… Voluntary Discomfort

pain pleasure voluntary discomfort standing separate leg stretching“Why would I want to go to yoga and spend an hour in uncomfortable positions?” ~ my Uncle Bob

After years of subscribing to the bumper sticker wisdom of “No Pain, No Gain,” Nia suggested that I experiment with the possibility of “No Pain, All Gain.” Which was important healing for my self-punishing self, but at some point I wondered how I could reach my potential by only choosing pleasure.

First, mindful movement teaches me to distinguish between pain and discomfort. There is a world of difference between pain that leads to injury and the discomfort of stretching my edges. Mindful practice gives me the skills to tell that difference.  Pain is what has me hobbling up the steps the next day. Discomfort is what gives me a pleasant soreness that tells me I’ve awakened some muscles that had been snoozing. Knowing the difference between pain and discomfort is a skill that mindfulness and practice allow.

Second is what my friend and Nia Trainer Helen Terry calls taking safe risks. This is the brilliant edge on which I love to play. Taking safe risks is an invitation to step outside my habit and to expand my comfort zone – physically, mentally, emotionally. Taking safe risks is being fearless without being reckless. Taking safe risks is, as Mr. Money Mustache says, choosing voluntary discomfort. Which leads me to the last bumper sticker…


Okay, to be honest, I don’t think there is such a bumper sticker, but if there was I would put it on my car AND my bike. When I look back on all the choices I’ve made, many of the best things that have happened are when I choose voluntary discomfort.

Moving to Virginia from Boston. Marrying a man with two children. Traveling with said man in third world countries where I didn’t speak the language. Taking the Nia White Belt training (and beyond). Leading international Nia adventures. Going on silent meditation retreat. Taking a sabbatical from teaching. Writing a blog and a book. Sustaining a regular hot yoga practice.

All of these things scared the bejeezus out of me, pushed my edges, and all of them expanded what I saw as possible.  What’s more, all of these choices helped me be more relaxed with discomfort in general so I have more possibilities available to me.  If I am afraid of or never choose discomfort, my options get narrow in a hurry.

Which brings me to the quote from my Uncle Bob that opens this post. When I told him about my yoga practice he laughed at the notion of choosing to spend time in discomfort. I get it. It’s challenging and, well, obviously it’s uncomfortable. But the more I practice being with discomfort, learning to breathe into it, to be with the fear around it, the less scary it is.  The things that I once avoided become things that I do.  But perhaps even more importantly, it prepares me for when life gives me Involuntary Discomfort. Which it does. All the time. If I practice choosing voluntary discomfort, I’ve had practice so I can relax, stay present, and make skillful choices.  If I don’t practice, I’m likely to shut down or panic or have a tantrum when the real challenges arise.

Taking safe risks is choosing voluntary discomfort. Making those choices both expands our potential and strengthens our ability to be calm, skillful, and strong when involuntary discomfort – or pain — arrives.

What voluntary discomfort have you chosen? What safe risks have you taken?  Where did those choices lead you?  Are there things you now do without effort that once felt uncomfortable or scary?  I’d love to know.

  1. Pam said:

    Your blog is always very thought provoking, Susan. Thanks….

  2. You are so welcome. May your day have some voluntary discomfort woven in! 🙂

  3. Pam said:

    I really enjoyed this post and it prompted me to think about the voluntary discomfort I’ve brought into my life. As I thought about it, I realized that I have brought on a lot of voluntary discomfort and that I can divide the choices into whether they produced anxiety or not.

    The choices that didn’t really produce anxiety (deciding as an undergrad not to study abroad in Italy, but instead switching to India; moving to S.F. after graduating undergrad; entering into a relationship with a man 20 years older who was married and my teacher; marrying Manu after only 7 weeks of dating; moving to Nepal for what ended up being 6 years; going alone for months to Tibet, India, retreats in France, etc.; having baby #1 and then #2…) happened because I felt so strongly that it was exactly what I should be doing right there, right then, as if the path was laid out directly for me. This is not to say that I didn’t feel discomfort at time while living out the choices, but embracing the new, sometimes seemingly crazy path felt completely right and I jumped right in without much thought at all.

