Pain, Injury and the Avoidance of Suffering
By Elonne Stockton
While in the United States I witnessed people going through difficult times. I traveled a lot throughout the US, sharing space with the general public (planes, trains, buses, subways),and I was astounded bythe number of people I sawtakingprescription drugs. Maybe my eyes were hyper-sensitive to it, but it was startling. From pain killers to antacids to high blood pressure medication, people were constantly popping pain management from a bottle.
Someone along the way told me about a 6-year-old they knew on anxiety and depression medication. On the plane to Florida, a relatively young woman (probably early 40’s), who left the plane in a wheelchair,took a pill every half hour for one thing and another; she willingly described each ailment in detail. Most things definitely could’ve been helped greatly with some lifestyle changes; the medication clearly wasn’t working.
Why are so many people sick, hurt? Surely some of the medicine is necessary and helpful. But it seems our over-dependency on drugs (America is not alone in this) is a symptom ofa failure to deal properly with the cause of the pain and suffering. It’s easier to pop pills or pour a drink and avoid the pain, but that only masks the pain and cannoteraseit.
Learning how to deal with pain and suffering is a fundamental part of life. Most of us are brought up to think pain is bad, but we must relearn that it is not necessarilyonly a bad thing. Pain is an unavoidable part of life. And if pain leads us to investigate the root of our suffering, it can generate a positive outcome.
On my trip I stopped in Boulder, Colorado, and I attended a studio talk Richard Freeman gave at the Yoga Workshop. The topic was “Injury in Yoga.” It was a thought provoking, entertaining talk, and I sincerely hope they will post the talk for people to listen to ).
Richard had just returned from a Yoga Journal conference in NY, during whichhe attended a panel discussion about Broad’s recent NY Times article. He kindheartedly poked fun at the people who were very upset by the article, suggesting that what they really wanted to yell at Broad was “You are ruining our business.”He also said that he found the discussion “disappointing,” that he disagreed with the two main arguments, which were basically:
- If people get injured they must not really be doing Yoga.
- If people get injured they are not practicing mindfully.
He explained that yoga implies preconditioning. It is our karma and preconditioning that brings us to this life, it is what brings us to yoga, it is what causes us to go through what we do in this life. Because we are preconditioned, we are predisposed to injury.
He said we are all also asymmetrical by nature. So it is inevitable that these practiceswill highlight our asymmetry. Hopefully the practices will eventually help bring us closer to balance, but along the way we will more than likely experiencesome pain and injury.
Richard joked that a high percentage of people who go to hospitals die: “So never go to the hospital.” Is it the yoga that caused the injury or were we ripe for the injury, due to our preconditioning and asymmetry?
Both the teacher and student could be very mindful, with all of the right intentions, and still an injury may incur during a pose or an adjustment. Richard asked who in the room ever had knee pain/injuries. Almost everyone (the small studio was full, with approximately 60 + people) raised their hands, including Richard, Mary and all of the teachers there.
Not only are injuries probably unavoidable, they also arean important part of the process. We don’t want to deal with them continuously, but if they bring us some greater understanding and some necessary humility, then they also take us to a place where “the yoga can start to work.”
Avoidance of Suffering
I would guess that few of us are able to practice continuously over a long period of time, as the practice is prescribed. We come into the practice with expectations, with our own set of terms and conditions. We want to practice on our own terms and as soon as the yoga doesn’t bring uswhat we are looking for we are gone. To be open to practice, just like to be open to life, means wemust welcome not only the good but also the inevitable “bad” as we label it.
Maybe we are looking for help slimming down, toning up, etc. When it doesn’t sufficiently get us there, we look for something else. Not that there is a right or wrong reason for practicing, but if the ultimate purpose of yoga is enlightenment, we are likely to be disappointed if we come in with other expectations.
In a society that is setup to avoid all suffering and accountability, distracted by myriad diversions and burying itself inband-aid solutions for anything that bothers us, it is understandable that many of us approach the practice in the same way we approach life. Some of us come to yoga to tune out, even though it should help us tune in. And as soon as it doesn’t provide that escape we are gone; as soon as it no longer gives us the same high it once did, we fall out of practice.
Or worseif, instead of numbing what ails us, the practice brings usmore pain, in the form of injury, etc., wereject it entirely. Or if the yoga actually starts working, and we are confronted with the most frightening thing of all – ourselves –we are too easily frightened away.
I am not immune to this. There have been points when I could’ve stopped practicing, and if left to my own preferences and tendencies towards avoidance I would have run. But somehow I never did. Instead I was always graced by something or someone thatkept me practicing and not only brought me back butthrew me in deeper.
Richard gave a definition of virya, which I really liked: the strength to see things as they are and not as we want them to be. To continue on this path and to live life fully we must have virya. Honestly, any pain from practice, any pain from truly experiencing life as it is and not as we wish it were,is far less than the inevitable pain caused by eschewing practice and avoidingadversity.