Sitting With Discomfort

Imagine you’re sitting on a train. Not a plush, air-conditioned, Western European train. It’s hot and sticky. The seats are fake leather, so the layers of grime they’ve collected scrapes off on your skin. Your seat is a bench with a straight back, and there’s not enough room to recline. Maybe there will be in a few hours, you hope. The air smells faintly of burning trash, and the train is crowded. You can’t understand anybody, but they’re very curious about you. You’re sweating through your clothes a little bit, and luckily the faintest draft from the window finds its way to your seat. You’re going to be on this train for 34 hours, surviving off greasy street food and tiny Dixie cups of tea. Welcome to India.

This was my experience traveling from Chennai in the south of India to Delhi in the north. It was one of the most beautiful and memorable experiences of my entire trip. The sweat and grime all washed off easily, but the peaceful sound of the train rumbling through wheat fields still remains. This trip could have been terrible. It was physically stifling. I could have told myself ahead of time that it was going to be so bad that I would have decided to fly instead. What is memorable about a two hour flight? I’ve been on train trips in the US and Europe, but now I’ve been on a train trip. This is what trains are all about. It was beautiful. It was not comfortable.

What’s the first thing we do when we’re uncomfortable? We try to fix it. If we have enough foresight, we try to avoid it. This is why we stay in unhealthy relationships, and why we pay more to take a sterile route from A to B. What if we didn’t? What if we looked discomfort in the eye, and instead of backing away, we just smiled at it?

The comforts of American society have taught us to avoid this at all costs. Get a softer couch! Don’t let your belly ever feel hungry! Take this drug or that supplement so you feel good all the time! Is your kid annoying? Try Ritalin! Can’t write that paper? Try Adderol! Body hurts? Try Percocet! Now obviously these drugs can have positive effects, and when we need them to function, we can take advantage of the wonders of modern science. But they are also symptomatic of a wider trend in our society: we avoid pain and suffering rather than explore, confront, and sit with it.

For me, this is what yoga is all about. Yoga is not comfortable. It will never be comfortable. That’s the whole point. There is no final destination of yoga, no ultimate understanding (at least not in this lifetime). It’s about finding the edge of comfort and going a little bit beyond. That edge might not always be in the same place, but going just beyond it is always similar. The sensation of muscles stretching or tensing is the same sensation as pain. In yoga, it is controlled and done with intention. We sit with it. We explore the sensation, and learn to see it as being just that: a sensation in our minds. It is not the world ending. As long as we’re being healthy and aware, our muscles will not break (well, actually, they will, but only a little).

Why do it? Discomfort is all around us, suffering is all around us. Practices like yoga where we sit with discomfort allow us to train our minds to start to be okay with that. Meditation does the same thing. We learn to recognize that the constant fluctuations of thought in our minds are the same as sensations as physical suffering in our bodies. If we spend our lives running away from discomfort, we’re never going to find true comfort, no matter how soft our couch. If we learn to sit with it and just be, however, we’ll be comfortable everywhere, even on a sweaty train for 34 hours. Even when things don’t go exactly as we want them to.

Have you ever had your heart broken? It’s the worst thing. So, so bad. There are all sorts of things we can do to cope with that pain. We can drink, we can eat, we can sleep, we can watch sappy movies until our eyes bleed. At some point, though, if we hope to move beyond the heartbreak, we have to just sit with the pain and start to accept it. It hurts now. A lot. It won’t hurt forever. But it really hurts now. And that’s okay. It hurts because we’re emotive, caring, sensitive beings. Other people might just be the most important thing in our lives. It sucks to feel like we’ve lost that. But it’s beautiful to be reminded of the truth of our humanity. This sensation of pain in our minds is also not the world ending. It is a sensation. It has arrived, and it will pass. It’s okay to feel it. It’s good to feel it. It makes us more resilient, better equipped to face life compassionately in the future.

