My boyfriend Evan has a gold happy Buddha statue upstairs near our meditation cushions. One day last year, his then five-year-old nephew saw it and asked, “Why is he smiling?”
“Because the Buddha tries to be happy no matter what,” Evan replied.
“Does he smile when he hurts himself?” asked his nephew, who was big into the “boo boo” phase of being a little boy.
“He knows that it won’t hurt maybe 10 minutes later, so he doesn’t cry too much because he knows it will go away.”
We could all benefit from the smiling Buddha when it comes to remembering that the things that hurt now won’t always hurt forever.
The things that hurt now might also keep you from practicing asana. Because, let’s be honest, asana isn’t easy and it often physically hurts. And not just because you haven’t moved your body in a while.
It’s because of what you’re carrying inside it.
The not-so-obvious stuff inside your body
Our bodies — not just our minds — are carriers of memories. Our memories turn into thought patterns and habits for how we respond to new situations, even if those new situations have nothing to do with our memories. Think: Betrayed by a past lover? Don’t trust the new one.
It’s why we self-sabotage when everything is going right, if in the past we were used to things going very wrong.
The body, meanwhile, breathes. Expands and contracts. It takes signals from the mind and closes up or opens. Mostly closes during pain. Our shoulders slump. Our chins duck forward. Our hips and knees and feet shuffle along to tote us from here to there.
We internalize the pain in our bodies, and it stacks up in our shoulders and hips and spine and all the nooks and crannies we forgot to bend, twist and rotate while we were in a slump.
When you eventually convince yourself to come to the yoga mat, it’s tempting to flow quickly through a practice, eager to get the rush of endorphins at the end and avoid any deep work on the body. If an instructor (like me) leaves you in Pigeon Pose for more than a minute, it could be an agonizing minute filled with struggle and tension.
And yet, it’s only a minute.
You have been through worse than a one-minute Pigeon Pose. So why the urge to come out of the posture immediately? Why the sudden sense of giving up?
Because it’s too easy to make the physical pain stop. Much more difficult to suddenly convince your heart to heal.
Asana’s hidden power
Ironically, part of healing your heart is moving your body into the pain. Not into searing, injury-waiting-to-happen pain. Instead, delicate tension that perhaps bubbles up anger or tears and eventually, release.
This is the hidden power of yoga postures: To clear your body of the clutter that disguises Who You Really Are.
Yes, muscles might get sore and you might get emotional and temporarily it might feel like your yoga practice is making things worse.
This is the detox phase. The time when your physical muscles and tissues get used to a new pattern of moving and breathing. It might take time to unearth the old scars (samskara, in Sanskrit) and break the old patterns, but the long-term benefits far outweigh the temporary discomfort.
Use the after effects of your yoga practice to keep going, especially when the mind tries to rebel. The tangible results of moving your body — toning your figure, becoming more flexible — are evidence that by confronting the tightness in your body, you’re easing into true openness of your heart.
You’ll never completely erase the difficulties that arise in your life. But you can do your best to remember that they will go away. Temporary hurt only becomes permanent if you contract against it.
Instead, choose to move and expand. Choose the hope and happiness that lies beyond (and because of) the difficulty.
Be a smiling Buddha.
Asana Practice: Eka Bhuja Swastikasana I, One-Armed Swastikasana
A reader (thanks, Terry!) helped me track down the name of this pose, which is a precursor to an even greater shoulder opener not demonstrated here. The posture has crept its way into the modern yoga practice with great benefits for those with rounded shoulders.
I first learned this pose in conjunction with treating my scoliosis. It focuses on opening up any areas of impingement in the shoulders, allowing for freedom of movement in the shoulder girdle. Some students have told me that by practicing this pose every day, they regained precious shoulder mobility and no longer slumped forward in their posture.
Note: As always, be cautious and careful in this pose if you have any injuries, specifically in the shoulders.
- Lie on your stomach on the ground and bring your arms to a T, palms face down. (Note: Some people practice with palms face up, but many of my students have found this to be too intense or not possible in their anatomy.) Bend your left knee and roll onto your right side, placing your left foot behind your right leg for balance. Press your left palm into the ground to act as a kickstand in front of you.
- Allow your neck to completely release and the side of your head to relax to the ground. If it doesn’t quite reach, you can use a low pillow or blanket. To start, relax your legs and keep the hips propped one on top of the other.
- Control the stretch in the right shoulder by using the left palm to roll yourself more completely onto the right shoulder. If any tingling begins in the right arm, you’ve accidentally pinched a nerve, in which case you should roll toward your stomach. (Note: To go deeper, continue to roll on top of the shoulder, perhaps reaching the left arm behind you toward the right arm.)
- Stay for six deep, controlled breaths and roll onto your stomach to release. Bring the arms again to a T. This time, bend the right knee and roll onto your left side. Hold this side for the same amount of breaths. When finished, roll onto your stomach and then press yourself into Child’s Pose, noting any sensations in the shoulders.