Yoga Rockford: The pleasure and pain of yoga

By Jennie Williford
Pranayama Yoga Studio

We have all heard of the benefits of yoga and have seen images of beautiful people in peaceful surroundings, sitting quietly with their eyes closed. With these ideas and expectations in mind, we enter a yoga class hoping to escape from all our worldly problems. But on our yoga mat, we quickly face hard work and the possibility of some discomfort.

Peace and bliss may elude us as we try to move our body this way and that. And, if there aren’t physical obstacles, when just sitting or lying down, we come face to face with our agitated mind. We immediately discover that yoga is less about escaping obstacles temporarily and more about developing awareness in all things.

The false expectation of yoga as “peace in paradise” is unfortunate, as it might drive some away from the practice. But a brief look at the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, the philosophical treatise on yoga, reminds us of our misconception and quickly reveals the discipline of yoga. Yes, a discipline that promises to take us step-by-step to a goal of true contentment and mental quietude, but one that is not without obstacles. In fact, the sutras make clear that our difficulty in discriminating between pain and pleasure is one of the main causes of our suffering.

Being born into this life means we cannot escape experiences of pleasure and pain in varying degrees. The real question is how do we respond to these experiences? Can we find a way to be content in all things, painful or pleasurable? Can we find connection to the stable, peaceful inner being that is undisturbed by the changing world around us? Though yoga promises that we may avoid suffering yet to come (Yoga Sutra II.16), it is a wise person who recognizes that even pleasurable experiences may be marked with pain (Yoga Sutra II.15).

Yoga brings awareness to the causes of all our suffering, the five obstacles called kleshas: Avidya (spiritual ignorance), Asmita (Ego), Raga (attachment to pleasure), Dvesa (aversion to pain) and Abhinivesha (fear of death, attachment to life) (Yoga Sutras II.2-9).

Avidya and Asmita are easily understood, though not so easily corrected. Avidya, or spiritual ignorance, is merely the fact that we have lost connection to our true, more stable and peaceful inner self. Asmita is not the neutral ego (ahamkara) necessary to individually relate to the world, but the negative ego that attaches itself to impermanent “things,” clinging desperately to “I,” “me” and “mine.” Avidya and Asmita enable all the other obstacles to blossom through mis-identification and mental distraction.

The other three kleshas can be a bit more difficult to understand, and they create a dilemma for the Western mind. Shouldn’t we fear death, enjoy pleasure and avoid pain? We are challenged to recognize that it is not the experience of pleasure and pain in particular, but how we react to them that creates our problems. We label experiences as “positive” or “negative,” as things to avoid or crave, and get stuck in a vicious cycle of temporary elation followed by crushing disappointment.

Yoga’s eight steps give us all the tools we may need to connect to a deeper sense of contentment through all of life’s ever-changing experiences. As we become less attached to impermanent things, we become less disturbed when unwanted things happen and less driven by only pleasurable things. This does not mean the experiences of pleasure and pain cease to exist. It means that as we experience them, we recognize their impermanence and do not attach to their outcomes. Our suffering eases, and we are able to move through obstacles more smoothly.

Through yoga, experiences of pain and pleasure can stop being a dilemma of opposites. We can begin to see that every experience gives us an opportunity to live life more fully and clearly. We may become aware that pain can sometimes be a teacher rather than a hurt; and that pleasure may be a guide rather than a goal. And it is the practice of yoga that can teach us to tell the difference.

For more information about Pranayama Yoga Studio, visit or call (815) 968-9642.

From the March 27-April 2, 2013, issue

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