How can we practice sitting with discomfort? Things like yoga and meditation are great, intentional techniques for it, but honestly it can be done anywhere. Get the worst chair at the conference table? Make it work. Ameliorate the pain but sitting well and with good posture, but also listen to your body. What is it telling you? It doesn’t like something. Okay. Why? Is it going to damage you? Maybe if you sit in the chair and slouch for hours every day, but probably not if you sit here for an hour. It’s okay if it’s not the most comfortable thing right now. Maybe you got in a fight with a friend or loved one. Okay. It happens. Maybe if you can sit with the pain and examine the sensation you’ll be in a better place to work it out with him later on. Maybe you’ve decided you want to start running, but your legs are sore from trying it a couple days ago. Well, first of all, running again is the best way to get rid of the soreness. But maybe try going for a run and seeing what the pain feels like. Is it a sharp, joint pain? Okay, stop running, that’s bad. Is it a diffuse, soft muscle pain? That’s okay. That’s what legs feel like when they work. It’s what our bodies do. Each day, we can find small ways to practice being with discomfort. I’m not suggesting we all become masochists, just that we work on being okay with things being not okay. It’s a practice that gradually makes everything more okay.

Train Yoga

I recently discovered that the road to the place I love is, in fact, not a road at all. It’s a pair of iron beams, running parallel in perfect unison for miles and miles and hundreds of miles more. And when I say perfect unison, I mean close but with all sorts of bumps and divots, because this ride is not exactly “smooth.” But in India, the train is by far the cheapest and best way to get from Point A to Point B.

This time Point A is a bustling city in the South Indian region of Tamil Nadu: Chennai, formerly known as Madras. Point A is also a place of seeking, of curiosity, of wondering what the world has in store for me, of imagining all the strange creatures that could be living in my water, or worse, already in my stomach. Point A is an American who thinks he loves yoga, but isn’t sure what’s up with all the dots and lines on peoples’ foreheads.

Point B is harder to define. You could call it New Delhi, or probably Rishikesh shortly thereafter, but it would be more accurate to just label it as “Unknown.” I have some ideas of what Point B might look like, but train rides in India have taught me that Point B is never what you expect. It’s better not to speculate, but of course I can’t resist. Point B is a spiritual place, one with a deep understanding of yoga, of the self (if there is such a thing), of meditation, the mind, humanity. At Point B, I am not going to get sick. There will be naan.

The route from Chennai to Delhi is 2,200 km, but because this is a “Super Fast Express” train, takes a mere 34 hours instead of the 50-60 it would take on the regular “Express” train. For those who haven’t visited the subcontinent, here’s a quick primer on seating classes for Indian trains:

Second Class: Bench seats are completely unreserved and they let as many people on as want to go. This can be chaos and is strongly NOT recommended for trips longer than an hour or two.

Sleeper Class: Each six-foot section of the train is broken into eight bunks. Three tiers on each side of the main compartment, two tiers on the opposite side of the walkway, slightly shorter in length.

3A/C: Same as sleeper class, with air conditioning, sheets, and curtains provided for slightly more privacy.

2A/C: Same as 3A/C, with two bunks per side rather than three.

1A/C, EC, CC, Beyond: Various nicer methods of travel which I haven’t explored, some in seats rather than benches, and possibly some in which you practically have a whole cabin to yourself.

Based on a few other medium-length (5-16 hours) train rides I’ve had here, I decided that for the long one I would splurge for the additional comfort of 3A/C. April in India is hot, and although I haven’t seen an actual thermometer in months, I’d say the average temperature has been getting well into the 90’s.

Fate (and my propensity for last-minute planning), however, plays a large role in these decisions, and by the time I booked only Sleeper class was available. No problem, at least it’s cheaper. And by cheaper, I mean dirt cheap. We’re talking $11 for a 34-hour, 2200 km ride. Hence my lack of guilt at the idea of “splurging” for the 3A/C ticket, which would have been about $20.

