I remember waking up in the morning, swinging my legs over the side of the bed, not standing up right away. There was a sensation that was unusual, tingling running up and down my lower legs like pins and needles. And a kind of numbness, as if I'd slept on the nerves in my legs, putting them to sleep temporarily. Sitting on the edge of the bed, legs hanging over the side, I would wait for these sensations to subside. For a time, I would go about my day, giving it no further thought. That is, until the next day when it returned. Eventually, sports activities like running and field hockey became nearly impossible, the muscles under tension and stress, turning into pain.
One day, I twisted my ankle badly enough that it required physical therapy. Little did I realize that my life was about to change. It was during one of my treatments that I described what was happening upon waking up and during sports activities. Keen observation and listening skills led my physical therapist to refer me to a surgeon who would perform surgery to save my legs. I was 16 and a half years old.
Rehabilitation was grueling and sometimes painful. But, I didn't let the pain stop me, pushing through the mental threshold of the pain response. There was an internal motivating force propelling me through the days of discomfort and mental exhaustion. Looking back, I can see that, for many days, my mind was tired, not my body. As is so often said, pain is a great teacher. Part of my fascination with the human body and healing stemmed from this early experience. It propelled me to not only heal my body but also to build on the strength and resilience that is its natural blueprint.
When I became a yoga teacher, one of the most frequent questions students would ask me was, "how do I know what my edge is?" Harder still to answer was, "what's the difference between pain and discomfort?"
Over many years, I have learned, through setbacks and injuries, that my body is capable of so much more than I might think. It means I've also learned the ways in which my mind creates self limitations. Understanding these self-created limitations has been a crucial evolution in my learning and growth. I've come to view finding your edge as another way of saying finding the limits of your current growth cycle, but without the ego and attachment associated with the idea of limitations. In other words, there's a difference between your edge and pain, and we can view this across physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual dimensions.
Physically, the human body is capable of immense feats of nature. Not that long ago, people thought it was impossible for a human being to run one mile in less than four minutes. Sir Roger Gilbert Bannister proved beyond a doubt that it was indeed possible in 1954. It's now a benchmark of middle distance athletes. The human body has immense strength and resiliency. On the other end of the spectrum, depriving the body of its essential needs, such as vital nutrients and water, can and does severely reduce its ability to function optimally.
Like the allegorical story of the boiled frog, we can ignore warning signs until it's either too late or until some damage is caused. So, how do we know when it's a warning or the limits of our ego and mind?
One approach is to consider this in terms of a threshold. One characteristic of the mind is that it's attenuated toward reducing pain and increasing pleasure, with comfort perfectly situated in the middle. Some days, you would rather snooze the alarm, skipping the gym in favor of a little more time under the warm bed covers. However, to increase your fitness, you know that regular, sustained action and activity are required. A certain amount of personal will and continual self-motivation is needed in order to reduce the voice that would rather sleep an extra thirty minutes. Getting to this point, however, took time. In fact, it may have taken years. The threshold for accepting comfort rather than change was sufficiently high enough until such a point when it was not. The discomfort in this scenario is one of changing the status quo, moving from wishing things would be different to applying effort to surpass the mental limit of favoring comfort over growth.
My threshold was surpassed when I could no longer perform the activities I loved doing without pain. Through surgery and rehabilitation, I discovered a deep inner resilience and strength. I never doubted my body, and this reminded me how much more was possible. My threshold for change was greater than what I could imagine, challenging myself and my body to heal and grow.
But what happens when there is an actual warning, a signal that the threshold is passing from not liking the discomfort to pain, possibly even injury?
By the time we are roughly between three and four years old, we have learned to have control over our excretory functions. But for the rest of the autonomic functions, like breathing, digestion, and cell repair, we don't think about the body performing all these vital functions.
Human beings have the extraordinary capacity to bring their mind under conscious control. And to a certain extent, our physical body. A sophisticated mechanism for sending messages along the network of neural pathways lets the body know whether it's safe or not, such as stretching too far or cutting your finger. To a certain extent, we can tap into this neural network. We can temporarily suspend automatic breathing by focusing the mind, consciously controlling the length of each inhale and exhale. Like free divers, we can even suspend the breath completely for a few moments or even a few minutes. Similarly, we have the capacity to ignore warning signs, suppress pain, and turn our attention away from the demands of the body's distress signals.
There is an enormous difference between harnessing the strength and resiliency of the body versus not doing something, fearing the body is too fragile, or overdoing it by treating it like a machine with replaceable parts like a car. Finding your edge is a lesson in paying attention, staying present, and a willingness to embrace change.
Fear is often our greatest obstacle. Modern civilization as we know it today favors doing things quickly, with fast results and quick fixes. Fearing change or growth means avoiding discomfort. But really, there's a balance of stepping into the unknown with wise discernment over avoidance or pushing away. Whether it's physical or spiritual, we can meet our edge with curiosity. Pain - physical, emotional, mental, or spiritual - is a call to bring attention toward, not away.
Finding your edge is about feeling into the intensity of the experience, the challenge to grow, to adapt, and to change. Pain lets us know we've gone too far, ignoring a warning along the way. It's an invitation to turn toward the discomfort with patience, acceptance, and kindness. Finding your edge is not a limitation. It's the edge of letting go of attachment, expectation, results, success, and competition. Finding your edge brings you directly in touch with yourself, your deepest, truest being.
Only by finding and seeing your edge can you patiently move past it.