When yoga hurts: Pausing with pain.
Her directions were clear, “From all fours, sit back onto the heels, buttocks to calves, then lift and straighten the spine. Turn all ten toes under, settling all the weight down on the hips and balls of the feet, keep the spine straight, hold palms together at heart center.”
“This,” said the teacher, “is a yin yoga toe squat.” I adjusted the yoga blanket under me, glancing around at the other yogis in this yin yoga teacher training. I tried to arrange my face into a wise and peaceful expression. See, three seconds into this pose and the pain in my toes was already causing me to start Lamaze breathing.
It was taking all my strength to not bite my yoga mat.
Oh, I know yoga is not about enduring pain, and that pushing myself into poses causes more harm than good. Let’s say I learned more about myself than I expected in this training. I am competitive, self-conscious and insecure, and trying every day to love all the bits of myself. Accept, love, let go. Right? Back to my story.
I am used to holding this type of pose for five to maybe ten breaths. Even if you breathe slowly, that isn’t even a minute. Maybe for that long I could have endured the shooting pain, I could have pretended that my toes weren’t beginning to cramp. I nearly fell over when she said, “In yin yoga, the first minute of a pose hold stretches and strengthens the muscular system. By the third minute, we slowly affect other systems of the body, including the nervous system. Can we start with 2-3 minutes?” I saw people smiling as they settled into the pose. I quickly tucked a block under my butt. Not much better.
What I really wanted was an earthquake to destroy the building so I could die quickly. Strange conundrum feeling a thousand knives stabbing your toes and feet, all while holding a “peaceful yogi” face and still body. There was nothing still and calm about what was happening in my head. So, picture me there on the mat, twenty or so yoga students around me, the teacher calmly walking between us, and I am pretending I didn’t want to JUST DIE. I don’t think I was doing a great job of faking it. You would have noticed the muscles in my jaw clenching for sure.
She said earlier that yin yoga isn’t necessarily restorative yoga, gentle and restful poses to make you feel you are taking a nap in public. Yin yoga demands more from us, requires us to stretch, open, reach farther than we thought possible. She told us that as we held poses for longer and longer, we would find our nervous systems releasing unconscious tension, stuck energy, emotional baggage. That all sounded great.
Until now. This hurt like nothing I could remember, how I wondered, could toe tendons hurt this much?
She told us that there are acupressure points at the base of the toes connected to the liver and spleen meridians, and when there is stuck energy, we may feel anxiety, depression, and experience even small amounts of stress as unmanageable. That was me, so I was determined to stay in this pose. Here I am, helping my mental health even if it felt like it was killing me!
I tried thinking about fluffy puppies. I started counting seconds. Screaming in my head, BREATHE IN. BREATHE OUT. I used a little side eye to check out the other students. All holding still in this pose, looking perfectly Heroic.
My teacher paused in her walking, put her hands together, and said, “When we pause, when we really stay in a pose, when we release judgement, reaction, and breathe kindly with sensation, even intense sensation, we show our bodies respect and honor.” She turned, and I think she was looking at me, “We are saying, I hear you, dear beloved body, thank you for stretching, reaching, strengthening. I won’t give up on you. Even if this gets rough, I will give you all my attention, my love and devotion. And most of all, I give you my focused mind, and slow breath. I will stay with you, grow with you, building resilience breath by loving breath.”
I was focused on her words, as I pressed my palms together, stretching my spine upwards, shifting my head backwards, making micro adjustments to build my strength and staying power.
And then it happened.
The pain lessened. It was still there, like a dull toothache, but less. Bearable. I was mystified. How did this work? How could I go from level three billion pain to a two and a half on a 0-10 scale? I felt a tingle up my spine, a release, and I sighed. Three minutes. My teacher directed us to softly stretch our feet and legs. There were audible sighs and gasps around the room. Even a few moans, which made us all laugh. I realized everyone struggles with this tough pose, not just me. Miraculously, my feet felt normal, not crippled at all.
My body no longer felt like my enemy or the one to be controlled, the one to fight against in the battle of physical health. In those three minutes, the Universe and my yin teacher conspired to show me my body and I are beloveds. There is no mind/body connection, we are all one thing, and the more love and care I give my body, the more release, the more connection to the present moment I feel.
I would be lying if I said I love toe squat now. But I do it, and those minutes fly by.
CAVEAT: Please remember that you are the expert in whatever sensation you are experiencing, I am not suggesting here to ‘endure’ pain and cause injury. What I am saying is to see pain not as an enemy but a message to be worked with. Little by little, trying a challenging pose like this hero pose or toe squat, for one minute then two, building resilience bit by bit, softening the body with the breath, this is how we build our resilience and our flexibility, in mind, body and heart.