In Yoga poses like Supta Virasana, Sarvangasana (Shoulder Stand) and Halasana the arms can go numb because the circulation is restricted. Imagine a dam; when the gates of the dam are closed the flow of water is cut off from its direct path and is distributed in different directions. The same is true in poses such as these. The blood flow to your arms is constricted and the blood is diverted to other parts of the body. When the arms come back down they are flushed with fresh blood. This is a process that happens in many of the Asanas; blood flow is constricted in an area so that it can be flushed with fresh blood upon release. How we interact with the sensations that come with these processes though, can dramatically transform our experience. It seems obvious that if we say ‘my arms are numb, it feels horrible’ then our experience of the Yoga pose will be certainly be horrible. How then do we distinguish between?
The issue lies in what we identify as ‘good’ and as ‘bad’. What we term as ‘bad pain’ can be a sensation that we are unused to that occurs when we are at the edges of our comfort zone. This edge is a wonderfully fertile place. It is where change happens, where realisations and breakthroughs are made. It is where we grow. Often we like the idea of change but also feels safe where we are right now and are scared of what change might bring. We confine ourselves by our own ideas of what is ‘good’. Watching without judgement is what Yoga Practice is all about, even watching our pain without judgement. In the Patanjali Sutras it is termed Vairagya, meaning dispassion. If we are able to observe unusual sensations without judgement and without emotion then we will make a step closer to freedom, have a much more relaxing time and get some real benefits from our Yoga practice as a result.
Then there is the pain which is a warning. We could call it ‘stabbing’ pain. When this pain arises during Yoga practice it’s a message from the body telling us we are doing something wrong. There can be two responses to pain of this sort in our Yoga practice. One is: ‘What was that?! This practice must be unsafe. Time to find a new type of Yoga!’ The other is: ‘No pain no gain! If I keep pushing I’ll get there in the end’. In the first case you limit yourself in going deeper and are bound to a path which only ever takes you so far until you reach the next obstacle and change direction again. In the second case you are on a fast track to serious injury.
When intense pain is felt we must pause. It is then that we need to observe ourselves most closely. All pain and all suffering arises from misalignment and the greatest teacher that we have to tell us whether we are misaligned in Yoga is the breath. So, when pain is felt, watch the breath and find out where it is constricted. Then it is up to you to take the steps to find alignment so that the breath can be free again.
In the words of J. Krishnamurti ‘The problem is the solution’. With this outlook on our Yoga practice our sense of enquiry never ends. We can stay engaged with the challenges as they arise and treat them not as problems or as something we just have to endure, but as an invitation to get creative and investigate with the tools Yoga practice gives us. When we begin to accept discomfort as one of the many signposts on the way towards freedom then the path starts to look less like an obstacle course and a lot more beautiful!
Himalayan Iyengar Yoga Centre
Yoga Master Teacher Sharat Arora
Article derived from 5-day course in Israel, 2015