I’ve been practicing yoga for decades. But despite my long-time practice, there’s one asana I love to avoid: phalakasana or plank pose. In the studio or in any kind of structured class, I almost always opt for a modified plank. In my solitary practice, I skip plank altogether. I just don’t like it. And I never thought to question why. Until my yoga class last Thursday night.
The instructor flowed into plank pose early in our 90-minute practice, and I flowed into the pose right along with her. The reason I followed along, quite honestly, is mildly embarrassing: my body was on my mat but my mind was elsewhere, and by the time my mind caught up with my body I was probably 30 seconds into my plank asana. My arms were quivering, my abs were trembling, and my brain was protesting. I was uncomfortable. That’s when I realized I wasn’t trying to avoid plank. I was trying to avoid discomfort. And that had been my primary goal around plank asana for years.
Humans are hardwired to avoid discomfort. And two US researchers say it does us no favours. Kaitlin Woolley (Cornell University) and Ayelet Fishbach (University of Chicago) conducted a study of 2100 people engaged in personal growth activities – anything from taking improv classes or music lessons to learning about COVID-19, gun violence or opposing political viewpoints.
The participants were split into two groups. Some participants were told that their goal was to feel uncomfortable and (depending on the activity) awkward, nervous, anxious, or even upset. They were told to push on and accept that discomfort as a sign that the activity was working. Other participants weren’t told to embrace discomfort; instead, they simply focused on learning something or noticing if the exercise was working and how they were developing their skills.
Ultimately, the researchers found that the participants who aimed to be more uncomfortable were more engaged in their activities, felt more motivated to keep doing them, and believed they’d made more progress toward their goals compared to those who weren’t accepting their vulnerability.
Discomfort, according to Harvard-trained psychologist Susan David, is our price of admission for a meaningful life. It’s almost always there whenever we try something new, whether that’s a new job, a new art form, or a new language. Whether it’s having a difficult conversation with a friend or challenging some of our long-held beliefs. Embracing discomfort requires emotional courage.
In the big picture of life, the fact that I went out of my way to avoid doing a plank is a small thing. But the fact that I avoided the plank to avoid discomfort isn’t so small. Discomfort is a wise teacher. Tolerating and embracing it helps us grow. And honestly, if I’d leaned into and accepted my discomfort long ago, I almost certainly would have grown through my discomfort and be doing a reasonable (and reasonably pain-free) phalakasana by now.
Then I could have turned my attention elsewhere. Discomfort, thy name is sirshasana.