How to Listen to Your Body and Why it Matters As We Age

How to Listen to Your Body and Why it Matters As We Age

When teaching yoga, it is common to instruct students to “Listen to your body.” What does that actually mean and why does it matter as we age? It doesn’t mean listening with your ears, but instead, listening with your “kinesthetic sense.” We listen to be able to stretch and strengthen without pushing our body to injury.

At all times during the day, there are numerous signals traveling back and forth between our body and brain. We are not overtly aware of these signals, as they are happening electrochemically. We might feel them in our body rather than knowing what’s happening in our mind. These signals keep us safe by 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 yoga practice accordingly. We use our kinesthetics to sense and feel the position and movement of our physical body.

The goal is to notice physical signals in the form of sensations, rather than focus on the thoughts and stories of the mind or Ego. Sensations vs. Thoughts. The Ego is the voice in our head telling us what we should or shouldn’t do, based on our history. Often the Ego is louder and will either unnecessarily hold us back, or push us forward before we are ready. The Ego likes to tell stories that we are not good enough, that we can’t do it, or we don’t need to be cautious. When we focus on our physical sensations, usually we stay on the right track. This is especially important as we age, since our body heals more slowly. An injury at age 20 heals much faster than it does at 50, so preventing injury is the number 1 reason to listen to our body.

We feel many types of sensations when 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 hold a pose for a long time, you engage your muscles feel the effort. As long as you are relatively comfortable and can breathe deeply and calmly, you can stay as you are. If your body starts to shake or feel uncomfortable, if you lose the ability to breathe calmly, or if your alignment falls apart, take a break. You can 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. While pushing the body is important for strength building, take your time. You don’t want to push through at the expense of your body.

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. Ask yourself if it’s true, is the struggle in the mind, or in the body? If it’s a physical struggle, back off and rest. If the struggle is mental, breathe and tune into your body for more information.

Listen to your body
Child’s Pose

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 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. You should feel the stretch in the belly of the muscle, usually somewhere in the middle of the muscle. If you feel sharp pain at the joint attachments, you might require foam rolling before stretching. 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 this type of stretch, you will most likely cause a strain or a tear injury. When 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 You Want to Listen to Your Body

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.


To watch a short video on this topic, click here!

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