I wish I had a pound for every time I have told my students to ‘listen to your body’ – it’s just one of those things yoga teachers say, isn’t it? It slips off the tongue so easily, but what does it really mean?
Listen through Ahimsa
Listening to your body starts with ahimsa – the first of Patanjali’s yamas, or restraints. Ahimsa is usually translated to mean non-violence or non-harming, and it can be applied to everything – people, animals, the environment, the earth.
Ahimsa can also be defined as ‘not to injure’. This applies to listening to the body during yoga practice. Listening to the body and remaining truly aware of how it feels as we move through practice is the first step to not injuring ourselves. But noticing is not enough – we must know how to act.
Find your sweet spot
What is more satisfying than the feeling of a great stretch? But a stretch pushed too far can cause pain and even serious injury. How do we know how much stretch is ‘good’ and when it could harm us?
Here are some guidelines –
- Stretches should not be painful. A mild to moderate sensation of stretch is good – this will gradually gain length in soft tissues. Pain or shuddering on a stretch is definitely a bad sign and should be avoided at all costs.
- The stretch should ease or stay the same as you hold. When a stretch sensation increases as you hold, it is because your body is fighting back. It thinks it is going to be damaged by such a strong stretch and it is definitely time to listen and ease off the stretch. Go back to that sweet spot where the stretch is comfortable.
- Ease into a stretch gently. If the sensation of stretch clears while you hold the pose – ease a little further until you find it again. You can do this as often as you like and really enjoy inching your way into the pose.
Feel a pinch?
Sometimes pain in yoga is not due to stretch. It can be where a joint is compressed or squashed – like on the front of the hip in forward folds. Where stretching sensations will ease over time and joint range will increase with careful practise, painful pinching sensations on the compressed side of the joint will not change. Pain here is likely due to bone pressing on bone within the joint – no amount of holding will change this. Our bones are the shape they are, yoga cannot change them. When you experience painful pinching in a joint the only thing to do is modify the pose to avoid the pain.
There is no such thing as a ‘good pain’… Always avoid pain.
Change your plan?
Have you ever started a practice and just found it SO hard compared to yesterday? Or noticed a niggle in your back that wasn’t there earlier in the week. Maybe your shoulders are feeling extra stiff from the gardening yesterday… What do you do? Push through the pain? Stay focused on the intense practise planned?
Change. The. Plan.! Here are some options –
- Change the pose – Try some modifications or use props. Allow your focus to switch to a specific aspect that’s more accessible.
- Work around the problem – Change the emphasis of the practise, away from the uncomfortable body part – Sore legs? Focus on seated poses. Wonky wrist? Focus on standing poses..
- Work the other seven limbs – Perhaps this is the day to meditate or practise pranayama. Step away from asana and see what else the body needs.
Soldiering through Sickness
It can be SO tempting to ignore warning signs when you’re sick and keep soldiering on. This. Is. A. Bad. Idea. Continuing hard physical exercise through illness is likely to prolong the symptoms. Our bodies can’t fight an infection and have energy for exercise at the same time. Taking a rest while you feel unwell allows your immune system to do its job and clear the infection as efficiently as it can. You will return to your practice, and when you do, gently and mindfully give yourself a few days to get back to your pre-illness level of activity.
The bottom line
‘listen to your body when it whispers and you will not have to hear it scream’
Notice what is happening in your body. Practice humility to accept not being able to do something we had hoped for. Maybe not today or, maybe not ever. This does not make for bad yogis, it makes for good yogis whose personal practice includes ahimsa.
So go on and listen to your good body you good yogi. Your body deserves your full attention.