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Why Listening to Your Body Might Not Be Enough

in For Teachers, YD News, Yogitorials

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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.

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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.

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15 comments… add one

  • PS in NY

    “Do you really need to put your ankle behind your head to enjoy a grace-filled life?” True that. A lot of wisdom here. #1 was especially true for me when I began to practice yoga seriously. It took me years to process the instruction “listen to your body”, because I had not learned mindfulness. Understanding didn’t come until after injury, which I don’t recommend as a path for learning. With yoga practice tending more and more towards a physical performance, teachers need to remind students what the practice is really about, and that they will benefit from any level of a pose, from modified to full expression.

  • Thanks for your comment. It seems that all too often we don’t understand the importance of listening to our bodies until it’s too late. I’ve been teaching since 1986 and I’ve observed people who come in to their first class with a lot of body awareness, and others who have been practicing for years that seem to struggle with it. Then there’s all the grey area in between, where most people live.

    When the big “yoga injuries” discussion was happening online a few years ago, there were lots of defensive comments from teachers saying that they tell their students to listen to their bodies, so when they get hurt it’s their own fault. This is a serious abdication of responsibility on the part of these teachers. You can’t assume anyone in your class is capable of sensing when they might be doing something damaging. It is a teacher’s responsibility to ensure that they’re fostering an atmosphere in which students do not feel pressured to perform. Of course, teachers can’t control whether students will do forceful practice because of their own misunderstanding of what practice is about, but it’s our job to keep an eye on people and make sure they’re not pushing themselves. There are plenty of observation points for this, if a teacher knows what to look for.

  • Sarah

    I have had many an argument ( not an argument exactly but more a vigorous discussion) with my especially bendy students about the importance of not extending beyond joint range of motion and falling into flexibility. As an former orthopedic nurse and a rather inherently flexible person myself, I think I see the big picture. Sure our super flexy students can make a pose “look” pretty but that doesn’t mean its working the way it could or should be nor that it is safe.

  • I hope your students listen to you! As a former orthopedic nurse you have a lot of firsthand knowledge to share. These days, I’m an advocate not only for flexible people not going past their range, but I feel it’s equally important to stay a little inside their range. Super bendy people generally need stability rather than more flexibility. We wouldn’t advocate for an inflexible person to do things to make them even less flexible. Why do we think that being out of balance in the direction of flexibility is any better?

  • Ellen

    I am a reasonably flexible person considering that my yoga practice is only a little over 2 years old. I have always sat cross-legged and I love pigeon poses. I guess my question is: if you can’t feel yourself overdoing such poses, how are you supposed to be aware of it? If there are no nerves and no pain, what measure does one use for overdoing it? I occasionally feel a little soreness the next day but then it does away quickly, so I always assume I am just coming up to my edge. My teacher sometimes corrects me because she says I hyperextend, but I honestly don’t feel it so I have to look.

  • Thanks for your question. You’re pointing to the crux of the challenge. For us bendy people, it may take pushing past healthy limits in order for us to feel anything. When I was younger and doing lots of hip openers and backbends, none of it was uncomfortable, but my joints have definitely suffered for it.

    I think it requires a different kind of intention and a different kind of awareness. The shifting of intention is at the root, and I think it’s actually the most difficult part of keeping yourself safe. Too much flexibility is just as much an imbalance as being overly stiff. However, our misunderstanding that asana practice is about becoming more and more flexible, and performing “virtuosic” poses keeps us doing things that are potentially injurious. When you are really flexible, you may not know you are hurting yourself in the moment, but you can be aware if you are collapsing into your joints. You can be aware of continuity or lack thereof. This usually requires pulling back from the place where you’re feeling a stretch, maybe just be a few millimeters. But when you shift your intention from going as far as you can go to developing a more internally based awareness of whether you are maintaining continuity through your joints, it’s easier to stay safe. And there’s really a lot of richness in the more subtle sensations you can access when you’re not focused on pushing as far as you can.

    I’ll use Pigeon as an example. I rarely teach this pose anymore, but if students really want to do it, I ask that everyone, no matter how flexible they are, place a block, bolster or folded blanket under the hip of the forward leg. Then I have them keep the back leg active by pressing the knee and top of the foot into the floor. This slightly changes the angle of the hip joint in the back leg, keeping the ball of the femur from pressing into the socket. These adjustments make it much harder to collapse into either hip joint. I still think that the SI joint can be potentially at risk in Pigeon, at least for certain people, but elevating the pelvis and activating the back leg makes it less likely. Does this make sense?

  • Ellen

    Thank you Charlotte! I appreciate your response. I will try Pigeon the way you describe it and see if there is a difference in how it feels. I guess I am trying to imagine what it means to “collapse into your joints”.

