Yoga Is A Practice. The Art Of Learning To Listen To Your Body
Yoga is about moving mindfully. It is about the art of awareness, about learning to listen to your body. At the beginning of class, I suggest to students to check in, to notice how their body, breath and mind feel on that day, at that particular moment. I suggest that they listen to their breath and their body as they move and adapt the poses where needed to suit their current abilities and mood. I let them know that it is ok to rest in child’s pose, to stop when they need, to adjust the pose and make use of props to create ease especially if their breath is no longer smooth and steady.
There are students who push themselves, who choose the ‘hardest’ version of the pose, who feel they are not 'trying' unless there is some aspect of force. Their breath may quicken, their faces may show discomfort or even grimace in pain.
I understand how they are feeling, it is a challenge to go against the general idea that we have to push and strive to achieve a goal of some sort. It is difficult to let go of the image in your mind about how the pose ‘should’ look and instead find your own version of the pose, that works for your body, where you feel that sweet spot between effort and ease.
In our society we are so often taught that more is better – more speed, more strength, more effort, more flexibility. I have worked in gyms where the instructors and clients adhere to the slogan ‘go hard or go home’. A personal trainer I previously worked with would actually try to make his clients vomit and kept a tally of who ‘spewed’ during his sessions. He considered these sessions his most successful.
In this ‘no pain, no gain’ culture and especially in a gym environment it can be difficult to switch to a yoga mindset. It is natural to want to make progress and to improve but when moving mindfully and with awareness the chance of injury and setback is much lower, bringing physical benefits in the long run. This also allows the other benefits of yoga to the mind and emotional states.
If you are an athlete your mindset will be different during training and competition. You will want push yourself to your limits and the aim is usually to be the best – the fastest, strongest etc. Yoga can be a great recovery for athletes. If you are an athlete, yoga can assist you in tuning into your body and can help you to learn to listen to what your body needs during yoga practice without having to compete with the person next to you or with yourself. This understanding of ones own body and connection to breath can be so beneficial when returning to training or competition. It can teach you how to pace yourself best on the course or track and to learn when to push or to rest.
Many of us have been on autopilot for years and are disconnected from what is happening in our bodies. For students new to yoga the concept of looking within and noticing how your body, breath and mind feel can be really foreign and can often be an uncomfortable and confronting experience at first. Sometimes it is only after injury or illness that we first learn these valuable lessons. If you are incapacitated then you have no choice but to listen to your body. I recently had abdominal surgery and after quite a few weeks even cow or child’s pose put too much stress on my stomach. I had to completely adjust my practice to do only restorative poses and meditation to allow my body the time it needed to heal.
At other times my body has also let me know that I needed to slow down. One day I arrived, before a class that I was teaching, planning to do my own practice. I had a whole energetic flow class planned. I rolled out my mat, sunk into Child’s pose and promptly went to sleep. A student arrived 45 minutes later to find me fast asleep, still in child’s pose! My body was clearly telling me to rest! I had been ignoring the subtle signs for a while and finally was forced to pay attention.
Slowing down and being mindful might mean that your yoga practice changes over time. You might decide that some styles of yoga or yoga poses no longer suit you and your body despite practicing them for years. This could be because you get older, your body changes or perhaps your mindset changes. Whatever the reason it is ok. The difference between yoga and some other activities is that it is not about getting ‘better’ at the pose. It is all about experiencing the pose in each moment which can change from day to day. I always remind students of this with balance poses. Your ability to balance does improve with practice but can depend on so many other factors. You may one day do the ‘perfect’ half moon and not be able to do it at all the next. This is why we call yoga a ‘practice’. Practicing yoga is an opportunity to learn more about yourself, physically and mentally. It is only when you approach yoga with an open and curious mind that you will learn these lessons.
Annika is a Canberra based Yoga, meditation teacher and writer. She believes in the healing power of yoga and that yoga is suited to everyone. Find out more about Annika on her website,www.annikayoga.com, Instagram - @annika.yoga or facebook - @annikayoga.canberra.