Pema Chodron, in her book When Things Fall Apart, writes, “It is said that we can’t attain enlightenment, let alone feel contentment and joy, without seeing who we are and what we do, without seeing our patterns and our habits. This is called maitri—developing loving-kindness and an unconditional friendship with ourselves.”
Last fall, my teacher instructed me to begin working on kapotasana, one of the deeper backbends in the second series of Ashtanga Yoga. I have had my obstacles along the path of my yoga practice – certain poses or movements that have proven difficult and taken time to learn – but kapotasana brought me face to face with a challenge both larger and more complex than anything I had yet experienced.
The pain surfaced the moment I first reached my arms back, searching for my heels with my hands. A deep pain in my left shoulder suddenly emerged, even though it was nonexistent in the dozens of poses I had just moved through. My teacher, observing that there wasn’t anything wrong with the joint, suggested that this could be “emotional pain.” And yet everyday, when I entered kapotasana, the physical pain would overwhelm me.
It is hard to find motivation to practice when pain is arising. With it comes fear: the fear of adding to the pain that’s already there, fear of the unknown and the mysterious condition of my shoulder. The pain also brought frustration; I would find myself on my mat, watching other people perform the same pose with ease and wondering, “why can they do this while I can’t?” My attention would shift outside of myself to these external distractions; many different thoughts would bring with them many uncomfortable emotions.
I racked my brain trying to figure out what the problem was. I tried external remedies like acupuncture and massage, and they helped, but the uncomfortable sensations persisted. So, what to do? For months I struggled with exactly how to approach my practice. If I let fear govern my decisions, I would not practice deeply enough, and avoid the situation altogether. On the other hand, if I let frustration guide me, I could push too hard, bringing more pain and making things worse.
Over time it became clear that this was the center of my yoga practice: finding just the right attitude, just the right approach, and being sensitive enough to my own mind to evaluate exactly what type of energy I was bringing to my mat.
Recently, the painful sensations have greatly diminished. I didn’t discover some anatomical secret to the inner workings of my shoulder (though I did learn different and safer ways to move it). But over the course of my relationship with this challenging posture, I discovered something greater: a type of acceptance that I didn’t know I had within me. Working on the pose was not a “big deal” in my head anymore. It was only an experience that I was going through, the place where I was and I needed to be. I found myself more relaxed as I approached the posture and my practice in general. It was not about trying to make the pain go away anymore, it was more about giving up control and relaxing. I learned to accept that things may not always be as I would like them to be, and to accept them as they are. And when I find these kinds of situations it is ok to give as much as I can to get to the place I want to go without “forcing” and trying to control things.
Perhaps this is my understanding of the “friendship with ourselves” that Pema Chodron describes—a friendship based on facing myself honestly and without judgment:
“It’s not that we pat ourselves on the back and say, “You’re the greatest,” or “Don’t worry, sweetheart, everything is going to be fine.” Rather it’s a process by which self-deception becomes so skillfully and compassionately exposed that there’s no mask that can hide us anymore.”