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Meeting Suffering on the Mat

To be human is to be faced with obstacles, challenges, defeat, rejection, failure and suffering. To be human is also to learn resilience, to be victorious, to do better because we now know better, to recognize our own suffering and move through it mindfully. Suffering is inevitable and often times the mountains that we are up against, feel a lot like suffering. However, I want to take you through a journey where we learn to deepen our yoga practice to be more than just poses and we actually meet our pain and suffering on our mat. Not in the way that our pain consumes us or eats up our practice, but in a way that we recognize our own frailty and in turn grow a deeper sense of compassion towards ourselves and others.

So what does Yoga have to say about suffering? Pantanjali talks a lot about suffering in the Yoga Sutras and one of the most foundational things we learn is that suffering is inevitable. In Yoga Sutra 11.15, Pantanjali ends with "Even the wise suffer, for suffering is everywhere." We often use our yoga practice as an escape away from our suffering, maybe even acting as a temporary break from reality. However, if we want to really integrate our yoga into our every day lives, we have to welcome suffering onto our mat and into our practice. There is a time to let your mat be a place of complete rest, where we leave all of our stress and worries at the door, and there is also a time where we have some deep stuff that needs to be processed and worked through--what better a place to do that than right in the safety of your yoga practice?

1. Find a teacher and/or studio that puts you at ease, a place where you can let your hair down, so to speak, and allow your whole self to show up each time. If you have trauma or issues that need extra attention, yoga therapy is always a great option for a more individualized approach. The main thing is you need to feel like you're in a safe space so you can dive in and do your inner work.

2. Invite your current suffering into your practice with you. This might sound odd or counterintuitive at first but hear me out. I want you to think of your pain as a needy infant. Ignoring the cries rarely ever makes the crying baby stop. Instead you pick the baby up, you offer them a snack or perhaps a rock in the rocking chair and you soothe the baby to stop the crying. Our pain is often the exact same way. It is that needy, crying baby but instead of acknowledging the pain and caring for our whole self, we try to drown out the noise with social media, politics, work and anything else that creates this numbing soundtrack. We must at some point acknowledge our suffering and soothe it, not by unhealthy means like self medicating or overindulgence, but by sitting and moving with our suffering so we can move through it. We must be able to look our suffering in the eye and say with compassion, "I see you, and we are going to work through this."

3. Once you have acknowledged your suffering and created space for it, notice how It feels in your body. Does it feel like a tightening in your chest or maybe a clenching in the jaw? Next, notice how your breath changes when you think about your suffering. Maybe it's shallow or still. Just become mindful of what's happening in your body and your breathe in that moment. See if you can observe yourself almost as if you're on the outside looking in or maybe visualizing your higher self looking down and noticing your physical self.

4. As you move through your practice, let the emotions and the pain move through your body. It's as if your watching the ocean waves. Visualize the tension of the wave rising and then crashing against the rocky shore. You might notice the emotions building and rising but finally, they plateau and then they start to die down. There is space, a moment of release. Your job here is not to stop the ocean, it's to notice those waves and ride them out no matter how chaotic it seems. This is a safe space to let yourself feel and let yourself process.

5. Our yoga practice can be incredibly cleansing so let each breath and each asana cleanse, soothe and nourish your body and mind. You might use the last few minutes of class to visualize yourself letting go of whatever suffering you have, leaving it behind on your mat. You've given your pain space and a chance to say what it needs to say but this is where you let that suffering go, take back the reigns and move towards a more peaceful state of being.

When we allow ourselves to meet our suffering in this way we are taking a proactive approach. We are setting the boundaries for how much our suffering is allowed to affect us and when. We are able to better control our emotions and we are able to move through our pain instead of just glossing over it. I encourage you to use some of your time on the mat to work through tough emotions and suffering. We all know that suffering is a part of life but it needn't be something that we can't work through together with intention and mindfulness. We truly do heal the planet when we heal ourselves.

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