When teaching yoga, it is common to instruct students to “Listen to your body,” but what does that actually mean and why does it matter? It doesn’t mean listening with your ears, but instead listening with your “kinesthetic sense” in order to stretch and strengthen without pushing our body to injury.
At all times during the day, we receive numerous signals and messages traveling back and forth between our body and brain. We are not overtly aware of these signals, as they are happening on a subconscious level. We feel them in our body rather than knowing what’s happening in our mind. These messages and signals are geared toward keeping us safe and letting us know about our surroundings. When we practice yoga, there are many messages running through our head, the key is to figure out what they mean and whether to listen to them or not. “Listening to your body” means noticing what is happening physically and adjusting our practice accordingly. We use our kinesthetics to sense and feel the position and movement of our physical body.
The goal is to tune in to signals from the physical body in the form of sensations, rather than listen to all of the thoughts and stories of the mind or Ego. The Ego sounds like a little voice in our head telling us what we should or shouldn’t do based on our history. Many times the Ego is louder and will either hold us back unnecessarily, or push us forward into territory we are not yet ready for. The Ego likes to tell us stories that we are not good enough, that we can’t do it, or that we know better and don’t need to listen to caution. When we tune in to our physical sensations, most of the time we stay on the right track.
There are many types of sensations that we can feel as we practice yoga: the sensation of physical effort, the sensation of stretching, and various forms of pain. Each sensation gives us different information, and can guide us either to stay where we are, to go further into a pose, or to back off.
Sensation of Physical Effort
When you are holding a pose for a long time, your muscles are engaged and you feel the effort. As long as you are relatively comfortable and can breathe deeply and calmly, you can stay in the pose. If your body starts to shake or feel uncomfortable, you lose the ability to breathe calmly, or lose the integrity of the pose, take a break and come back into the pose when you are ready. Staying longer than your body is ready for can lead to muscle strain and injury. “No Pain, No Gain” does NOT apply to the practice of yoga and should be removed from the stories you tell yourself. It is important to push the body in order to build strength, but not at the expense of the body’s well being.
If you need to rest, then rest. You can take Child’s pose, you can stand up or lie down, pretty much anything that allows you to reset and get back to your breath. The goal is to find the balance between strength and ease, so notice what your mind is telling you and ask yourself if it’s true; is the struggle in the mind, or in the body? If the struggle is in the body, back off and rest; if the struggle is in the mind, breathe and tune into your body for more information.
Stretching Sensation vs Pain
A good stretching sensation should be pleasant, vague, and diffuse. It should be somewhere between a 3 and a 7 on a scale of 1-10, usually around a 5 is sufficient. You should be able to breathe deeply and calmly while you stretch and it should feel good. If you are feeling sharp pain, joint pain, or both, that is a signal from your body to back off. Stretching should be felt in the belly of the muscle, usually somewhere in the middle, not in the joints where they attach. If you feel sharp pain with stretching or you feel sensation at the attachments, that might mean those muscles require foam rolling before stretching because there is something (perhaps a knot or injured tissue) that is preventing you from extending the muscle properly. If you push through sharp pain or force a stretch that you feel in the joints, you will most likely cause a strain or a tear injury. If you feel this type of sensation, back off and rest. If you experience extreme sharp pain, please get evaluated by a qualified physician, physical therapist or orthopedic acupuncturist. Diffuse pain is good, you can relax into it by breathing deeply; sharp pain is bad and means to stop what you are doing.
Why Listening to Your Body is Important
Hopefully I have made it clear, that by following the wisdom of your body, you will find healthy strength and mobility, and that pushing through pain will lead to injury. We can see each injury as a lesson, reminding us to notice what is happening in the moment. Often we injure ourselves when either we are not paying attention to the sensations in our body, or we are listening to stories in our head that think they know what is better for us. When we practice yoga, or engage in any activity in our life, we want to be present with what is happening, so that we can adjust and pivot as we need; this way we have better control over the outcome. It is healthy to stretch and strengthen the body, but we need to do so with mindfulness and wisdom.
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