Yoga philosophy teaches that we have everything we need inside of us to tend to all of life's moments, from the happiest to the most challenging. When we slow down, get quiet, and pay attention to our personal wisdom, we can gain tremendous clarity about what we need to improve a situation, make a decision, or solve a problem. In other words, all the answers we seek exist inside of us already; we need only trust in our ability to access them.
This philosophy counters our overly stimulating, consumer-driven culture. As a society, we are conditioned to look outside of ourselves for answers, seeking external validation for our decisions, feelings, and dreams. We are taught to go faster, push harder, buy more, follow others' advice, keep up with trends, chase an ideal. The well-known expression, "no pain, no gain" perfectly captures the social belief that it is necessary to suffer or work hard to be successful. As such, many of us find ourselves in a constant state reaching outside of ourselves to prove our worth. All the striving weakens our connection to our inner wisdom, especially if we do not carve out time daily to pause, get quiet, and all our inner wisdom to reveal itself.
The History of "No Pain, No Gain"
Thanks to Jane Fonda and her popular aerobics videos in the 1980s, "No pain, no gain" has become much more than a household phrase; it has become a social attitude and cultural mindset, a moral code of conduct and measure of a person's work ethic. Pain equals progress, and without pain, success counts less. Accomplishments are evaluated in terms of how much a body can withstand and a mind can endure.
"No pain, no gain" invokes a spectrum of desirable attributes that have become associated with the fitness, athletics, diet, beauty, and fashion cultures, from intensity, focus, and determination to sacrifice, self-denial, and punishment. Related slogans, like, "Just do it" and, "Beauty is pain" are intended to be motivational and inspirational and to push an individual toward a goal that is usually physical in nature.
Although these days, "No pain, no gain" is associated with personal achievement, especially in the sports and fitness arenas, a form of the expression, "According to the pain is the gain" (which appeared at the beginning of the second century in Pirkei Avot: Ethics of the Fathers, part of didactic Jewish ethical literature), taught that spiritual gain is impossible without the pain involved in doing what God commands. The versions of this slogan that appeared in the 1500s and 1600s ring of the familiar modern connotation, which emphasizes that suffering is essential to progress and that hardship and achievement are inseparable. In his 1758 essay "The Way to Wealth," Benjamin Franklin, in his persona of Poor Richard, stated, "There are no gains, without pains," to explain the maxim "God helps those who help themselves."
Ancient Greek thought may be at the root of many fitness slogans that have been reinterpreted in the modern era. All armies from the dawn of time would endure pain and show no sign of weakness to their enemies. Valor on the battlefield was meant to demonstrate not just the willingness to fight when the odds of survival were low, but to fight with courage and dignity. Hence, "No pain, no gain" was an attitude used in military training to prepare for the ultimate potential use of one's life for the sake of one's tribe.
Embracing A New Mentality
The normalized cultural meanings of "No pain, no gain" can be internalized in different ways. For some of us, the slogan truly is motivational and even helpful. But for others, the message might lead to feelings of inadequacy or a need to push past healthy limits. Even if commonly accepted phrases like "No pain, no gain" are popular, they may not be body- or life-affirming.
How do you relate to this slogan in your own life? Are you comfortable affirming yourself or do you find that you need to always strive to prove yourself to others? Do you feel compelled to work hard all the time, or do you give yourself permission to take time to turn inward and let go of being in a "doing" state?
If you find yourself on the "no pain, no gain" hamster wheel, we invite you to incorporate one or all of these visual and auditory body mindful practices into your life. A yoga practice is any activity that guides self-awareness. A body mindful yoga practice adds the dimension of purposefully tuning into self-talk and intentionally using self-affirming language to change your brain, uplift your mood, and ultimately, improve your sense of self. Our book Body Mindful Yoga includes a variety of mental, physical, auditory, and visual practices designed to help you establish an awareness of your inner dialogue and incorporate body mindful language into your life with the intention of improving self-confidence. Over time and with diligent practice, the kinder words will become more readily accessible, and the less kind words won't be as quick to show up.
These three visual body mindful yoga exercises are less language-intensive and more sensory-focused, giving your brain a rest from hard work while nourishing your senses and restoring your energy.
Doing these practices regularly will not only help restore balance to excessive working and striving mentalities, they will also help you reconnect with your inner world, offering you time and space to listen to your thoughts, notice your emotions, and appreciate the world around you. You deserve these few precious moments to unwind, reset, and simply be.