Stress, fever, and a broken ankle
Recently my husband broke his ankle, then a few days later our daughter was diagnosed with glandular fever. Both of them are now in some physical pain but they are also extremely frustrated. I am trying my best to help both of them but that ends up being stressful for me! It has built up to the point where last night I hardly slept because I was worried about my daughter, so I ended up checking on her every two hours, and of course when I woke up I was just as tired as they are. In the end, everyone in the family is either sore, tired, grumpy… or all of it at the same time!
In this example, the situation has brought a combination of physical and emotional pain to a couple of people (them), and a combination of mental and emotional pain to another (me). A typical illustration of problems we deal with on a daily basis. In Yoga, this is called duhkha – suffering.
When I interviewed people on the street about their definition of pain, most of them described it first as something to do with the physical body, and only on second thought as stress, or sadness, or another negative emotion. I think this is because most people find it easier to connect with the “gross” body than with the “subtle” ones (energy, mind, and emotions).
Still, the concept of pain can be understood in very different ways by different people or by the same person at different times, depending on their age, recent experiences, etc.
Is it right to feel pain in yoga practice?
Whether we like it or not, the “no pain, no gain” attitude prevailing in some sports and physical activities has also seeped through certain forms of modern yoga. Not surprisingly, the yoga schools that subscribe to this view tend to be focused on the intense practice of yoga postures.
The irony of this interpretation is that yoga’s original purpose is actually the reduction of pain, mainly on the mental level but on the physical and emotional ones too. Indeed, yoga offers a full spectrum of tools aiming to bring complete peace of mind, or “shānti shānti shānti”, as it is beautifully said in the Vedic Upanishads.
The basic idea of yoga philosophy is that we suffer because our human mind doesn’t function very well. In Sāmkhya (India’s earliest Vedic system that gave yoga its theoretical background), the first word of the first verse is – significantly – duhkha.
Based on Sāmkhya, yoga evolved to focus on two main principles: understanding how the mind works, and offering solutions to suffering. Several references in ancient texts indicate that yoga was gifted to humans to help them eliminate suffering (duhkha). Symbolically, this important idea is also expressed in the name of the sage Patañjali, the first one to compile yoga’s teachings circa 300 BCE: according to a legend Patañjali “fell down” on Earth (pat) in the hands of humans who had their hands joined in prayer (añjali), to ask the gods for help.
Get me out of here
In Sanskrit, duhkha means restriction (duh) and space (kha), so the general meaning is “pressure in a constricted space”. An accurate description of pain! Many expressions in English reflect the same idea: negative emotions put a weight on your chest. You feel stuck when you can’t find a solution to a problem and you hold your breath when you are in physical pain… These experiences are described as duhkha, with various degrees of intensity, from a speck of dust in the eye to the grief of losing a loved one.
Where does suffering come from? Sāmkhya and Yoga give practical answers to this profound question.
Kapila’s Sāmkhya tells us that pain has three sources. One that comes from within (adhi-atmika): we produce it ourselves or we aggravate it. One that comes from other creatures, including animals (adhi-bhautika). And one that comes from things beyond our control such as natural causes and some diseases (adhi-daivika). However, sometimes our negative experiences have more than one source: if you are bitten by a dog the direct cause is external, but if you had teased the dog first, your action is the indirect cause.
A four-legged stool
Patañjali’s Yoga-Sūtra explains the causes of suffering. In chapter II, he says that they fall under four categories:
– change (parināma),
– craving for experiences we have liked and want to repeat (tāpa),
– habits and conditionings (samskāra),
– and finally the constant fluctuations of three forces (the gunas).
Amongst these four categories, the first three are pretty straightforward. Who never had mixed feelings about a new job, moving to a new school, or getting older? There is a potential of suffering in any transformation; sometimes we dread the change that is yet to come, and sometimes we are impatient for it to happen. Additionally, there may be conflicting feelings which in turn produce more confusion, leading us to hold back on making a decision. Fear often lies at the bottom of it.
For the second category, the expression “burning desire” is a close translation of the Sanskrit tāpa. Desires can consume us or make us blind. We can be in so much distress if we don’t get what we want, when we want it! Of course, it is fine to have some desires and aspirations. In its wisdom, yoga framed these ones into a different concept: kāma is the healthy pursuit of pleasure, coherent with our role in life and place in society. The ability to make the difference between the passion-driven desires and the balanced ones requires time, practice, and self-enquiry.
The force of habits
When we are conditioned to behave in a certain manner repetitively, yoga calls it a samskāra. From small unconscious habits to sheer addictions we have many layers of samskāras. Some are harmful, some are beneficial, and some are pretty neutral. Even the way we brush our teeth follows a certain pattern. Deep conditionings influence our approach to work, how we study, take exams, speak to our children…. the list is endless!
Scrutinizing our samskāras 24/7 would drive us crazy but according to Patañjali it is healthy to study them from time to time, investigate how they began, and let the old ones go if they are not useful or starting to produce duhkha.
The fourth potential source of pain is probably the most fundamental one. It is commonly referred to as the “fluctuations of the three gunas”.
These forces are always operating and they have the potential to create problems, no matter how careful we are. They work at all levels, mixing or taking turns to influence our thoughts and actions. They can be compared to the three bears’ porridge in the eponymous tale: one is cold, one is hot, and one is just right.
Tamas (the “cold” one) is the force of inertia and cohesion. When it is in balance it helps things to consolidate things, supporting our intellect and our body. But when tamas is excessive it makes us sluggish or confused. This is the force that slows us down and puts us in deep sleep. Its timing has to be right: if you are confused when you need to be focused you could make a bad decision that would put you in a difficult position later on.
Rajas, the “hot” one, is the very opposite of tamas: movement, action and momentum are positive qualities associated with it. Agitation, impatience, anger and the inability to focus are dominant when rajas overflows. We are usually under the influence of rajas all day long since the very nature of our busy life demands it. Some of it is necessary when we are engaged in intellectual or physical work. Coffee helps to increase it (but when the effect has worn off, we may swing to an excess of tamas.)
The last force is sattva and, just like Goldilocks’ favorite porridge, it is just right. The attributes of sattva are clarity, calm, focus, harmony, a non-judgmental attitude… Sattva’s influence on the body translates into health at all levels. On the mental plane, a fully sattvic mind is very hard to attain because it is totally free of confusion, identifications, and everything else that limits the ordinary mind. There are no words to describe this mind imbued with complete understanding. A state that yoga practice tries to promote as often as possible, to some degree.
So whenever there is an imbalance of these three forces or if one takes over at the wrong time, it is a source of stress, therefore suffering: being sleepy (tamas) when it is time to be intellectually or physically active (rajas and sattva); being hyperactive or restless (rajas) when it is time to rest.
It is what it is
Most of the time our life demands a healthy fluctuating blend of these three functions, depending on the time and what we are up to. Of course, we can try to cultivate an all-round sattvic attitude stemming from our practice, but it does not mean that action and cohesion are bad: they are part of our make-up and we need them, but at the right moment and in the right proportions. Neither excess nor deficiency is desirable when it comes to the gunas if we want to follow Patanjali’s sound advice and “avoid the sorrow that has not yet been produced”, or (as it is said in the Bhagavad Gîta) to “disconnect from what binds us to suffering.”
Having said that, being in yoga is no guarantee that we will remain shielded from pain. Some troubles cannot be avoided and we have to face them because they are often the fruits of our past actions. Yoga is not an escape from reality!
Now I leave you to reflect on this while I return to take care of my husband and daughter.