Whether you’ve been practicing yoga for a week, a month or a decade, I suspect you’ve run into aches or pains. I’m not talking about the sharp pain of an injury. The sensations I’m referring to are less extreme than that, but can be disconcerting nonetheless.
Perhaps the backs of your legs felt sore in your forward folds or even in your bed later that night. Maybe your arms felt quivery and weak by your fourth low push-up. Or you had trouble getting the shampoo to your head the next morning. I have a friend who says that, for the first year of her practice, even the hairs on her head would hurt after she rolled up her mat. I remember poking at my chest and marveling that what I’d thought was just ribs covered with skin turned out to be actual muscles I never knew I had – and they hurt!
These aches and pains are a side-effect of change. And change is what yoga is all about. Yoga meets us where we are – tight or flexible, strong or weak, brave or fearful, confident or uncertain – and, inch by inch, changes us. Practicing yoga doesn’t guarantee that you’ll one day be able to slip your leg behind your head or even sit cross-legged on the floor comfortably playing Candy Land with your kids for hours. Practicing yoga doesn’t guarantee that you won’t lose your patience when the dog needs to go out for the fifth time in an hour or that your attention won’t wander during your upcoming all-day staff retreat.
These things might happen. But they might not. The one thing yoga does guarantee is that you will change. You will see many of these changes in your body. If you’re paying attention, you will see at least as many changes in the ways you are thinking, feeling and behaving. And you’ll probably notice that many of these changes hurt.
A yoga practice teaches us to be patient yet persistent with these growing pains. It also teaches us to be keenly observant so we can determine when a pain is OK to tolerate and when it’s one we need to avoid. For instance, the pain of tight muscles opening in a forward fold or a backbend is safe to breathe through. Other pain, like an uncomfortable wrist in a backbend, requires that we adapt the posture to where we are right now (waiting for our shoulders to open and our strength to develop) until our body changes enough to be ready for more.
What the aches and pains of yoga are really teaching us is how to better navigate changes in life.
Perhaps you are feeling overwhelmed by stress as you start your new job. Maybe you’ve just relocated and are feeling lost and alone despite your initial excitement about your new home. Perhaps you find yourself suddenly single or suddenly coupled and struggling with the shifts in the rhythms of your days. Maybe you are feeling torn to pieces as you contemplate saying goodbye to your parents when they drop you off at college. Or maybe you are the parent suddenly navigating a quiet, clean home like you haven’t had for 18 years.
Change can hurt off the mat as well.
As we navigate these changes, we put into practice what we’ve learned on our mats. We give ourselves permission to be gentle. We dig deep for patience. We dig even deeper for the persistence to stick with whatever it is, even when it’s really hard. Most importantly, we remember how great it feels – strong, confident, powerful – to have transformed. All of the practice we do on our mats leaves us with the optimism to believe – from the (sometimes sore) hairs on our heads to the tips of our (often exhausted) toes – that while change can hurt, it almost always leaves us better than it found us.
Which is what makes growing pains worthwhile.
“I know this transformation is painful, but you’re not falling apart; you’re just falling into something different, with a new capacity to be beautiful.” – William C. Hannan