When I was invited to write this blog with a focus on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, I recognized the immediate sensation of doubt that I have in certain asana. I am a novice with yoga philosophy, so I decided to approach the sutras like a challenging asana. So here goes, I’ll set aside my doubtful thoughts and see what happens! Then I’ll set aside any sense of success or failure, and try again with openness the next time.
I was immediately taken with Sutras 1.5-1.11 about the five changing states or fluctuations of the mind also called movements of consciousness (which can be detrimental or not, painful or not). The five changing states are: correct knowledge, illusion, delusion, sleep and memory. I was particularly curious about the concept of illusion in Sutra 1.8:
“Illusory or erroneous knowledge is based on non-fact or the non-real” (Iyengar, Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali). Another translation uses the language “Error is false knowledge stemming from the incorrect apprehension [of something]” (Bryant, The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali).
I’ve been pondering how pain can sometimes be an illusion. Or if not an illusion, I can misconceive the pain messages and memories that my body sends. This is a kind of error or falsehood and it can lead me to completely misjudge my abilities and overlook opportunities for growth and healing.
I first began exploring yoga in the late 90’s, but only returned to yoga classes several years ago, partly because of my experiences with pain. I’d had two herniated lumbar discs and a year’s worth of serious pain. By the time I entered the yoga studio again, the pain had mostly retreated which is an entirely different story. The memory of pain, mingled with current discomforts and stiffness, still shadows me daily.
I realized through my recovery that pain is terribly complex and that I really only have a cursory understanding of my own experience. Of course pain is very real. Not an illusion. But it also seems that it can take on a life of its own. Pain wants me to think it is solid, immutable, and maybe even all powerful. Perhaps, though, my perceptions and interpretations of pain are in error?
During my year of recovery, I found that I had some power to influence pain. I wasn’t doomed to simply cope. I learned that pain creates a self-reinforcing cycle, if I let it. Pain leads to avoidance and fear of certain movement, which leads to inactivity, which leads to a stiff and inflexible body, which further complicates my pain and creates more fear.
I also found that it is often difficult to name the pain. Is it sharp or dull? Muscle, joint, nerve? Buttock, hip, back? I’ve had a very hard time sorting out what is pain to worry about and what is pain that I can work with and possibly improve. Even worse, though, is not knowing when pain is rooted in my fear. When is my mind and my body memory the culprit, not physical injury? When is pain a “distortion of reality”? When do I have an “erroneous apprehension” of its nature? It’s actually sort of a relief that this sutra helps to point out that I need to consider if pain is an illusion, an error, something I don’t have to always trust.
I came back to yoga for many reasons, but one of those reasons was that I wanted to learn what was “real” and what wasn’t about pain and my body’s abilities and limitations. I didn’t realize that yoga would also help me understand pain in a larger communal context. Pain has seemed like such a solitary experience, but when I attend class, it is clear that this, too, is an illusion. So many of us bring our injuries and limitations, pain and fear into a group of people, most of whom we probably don’t really know. Sometimes we even talk about the pain in front of these “strangers” and then we test out our limitations beside strangers. At least that is what happens when I am truthful.
I’m thankful for the skilled and compassionate teachers, and other dedicated students at IYCD. I watch and learn from you as we all choose to try new things (things that scare me, and I’m guessing sometimes scare you). Your example and presence has allowed me to explore what is real and what is illusion, and to continue to find freedom in my body and mind that I didn’t know existed.
Bettina Harmon-dedicated IYCD student