HOW TO GET COMFORTABLE WITH DISCOMFORT
I used to think I was bad at yoga. Each time I’d try a forward fold, I’d reach for my toes, then back off when my fingertips reached my ankles as my hamstring started to burn. The discomfort led me to believe there was something wrong, so I backed off until I didn’t feel it anymore.
Eventually, I stopped doing yoga all together because it didn’t feel like a “real” workout to me, and my flexibility didn’t seem to be improving. But after a three-year hiatus, my muscles were screaming at me. My shoulders had migrated up to my ears, my lats woke me every night with a painful spasm, and my hamstring flexibility had regressed to where touching my ankles with straight knees was a mere memory. I knew I was setting myself up for an injury if I didn’t do anything, so I reluctantly signed up to take an introductory class at a studio I hadn’t tried before.
About midway through the class, I was struggling through triangle pose. I was using a block and could barely reach it, even when I laid it vertically. It wasn’t for lack of trying; my shoulder, hamstring and quad were all on fire! I watched as a bead of sweat trickled down my arm, making an ugly, white deodorant streak on my skin.
All around me, other people seemed to be stretching effortlessly, their left palms rooted firmly on their mats while their right hands reached to the sky. I was frustrated and more than a little embarrassed when the instructor came by to correct my pose.
“Breathe out,” she urged quietly as she pushed against my right shoulder to open my chest. Miraculously, my palm sunk into the block.
“Good! Again, use your breath!” As I exhaled, she nudged me a little further. My bottom elbow started to bend and I flipped the block onto its side.
“Awesome!” I couldn’t see my teacher, but I heard the smile in her voice. As she walked away, she addressed the class. “Guys! I know this is a killer, and that’s why I chose it! It’s hard for me, too! But remember: discomfort doesn’t mean you can’t, it just means you have room to grow! So breathe through it, let go, and explore the sensations in your body. Pay attention to the difference between discomfort and actual pain, and journey to that edge. When you reach the edge of that cliff, that’s when you back off.”
Sitting With Discomfort In Daily Life
Over the past six months, I’ve continued practicing yoga regularly and learning to stay in and breathe through discomfort. As a result, I’ve become more flexible both in body and mind.
I have a strong work ethic and have never been afraid to do things that were difficult and unpleasant, but discomfort has always given me pause. While I had no problem pushing myself through a difficult strength training workout or saying “yes” to an overnight shift that I thought would get me ahead, I would avoid or ignore uncomfortable emotions both in myself and others.
If I was at a social situation where I didn’t know many people, I’d stick to the one person I did know rather than brave a few awkward moments getting to know a stranger. If someone was angry with me, I’d placate them rather than stand my ground because anger made me so uncomfortable. I went through years of therapy and soul-searching with very little progress at breaking these patterns. But my renewed yoga practice has taught me that the discomfort I feel in these types of situations doesn’t mean I’m flawed; it’s just an opportunity to grow.
As my mindset began to shift, I realized I was engaging in less negative self-talk. For example, when I found myself in conflict with a friend, I thought, “I don’t like the way this feels. How can I resolve this so this stops happening to me?” instead of “I’m such a doormat. Why do I let these things happen to me?” As a result, I’ve been more successful at both establishing stronger personal boundaries, and growing trust and intimacy in the relationships I value most.
The trick for me is not making too much of the discomfort itself; instead I notice it, acknowledge it, and do my best to move on. I’m still working on it, but I’m working to stay grounded in the idea that uncomfortable feelings are a normal part of life which ebb and flow just like joy, sadness, and even love.
It’s definitely a skill that takes practice, and I’ll admit that I often fail. But reminding myself that discomfort isn’t necessarily a bad thing has helped immensely.