Mental Laziness and Pain

"Old man, stiff man, weak man, sick man, they can all take practice, but only a lazy man cannot take practice."
 - Sri K. Pattabhi Jois
 "Now I ask the reader to pay attention to what I am going to say.  When we venture into some affair expecting a huge profit, only by being prepared to suffer any obstacles that we may encounter along the way will we then accrue the desired benefits.  If you leave it halfway, it is like falling down.  I ask you to bear the difficulty and pain you may encounter." 
- Krishnamacharya
This weekend I will finish my 500 hour RYT certification.  Next month, I will begin a 2-year yoga therapy training here in Austin.  I am on a mission to build a therapeutic haven within the Ashtanga community, where evidence-based therapeutics are largely lacking and dogmatic adherence to the method is a risk some students run.

My approach toward my own practice has always been therapeutic.  Not having had health insurance for most of my adult life, I have endeavored to heal myself with yoga many times.  Through practice, I have overcome stress-induced migraines which plagued me from a tragically young age.  I have worked within the sequence to rehabilitate sprained ankles, a frozen shoulder, two bulging discs, a host of knee injuries, a foot sprain, a wrist sprain, and various muscle pulls, tweaks, and tears.  With Ashtanga yoga, I have healed addiction, depression, and heartache.  I have overcome nihilism, pessimism, hostility, and hate.

It is my firm belief that, when approached with the right balance of faith, curiosity, diligence, and determination, the Ashtanga practice can be an incredibly effective tool for physical healing and personal growth.  But this practice has also taught me to discern truth and to love truth, so here's a little truth for you: Ashtanga is not magic.  It doesn't work if you don't do it.  It doesn't work if you don't pay attention.  It doesn't work if you don't acknowledge and respond appropriately to your pain.

Some discomfort in practice is inevitable, even necessary, but persistent aches and injuries will not heal if you don't change the way you practice, no matter how much you hope or trust they will.  Most of you will recognize the famous Jois-ism about how the only people who cannot practice yoga are lazy people, and this might be accurate.  One would think that if there is anything an every day Ashtangi is not, that thing is lazy.  On the other hand, the Ashtanga method lends itself to mental laziness.  We do the same practice every day, and we like the way we do it.  It is so tempting to seek familiarity over function.  I see this tendency so often in my students, and in myself.  Mental laziness perpetuates our suffering, an effect that is augmented if we continue to move forward through the sequence without making the necessary change.

I have been reading Krishnamacharya's Yoga Makaranda and found the quote above to be especially provocative.  Krishnamacharya himself asks us to "bear the difficulty and pain" we may encounter, but it seems to me that to simply bear it is not enough.  This yoga is a mental practice.  Through the precise pairing of breath and movement, we train the mind.  If that pairing is compromised or ignored in favor of postural acquisition or attainment of sensation, suffering will ensue.  If that suffering is merely ignored or begrudgingly borne, injury is likely to occur.  Your pain is not a punishment, it is a call to action.  Do your practice.  Pay attention.  Heed that call.


  1. I just wanted to thank you for being brave enough to state your wisdom. So much of what one hears in the ashtanga community seems to me to be faith-based and unhelpful. Yoga never gives us authority to switch off the mind - only to still its chatter so that we can observe what really is. If what we then notice is harm, then it is our responsibility to avoid it, and that includes self-harm. Another great Jois-ism goes something like "Body not stiff. Mind stiff." There are many ways that the body can be induced or freed to heal itself, and ashtanga yoga is one of them. I suspect that the key skill is in understanding the difference between discipline and dogma. Thanks again.

  2. "Some discomfort in practice is inevitable, even necessary, but persistent aches and injuries will not heal if you don't change the way you practice, no matter how much you hope or trust they will"

    This is definitely true. Being stubborn has no room in yoga. If you keep up with the same type of practice that gives you those persistent aches and pains, then you're not getting the full benefits of yoga. Yoga is designed to loosen the mind and body, and any form of discomfort that lasts means that there's something wrong with your technique.

  3. Great insight on pain. Sometimes we feel pain as a form of suffering over something that we have done wrong. By seeing pain as a call to action to correct something, the mind becomes active and the body responds accordingly. One will be then compelled to seek to correct an imbalance and seek better enlightenment.

  4. Thank you so much for this thoughtful and beautifully articulated post. I've found the same healing to be true in my own practice, and it's encouraging to read your account. I also appreciate the insightful viewpoint on how to interpret pain in yoga. Wishing you all best in your continued practice and sharing your therapeutic aim. The world needs this. :)

  5. The way you write is such flowing. Keep writing. www.bellofpeace.org