Yoga teaches us to listen to our bodies and meet pain with compassion.
“Nothing in the world is more gentle than water, yet nothing is stronger. Water nurtures life, yet cuts through solid rock. Overcome obstacles with the strength of gentleness.” The Book of Tao, 78
I’m lying down in my Ashtanga yoga class, knees up, feet firmly planted on the purple sticky mat. My yoga teacher, Jennifer Ammann, kneels down next to me and asks how I’m doing. She’s been nurturing me through healing an injury, and for weeks she’s had me do very little more than lay on my back like this or stand in mountain pose and do intense Ujjayi Pranayama breathing, inhaling all the way up through the top of my heart, exhaling all the way down to my perineum, over and over and over again. Being still for an hour and a half, I’m discovering, is much harder than moving.
I tell her the pain is worse today, point out where, and add, “Of course there’s emotional pain coming up too.” The more acutely I’ve been tuning into my body and soul, the more the divide between the two keeps melting away. She nods knowingly.
Jennifer says, “The purpose of all the movement is to stir things up. Once they’re stirred up, you get to be still.” So she instructs me to continue breathing on my back, and to do some bridge poses ”only when you’re ready to,” and then to rest and breathe some more. “Don’t even stand unless you feel an overwhelming urge to. Today, it’s all about restorative.”
So I do. It’s a challenge, because buff, athletic Richard next to me is engaging in some kind of super-Ashtanga routine that just keeps getting more energetic by the minute. I concentrate on entering into the pain in my hip and notice, as I breathe into it, that it has the quality of water. With each breath, the slightest shift happens–internal movements so subtle, I would not normally perceive them. “This is going to change your relationship to suffering,” Jennifer had told me when I’d first come back to yoga class after hurting myself. Indeed, it is. I am learning that the only way out is through. I expand my ribcage and melt into the pain, diving deeply into it with my breath. I remember the words of a guided pain meditation by Buddhist teacher Shinzen Young that I’ve been using at home: “Left to its own resources, with time, the body knows what to do with discomfort. It will spontaneously enter into a state of equanimity, of openness.”
Shinzen Young is right: Finally, after an hour of focused attention, the constricted muscles in the hip suddenly open. I breathe some more and allow, more and more. The relief is incredible. Then, four blankets piled under my knees, I go into a long Savasana, corpse pose.
As I’m breathing in corpse pose, I sense a tender pain in my heart. “Go into it,” I think. To my surprise, it blossoms into a glowing jewel-light, radiant and free. It is still the pain–it hasn’t transmuted into something else–but I am bathing in the holy, astonishing beauty of it.
I abide in this glory as long as I can. I can still feel the radiance in the center of my chest when Jennifer has us stretch our arms over our heads, sit up, and come into a seated posture to close the class. When I fold myself forward and say, “Namaste,” to salute my teacher, my eyes fill with tears.
By Diana Rico
Translation from The Book of Tao by Diane Dreher, from her book The Tao of Womanhood: Ten Lessons for Power and Peace.