What is the difference between pain and intensity?

One of the skills we develop as yoga practitioners is the ability to distinguish between pain and intensity. What do you think this difference is? Take a moment to think about this and write down your answer.

Pain, at least within the context of our yoga asana practice, is usually a sharp sensation that eases as soon as we move out of a pose that caused it. Intensity, on the other hand, tends to be a duller sensation: it might subtly increase as you hold a pose until it peaks, then it decreases and might even disappear.

Pain is a useful signal, but not a sensation in which we want to remain for any amount of time while practicing. It alerts us to something not being quite right, and we need to make a change to correct whatever that is. It’s possible that you are out of alignment, causing a strain to a ligament; for example, if your knee falls in towards your big toe during a bent knee standing pose (such as warrior I or II), then the inside of the knee might hurt, signaling this misalignment. A sharp pain in the back while rolling up from a forward fold might indicate a herniated disc or a pinched nerve.

Intensity is a normal and healthy part of our practice, and one which we ought to welcome. Intensity allows us to meet our edge, contemplate it, and move the boundary a little further out. This can take the form of stretching a little further in a pose, or becoming just that little bit stronger each time we practice. Embracing intensity by focusing fully on how it feels transforms it. Instead of tensing and cringing away from the sensation, leaning into it and breathing signal the body that everything is OK.

I often compare meeting our intensity edge to walking to the edge of a cliff: we walk to the edge, we peek over, we take in the view and breathe; but, we don’t jump off the edge! I suggest that my students go to an intensity level of seven or eight out of 10, no more – the body (and mind) begin to fight back beyond that point.

If these concepts are completely new to you, see whether you can find an experienced teacher to help guide you in these explorations. The concepts are subtle, yet vital to one’s mental, physical and spiritual development through yoga.