Find the ‘comfort in discomfort’ is a phrase you’ll often hear in a Yin yoga practice. Sometimes with little follow up or explanation as to what it actually means.

This quote, commonly attributed to the Buddha, helps explain it.

“In life, we can’t always control the first arrow. However, the second arrow is our reaction to the first. The second arrow is optional.”

Arrows as a metaphor

Let’s put this in the context of a real life example. You’re at the dentist and the needle (first arrow) goes in. There’s usually an involuntary wince of pain, perhaps a clenching of the stomach, screwing up of the eyes, a tensing of the shoulders. All of which are normal, instinctive and common bodily reactions to the body feeling under threat. And because they are instinctual, the response is driven largely by the primitive part of our brain – the amygdala. Rather than the pre-frontal cortex which manages impulse control, managing emotional reactions and considered thinking.

Now as the dentist needle goes in for a second time (second arrow), you have a better chance of being able to control the response. You’re more prepared for the physical sensations and you can focus on breathing in and out through the nose.

The role of breath

Science has shown us that breath plays a key role in the modulation of the central nervous system, in particular the autonomic system – sympathetic (fight & flight) and parasympathetic (rest & digest) responses.

Similarly, in a Yin yoga practice when strong sensations arise, there might be an instinctual movement to shift the body to alleviate the discomfort or pain sensation. You might see your students rush to a counter pose after releasing from a long hold. They do this as a way to relieve the momentary discomfort that sometimes arises post pose as they melt towards rebound. But what happens if you stay with the sensations and focus instead on regulating your breath?

What if you challenged them to try something different?

If you asked your students to experiment with stillness at this time?

And guided them to focus on their breath and observe the experience of the sensations, thoughts and feelings shifting.

Even if they do this for 5 seconds, there’s invariably a shift in response and your students may stay with the discomfort a fraction longer. This takes practice and doesn’t happen overnight. Regular practice, over time will build a more measured response to that ‘second arrow’.

This is what is meant by the phrase ‘comfort with discomfort’. As you apply this skill in a Yin yoga practice, you can also practice it off the mat in times when life or people around you are getting a bit heated. More recently I’ve been practicing this by upping the time spent in a cold shower and ice baths.