vivekinah) all is relative pain because a. all that we ever see constantly moves from the seed state to the manifest state and from there on to the residue state (parinama i.e. our loved ones die, cars break down, home loans are foreclosed), b. all of our experience is generally colored by subconscious robotic programming (vasana, samskara), c. everything that is assembled from elementary particles falls apart (guna vrtti). What Patanjali means here that in the long run everything short from abiding in the infinite consciousness will sooner or later lead to dissatisfaction. 

I then asked both Gregor and Satinder about the role of pain in the yoga practice.

Satinder:

My whole first trip here to Mysore Sharath constantly was saying relax to me, relax, stop trying so hard.  It was a good lesson for my practice.

 If you never dive into what makes you uncomfortable, can you ever grow?  I’m not saying dive into pain and suffering, but I have always had a lot of fear about everything.  My mother cultivated a deep concern for everything in me which I carried into adulthood but now 15 years  of yoga practice has helped me to realize you can be afraid and still do the thing anyway, so I do and am better for it!

 I practiced Ashtanga from 2000-2008, learning up through half of the third series, mostly on my own, some with guidance from a teacher here and there, including my first big teacher, Nancy Gilgoff, but mostly on my own.  So I was pushing and pulling and forcing my body into these shapes, not allowing the opening to happen first, so I was hurting my knees all the time, my right shoulder and elbow.  I was in pain all the time, so I quit, went to Kundalini Yoga and studied Anusara to learn alignment (but also forgot how to breathe properly).  I got out of pain, opened up my energy channels, learned to feel the flow of energy in the body.  Then I came back to Ashtanga and studied with some certified teachers, and came to India, only to hear relax, relax, relax, and then i got it, oh don’t push and kill yourself!

 

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Gregor:

In March 2015 I wrote a blog article on exactly this subject.

“Should postures be painful?

I was asked whether pain in asana should be accepted and if it’s worth going through a lot of pain at all? When does discomfort turn into pain, can it be balanced with the higher limbs or should it be avoided altogether?

There is a widespread misconception that postures should be painful. As a rule of thumb, postures should not be painful, which is something that even the ancient masters pointed out. Patanjali states in Yoga Sutra, “heyam duhkham anagatam,” which means that new suffering needs to be avoided (Yoga Sutra II.16). The reasoning behind this injunction is simple. Every experience you have forms a subconscious imprint (samskara). Every subconscious imprint, whatever its content, calls for its own repetition.

This means that if you frequently practice postures in a way that causes pain, you will create more pain in your postures in the future. The adage “No pain, no gain” may work in some areas of life, but applied to asana it becomes destructive. Apart from damaging bodily tissues, you may become more and more preoccupied with pain and with the body if you imprint pain into your subconscious again and again. All intense physical sensations call for more identification with the body. The goal of yoga, however, is not to increase this identification. It is to perfect the body so as to transform it into a capable and reliable vehicle on the road to freedom. Think of your body as akin to your car: the better you treat it, the better it will run. You need to service it regularly, maintain fluid levels, and correct tire pressure. Treating the body respectfully does not mean identifying with it. If you identify with your body, it becomes an obstacle to spiritual evolution, not a vehicle for it. This is nowhere clearer than at the moment of death, one of the key moments in terms of spiritual evolution. If you have not learned detachment from the body, dying will not elevate you. This potentially most powerful moment then becomes a painful experience.

 

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Another scriptural injunction against pain appears in the Bhagavad Gita. The Supreme Being in the form of the Lord Krishna criticizes those who torture the body (Bhagavad Gita XVII.5–6). He, as the true self of the world, lives as the self in our hearts and thus lives in every body. Those who cause pain to the body desecrate his abode. This has led to the notion of the body as the temple of God. We need to treat our bodies as we would the home of the Supreme Being.

There are three types of unpleasant physical sensations that can occur in postures. I call them (1) creative discomfort, (2) unnecessary pain, and (3) necessary, karmic pain.

CREATIVE DISCOMFORT

In asana it is important to recognize the difference between pain and discomfort. When you stretch a muscle or hold a demanding strength posture, there is necessarily a certain amount of discomfort involved. This discomfort comes from stretching the muscle or making it stronger, both of which are among the goals of the practice. In regard to asana, therefore, we may say, “No discomfort, no gain.” (Postures that are to be held for a long time for the purpose of pranayama and meditation are an exception; they need to be completely comfortable.) If the discomfort crosses the line into pain, on the other hand, injuries can happen. This is particularly true if the pain is felt in a joint, ligament, or tendon. If you feel pain, you need to back off or adjust the posture and work more precisely so that you can return to the zone of discomfort. Anatomical knowledge guides this process.

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Practitioners should analyze the postures and continually correct their performance of them until awareness is spread all over the body. When that happens, the body is hardly felt anymore. This sounds paradoxical, but you feel the body mainly when something is wrong. The absence of negative feedback means that everything is okay. When the body is correctly aligned, a feeling of stillness and firmness yet vibrant lightness arises. The mind becomes luminous, still, and free from ambition and egoic tendencies. This is the state that you are looking for. It is conducive to meditation. When this quality is achieved in a posture, that posture is fit as a platform for the higher limbs of yoga.

