Comfortable with Discomfort

: at home with, untroubled, serene, free from stress

discomfort: annoyance, nuisance, embarrassment, unpleasantness, trouble, unease, soreness

I don’t remember where I first heard or read yoga described as “learning to be comfortable with discomfort,” but it is an apt description.  It works with our thoughts and emotions via the body.  Thus providing a great laboratory to practice being at home with unease, tension, or trouble.  Why? So that when we are dealing with a chronic condition or our world becomes topsy-turvy, we can find our center and respond, rather than react.

The difference between responding and reacting?

The act of responding requires one to look at the circumstance, identify the problem or situation, hear what is happening and reflect. That reflection can be for a moment, five seconds, one hour, two days or longer. The time frame doesn’t matter. What matters is that you stopped and put an effort to think and suspended judgment. It is a conscious act and shows that you are willing to listen or observe … Reacting on other hand is the absence of this time gap. It is an immediate behavioral response and it is usually based upon emotions (also instinct or past experience) and not intellect [think autopilot]. (Responding vs. Reacting in Life)

Discomfort on the Mat

I’m going to use asana practice to explain the different types of discomfort and how to practice becoming comfortable with them.  However, the process for dealing with chronic pain (or other health-related discomfort), strong emotions, and health-related mental discomfort (frustration, grief for lost ability, etc.) off the mat is the same.  The mat just provides a great place to practice these skills so that over time, they become second-nature even off the mat.

Before we begin, please note the word used is discomfort, not pain.  So, it is important to learn the difference between the two.  If you are someone who lives with chronic pain, this can be a challenge.  In Yoga for Pain Relief, Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D., shares several ways to know if you are dealing with pain or just strong sensation (discomfort).  I’ve reproduced her words in this document (Staying Safe:Sensations to Watch). 

Once you know the difference, you can begin to work with the discomfort you experience on the yoga mat.  Discomfort can be physical, mental or emotional.  

Physical discomfort can take the form of tightness or resistance, such as what you might encounter in your inner thighs in Cobbler’s Pose (Baddha Konasana):

Or perhaps you’ve experienced it as the way your arms begin to feel heavy or your thigh begins to “burn” after several breaths in Warrior 2.

Mental discomfort can be the anxiety that arises when your instructor announces a pose you find difficult or when its time for the partner yoga portion of class. (In some classes students are asked to partner up to work on a particular pose.)  The sense of ineptitude when trying a pose for the first time.  Then there is what seems to be the Queen of All Embarrassments, passing gas loud enough for others in class to hear.  FYI: Everyone farts in class at some point. My take is that it is a sign of achievement — you have released something that was blocked.  If you aren’t ready to take an actual bow for your success, please take an internal one and move on.   

The discomfort that can be the most challenging, even beyond that of flatulence, is when yoga brings an emotional issue to the surface.  Grief, anger, sadness, fear, unworthiness. None of these are beyond yoga’s reach. You could find yourself crying in Child’s Pose or feel anger rising during a twist. Yoga’s ability to bring buried emotions to the surface is one of its most powerful healing elements.

So, how to become comfortable with this discomfort? 

For starters, breathe. Yep, anytime discomfort in its many forms appears, the first thing is to breathe — starting with an exhale because discomfort often causes us to hold our breath.  Work to deepen your breath, perhaps using ujjayi or dirga pranayama.  Follow your inhale and exhale until you feel ready to make a conscious decision to either explore further or save that adventure for later.  

There are times, especially when discomfort arises from an emotional issue, that you might not feel up to working with it.  That’s okay. As long as you do so from a place of mindfulness — acknowledging there is something there that you need to work with, but right now, due to circumstances such as the location in which you are practicing, your energy level or the things left to accomplish in your day, you are choosing not to go deeper into this sensation. 

If you choose to work with the discomfort, the next step is become a curious observer.  As a curious explorer, you want to learn as much about this discomfort and your interaction with it as possible, but without employing judgment.  Sort of becoming the Jane Goodall of your own experience.  I’m presenting several lines of inquiry in the following paragraphs.  You don’t need to go through all of them each time you decide to undertake this practice.

Using my earlier example of tightness/resistance in your inner thighs during Cobbler’s Pose:  What is the level of sensation (is it at the surface or deeper)?  Is there an energy associated with it?  Does it have a shape, temperature, color or texture? Have the other muscles in your legs tightened in response to the stretch in your inner thigh?  If so, see if you can release them.  What is happening in your body besides the sensation in the inner thighs Have you brought tension into your jaw or face?  Have you lost the length in your spine because you are only focusing on your inner thighs?  Are there other physical sensations that seem connected to this one?

What is happening with your thoughts?  Have you started to take your teacher’s name in vain? (We know you do it, because we have done it).  Are you worrying about how your thighs will feel tomorrow?  Or worrying that you will never be comfortable in the pose? Does the tightness in these muscles stir up an emotion?  Do you find feelings of agitation or aggravation beginning to form as you wonder how much longer you will be in this pose?  Or have you opted for distraction?  Suddenly thinking about all the things you’ll do later today?  What was your immediate mental reaction to the tightness?  Leave the pose or “fight through it” or decide you can’t do the pose without trying?  Remember, you are exploring without judgement.  So, try not to criticize what you find.  That can be hard when observing your thoughts.  Also avoid getting caught up in your lines of thought or their stories.  

Now, what happens if you imagine breathing in and out of the area of resistance?  Does it change in any way?  Maybe it vibrates or changes shape?  Maybe its not as solid as it once seemed?  What happens with your mental dialogue?  The intensity of any emotions that have surfaced?   What about the other sensations related to the original point of discomfort?  

The exploration of mental and emotional discomfort is similar, except there is no specific area of the body in which to start your curious observation.  I suggest beginning with the chest and belly, two areas where mental and emotional discomfort often manifest.  The type of questions to ask and use of breath to help soften and calm are the same as those used to explore physical discomfort.  You are just exploring a different type of discomfort.  

When you feel that you’ve done enough work for the moment, make whatever adjustment you need to lessen the discomfort until the class moves on to the next pose.  Becoming at home with uncomfortable experiences takes time.  Like our asana practice, it is a process.  In fact, it is a lifelong process as we learn to work with new forms of discomfort as they present themselves (on and off the mat). Your reward for this work will be a greater understanding of yourself and an increasing ability to stay calm in the midst of the storm.  To discover that

“although we still have the same amount of physical pain and discomfort, we are no longer suffering the pain in the same way.  As we let go of the suffering, we begin to foster a continued intimacy with our moments, regardless of what shows up in them, diminishing our ingrained habits to cling to, fight or disconnect from our experience.” Sarah Powers, Insight Yoga