No Pain, No Gain? Why This Mantra Doesn’t Belong in Yoga

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No Pain, No Gain? Why This Mantra Doesn’t Belong in Yoga

When looking for an image to use with this blog post, I found a No Pain No Pain t-shirt. And, then I read the sales description of the shirt: “A cute and cool saying on a tee when you are lazy and do not work hard and tell yourself that at least you will feel no pain.” WOW. So, if we are not hurting ourselves during a workout, we’re lazy????

No Pain, No Pain

In almost every class I teach, I mention (at least once – usually more) that my one rule is “No Pain, No Pain.” When I’m teaching chair yoga to those with mobility issues, I get very little resistance to this idea. And, after the initial humor over the twist on the all-too-familiar saying, I always modify it to account for the existing chronic pain many of my students live with. “No additional new pain, no additional new pain.” But, in my personal yoga practice, I have heard more than one teacher flippantly say “no pain, no gain.” And, I’ve heard people (including, but not limited to, teachers) talk about how they are always sore as if it were a badge of honor. This (Inquisition-like?) talk seems counter to a basic tenet of yoga, which is to practice doing no harm.

Ahimsa (non-harm)

In yogic philosophy, there are five ethical guidelines (yamas). The first of these is ahimsa, which is an ancient spiritual doctrine that means “non-harm” or “non-violence.” This is a doctrine shared by Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. In yoga, it is intended to guide our actions – to always practice doing no harm. As is commonly attributed to Buddha “if you truly loved yourself, you could never hurt another.” Thus, we can only really practice being kind and compassionate with others (and thus doing no harm) when we are able to be kind & compassionate with ourselves. As a yoga teacher, I believe the most important service I can provide is to help people become kinder & more compassionate with themselves. And to thus help people enlarge their capacity to love & serve others by guiding them to love & honor themselves.

Physical Danger

The message of pain is essentially “keep going and damage will occur.” It thus feels completely counter to ahimsa to encourage people to ignore pain that might arise during their yoga practice. To ignore the body warning the brain that something might be going wrong is to cause harm to one’s self. It then inhibits our ability to practice kindness & compassion with others. How? Well, one of the many benefits of practicing yoga is that we become more sensitive to and aware of our bodies, becoming better able to notice imbalances, stress, and pain in our bodies. Unfortunately, many practitioners (and teachers) of yoga are overly caught up in taking their physical practice to the next level. They thus might tend to ignore what their body is trying to say.

Basically, if you are feeling pain or extreme discomfort that is hard to breathe through while in a yoga class, you need to listen to your body and back off until it doesn’t hurt. And, your teacher should be encouraging you to do so. If they aren’t, find another teacher.

Pain vs. Discomfort

There are real dangers of pushing through pain in yoga. Yet, it is also important to distinguish between pain and discomfort. I usually tell my chair (and mat) yoga students that it’s normal to feel some muscle soreness when embarking on a new physical activity. But, that soreness shouldn’t continue for days. And sharp pain while doing anything is not simply “discomfort.” Basically, in every pose or movement, you should only go as far as your body feels comfortable. If you start to feel any pain or discomfort that is hard to breathe through, back away from it. BUT, the next time that pose or movement comes up, try it again. And, slowly feel your way to your edge, going only as far as your body feels comfortable, practicing honoring your body – practicing ahimsa.

At any age, when someone is in tune with the sensations in their body (the way they hold tension, their chronic pain, the interaction between the two, etc), they are more likely to be able to slowly & mindfully find that “edge” and then back just slightly off of it. But it takes a lot of mindful movement to get to that point.

Playing into Disordered Eating

Modern cultures view exercise as an intense and rigorous health ritual. It isn’t supposed to be pleasurable so much as penitence. It’s the torturous price we pay for all that sinful snacking. We even invoke the Inquisition-style mantras of “feel the burn,” “no pain, no gain,” and “make your muscles cry” to lead us to beachwear salvation 1 

Sometimes the message of pushing through the pain is one of doing so in order to reward yourself with some special food or drink. In my search for images for this piece, I found shirts that said “no pain, no ice cream.” This implies that a person can’t have something that brings them pleasure unless they first suffer. These messages that say you are doing yoga (or any form of exercise) almost as a form of penitence and not as something that involves loving and caring for self are harmful.

We live in a culture where we are bombarded with messages about our value being tied to our productivity, about our value being tied to our looks or our weight. Thus, the too-common message can be that we “earn” our “bad” foods with exercise. One of my teachers, Kristine Weber, wrote an entire blog about this recently.2 And, I couldn’t agree more with her that our twisted idea of yoga being mainly a form of exercise and that exercise being more about pain than about pleasure is not a minor contributor to incidents of disordered eating/body dysmorphia.

No (additional new) pain, no (additional new) pain

Remember that yoga is for every body. If you are unable to (or shouldn’t) get up and down from the floor, consider the option of chair yoga to continue (or begin) your yoga journey. Yoga is about so much more than the postures and movement. For me, the “gain” of yoga has been becoming more comfortable with myself – learning to better love and accept myself. And, learning to practice kindness & compassion with myself. If you are getting the message that the “gain” is some external achievement, please find a new teacher. And maybe stop looking at Instagram yoga that glorifies only the posture and the “perfect” body. A sustainable yoga practice is built on self-compassion and body positivity.

Practice Ahimsa

I teach chair yoga to those seeking a more gentle yoga practice (and mat yoga for recovering alcoholics & addicts) in Birmingham, Alabama. My one “rule” in my class is “No (additional new) pain, no (additional new) pain.” I thus strive to serve my community by helping people honor their bodies and learn to be a little kinder and more compassionate with themselves. They can then increase their capacity to be kind and compassionate with all sentient beings – so that they can practice doing no harm – so that they can practice ahimsa.

I hope you will consider bringing awareness to how you can strive for ahimsa for yourself and others on and off the chair (or the mat). If you’d like to join me in a class, please check out my offerings or contact me.

If you find it difficult to love yourself and are struggling, support is available 24/7 by calling or texting 988, the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline.


 1Big Think. 11 Jan 2023. No pain, no gain? Science debunks yet another exercise

2Weber, Kristine Kaoverii. 24 Feb 2024. Yoga, Fat Coffee, and Wrinkles. Subtle Yoga.