Getting Comfortable with Discomfort

I had a really interesting conversation yesterday with a well known business coach. While I’m not sure it’s a formal relationship I want or need, one thing really stood out. She called me out on my tendency to get comfortable and relax into that comfort to my own detriment. I was reflecting on that all evening and I have to admit it’s pretty spot on. It’s even true in my yoga practice. I tend to coast when I can get away with it, working consistently but avoiding what feels too hard. Even in a set practice like Ashtanga vinyasa, there are ways to be a little bit lazy. Recently though I’ve been shifting that tendency to cruise, and it seems apt that just as I’m finding the real edges in my yoga practice, I’m being asked to push myself out there in other areas of life too.

In my house we have long conversations about death and dying. It’s sort of par for the course when I work so much with people with life threatening illnesses, and my hubby consults in palliative care. We both feel passionate about living well and dying well too. Yet we acknowledge our own fear of death. I always want my clients to thrive and often they are working hard to embrace everything they can do to keep living. Sometimes they want to talk about death and I can go there with them, but really I am hoping for a long and happy life for everyone. It’s a kind of avoidance. We all know that bodies don’t last forever, that things will eventually dissolve, and yet it’s an uncomfortable truth. Being uncomfortable with reality doesn’t make that reality go away.

I often think that yoga is good practice for life, so it stands to reason that practicing getting up close with fear and discomfort will be helpful in the bigger picture. Even so, I’m keen to avoid what frightens me if I can, steering conversations, practices and life paths away from the unknown, untested or disliked. It takes discipline to keep looking at my own habits and this coach saw immediately one of my least helpful repeated practices.

Could it be that I’m a little bit afraid of hard work? I don’t think so, I have a lot of stamina and I’ve managed a fair bit of productive work in my life so far. Maybe it’s a fear of success? That sounds like a Seinfeld episode! I might be scared of the unknown but I’m more afraid of a life of playing small and safe. I want to play big in every area of life that matters to me, so I guess it’s clear that I need to get brave and step in to my fears.

Recently I received a new posture to add to my practice. The asana triggers discomfort in my hips, and I can’t yet complete the full expression of the pose. My inner critic voice kicks in each day on the mat telling me off for being inadequate, and suggesting that perhaps I shouldn’t bother. The wiser part of myself knows that by repeatedly stepping in to that discomfort day after day, my comfort zone will eventually expand. I’ll be able to go deeper without freaking out, I’ll get stronger as I develop a tolerance for discomfort.

A yoga therapy trainee shared with me recently a case she was struggling with. Her client was complaining of pain in even the simplest restorative postures. We discussed the client’s back story and it was clear that there was no pathology there, what the client was experiencing was an intolerance to discomfort due to the novelty of the movements being taught. The therapist was able to understand that discomfort exists on a continuum. What is normal to her after years of yoga and other physical activity, is very far from normal for someone who has been sedentary for a long time. It’s the same in any kind of exercise I think – at first it feels awful, unusual sensations get interpreted as uncool, but with trust in the system/practitioner, repetition, and a calm, accepting, gradual approach the novel becomes normal and the comfort zone expands.

That’s what I see happening in my life currently. I’m getting more comfortable with playing big and facing my future, despite all the unknowns. It’s scary to be vulnerable, to open up by blogging and putting my thoughts and work out into the world for others to judge. It’s petrifying to show up emotionally unguarded, yet that’s what I want to do. Risks are there, fear is there, but as Sharath Jois says, ‘no fear, no fun’.