3 Lessons to Learn from Discomfort
What is the difference between discomfort and pain? In my opinion, the above picture of Alice depicts her as uncomfortable (being too large for that small room). But, she does not look like she is in pain (with cuts or bruises from hitting the walls). A threshold exists between feeling uncomfortable, and knowing that one is experiencing pain. Pain is the brain’s natural response to sensory input that indicates injury. This natural response brings our attention to an area of the body that we may need to repair. It demands and captures our attention. Benjamin Lorr, author of Hell Bent, is a hard-core, competitive, back-bending yogi who writes about the valuable lessons he has gained through confronting pain. Lorr willingly engaged in extremely brutal training conditions (rooms heated to over 100 degrees farenheight, limited hydration, extreme back-bending, sometimes over 14 hours of yoga classes a per week) to enter yoga competitions and become a Bikram yoga teacher. “Pain is helpful. Pain warns and teaches…Even in more bratty forms involving knees against coffee tables, pain awakens us, pulls us into the present moment or focus” (p. 119) I value Lorr’s view of pain and it’s importance in understanding one’s relationship to their body and staying mindful. However, I believe that discomfort can be a better teacher than pain. Without the worrisome side-effects of pushing the limits of pain and risking injury, discomfort helps us remain mindfully engaged with our bodies. Discomfort allows us to gauge the state of our body and make necessary adjustments. Experimenting with discomfort provides us with the opportunity to strengthen our mind-body connection.
- Discomfort makes us focus on our bodies in the present moment. After sitting in the same position for too long, recognizing that you must tend to your body and make adjustments becomes the most important thing to do. In my yoga practice, I experience discomfort very often. When I first started practicing yoga, I was surprised by how uncomfortable it felt to sit upright and attempt to maintain proper spinal alignment. With practice, I could find ease where before there had only been tension. I remained mindful and present while exercising. I could examine and renegotiate my limits.
- Discomfort informs us about the state of our body and mind, allowing us to make adjustments based on our goals and needs to feel satisfied. Settling into discomfort during a pose helps me concentrate, focus on my mind-body connection, and build strength. Understanding the difference between physical positive exertion and negative bodily harm is important when deciding to intensify or modify a yoga pose to fit your needs. Do you want to feel your core fire-up and active, with arms and legs fully extended, in boat pose? Can you find ease in the discomfort? Or, do you want to rest, relax, find your breath in child’s pose? The transition from discomfort to pain tells us when to back off. Experiences of pain and discomfort will be different for every person, so it is important to trust yourself and experiment mindfully.
- Discomfort gives us the opportunity to strengthen the mind-body connection. During yoga classes I have felt energized and strong after holding awkward-starfish balancing pose longer than my mind thought I could, and realized how much discomfort my body could take. Strength, flexibility, and balance are all skills that require a great deal of practice and change. Change can be extremely uncomfortable, but by focusing on the present moment, finding ease, and making appropriate adjustments, we slowly start to strengthen our mind-body connection. This relationship is so internal and personal that it cultivates an enriching awareness of ourselves as we relate to other people, places, and things. Experiencing shared moments of discomfort with others during a class provides a great opportunity to connect with them. Seeing grimaces, tongues out, eyes crossed, or heavy sighs in the room remind me that I’m not alone. Sharing a common enemy that is “discomfort” shows me that we’re all in this together, trying our best to find strength and ease. Plus, it’s fun when we end up in celebratory laughter after coming out of the pose.
Finding ways to engage in discomfort promotes growth and change. Three lessons that we can learn from discomfort are to focus on the present moment, make adjustments to fit your goals, and strengthen your mind-body connection. Discomfort and pain are different, but exploring and experimenting with the personal sensations can inform you about your body’s current state and limitations. Alice’s discomfort gets her to focus on her body immediately, find a way to adjust her size to become smaller, and understand the effects of eating strange cakes in Wonderland. Explore your sensations with discomfort and check in with your body and mind!