by Charlotte Bell
If you practice yoga, you’ve probably heard the entreaty, “Listen to your body.” It’s good, sound advice. When you embark on any physical practice, it’s important to know and respect your body’s limits. Those limits can change over time, of course, but tuning in and listening to what your body is telling you each time you practice is essential not only to your body’s health, but to the growth of your practice. How else can you really know the effects of asana?
As teachers, we can’t truly know what another person is feeling in his/her body. So encouraging students to develop their own body awareness is crucial.
Although listening to your body, and encouraging your students to do so, is very important, sometimes it is not enough to keep your body safe. Here are two reasons why:
1. It takes a while to develop body awareness. Some of us come to practice with fairly refined body awareness, while others come to practice barely able to understand what they’re feeling even when it’s not at all subtle. This disparity might be the result of some people having already engaged in lots of physical activity while others have not. A person who has suffered physical trauma could be either hyper-aware of physical sensation, or might have developed a mechanism to shut down extreme sensation. Whatever the reason, it’s safe to assume that every student who comes to your yoga classes is not experiencing the same level of body awareness. So not every student will be able to trust his/her listening skills, at least at first. This is where an experienced teacher who knows how to look for alignment that is in or out of integrity is so important.
2. Even if your body awareness is very refined, there are times when you might be hurting yourself inadvertently, even though everything feels fine in the moment. For example, often you will not feel overstretched ligaments until the next day. Over time, consistently overstretching ligaments can cause joint instability. A stickier, more long-term issue is the possibility of joint damage, especially in the hip joints. Our acetabula (the sockets of the hip joints) are lined with a cartilagenous surface called the “labrum.” In addition, the heads of our femur bones are covered with cartilage. The cartilage on both surfaces allows the ball and socket to articulate smoothly and freely. Cartilage has no enervation, so we can’t feel the ball and socket articulating with each other. When we make a habit of pushing or collapsing into our joints—this especially applies to the bendier folks—the cartilage can tear or wear down over time. We don’t feel cartilage damage until the cartilage is gone, and then it’s often too late. Fortunately, hip replacement surgery has improved by leaps and bounds, but a better idea would be to avoid overstretching our joints in the first place.
As teachers, we should encourage students to listen to their bodies, and help them understand that pain and discomfort are signals to back off, not to keep going. But we also need to train ourselves to know what collapsing into a joint looks like. Some of the poses that people commonly collapse or push into their hip joints include extreme hip openers—think Pigeon, Hanumanasana, lunges and Yoga Nidrasana. (Do you really need to put your ankle behind your head to enjoy a grace-filled life?) Backbends can be a problem as well because there’s a tendency to push into your hip joints to get that extra few millimeters of height. And that instruction about keeping your pelvis aligned between two imaginary plates of glass in standing poses? Please don’t do it. Let your hip of your back leg rotate inward so that you maintain continuity between the legs and pelvis.
Do listen to your body. You can avoid a lot of present and future suffering by simply paying attention. But also, do remember that just because everything feels fine in the moment, it may not be in the long run. Know what normal range of motion is for your joints. And remember: Nowhere in yoga’s texts does it say that pushing past your limits is good practice. Remember shtira (stability) and sukkha (ease) from Sutra 2.46? (Translated: The physical body should be steady and comfortable.) If you’re going to put energy into anything in your practice, aim for a balance between these two qualities. And find yourself an experienced teacher who knows what that means.
Charlotte Bell is a yoga and meditation teacher, oboist and writer living in Salt Lake City. She writes for Hugger Mugger Yoga Products’s blog and Catalyst Magazine, and has published two books with Rodmell Press: Mindful Yoga, Mindful Life and Yoga for Meditators.