I should add that I’m traveling with a small statue of the Indian god Ganesha in my bag. It is important to have some divine intervention here. He’s the one with the elephant head, famous for his ability to remove obstacles. So he basically hooks me up on this one: my overnight bus to Chennai drops me directly at the train station two hours before my scheduled departure, leaving me plenty of time for a leisurely breakfast of puri (puffy fried dough) with the typical sides of potato and coconut curries.

The train is not especially late – the rail system is the largest employer in India, and one of the most organized and reliable institutions in the country. Sleeper class is as expected, but the car is older than most I’ve been on: the power is spotty, the paint job flaked, the dirt slightly more caked than on the newer cars. There are bars on the windows, which from photos my mom thinks makes the car look like a prison. But it means the windows open all the way, letting in plenty of fresh, fast-moving air to combat the heat. (Except that fresh air in India is usually hazy with smoke from fires in the fields, and more commonly, piles of burning trash and plastic. This is a whole other story, but basically it’s a huge bummer.)

I get comfortable and immediately take a nap in my upper berth to recover from the poor night sleep I got on the overnight bus. I came prepared for this journey: fully-charged iPod, a journal with plenty of ideas to hash out, War and Peace. Somehow I always end up reading epic Russian novels in tropical places. The train car is hot and the seats are the kind of fake-leather-polyester that gets sticky and releases layers of stored dirt when you sweat on it. Despite my smiles and brief exchanges in halted English/sign language, my compartment-mates seem firmly bent on strewing their belongings far and wide across the benches. This feels like a subtle claiming of territory, a gentle push-back against the white privilege they know I experience throughout the country. I have no way to test this theory. It doesn’t matter – yoga has opened my hips and legs in the last few months. I can squeeze into small spaces for long periods of time.

The trip continues: six, ten, fourteen hours. A decent night sleep, twenty-four, thirty hours. The situation doesn’t exactly get more comfortable. But I start to realize something. Despite whatever difficulties or confusions arise, I still feel calm, relaxed. I’ve adjusted to the discomforts to the point that they don’t feel like discomforts. I am being here with myself, smiling. Occasionally I’ll engage in brief conversation with a curious Indian. At one point a young guy sees I have a ukulele and pulls down his tabla from the upper berth. We jam out for a half-hour and draw a crowd from the surrounding compartments. Even with the layer of grime that has slowly coated my travel clothes and exposed body parts, this trip is really cool. Life is good.

And then it hits me. I’ve been telling myself that yoga, Rishikesh, some vague Point B, is my destination. But I’m doing yoga right here. I am where I am, right now. This is what yoga is all about. I’m exploring the present moment, sitting with discomfort without letting my mind go down the drain. That’s straight from the Yoga Sutras. I’m doing Train Yoga. I would market this back in the States, if only we had a functional rail system.

This trip will give me an opportunity to practice all sorts of more “traditional” forms of yoga, ones with asanas and pranayama and downward-facing dog and (I hope) happy-baby pose, but for now I am glad to be able to sit on a train and just be. To feel the wind on my face, to watch the corn and wheat and cotton fields pass by, to sit comfortably, to breathe. They say India will change you. I’d have to say they’re right.

Yoga yoga yoga!

Iyengar Yoga/I am not a Yogi

I have a confession to make. I’m not doing yoga how you’re supposed to. I don’t even want to. But I’m going to keep doing it anyway, and even teach.

I just finished a 5-day Iyengar yoga course near Dharamsala. Iyengar yoga was founded by B.K.S. Iyengar, who is basically the biggest yoga all-star in recent history. Definitely top three. This course was taught by Sharat Arora, a student of Iyengar’s, so this is the closest I’ve ever gotten to the source. I should start by saying that I enjoyed the course thoroughly. Sharat is an amazing teacher, full of life and inspiration. In five 3.5-hour sessions, my practice has been fine-tuned, and in some places completely overhauled.

