How much discomfort should one push into?
A simple answer to this question is that experience will tell you.
But you have to be intelligent about it.
As an example, my friend Jim shared an article which was against striving for symmetry. His reason for posting it: he and many of his friends had injured themselves from trying to force their poses to be symmetrical.
And so he thinks it's a bad idea to work towards symmetry.
For myself, I work towards symmetry constantly.
But I do it intelligently.
(And yes, I'm effectively calling my friend Jim a dumbass. )
I don't force it! Instead I feel the sides of my body and compare them. I then try various combinations of muscle activation based in part on experience, and a general understanding of the body, and I see if I can create symmetry from the inside.
(Basically, I "adjust" my pose. And that includes making slight positional changes to affect muscle activation.
But I don't force it. )
Things I look out for are any single muscle exerting too much tension and sharp isolated joint pain.
Either of these signals is a hint that something is not right. (And so I try to do something about it by activating particular muscles or adjusting the way that I do what I am doing).
But it's taken me a while to learn these signals, and the proper responses to them. It's taken me a while to learn my body.
What has this to do with pushing into discomfort?
Somedays I don't feel like doing a particular move, say splits. So sometimes I'll rest, or I'll work towards it in different ways, with a different type of muscle activation, whatever feels right at the time.
I should point out that very often my technique while stretching or otherwise "doing yoga" is some sort of rhythmic activation and relaxation. I'll activate muscles and relax them. Each time I rest, while still in the pose or stretch, I get a chance to realize that whatever it is I'm doing isn't that bad, and that makes it easier to go back into it. Or, knowing that the pain or discomfort will only last a short while, that can make it easier too.
Just recently I've been working on straight leg deadlifts and I can feel my low back. A few days prior I did side splits and followed rather suddenly by some dynamic hip control. I had a feeling I might have been a bit rough on myself and over the next day or two I did feel some slight twinges in my low back. And so I was careful with how I used it over the next few days.
That being said, I still did some moderately heavy lifting, but I was very aware while I was doing it.
And so another part of whether to press into discomfort is knowing what you've done over the last few days and whether what you have done may have weakened a particular part.
I've been working a lot with knee pain, and recently my knee was getting worse (or seemingly so) versus better. And one of the key factors was that I'd stopped hiking and I hadn't been doing my single leg squats. So in this case, rather than resting I exercised.
(But carefully and mindfully).
There's a pose called virasana, basically kneeling with your butt between your feet.
I couldn't do it when I first learned yoga. Then a teacher told me I needed to start working on it by sitting with feet gradually wider. there was a strong sensation in my knees but I did as he said. I didn't bounce into the pain or push it, i worked gently towards it. This is in contrast to on occasionally forcing my knee down in lotus while warmed up, and thus creating a tearing sound in my knee and finding next day that my knee hurt.
Sometimes you need "bad" experiences so that you can learn from them.
After a recent knee injury, I didn't kneel for a very long time (year, maybe longer.) Then one day I had a feeling I should start working on it again. There where some uncomfortable sensations and popping sounds, but it was more like the knee getting rid of old scaffolding, at least that was what I told myself.
And sure enough I am kneeling again, even doing virasana, and even more lately, working towards lotus. And while my knee isn't perfect, it's better than it was and it's getting better.
So how much should you push into discomfort? There is no clear answer that I can give you.
It depends on the condition of your body and your ability to feel your body and control it. And it depends on your ability to recognize and categorize different types of discomfort.
Any sort of discomfort that indicates injury is present or imminent I work to avoid. But, I've had to learn the signals that indicate when injury is likely versus pain that is something else.
In general, I won't push myself if it doesn't feel right. And if I have to do something that I'm not in the mood for, then I'll try different sequences to work towards that something.
Or just leave it out.
And if something I did leaves me feeling like shit for more than a couple of days, then I won't do it again or I'll explore it to figure out if there is something that I can change, so that I can do it without feeling like shit afterwards.
One thing that I should say. I tend to work slowly and smoothly.
Whether lifting weights or doing yoga, I work at moving slowly and smoothly. And if I'm doing quick movements, then I try to make the quick movements smooth also.
One reason for this is that it forces me to be more aware.
Another big reason is that it makes it easy for me to stop before I hurt myself!
What does "smooth" mean?
In general it means feeling your body (or a part of your body) along the entire path of a movement.
As an example, even after a few years of Chinese calligraphy practice, I had the idea that what was important in a brush stroke was the end points. And so I went through a phase of doing brush strokes quickly focusing just on the start and end points of each stroke.
But then, enlightenment!!! Actually, I learned to feel the part of the stroke between the two end points. So, what was important was the end points and the bit that joined them.
Luckily, learning to feel a brush is similiar to learning to feel your body. With brush painting there is tension that you can feel when the bristles touch paper. (With a pen, you can feel pressure.) With muscles, you can feel tension in connective tissue that is generated by muscle activation.
Often times, keeping yourself safe even as you push into discomfort is simply a matter of creating tension (which translates to "feel") in the right places.
So, another experience with my knees. I spent a year with one type of knee pain where I couldn't do pigeon on one side, unless I moved into it very slowly and carefully. I generally knew when the pain was about to occur and as a result I could move into the pose in such a way that I didn't cause pain, provided I moved slowly and smoothly.
How does this relate to tension in the right places?
Basically, I was adjusting the pose to create tension in the right places so that my knee didn't hurt. Rather than pushing into the knee (or rather than torquing my shin relative to my thigh), I pulled my hip away from the knee helping to create space in the knee and tension. Or more importantly, creating a condition where I could do pigeon without my knee hurting.
A very simple way to create tension is to focus on creating length. And when you are tired, one of the easiest things to let go of is length. So if you are aware that you are pushing into discomfort, then work at keeping length in your spine as you do so.
For shoulders and hips you could do the equivalent by creating space (which again translates to tension). And of course it also helps to create stability.
Sometimes just creating length or space creates stability, sometimes you have to create stability directly.
As an example, one way to stabilize the foot is to spread and lengthen the toes. (Which then stabilizes the feet, ankles and lower legs). But another way is to make the heel feel rigid relative to the lower leg.
In either case, what you are doing is using muscles against each other to stabilize a joint or series of joints.
So, if you are pushing into discomfort, and you are aware that you are doing so, see if you can maintain length, space and stability while doing so. If you can't, then don't push yourself. It's time to rest.