Dukkha, Sukha, and a Pain in the Gut

My initial approach to grieving was to tighten the reigns on my health and fitness habits, the idea being that if I was feeling like crap mentally at least I could feel good physically. You’d think that as a yoga teacher I would know better and realize that the mental state inherently affects the physical state but being told something 100 times pales in comparison to going through it yourself. Experience is the best teacher and, for better or worse, I keep learning the same lesson over and over. It all started last week on the day Eve would have turned 6 months old. It was one of the many tough days that have come out of nowhere and hit my unsuspecting psyche like a ton of bricks. Upon returning home from work I saw that Jed’s car was not in the driveway and since I expected him to be at home I gave him a call. He was at the cemetery, visiting Eve, the same ton of bricks had hit him too. I turned the car around and drove to him. As I knelt down at her grave I felt something shift, the familiar pang in my heart, the lump in my throat…every time I leave her there feels like that long drive home from the hospital after delivery. All I want is to take my baby home.

In the hours and days following I was determined to keep on keeping on. I wanted to have a “normal” 4th of July weekend and not fall down the rabbit hole of grief that I’ve ducked into and out of (mostly into) during the last 6 months. As it turned out my body had other plans and after a quick Friday morning run I was doubled over with stomach pain. My stomach is always the first area to be affected by stress, not uncommon since physiologically it is known as the second brain. Usually I can control things pretty well with diet and exercise but even after spending the majority of the weekend practicing restorative yoga and concocting stomach friendly recipes it took me many days to get relief.  When the pain finally let up it was a glorious feeling.

In yoga the sanskrit word dukkha is used to describe the uncomfortable parts of the practice. It is commonly translated as “suffering”. In a yoga class the dukkha poses are difficult to sustain.  They make your muscles burn and ache.  Some good examples would be isometric holds such as plank and chair or deep hip openers like pigeon and cow face. They are the poses you can’t wait to get out of. When experiencing dukkha the breath becomes particularly important. Where you might grunt in weight lifting you breathe in yoga. It’s good training for the body but even better training for the mind. It teaches students how to stay calm during times of distress, to not only endure but to relax into discomfort.

On the flip side is sukha. Sukha is the calm after the storm, the moment when tension is released. It is commonly translated as “bliss”. The sukha poses are restorative and comfortable like child’s pose and savasana.  They are the poses you can’t wait to get into.  In these poses deep, slow breathing comes easily.

It seems that in yoga, as in life, we need both. We need dukkha to appreciate sukha. Though unpleasant, dukkha calls attention to areas of weakness and allows us to make them stronger. It puts us to the test and gives us confidence when we come out on the other side. Sukha is the other side. It’s that place we keep trying to get to and where we wish we could always remain.

Fitness, even aside from yoga, is built on dukkha and sukkha. Pushing through a high intensity cardio interval is dukkha. Getting to the rest period is sukkha. Getting out of bed for an early morning run is dukkha. Having a refreshing glass of water afterwards is sukkha. Finishing any workout is sukkha! The ultimate goal of any fitness program is to experience more sukkha. We work out to experience more bliss day to day, everyday. Having a healthy body affords us a better life experience overall, but this is where it gets a bit more complicated. Focusing only on fitness of the body only takes us so far. Sometimes we can do everything possible to be “fit” but to be truly “well” we have to pay attention to the emotional state.  In this way exercise becomes a tonic for both the body and the mind. For me last weekend this meant trading in my usual upbeat running station on Pandora for one with slow, sad songs. It meant opting for restorative yoga at home alone instead of a more rigorous practice at the gym. I may have burned a few less calories but it allowed me to connect with my daughter and heal a part of me that, due to lack of attention, I hadn’t even realized was broken.

The past 6 months have been full of “dukkha”. I want to fast forward to a better time but unfortunately life doesn’t work that way. The best we can do during tough times is appreciate little moments of “sukha” and breathe through all the rest.  Whether we practice in a gym, a park, or a quiet space within our own home, a good fitness routine can help train the body and mind to tend towards resilience and an overall better quality of life.