What yoga is teaching me about discomfort

As yoga teaches me to listen to my body, more and more I realise that my default position is to force myself to continue to feel discomfort after I’ve identified it. For example, if I start to feel hungry earlier than the time I had planned to take my lunch break at work, I will actively do things to try to supress those feelings rather than simply feed my body.

It’s not just hunger either – there are so many discomforts I endure for fundamentally strange reasons: back pain which can be eased by simply standing up from my desk for thirty seconds; feelings of anxiety which could pass more quickly if I simply take some time to examine the source; loneliness which could be alleviated by reaching out to a friend – the list seems endless.

It came to me today as I put off eating despite feelings of extreme hunger because I wanted to take a later lunch break to break up what is going to be a long day at work more neatly. I did a weird cost-benefit analysis – I realised that the gain to be had from eating later was not worth the discomfort I would experience while I was doing it. What was I really trying to gain? Who was I trying to impress? Would it really matter if later that day I got hungry or bored again before I went for dinner? What would be the consequence of feeling hungry or bored later? Could the answer really be as simple as eating again or taking a short break?

Why am I doing it?

The realisation about the hunger thing is not new – I feel like I have it two or three times a month. But when I started to examine it, I put it down to a lifetime of dieting and teaching myself that my body couldn’t be trusted and I must carefully schedule and plan my food or else <insert consequence here>. And I think that’s partially true. I definitely know how to ignore hunger – for the longest time hunger was the default position – so it makes sense that when I’m stressed or busy or just not thinking I revert to that place.

But thinking about it more I realise that it’s deeper than just hunger and it’s deeper than just habit. I realise there is a part of me that sees suffering as worthy. That somehow if I endure just a little more discomfort, just a little more hunger, just a little more pain, just a little more distress, I am enough. I may not be perfect but at least I’m trying. I am doing enough to be acceptable. I am doing enough to be worthy. I am doing enough to be loved.

Even worse, maybe it’s not about aiming for ‘better’ (whatever that means), but perhaps a teeny-tiny part of it is punishing myself for not being good enough. And once I’ve punished myself enough, I’m allowed to pretend for a little while that I’m as good as the people in the world around me.

And the real madness of it is that the only person I’m trying to convince is myself. I hardly ever tell people that I’m experiencing hunger or pain or discomfort or anxiety or loneliness but am just ‘pushing through’. Certainly no-one in my life would expect me to regularly force myself to experience discomfort in order to meet a certain standard (which most of the time I have created for myself). No-one is standing over me with a stick saying ‘go hungry for ten more minutes and you will be acceptable as a human being.’

Obviously sometimes discomfort is unavoidable. Sometimes it has to be experienced. Sometimes you’re in a meeting and can’t leave it to eat. Sometimes you live with health difficulties that mean you experience levels of pain or discomfort for a period (or always). Sometimes you have to supress feelings in order to get through a period of time.

But what yoga is teaching me about discomfort is that it needn’t be my default position, and that I am allowed to feel nourished, comfortable, whole and loved.

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