There is no point in waiting for this state to suddenly and miraculously appear by performing the same faulty postures again and again. From a faulty action, no correct result can be achieved. Faulty postures cause more faulty postures in the future.

UNNECESSARY PAIN

Any pain experienced in joints, ligaments, tendons, and at the origins and insertions of muscles is likely to be unnecessary pain. This type of pain accounts for the vast majority of pain experienced in asana. It is completely avoidable and almost always due to faulty technique. This may sound like a steep claim, but this type of pain can easily be recognized because it disappears in due time when postural alignment is analyzed and corrected. For this reason, you should always assume that the pain you experience when executing a posture is in the category of unnecessary pain. All such pain can be avoided by applying the tool of anatomical inquiry into posture. If unnecessarily painful practice is continued, an already existing negative tendency — toward self-torture, perfectionism, or egotism, for example — may be increased instead of reduced.

 

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NECESSARY, KARMIC PAIN

This form of pain is more difficult for Westerners to understand, as it involves the concept of karma. Through our past actions, words, and thoughts, we have created who we are today, including, according to Patanjali, the type of body, span of life, and form of death we will experience. When Patanjali stated that future pain is to be avoided, he did not elaborate about past pain. Past pain in this context is the pain that we have created through our past actions. It may be experienced now or in the future. We cannot change our past actions. Once the seeds of our actions have sprouted, the karma associated with those actions cannot be intercepted, and the pain resulting from them needs to be endured — not grudgingly endured but willingly accepted as ordained. If it is willingly accepted, it will lead to a karmic purification, to a burning of the old karma associated with that pain.

Occasionally in life we have to go through letting-go processes, and they are not complete without painful sensations. Grief is an example of such a process. Nobody will doubt that a possibly lengthy grieving process, during which we learn or come to terms with letting go, follows the death of a loved one. These processes can come to a conclusion only if we willingly and consciously enter into them.

Karmic pain in asana is that pain that cannot be removed by anatomical inquiry and attention to detail. If you have done everything in your power to correct the posture and the pain still persists, it may be necessary, karmic pain, something you may have to go through. It is very challenging for a yogini to know that she has done everything in her power and yet continues to suffer. Many people at this point will stop practicing because they feel unfairly treated. If you manage to continue your practice, you are fostering tapas, the ability to sustain your practice in the face of adversity. If you refuse to work through karmic pain and simply endure it, your yogic progress may stagnate.

 

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Yoga in this regard is similar to a marriage. When you get married, you commit to sticking with your partner through good and bad times. The same unwavering commitment is necessary in your asana practice. However, it needs to be an intelligent commitment. You need to be able to clearly identify whether the pain is the avoidable result of faulty technique or whether it is caused by demerit accumulated in the past. You can achieve this by doing everything in your power to make sure that you perform asana correctly and are therefore sure beyond doubt that avoiding the pain that you experience is not possible.

A word of caution: If you do not correctly identify your pain, you may make matters worse. Again, the overwhelming majority of pain experienced during asana is unnecessary and due to faulty technique. Never accept that your pain is karmic until you have ruled out beyond doubt that it is caused by poor alignment. This point shows the importance of anatomical inquiry. If your understanding of the anatomical principles of the body and the posture under discussion are sound, you will know whether you have done everything to avoid the pain. Anatomical knowledge must be used to determine whether pain is karmic or not.

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The instruction given in the previous paragraphs may easily lend itself to abuse. Often students are only too happy to believe that their pain is necessary, as this way they don’t have to take responsibility for changing their approach to asana. For the correct identification of pain, consult a qualified yoga instructor steeped in the study of anatomy and alignment. This section in no way constitutes medical advice. If you experience any ongoing pain, consult your physician. This is an excerpt from my 2009 book Ashtanga Yoga the Intermediate Series

The most difficult thing in my own practice life of now almost 40 years was to differentiate between what Patanjali in sutra 2:16 calls future pain, that is pain that we are creating now through faulty action and what could be called past pain that is pain caused by faulty actions in the past and even remote past. The karmic seeds of such actions have fructified (in Sanskrit called prarabdha) and therefore many authorities state that this pain needs to be endured and cannot be avoided. I had to therefore check and re-check my actions over and over again (and this refers to on and off the mat) to make sure that the pain experienced was not caused by any new sub-standard choices but indeed of the variety that couldn’t be avoided.

 

For more with Gregor Maehle, visit Chintamani Yoga

Shanna Small has been practicing Ashtanga Yoga and studying the Yoga Sutras since 2001. She has studied in Mysore with Sharath Jois and is the Director of AYS Charlotte, a school for traditional Ashtanga in Charlotte NC. She has written for Yoga International and the Ashtanga Dispatch. Go here for more information on AYS Charlotte. For information on workshops, please e-mail shanna@ashtangayogaproject.com.

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