Yin yoga, in case you’ve never heard of it before, is a style of yoga in which you wiggle yourself into a pretty intense stretch and just try to relax there for five minutes or sometimes longer. One of my students affectionately calls it the “Torture Chamber.”
It’s a very deep practice; it can be very relaxing, and sometimes incredibly emotional. It’s called “Yin” in opposition to most other “Yang” styles of yoga that stretch, strengthen, and heat the body more dynamically. If Vinyasa Flow yoga is easily flowing, aesthetically beautiful Shri, then Yin yoga is an exploration of the shadows, struggle, and even destruction of Kali (more on Shri and Kali here). Sounds fun, right?
Sometimes we come to yoga to put ourselves (or keep ourselves) together. Sometimes we come to yoga because we need to fall apart. When we are willing to be broken in a pile, we have a choice in how we are going to put our pieces pack together again. We can become new.
See, when you settle into Pigeon pose, a deep hip opener, and have to stay there for a while, a few things may happen. You’ll get uncomfortable. Your mind will tell you to move, to change something, to get the hell out of there. You will wonder if the teacher has forgotten about you. You will feel heat rise. You will get sad. You will get angry. You will remember a deeply buried memory that will come up to your conscious mind. You will imagine a battle scene in your mind. You will start to cry. You will get bored. You will start to laugh. You will resolve to kick the teacher in the face once the feeling comes back to your legs.
So you can see how this is, in a way, a microcosm of life itself.
And while we are sitting there suffering the emotional roller coaster of Pigeon pose, we are practicing an incredibly useful life skill: Discernment, or viveka in Sanskrit, is the ability to know the answer to the eternal question, should I stay or should I go?
It works like this: We know, in yoga, that discomfort is okay. Discomfort can be good. It means that we have come right up to an edge—I imagine it as a literal fence. We can check out the borderlines, see how it feels there, and peer over to the other side without actually jumping on the barbwire. We can hang out in a place that threatens to reveal a deeper layer of our true selves, even while the mind is making up all kinds of tricks to try to get you back to your comfort zone, despite the fact that the only comfort you’ll often really find there is familiarity.
Pain, though, is not okay. Pain is the body’s signal that it isn’t safe. Regardless of what’s going on in the mind, the body is sending out warnings that cause the body to tense up, the teeth to grit, the breath to quicken, and the sympathetic nervous system to rev up its fight or flight. If this happens, we gotta go. Get out of the pose, find a new one, adjust the props, or leave the room. It’s okay to not be ready yet. Taking a look at the fence gives us a lot of information; we don’t always have to jump over.
I sometimes think what we are practicing for in yoga is everything that happens off the yoga mat. When we get the difference between pain and discomfort in our bodies, we can get it in our lives. It gives us a good question: is this an uncomfortable patch that I can breathe through and learn from, or is it time to get out of this room/job/relationship/city?
It’s an incredibly courageous thing to allow yourself to be in uncomfortable places and stay present. It’s so easy to numb ourselves to a posture by counting the seconds, planning the rest of your day, or incessantly shifting your props around. We do this all the time in our lives—we fill our schedules to the brim so we don’t have to be alone with ourselves, we jump from relationship to relationship so that we don’t have to be alone with ourselves, and we drink or smoke or move jobs or cities constantly so we don’t have to be alone with ourselves (get it?).
Our fences can feel huge and impassable in our minds when we never actually look at them. A few minutes alone with yourself and your body, hanging out in your borderlands, can be terrifying and deeply empowering.
Then, one day, the fence looks a little smaller, a little less intimidating. One day, you’ll leap right over.