Sit with Less Pain - Introduction

Gentle Yoga for Meditators and Everyone Else

In this book, I offer not only practical stretches to alleviate tense or achy bodies but also movements that invite the mind to anchor into the body as a form of meditation. Many of the benefits of doing yoga are well known: reducing stress by slowing and deepening the breath; calming the nervous system and relaxing muscles, ligaments, and tendons; increasing the efficiency of the all the systems of the body; strengthening the immune system and bringing balance to the whole hormonal system; encouraging the flow of all bodily fluids (blood, lymph, cerebrospinal fluid, etc.). Additionally, deep breathing enhances the work of the digestive, pulmonary, and cardiovascular systems and massages all the internal organs. Many people rely on yoga to prevent or heal back or joint injury, to align and strengthen muscles and bones. Yogis have known for thousands of years that their practices have kept them healthy and strong. As more research is done in the West, the substantiated list of benefits continues to grow.

Yoga has specific benefits for those of us who spend long stretches of time sitting in meditation. There are particular parts of the body that need to be in alignment to stay flexible and strong in order to maintain a comfortable sitting practice. Many folks report achy necks and shoulders, weak middle or lower backs, tight hip joints, or excruciating pain in their knees. I have heard some meditators report loss of circulation in their hands and feet, eyestrain, or headache. We each have our weak areas and places we carry stress. The good news is that simple yoga practices can prevent and remedy many of these
problems.

One of the most important benefits of yoga is its invitation into the present reality of one’s own body: what hurts, what is pleasant, one’s particular rhythms of breath and heart beat. In order to be awake, we must not just think about, not just notice, but fully enter into the sensations of knees throbbing and breath moving. Instead of avoiding the complaints of our body, we can honor each sensation as an aspect of our current reality. This allows us to see more clearly the places we hold tight and therefore gives us a greater possibility of wholly accepting and then releasing those places. The path of liberation leads us to know intimately the layer cake of related attachments of body, mind, emotions, habits, and patterns. The stretching and deep breathing of yoga give us an opportunity to recognize and either dissolve those attachments or find skillful means to meet them.

Yoga can bring us into the authentic embodiment of each moment. When we pay full attention during a forward bend, we can drop all memories of how our back has been, judgment of how it should be, worries about how it may get worse, or fantasies of how to make it better. All there is in that moment is the stretch, the breath, and any physical changes or insights as they occur. Yoga used this way is not separate from meditation practice—it becomes the practice. By fully sinking into the specific sensations of each pose, we create the possibility of relinquishing the usual busyness of mind and expanding beyond the usual constrictions of the body, beyond the boundary of “this self.”

We can create regular yoga sessions for ourselves and take the visceral awareness this practice promotes into both our formal meditations and into our every day lives. We can cultivate a larger yoga: an ability to align with our body while sitting, walking, washing the dishes, or climbing into bed at night. We can cultivate mindfulness of what changes with each movement and of the stillness that remains even as we move through our days.

 

I have been teaching yoga at meditation retreats for over thirty years. The feedback I hear most often is that a body free from tension and pain allows for easier sitting and a quieter mind. Yoga can help us go beyond watching the movements of body and mind; it allows us to become “bodymind,” to embody this one thing we always are. My hope is that these stretches help you as much as they have helped me, so that we all can sit deeply and live with grace and flexibility in all circumstances.

 

How to cite this document:
© Jean Erlbaum, Sit with Less Pain (Wisdom Publications, 2014)

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