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On Yin Yoga: Learnings From the Edge of Discomfort

I am folded on my yoga mat: legs straight out, hips boosted slightly by a folded blanket, hinged at the base of my spine, with my top half bowed over my thighs and a pair of blocks bridging the distance between my forehead and the floor.

In order to get into this position, I first wriggled into a comfortable seat, then stretched out my legs. I sat up tall and leaned forward from my hips, keeping my spine straight for as long as possible before releasing back, shoulders, and neck into a rainbow, rounding toward my legs. I tried my blocks on different heights until I found a configuration that let me rest my head comfortably while stretching my spine.

Now I am sitting here and breathing. There is nothing I need to do in order to stretch: the stretch is built in. All I have to do is rest, and breathe, and feel.

I love this part. There is time, here, to settle in. I breathe in, expanding my belly and my chest, and I feel the stretch along my back, the places that slide effortlessly and the ones that catch. There is easy pleasure in the easy parts of the movement. There is deeper pleasure to be found in the catch. I breathe out, settle even further into the stretch.

Sitting like this, the stretch deepens with every breath. I consciously relax, guiding my thoughts inward. Pay attention to your body, I remind myself. Pay attention now.

I pay attention to the ache in my lower back, the catch in the middle of my spine that is so hard to massage. I feel the pull along the back of my legs, and the line where the edge of the block hits the bridge of my nose. I shift my head, ever so slightly, to ease that tender spot.

Breathe. Breathe.

In yin yoga, the teacher guides us to find a supported stretch, and then we hold it for minutes. Minutes are long when all I am doing is breathing and stretching. As my body settles, becomes heavy, some parts of my body begin to complain that this stretch is too deep, too long.

There is an edge of discomfort in yin yoga. I love this edge.

The pull of the long stretch lets me feel clearly where my body is tight. It gives me time to explore the subtle sore ache. If it grows from discomfort into pain, I will shift, pull back. Pain is not the teacher I need here, but its younger sister, discomfort, is welcome.

The discomfort gives me a focus for my fluttering mind. When I realize that I’ve been planning dinner or imagining plaudits for my unwritten novel, completely missing the experience of the yoga class that I’m in right now, I gently pull my attention back and send it to that deep stretch. Be here.

That spot in the middle of my back catches. It stretches, and then it doesn’t want to stretch any further. It doesn’t hurt, exactly, but it feels stuck. Pay attention. My spine wants to be long, knobs of vertebrae strung like interlocking beads, moving in a gentle wave with my breath. My attention burrows into the catch. During my next breath, I focus on the movement in exactly that spot. I let the tiny shifts of my breath massage the catch. Many breaths later, a tiny bloom of warmth and a feeling of rightness reward my attention. The catch has come unstuck. I keep breathing, a gorgeous flow of in and out.

When at last the teacher gives us the word to release, I sit up slowly, starting from the base of my spine, shoulders and head rising last. I arch backward and my spine cracks in three places, with more soft bursts of heat. I feel marvelous.

More and more, I appreciate the gifts of slowness. Time to relax, time to explore, time to feel. I like spending time with my body. This is one beautiful thing I have learned.

I have also learned not to be afraid of discomfort. Instead of pulling away from the part of my body that is experiencing a deep, deep stretch, that’s the place I return to. There’s time to run my attention through my entire body, from my relaxed feet, up the strong muscles of the legs, encouraging softness in my clenched hips, experiencing the expansion of my torso with every breath, running down my soft arms to find each sensitive fingertip, releasing my shoulders and elongating my neck. Relax the forehead. Relax the jaw. Feel cheekbones, ears, tongue, eyes.

Then back to the edge of discomfort. Sometimes I can find the right miniscule movement to stretch just so and relieve the discomfort. More often I can’t, though the quality of the sensation shifts over time, becomes something new, something more profoundly known.

After each stretch I feel better, paradoxically both looser and more settled in myself.

There is of course a metaphor here, about not avoiding discomfort in life. About how much we can learn when we slow down and touch, examine, pay attention. About how much we can heal ourselves of pains in our hearts and minds as well as our bodies, when we intentionally spend time with our discomfort.

This is all true, and all important. The deeper truth is that what gets me off the couch and onto the mat for yin yoga isn’t about having a better life overall. I appreciate those learnings and benefits enormously, and I am better for them. But what pulls me to yin yoga is the pleasure of being so thoroughly in my body, the engagement of the stretch and the breath.

I am my body; I am my self. I learn my self; I enjoy my self. This is what I learn, over and over, from that edge of discomfort.

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