Asana, Meditation, Pranayama

Fresh Take Friday: Listening to Your Body

Happy Friday, yogis. Today, we’re taking a fresh look at some of the cues that come up around the idea of listening to your body in your postural yoga practice.

What is the right way to do this pose?

Rather than looking at alignment “rules”, I like to go back to look at yoga philosophy for this question. Asana has come to refer to all of our yoga poses, but it means “seat” and probably originally referred to a meditation posture. Although we often equate yoga with a postural practice in the West today, it is intended to be just a small part of yoga (along with meditation, breath, and ethical/ devotional practices), so much so that Patanjali addresses just three short lines to asana in his Yoga Sutras. At the heart of the practice of asana is this:

Sthira sukham asanam.

Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, 2:46

Sthira is often translated as “steadiness”. It can refer to the aspects of strength, stability, and containment in our poses.

Sukha is often translated as “ease”. It can refer to a sense of being comfortable, of softness, spaciousness, and vulnerability in our poses.

So in your postural yoga practice, you can use the ideas of sthira and sukha as guides. The “right way” to do a pose is going to look different for each person at different times because it’s going to be the place where sthira and sukha are in balance. To find the “right way”, the yogi needs (1) different options to explore, and (2) tools to assess for sthira and sukha.

Can’t you tell me how to do the poses?

Yoga is a practice of self-inquiry — and this means that you are in charge of your yoga practice! My job as a teacher is not to tell you how you should be doing the poses. I think this is a common misconception.

Most yoga teachers can’t diagnose or treat your injuries or medical problems. Unless we are also doctors or physiotherapists, this is outside our scope of practice. Most of us aren’t experts on health conditions or even anatomy, and we may even have learned some myths and misinformation about how bodies and health.

Even if I were an expert, I could not possibly know everything about your health history or what is happening in your body in a pose. And there is no way for me to assess the balance of sthira and sukha that you’re experiencing. This is why it’s essential that you be in charge of your body during yoga.

But I don’t know what I’m doing!

If it feels scary or unsafe to think about being in charge of your own practice, don’t worry. Your teacher can still help you figure out how to do the poses. My job as your teacher is to suggest options and teach tools for assessing sthira and sukha so that you can listen to your body. When you take a class or private workshop with me, I collaborate with you so that you can find steadiness and ease in every pose.

Often the extent of the instruction about this inquiry is “listen to your body” and “don’t do anything that hurts”, but I don’t think that’s enough. These cues can mean different things to different people, and if you haven’t listened to your body for a long time or have actively learned to ignore your body’s signals (so common!) you might not even know what you’re looking for.

Three things to try in every pose:

These three principles are a starting point for listening to your body.

  1. Move slowly, at least at first, at least some of the time – When you’re building your skills in noticing signals from your body, you can miss things when you move fast. This doesn’t mean you can never do fast movements or that moving quickly is dangerous. It just means that you should incorporate slower movement into your practice at least some of the time, when you’re focusing on building these skills.
  2. Pay attention to transitions in and out of poses – A common approach is to focus on alignment and actions to do once you’re in a pose. But alignment is visual, not experiential – it tells us nothing about sthira and sukha. And alignment is a direct result of how you’re moving in and out of the pose. If you find sthira and sukha and healthy movement in your transitions, you don’t have to fix anything once you’re there – and if you can’t, maybe it’s not the right pose for you right now.
  3. Notice the subtleties – Pain is communication from your body about what it needs — and once you’re feeling pain, you’ve probably already gone past other, subtler signals that something isn’t right. When you listen to those quieter sensations – and let your body know that you’re listening by doing something differently – your body doesn’t need to yell so loud. Notice the whole body, not just the part that’s moving. Some of the things you can look for include:
    • Changes to the breath: strain, force, raggedness, holding, etc.
    • Tension: bracing or gripping in the hands, feet, belly, buttocks, jaw, etc.
    • Sensations: milder pain sensations, jerky or sticky movement, popping, etc.
    • Compensations: other parts of the body moving or engaging to “help” or enhance the movement
    • Uneasiness: any emotional or harder-to-pinpoint reaction that affects ease

If you’d like the support of a teacher as you learn to decode your body’s signals, or you want more guidance about how to respond to them, join me for a group class or sign up for a private workshop. Have fun exploring!

The information, instruction, and advice contained in this post are in no way intended or implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. All content is for general informational purposes only. Not all exercises are suitable for everyone. Consult your doctor before beginning this or any exercise program.

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