Here’s the deal: Iyengar yoga is focused strongly on proper alignment and balance of the body. It doesn’t care much about strength or flexibility, and all sorts of props (blocks, belts, chairs, bolsters, blankets, etc) are used to make it possible for anyone to get into the best alignment in each pose. The teacher put a lot of emphasis on relaxing into each pose while maintaining alignment in order to release all the tension in the body.

Philosophically, the idea here is that balance in the body creates balance in the mind, and releasing tension in the body slowly eliminates tension in the mind, which is the root of craving and aversion. All this is more compelling and intricate when properly described, and my experience has suggested to me that it’s completely true. The teacher remarked that only this type of balance is “yoga.” All the forms which emphasize strength or flexibility are not real yoga, rather acrobatics or calisthenics. And on the my fundamental level, I have to agree with this as well.

The problem with strength or flexibility yoga, is that the poses continually create more craving to do harder poses, or to go deeper into the ones you know. Most recently for me this has been about handstand and scorpion. I want to be able to stand comfortably on my hands, and I want to be able to touch the back of my head with my feet. This is generally kind of weird, is not sustainable for the whole life, and is definitely not aligned with yogic thinking. Iyengar yoga does a lot better in this regard. There aren’t that many poses, they’re all accessible, and even more so with the props. You don’t have to go deep into the pose to get the benefits. As long as you keep proper alignment, you’ll reduce the tension in your body and become calm, more free from desire.

But I still want to be able to do these harder things. I want to deepen my yoga practice and my poses, to be stronger and more flexible. The more I learn about actual yoga philosophy, the more I realize that this freedom from desire is not really what I’m looking for in my practice. Maybe from meditation, but not from the yoga itself. Instead, I use the poses to balance my life on a larger scale. I plan to keep doing all sorts of things that create imbalance in my body: running, rock climbing, having worldly possessions and desires. To be totally immersed in the yogic life, all these things must be given up. Other physical activities just create tension and desires.

They’re also fun. The occasional frisbee tournament or running race is thrilling. Getting strong for rock climbing allows more rocks to be climbed. Life may not be able climbing more rocks, but I like it. Basically, all these imbalanced activities also create powerful experiences. Experiences broaden the mind, expand horizons and comfort zones, give meaning. A wealth of experience is not necessary for finding enlightenment or “inner peace,” and in fact based on this line of thinking, probably makes those things harder to reach.

These other forms of yoga, however, are wonderful for reducing the tension created by imbalanced experiences, for calming the mind, and for living a more examined life. Some people might be ready to go full steam ahead along the yogic path (not nearly as exciting as it sounds), and this pure form of Iyengar yoga seems to be a real way to do that. But I’m not ready to give up the experiential life, full of ups and downs and all-arounds. The world is big. There are so many good people to meet. For now, for me, yoga will make all those experiences better.

Verkala, Muladhara Chakra

I just finished eight days in Verkala, a beautiful paradise cliff town in Kerala, India. This is the place most like the stereotypical paradise I’ve ever been. Fresh papaya, pineapple, grapes, oranges, melons, coconuts everywhere. Still cheap by American standards. With a room at a beautiful homestay (kitchen and yoga terrace included), I was spending about $10-$18/day. Life here can be much cheaper, but this price essential got me a life of luxury.


When we arrived in town, I felt a weight immediately lifted. I realized that travelling in inherently insecure. You never know for certain when or where you’ll next eat, sleep, or use the toilet. In yoga terms, these are all functions of the Muladhara chakra, or root chakra. If it’s not satisfied, you can’t progress to higher levels of existence: creativity, courage, emotional connection, communication, wisdom, and universal connection. When the root chakra is closed or blocked, you get stressed, feel uncertain and insecure.

