When yoga doesn’t ‘feel good’

We hear the line repeatedly in modern, Western yoga classes, “Let it feel good. Let it feel juicy. Let it feel yummy. Doesn’t this feel blissful?”

I’ll start with a simple promise: You’ll never hear me say juicy or yummy in a yoga class. Similarly, you’ll never hear me say “brekkie” when referring to breakfast, nor “prezzie” when referring to presents. It’s just not my jam. As a side note, you will perhaps hear me say, “Not my jam.”

I put these slang terms – juicy, yummy, brekkie, prezzie – into one category: words people use to signify they are part of a club. Perhaps “Not my jam” is the same way. Maybe it just belongs to a club that I also belong to unknowingly, which is why I feel I can use it without posing. If there is a club that I belong to, knowingly or unknowingly, it’s a club that stands for honesty. And, I can’t honestly say how a yoga pose feels for you. More than that, I can’t honestly say what “juicy” feels like, so I just won’t say it.

When a yoga teacher instructs you as to how a yoga pose is supposed to feel, it robs you of the chance to discover what it feels like in your body in this moment. Further, if you don’t feel the way the teacher has described, you may think you’re failing. When a teacher says, “This should feel good,” does that mean you should stop if it doesn’t? Well, there are times when that’s probably accurate. There are poses that are intended to be comfortable, and if they are not, then you should stop and ask why. Is there something you can easily do to increase comfort?

Using yoga props is a great example. If you have discomfort that can easily be eliminated by using a prop, then change the pose and use a prop. If you are sitting meditation and have a distraction that can easily be eliminated (a phone ringing, a television noise, a door that needs closing), then by all means eliminate the distraction.

The yoga comes in when the distraction or discomfort cannot be easily eliminated. You get to discover what it is you do when yoga does not, actually, “feel yummy,” and there is no easy way out.

I learned this the very hard way. In 2012, I’d noticed by body responding differently to yoga. I have journal entries documenting the changes, but I persisted in my practice. One day, I was teaching a yoga class when I could not physically lower into yogi squat. I tried to demonstrate it, and my body was too weak and stiff to do a pose that I”d never had so much as a second thought about before. It hit me as a shock.

My response, as noted in my journal entries, was to avoid my yoga mat. As the days got harder, I avoided it more-and-more. The irony is, I actually needed it more-and-more. Many people tried to tell me yoga, meditation, and that if I did, life would return to “feeling good” or yummy or juicy or full of prezzies. It was not. It was full of shitty experiences, pain, and days that felt so “not good” I wasn’t sure I could handle another one.

Returning to my yoga mat took me many detours and a good bit of time. I trained for a half-marathon, running and lifting weights, for the first six months of my treatment. That was my yoga. I didn’t return to my mat in any earnest attempts until my body was prepared to feel good on the mat again. I will never know what I missed out on by not being present for myself in that way.

When I relapsed, I took a different approach. I practiced even when it didn’t feel good. Today, I practice on days I don’t feel good. On those days, I take it very easy. On days when I feel good, I take an ambitious practice. It is a celebration of what I can do, but it’s not a “better” practice than I take on bad days. Learning to honor this ebb and flow of strength and feelings makes life – and yoga – more palatable. Even yummy, you might say.

When things don’t feel good, don’t let anyone tell you they should. Be with your experience, honor it, but don’t dwell on it. Tomorrow’s practice may be different.