Yoga Articles by Joel Kramer and Diana Alstad
Yoga as Self-Transformation (Page 4)
Joel Kramer Yoga Journal May/June 1980
There is a subtle psychological addiction to a completed pose, or at least to our maximum extensions. The tendency to push toward maximum extension quickly, puts you out of touch with the body's feedback and makes you come out of the posture sooner. Out of the memory of how flexible I was yesterday, I can be unconsciously pushing toward that remembered level of flexibility, being content if I meet it, enthused if I surpass it, and disappointed if I cannot reach it.
Each posture ideally involves the whole body, even though postures usually have one or more major areas where the stretch is most deeply felt. If you reach for your maximum edge too quickly, you bypass many areas. This gives the illusion of a completed stretch, but the body may not be properly aligned, nor really as open as it can be. Opening the ancillary areas of the body before you reach for maximum extension, helps insure proper alignment and ultimately deepens the major stretch.
There is another less obvious edge that is very easy to miss: I call it the first or "minimum edge." This edge occurs while moving into the posture where the body meets its very first resistance. In beginning a pose, initially you move with ease until the first hint of the sensation of blockage or holding appears. This is the first edge, and it's very important to stop here to acclimatize yourself, realign the posture, and become aware of your breath and deepen it. Your attention should be in the feeling, waiting for it to diminish, at which point the body will automatically move to greater depth and a new edge will appear. This process repeats itself until you eventually reach your final edge. By this time, your body has opened with minimal resistance or effort. Often the more slowly and carefully you treat your early edges, the deeper your final edge will be. Building endurance involves staying longer at the early edges and moving slowly toward intensity, for the closer you are to your final edge, the less endurance you tend to have. Also learning to hold the posture at intermediary edges until you can deepen and slow the breath, enables you to relax along the way. Playing edges slowly in this fashion has the advantage of giving you better alignment throughout the whole process, and a sharper capacity to listen to feedback, which enables you to enjoy greater levels of intensity without pain, and minimizes the possibility of injury. Edge-playing also allows you to get in touch with the sensual nature of the posture and the quality of feeling in the stretch, so that each pose can become an aesthetic experience.
Pain & Feedback
It is vital to know the difference between pain and intensity. The line between them might sometimes appear nebulous, but it is actually well defined by the state of your mind. Pain is not only physical, but psychological, too, for it involves a judgment of discomfort - not liking to be there. If you are running from the feeling, it's pain. Intensity that is not pain generates an energy and sensuous quality that turns you on.
Fear and ambition can often cloud the difference between pain and intensity. If you're afraid of hurting yourself, low levels of feeling can be interpreted as pain and therefore avoided, whereas ambition can make you ignore or tolerate pain. If you are fearful in a posture, it is wise not to try to override the fear in order to be "courageous," since this makes injuring yourself more likely, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. Instead you can play on the edge of fear: find a place in the posture where you're not afraid, but near where the fear comes in; hold this position, deepen the breath, and wait for relaxation to come and the body to open. Only then do you move forward. If you are aware of being ambitious in a posture, I strongly recommend you stay with your first edge longer and move through your intermediary edges slower. This will bring a feedback sensitivity that can help counter the tendency to ignore the body's messages.
Pain is often hard to recognize as it isn't necessarily sharp or intense, nor does great intensity always mean pain. If the feeling is such that you are trying to get away from it, it's pain. If you are afraid, even at relatively low levels of intensity, this is your edge, by definition. You can become less fearful by opening slowly, rather than pushing past psychological limits.
Running away from pain can take different forms: stoically enduring, waiting to get the posture over with, thinking of something else, or rushing the posture. These states are often feedback indicating discomfort. Pain causes inattention in the pose, actually increasing the likelihood of overextending the body and pulling a muscle. Most injuries in yoga are brought about by ambition or inattention - usually both. Ambition in a posture takes many forms: holding it a prescribed length of time, trying to stretch as far as someone else, unconsciously reaching for remembered levels of flexibility, or trying to achieve or reproduce psychic states. Ambition is a characteristic of thought, and therefore a fact of life, as is comparison. You cannot eliminate ambition through effort, for the very effort is ambition. Awarely playing the different edges turns your attention away from ambition to the body's feelings. Ideally a posture should not bring pain. Pain is feedback - if you ignore it or try to push past it, you will eventually hurt yourself. Doing yoga with habitual discomfort colors your attitude toward yoga, making you more reluctant to do it. It also turns yoga into a chore, instead of the joy it could be.