    On the other side are the choices that did produce anxiety before embarking on the path and that I thought a lot about (moving from CA to VA without being accepted yet into the grad program I wanted to be in and without knowing anyone; actually starting grad school; choosing to get pregnant with baby #3; moving to Beijing for six months last year with 3 young kids; currently, the anxiety of thinking about potentially moving to Anywhere, USA in August). In these latter cases, even though some of them are less choice-oriented than others, particularly now that I’m not a solo entity, I’ve thought a lot more about the consequences and realities, the challenges and the obstacles. One of the thoughts that helped me with relocating to China and now with the unknown of where we might move is that I have had so many incredible experiences when I have moved away from what is known and comfortable. My life is infinitely broader because of those uncomfortable paths and it is exciting to think about who I will meet next and what I will encounter next, both for me and my family.

    Just say yes and don’t let fear of the unknown, the weird, the society says it doesn’t make sense hold you back!!!! (I must remember this!).

    • Ahh! This is an excellent distinction, Pam! It reminds me of the Chinese proverb, “Tension is who you think you should be. Relaxation is who you are.” Discomfort can be present in both cases but the difference is the anxiety that underlies that discomfort (or doesn’t). You are an amazing and shining example of bravely choosing discomfort ~ even all those food adventures you went on in China! Wow. You are an inspiration. ❤

  4. joy said:

    well said, Pam, and thanks! Love this post Susan – I do this infrequently in big ways (skydive, work in a war zone, start my own business) but there is a way that fear sometimes bogs me down in the little day to day adventures (answering the front door, making a dreaded call, sitting down to pay the bills). I really like the idea of voluntary discomfort, ESPECIALLY as a practice for INvoluntary (and usually surprise) discomforts. Great words, muuuah!

    • Isn’t that curious…the big stuff in some ways might be more clearly a case of okay-yes-big-breath-here-I-go-doing-this-uncomfortable-thing but the little stuff can sneak up on us so we don’t write that letter or clear out that closet or make that call. Making it a case of voluntary discomfort makes it conscious and intentional. Which makes all the difference. xoxo

  5. Blue said:

    I love this post! My latest voluntary discomfort was taking an online jazz improvisation class. It turned out to be really hard! Each assignment I would say.. “I don’t think I can do this.” and then slowly I would break down the assignment into digestible segments and I found I was able to stretch beyond what I thought I was capable of.

    When arguments broke out in the forums for the class, I thought, “That’s it! I quit!” I did not want to be part of a group of confrontational disgruntled students who could not agree on what our assignment was. (there was a discrepancy in the instructions) But then I thought… I will just ignore the negativity and keep on.

    Then when my assignments were graded low and I was given negative feedback I was taken aback. I felt that was unfair and I don’t like unfairness. Another reason to quit? Nope. I thought of Linda Ronstadt who wrote in her memoir of all her failed attempts to sing opera and jazz and other things. She said the learning experience was worth any personal anguish she experienced from it.

    So here I am in the last week of class. Each assignment I’ve hoped for a better grade–only to get a worse one! Bring it on! I should say we’re graded by our peers/fellow students–not the teacher.

    Anyway being a musician I am continuously put in places like this. Last week I had a depressing encounter from a new activities director at a nursing home where I’ve played 1.5 years. She said, “why are we paying for this?? we should get volunteers!” and so this week is my last week there and I have to tell the residents I won’t be coming back. Discomfort!!
    But do I let people like her get me down? No chance.

    In fact, I have to get off line here and go to another gig.
    Thanks for the thought provoking post!!



  6. Any time we get up in front of people (literally or figuratively) we are exposing ourselves to both criticism and praise. And you know what? Others’ reactions have nothing to do with us. Our work is to do our work and let it go. And a lot of our work, our best work, is voluntary discomfort. Ho SNAP, that’s cool. I love your perseverance and courage and positivity (I think I just made that word up). Keep making your music and singing your song. ❤

    • Blue said:

      So true, Susan! Thank you!

      • shine on, my sweet, shine on.

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