‘Since pain is inevitable, asana is a laboratory in which we discover how to tolerate the pain that cannot be avoided and how to transform the pain that can.’
Iyengar yoga teachers will sometimes ask: ‘Is it good pain or bad pain?’ This may seem like an odd question. After all, pain is pain – what’s the point of applying a value judgment?
In our practice of Iyengar yoga ‘good’ pain refers more to a process or a movement, rather than a static experience. The teacher, when asking this question, is prompting us to identify what is happening rather than how it feels as it is happening. Essentially the question the teacher is asking is this: ‘Do you recognise that pain as the kind of pain which will help you progress, or is that the kind of pain associated with trying too much, pushing too hard – in essence, practicing without awareness?’
These are important questions to consider and while there are no straightforward answers, merely thinking about these things can help us to better understand our bodies and the messages it tries to communicate to us. In that spirit, a few thoughts now on the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ pain:
Good pain is transformative. It moves you from one place to another. It is pain that can soften the brain and be addressed with the breath. It is pain tied up with the work we must do in yoga: to understand our limits and to learn how to let go.
Bad pain is pain that will bring you to a halt. It cannot be eased through breath. It is inconsolable. Bad pain is foreign. Unfamiliar. Our bodies scream out that it does not belong. It is pain that debilitates and it is pain that shoots or is sharp or is incessant. There is no way around this kind of pain. It is endless. There is no respite.
Good pain promotes energy and fosters insight. It is natural in its awfulness, in its ordinariness. It is ordinary pain. Good pain can be negotiated – not avoided, not at all, but got around. Then, as B.K.S. Iyengar says, it becomes possible to ‘find comfort in discomfort.’ So it is that good pain is there as a teacher, an opportunity. Good pain can be tolerated and entered into as a matter of mastery and control. Good pain is present in one form or another, to varying degrees, in every asana.
‘Good pain is reliable, consistent, and necessary. ‘Yoga teaches us to cure what need not be endured and endure what cannot be cured.’
Bad pain seizes you. It sneaks up on you and steals your consciousness and also your breath – bad pain takes your breath away. You cannot be anywhere but in the pain with bad pain, there are no options, it dominates you and is all-consuming. Bad pain leaves you aggravated and irritated: it depletes your energy and exhausts you.
Again, this point: good pain is necessary. It hurts, but it is good to hurt in this way insomuch as it is vital. For growth, maturity, transcendence: these things will never come without pain. Pain is like the grass, the river and the mud in that classic children’s song – you can’t go around, under or over pain. You must go through.
‘We must not try to run from the pain but to move through and beyond it. This is the cultivation of tenacity and perseverance, which is the spiritual attitude of yoga. This is also the spiritual attitude toward life.’