Yoga and Optional Misery

   Months ago, I was sitting in a restaurant, and when I looked around, I saw a man sitting two tables away. There was nothing that particularly stood out with this man, except his shirt. I could only read the back, but it said: “Misery is optional”. I would have liked to have seen the front of his shirt, but he was in a private conversation with another person and I didn’t want to interrupt. It immediately brought up a yoga lesson that I’d like to share.

   As we go through life, we inveritably will encounter pain. We will fail a class in school, get cut from the team, lose a job, get our hearts broken, bounce a check, have a car accident, or get sick on vacation. There is no way around ‘pain’. People get sick, and loved ones pass. ‘Pain’ is not an option. However, the story that the ego spins and the drama that it loves to create, is optional. We can say, “I can’t believe I got sick on vacation! It ruined the whole thing! I couldn’t go to the beach, go snorkeling, or attend the barbecue. My entire vacation was awful! And it’s Sue’s fault. If I hadn’t been babysitting the day before I left, I never would have gotten sick. After all, she had a cold, and I was fine until then!” and on and on it goes.

   The ego thrives on creating thoughts (‘good’ and ‘bad’ as that’s its job), and we allow it, we feed it, when we tell everyone we know about our horrible vacation. It just keeps spinning, and the misery grows. Sometimes, the misery grows so much that it affects the relationship with Sue’s parents, and any future plans we might have to take another vacation. When we’re led around by the ego, we allow it to stir up all kinds of trouble. I invite you to think about the man’s shirt in the restaurant: Misery is optional. You got sick on vacation. That’s the pain. The misery is how much attention you feed that event.

   Instead: You got sick on vacation. You rested the first couple of days, sleeping in, getting lots of fluids, taking short walks on the beach, maybe relaxing under an umbrella by the pool. By the third day you’re feeling good enough to take an excursion, your ‘sickness’ forgotten because you didn’t wallow in the misery of how horrible it was to be sick on your vacation. When you return home and your friends and family ask how things went, instead of lamenting that the whole time you were stuck in your hotel room and how miserable you were, you could say that you took the first couple of days to really relax and unwind, which then allowed you to enjoy the rest of your vacation.

   Two different scenarios, same event. We do this on the mat. We can’t touch our toes, have trouble balancing, or we’re afraid to do a  head stand. These are examples of ‘pain’. They are facts, the experiences we have in our lives on the mat. If we’re not paying attention, the ego will creep in with comments such as, “You’ve been doing yoga for months now, I can’t believe you can’t get your fingers to your toes in Uttanasana,” or, “Geeze, why can’t I balance like I did yesterday? It has to be the teacher. I don’t like moving into the pose this way,” or, “No way am I trying that. That is too difficult a pose for this class. What is the teacher thinking? I’ll break my neck. I’m never coming back to this class.” All misery. All optional. All so not worth the effort to follow the stories of the ego down into a pit of worry and angst and frustration. For what? Just because the mind creates opinions and judgments about our performance doesn’t mean we have to buy into it or follow it around and around until we have ourselves upset and decide to quit going to yoga completely.

   As with everything in this practice, it is just that. Practice. Each moment, every event in our lives (if we choose) gives us the opportunity to notice the pain and allow it space to be there (and it will eventually lessen, if not dissipate altogether). Try it, and notice what it does to your experience. Just this, just the facts, just the sensations of that moment and that event. Contrast it with feeding the ego and following the stories and drama that it manifests, and notice how long it takes before the ‘pain’ of the actual event begins to soften, to fade. Then decide how each works for you, which one allows for more peace and happiness in your life.

   Some things are a little easier to move through without the optional misery. A rude customer on the phone, someone cutting us off in traffic. Other events take more time and practice and effort to not attach misery, such as a difficult coworker, not getting a promotion, or the ending of a friendship. If we begin this practice on our mats in regards to tight shoulders or a wobbling Tree pose, then maybe, we can take it off the mat and allow the practice to ease a few of the other difficult ‘pains’ in our lives. In my attempt to make sense of this practice of yoga, I complied 25 poems. Three are available for viewing on my web site Leave a comment, and share a time when you chose to forego adding optional misery, or when you didn’t.