This column originally appeared in Om Yoga & Lifestyle Magazine, June 2015
Listen to your body defined
As postural yoga teachers and students we employ a variety of words and phrases that wouldn’t make much sense in polite society. We overload their meaning and use so heavily that we create a hugely subjective muddle. Let’s reclaim an understanding of these words, use them consciously, and deepen their effect.
‘Listen to your body’ is often teacher code for: ‘I don’t know how to help you.’ Teachers really mean that you yourself should learn to distinguish between healthy sensations of practice like moderate muscular stretch and contraction and injurious pain like joint compression and dysfunctional movement. If you have suffered a recent injury, it is likely you would remember the associated symptoms enough to modify or stop as necessary to prevent re-injury. Without this history you may be confusing pain with discomfort as the body adapts to new modes of movement that in the long run may be very good for you. As a general but not failsafe rule of injury prevention, avoid intense isolated sensation and work to spread force more equally throughout the body.
If your body made enough noise to be audible in a yoga class, it wouldn’t typically be a cause for celebration. Furthermore, when you listen figuratively, you tend to listen to habit. The body can be a big liar, desperately afraid of change, and can prevent you from going deeper or correcting dysfunction by sending false or misleading signals that may feel as equally true as those signalling impending disaster. With this understanding, you should not only listen, but dialogue with the body. Explore the edges of your practice within the parameters described above. Question the body and solicit feedback as to whether or not your practice is providing a positive effect on your health and wellbeing. Greater observation of the experience of embodiment grounds the physical practice in meditative reflection and trains you for later dialogues with the infinitely more complex landscapes of the mind and spirit.
‘Listen to your body’ is an essential instruction for a mindful and sustainable asana practice. It ensures you take responsibility for your health and ownership of your experience. Be deliberate, skillful, and clear with this instruction to reassert its power and efficacy.