We Americans are very good at distrusting our bodies. The Puritans treated the body as an instrument of temptation. Trust your body and you risk burning for Gluttony, Lust, and Sloth. Deny your body and you find salvation through Abstinence, Chastity, and Diligence.
It's not hard to see the modern fruit of these roots. Skinny is good, fat is bad. Sex is dirty, refusal clean. Leisure suspect, work productive. From the beginning, we've associated pleasure with guilt. And, more to the point, pain with success. "No pain, no gain" crystallizes these American values. "Just do it" transmutes them into an actionable plan.
Yoga offers an alternative approach to the body by teaching us ahimsa -- the principle of nonviolence. We can always hurt ourselves by doing too much. We can never hurt ourselves by doing too little.
Yoga helps us avoid committing violence against ourselves by teaching us to distinguish between pain and sensation. This distinction is crucial for physical development. In order to grow, we must challenge our limits. This generally means cultivating powerful sensation: we burn, we cramp, we strain, we stretch. Yet if we push our limits too far we end up in pain. The body's way of telling us we're about to get hurt: we tear, we pop, we break, we crack.
In teaching us to distinguish between pain and sensation, yoga enables us to optimize physical growth. We work as hard as we can without injuring ourselves. Instead of "No pain, no gain" we pursue "No gain with pain." A radical departure from the Nike approach.
Even so, especially when we first start to practice, it's tempting to apply Nike's directive to yoga. We willingly kill ourselves to be the best in the room. To be the strongest, the most flexible, the one with the greatest stamina. The most admired by the teacher. The one to stand out.
If we're lucky, yoga helps us to see what we're up to, to understand why we're doing it, and to find a better way. It teaches us to observe, to reflect, and to act. A systematic approach to achieve lasting change. A methodical way to optimize growth.
Ultimately, this is the great gift of yoga. And if we can do it on the mat, we can do it in life. We can optimize not only our physical growth, but our emotional, intellectual, and spiritual growth as well. After all, the definition of yoga is not perfect abs. The definition of yoga is essentially quiet mind. A state that no amount of pain let's us gain.