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This is the best my phone can do, but you get the idea


Arriving in Verkala immediately opened my root chakra. The place is so calm, familiar without my ever having been there before. The main hangout is built up on a cliff overlooking the Arabian Sea, which is basically the ocean. There are palm trees swaying in the wind, and everyone expects there to be a lot of travelers, so you don’t feel like a spectacle walking around. There is still a slight feeling of being a commodity there, but nowhere near as much as in Kovalam. Kovalam is much more oriented toward full-package tourism, while Verkala is full of fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants backpackers. Basically it feels like it could be home. It would be easy to stay a month and work on some big projects.


With my root chakra opened up, I felt a surge of creative energy. I decided to get started writing a book, to ask around for students looking for yoga classes, to paint and draw and read. The stay ended up being fantastic. I listened to live music four nights in a row, including my first Indian classical music concert. With some friends from the yoga training, I practiced yoga twice most days. By the last day I taught a class of eight students at 6:30 am on the beach. I taught a few classes of three or four students before it, but this felt like my first real yoga class. Teaching felt great. I’ve got a lot of familiarity and confidence to gain, but it’s so rewarding to help people have the experience of yoga.

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My students!

It’s sad to leave Verkala, but there is a lot more left to do. One of our next stops will be Kanyakumari. It’s the southernmost tip of India and has a view of the confluence of three oceans. There’s apparently not much to do there, but it’s said to be the physical manifestation of the Muladhara chakra in India. There are seven places in India that correspond to the seven chakras, with Kanyakumari as the furthest south, and Mt. Kailash, now in Tibet, as the farthest north. Mt. Kailash is the crown chakra, and is one of the most holy places in the world. But for now, I’m happy to have my root chakra taken care of.

Love the Practice, Not the Result

Everyone’s heard that we’re supposed to enjoy the journey, not the destination. It’s trite to repeat it, but somehow that phrase has never done it for me. It doesn’t make a lot of sense, or maybe the words just don’t sound right in my brain. But the sentiment is 100% crucial for growing in positive direction. For me, it’s much more useful to think of it in terms of practice and results. Love the practice, not the result.

My biggest experience with this recently is with yoga. Yoga is nothing but practice. That’s all there is. No goal. Let’s face it, we’re probably not making it to samadhi/nirvana/ultimate reality in this lifetime. Maybe it’s cool to be able to do a handstand or put your foot behind your head, but yoga isn’t the fastest way to achieve those goals either. It’s a way to slowly improve the mind and the body, and the pleasure is in the daily experience of the action.

The same is true of art, writing, anything creative. If I ever think about painting in terms of “I need to paint something awesome that people are going to love and put in a museum and make me rich,” I’m never going to paint. I’ll be stymied with fear of failure, because not reaching that goal would be failure if that was my only reason for doing it. Instead, I sit down to paint because I love the feeling of painting. The brush moving over canvas, leaving a bright color in its wake. Sometimes it evens ends up being a piece I like to look at when it’s done. Not always, but often enough, and more often the more I practice.

You’re probably saying, “Yeah right, but some of us have jobs” (that’s fair, but sometimes I do have a job, too). There are definitely times when we need to put the nose to the grindstone, get some hard work done just for the sake of finishing it. Doing your taxes, final exams, the presentation for a client meeting tomorrow. That’s all well and good, and we do need to find the energy to make it happen. But for the bigger things in life, the ones that take up most of our time and most of our emotional energy, we need to enjoy the daily practice. There’s no reason to try to be a professional musician if you hate to sit down with your instrument and hammer away at etudes for hours a day. If three hours of yoga practice everyday sounds like the most boring and/or exhausting thing ever, maybe yoga teacher is not the right direction for you. And it turns out that loving the practice does lead to being great at something. It takes time, and sneaks up on you while you’re busy focusing on the thing itself, not the goal.

What do you love to work on? Art? Writing? Programming? Some people love Python, and that is awesome, go for it. Sharing your knowledge with others? Helping people make ends meet? Brewing beer? What can you sit down to do, be fully present in the act of the practice, yet removed from some distant outcome? I believe this is one of the most important components in a life lived consciously. I certainly have a way to go to answer these questions, but it’s a journey worth being on.