Discomfort vs. Pain: An Approach to Sensation

Even discomfort or pain delivers awareness of life, and an opportunity for gratitude.
— Bryant McGill

The common adage ‘No pain no gain’ has no place on the yoga mat. We’ve all heard our teachers implore for us to back off if we experience any pain in a pose. We should always try to practice the principle of ahimsa: non self-harming. Yet we are trying to find our edge, to move past our previous limitations to reach new depths. So what gives?

What is the difference between pain and discomfort? Pain tends to come on more suddenly and is often sharp, shooting, and/or highly irritating. Thomas Myers proclaims that “Pain is sensation accompanied by the motor intention to withdraw.” This is because pain is meant to capture our attention immediately to generate a response to move towards safety.

Discomfort tends to feel like soreness, burning, and/or dull pressure. It comes on more slowly, often due to muscle fatigue or the onset of stretching the structures within the body. We almost always experience some sort of discomfort in our asana practice. The deeper we go into a stretch, the more the sensation builds as we approach our ‘edge’, the threshold of where our bodies can move without injury. Our nervous system fires more strongly as we stretch deeper and reach higher levels of tensile resistance in our muscles and connective tissues.

A Mindful Approach to Discomfort in Pigeon Pose

Let’s modify the classic serenity prayer to create an intention of exploring sensation in asana.

Grant me the curiosity to explore the sensation in my body. The courage to back away from pain. And the wisdom to know the difference.”

Do you feel a high degree of sensation when coming into deep hip openers like pigeon pose? I most certainly do. We can react to this sensation in a number of ways. If the sensation is painful we may, and should, give into the reaction to withdraw. This requires the courage to set our ego aside and accept the natural limitations of our bodies. This could mean backing off a bit from our edge, modifying the pose by enlisting the help of props or bending the knee more to bring the foot closer to the midline, or ending our experience in the posture altogether.

Use sensation is pigeon pose to greet your discomfort and avoid pain.
Become acquainted with your discomfort in pigeon pose.

If the sensation is discomfort but not painful we have many options to alter our experience. Try this once. As you near your edge in pigeon pose (or any pose where you feel discomfort) focus your concentration on the sensation, isolating it within your mind. Begin to explore the sensation with curiosity. We tend to resist discomfort and seek escape from our bodies. Instead use this discomfort to become a guide to delving deeper into your physical and energetic self.

See if you can greet the discomfort like an old friend. Direct your breath into your hip and allow it to begin a conversation.  Maintain this conversation, this awareness, for the duration of the pose. When the conversation ends you will depart with a greater understanding of your discomfort. You may not leave best buddies with the sensation but you will be acquaintances rather than strangers. Adding this intention to our practice cultivates self awareness and strengthens the bond between our physical, mental, and energetic bodies.

While that conversation was taking place and your breathing was deep and focused you may have noticed part of the discomfort subsiding. Why is that? Remember the post about the stretch reflex? There are dynamic (changing) and static (unchanging) elements to the stretch reflex. The dynamic resistance to a stretch is strongest at the onset of the stretch. As time progresses, dynamic resistance decreases as more sarcomeres (the base unit of muscles) relax, increasing the capacity to stretch. This calms the firing of the nervous system, increasing our level of comfort. By actively taking our awareness to sensation we can increase the proprioception (body awareness) in our bodies.

Recent research has shown that an increase in proprioception corresponds to decreased levels of pain in the body. In an article for Yoga International, Jenni Rawlings writes that “the more that your brain can sense your body accurately, the less pain you tend to experience. In addition, the more developed your proprioception is, the more skillful your daily movements will naturally become, reducing your chances of injury in the first place”. By discerning between discomfort and pain we can actually decrease the pain we experience, both by avoiding or modifying painful activities and by increasing our internal body awareness.

Practicing Safely with a Partner

When engaging with partner work we can morph the anti-crime slogan into an anti-pain slogan. “If you feel something, say something.” While participating in partner yoga, receiving bodywork or massage, or receiving an adjustment from a friend or teacher it is our right and responsibility to let the other person know what we are experiencing.  Communication is key, especially since our partner cannot directly feel what we are experiencing in our own bodies. Through partner work it is possible to generate a greater amount of force than we can alone. This increased force can increase our risk for injury. We can decrease the risk of injury by listening to our bodies instead of our egos and letting our partners know when it is necessary to back off.

The Teacher Within You

Pain free at the edgeListen to your body. Let it be your teacher, the true guru that resides within you. What lessons can your discomfort reveal to you? If we avoid discomfort by only doing postures that feel good we are doing ourselves a disservice. If we allow pain to be a part of our practice and increase our risk of injury we are doing ourselves a disservice. Let’s do ourselves a service. Back off from pain, explore your discomfort, and apply your knowledge of the difference between the two. You might just find your comfort zone expanding with practice.


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