    Best wishes,

  • Jennifer

    You know, when I first started practicing yoga, it took me a loooooooooooooong time to be able to understand what my body was telling me. I injured myself pretty badly a couple of times – through no fault of the instructor – trying to push my body into poses for which it was simply not ready, and I was unable to understand the signs. I’ve always had insanely flexibly hips, but woops!, it took a pretty bad psoas injury for me to understand that I needed to be balancing my flexibility with strength. In yoga, just like anything else in life, just because you “can”, that doesn’t always mean that you “should”.

  • Your last statement is so true: Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. When you have insanely flexible hips–as I also do–you can do pretty much anything without pain, until you can’t!

  • Robin

    Thank you for this article. I too am a yoga teacher and I’ve been wondering lately…”what can I do for the bendy people who say they don’t feel anything?” In general I like to teach poses that are not too risky. For example, I’ll guide them through Iguana instead of Pigeon. But some students ask me: “why don’t I feel any stretch?” It seems that adapting poses with specific intentions is key and figuring out what that would be for different students takes a lot of experience and understanding. We need to teach body awareness rather than more extreme poses.

  • What I’d say to bendy people who don’t feel anything is to ask them to look a little closer. There is always sensation somewhere. Sutble sensation can be really interesting, and it’s a great exercise in mindfulness to be aware of subtlety instead of always going for the most extreme sensation. I think we are conditioned to think that when we do a physical practice that extreme sensation means we’re accomplishing something. That is not the point of asana practice. When a student asks “why don’t I feel any stretch?” I say, “because you are as flexible as you need to be in this pose.” To me that’s an indication that they absolutely don’t need to stretch more. They’ve already got as much flexibility as they need to function well in their bodies–maybe too much!

  • Robin

    Yes! Thank you Charlotte. I will sometimes ask them “what are you feeling is this area?” and try to get them to recognize that they can feel something without it being an intense stretch. More awareness. And just being enough. :-)

  • inanna

    ….and that is advanced practice, i think – to be able to know that what we can do isn’t necessarily what we should do – far more than advanced-/impressive-looking asana. for me this is one of the reasons for asana practice in the first place – to explore what my body is, and to HONOUR that. some days that takes hanumanasana/eka pada rajak, some days just lying over bolsters is plenty. hearing the call of the body, and heeding it, rather than doing advanced poses because that’s the level we’re “at” leads to a far more fluid – and interesting – practice.

    i mainly teach pregnant and postnatal women and i think that the perceived “limits” of what the body can do during these times are execllent prep for being able to listen with the kind of subtle, non-grasping awareness that is required for practicing safely at other times.

    finally – i would really like to see a shift in focus within asana teaching. being able to perform advanced asana doesn’t make anyone happy, or reduce suffering (in fact in my experience it can increase it, even if those poses are done perfectly safely, if, as happens all too often, we as practitioners ascribe any kind of inherent value to the pose itself). i loathe the “playing your edge” thing. i use my asana practice as a way to remember the still, quiet, accepting parts of me, because life asks me to play that edge pretty much daily. asana allows me to touch the mystery, i think, at the heart of embodiment. which is enough for me!

  • I so agree with what you say here. I think that “playing your edge” is often code for pushing your edge, or at least, that’s how it’s interpreted. I think the most challenging thing for Westerners practicing yoga is to understand the intention of practice. We start out with asana, and many, if not most, people don’t ever learn any of the rest of the system. If we started with the yamas and niyamas, as is traditional, there’d be far less likelihood of the extreme practice that seems to pervade the Western mindset.

    In my years of studying yoga philosophy, I’ve been struck many times by the insistence that “elevated states” such as psychic feats are not only a diversion from the path, but also potential traps. Like being attached to one’s ability to do the “advanced” poses, they only serve to strengthen the ego, which is antithetical to the point of practice, and only leads to suffering.

    Extreme poses may be fun in the moment, but in reality they do absolutely nothing to increase the quality of our lives, and can, in fact, decrease the quality of our lives if we put so much emphasis on them that we destroy our joints.

  • inanna

    mm i agree re yamas and niyamas. it depends how they’re taught though. the western mindset doesn’t seem to take kindly to the notion of restraints! donna fahri is excellent on shifting the focus towards an understanding that we need them to decrease personal suffering/alienation. and i really like m remski’s ideas in his “threads” about the 8 limbs being treated as spokes of a wheel, all pointing the same direction, rather than having to be learnt in linear fashion. they’re all interconnected and engaging with one can be a doorway to the others. intention, as you say.

    in my original (1000 hour +) tt, we did a lot of work on exploring the yamas and niyamas in our personal practice. it was very interesting to see how my bodymind responded when deepening my understanding of ahimsa was the goal, rather than achievement of any particular pose, or experience. i use that kind of intent in all practice nowadays. it’s shifted the focus away from asana as well as showing me that it’s a tremendously powerful tool when hooked up with, again, as you say, intent.

    xx

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