-by Lindsey Ovens
It’s hard to believe that summer is coming to an end and fall is almost here. Now is the perfect time to settle back into a consistent yoga practice with life slowing down after a busy and active summer. As we step into a new season, it’s also a great time to turn inward and check in with how we are feeling on and off our mats.
An important aspect of a yoga practice is to listen to the body. It sounds simple, but can be very challenging to do. It’s a practice in itself. Once you begin to listen to your body, it can be difficult but highly rewarding to actually make decisions based on the feedback your body is giving you. Your body might be telling you to back off because you have been tired and stressed. Do you listen?
Listening to your body is not only important for the yoga practice, but also in daily life. Growing up as an athlete, I have had awareness of my body for a long time but it took me quite awhile to translate that awareness to my life.
How do different foods make my body feel? What physical responses do different situations bring up? How does my job make me feel? Is this the state I want to be in throughout my life? If I want to feel differently, how do I get there? These are all questions I began asking myself and continue to ask on a regular basis. Here are some tools I use that I hope will be helpful to you as well.
How Do You Feel Before and After Your Practice
How do you want to feel? This is a great question to ask yourself at the start of practice. Once you are clear on how you want to feel, you can turn inward and learn how to get there. Notice any changes in how you feel before and after class to see if you are listening to your body while practicing. You can start to ask yourself this question off your mat as well: how do I want to feel today, this week, this month, etc? And what can I do to get there?
Example: If you are feeling stressed at the start of a practice and want to feel calm by savasana, you might get there by bringing ease to your breath and movements; maybe not going as deeply as you sometimes would while practicing to make sure you keep your breath steady and calm.
Your breath can tell you a lot about your state of mind as well as how you are feeling physically. Pay attention to your breath while you are practicing; specifically how it changes as you move from one pose to another or as you move into deeper variations within a pose. When does your breath get shorter or when do you tend to hold your breath? If you are in a pose and it is feeling hard, can you bring your attention to your breath, slow it down, make it steady, and breathe through the pose? A good habit to get into is to check in with your breath throughout your day, not just while practicing. It’s a good indicator of how you are reacting to situations positive and negative.
Having an understanding of alignment is not only important for injury prevention, but can also serve as an indicator of how you are feeling on any given day. If you have a strong alignment foundation, you can tell if you lose your alignment when you go deeper into a pose – or an instructor may help you by offering modifications or adjustments. You should take note and decide whether you have gone too deeply and need to back off.
You can also pay attention to your alignment to notice if you are getting fatigued in a pose. If your body is tired, you might lose your alignment even if it’s a pose you typically feel very strong in. You may find yourself veering off the mid-line, feeling weak in some areas, having a challenging time transitioning between poses gracefully, etc. When you notice your alignment change, decide whether you are still in a safe position or whether you should back off, maybe shake out your legs or take a rest in child’s pose.
How Does Your Body Feel in a Pose
I try to encourage my students to notice how they feel in poses. It’s incredibly beneficial to simply be in a pose and notice sensations, like tension, exhilaration or ache in your body and to pay attention to where your mind goes. Once you have a strong alignment foundation, you can be confident in your alignment and not have to think about that as much. You will have the confidence and freedom to feel poses and make adjustments to get what you need from your practice. Our lives can be so busy and we have information coming at us all of the time. It’s often difficult to slow down and check in with how we are feeling throughout our day. It is helpful to practice this on the mat and then bring it into daily life.
I encourage students to use props while practicing. When I first started practicing, my ego would get in the way and I would avoid using props because I thought it would show that my practice wasn’t as strong. But of course this is not the case. Props support you in your practice and most people benefit from using them. If a block helps you get into safer alignment in a pose, use it! You will feel better at the end of class (and beyond) if you can support yourself. We all need support in our practice as well as in our lives. (If you find yourself routinely resisting use of supports, ask yourself if you do the same in life off the mat? Why?)
Body-awareness is a powerful tool to bring into your life. It is a practice. It takes time to refine these skills and listen to what your body is telling you. It’s not about being perfect, but being aware of how you feel and honoring that. You can begin to make decisions based on how you feel in different situations. In your yoga practice you might decide to back off in your practice one day and challenge yourself another day. In your life, you might make big decisions to decrease your stress level or to be more joyful.
“Knowing how you actually want to feel is the most potent form of clarity that you can have. Generating those feelings is the most powerfully creative thing you can do with your life.” Danielle LaPorte, The Desire Map