If you've ever been to a yoga class, chances are you heard this one before: Listen to your own body. Did you take it on board? Did you really follow that advice and went for an easier variation when your instructor offered you one and your body told you so?
Maybe you heard it but then it just went over your head and you pushed through because your competitive streak was stronger and you wanted to keep up with everyone else? Or did you just roll your eyes and had a little internal snigger?
Admittedly, the phrase 'listen to your own body' has become a bit of a cliche but it is one of the most important instructions in yoga and one that can be the most difficult to follow.
When I teach a class or a private session, I will give instructions and for some poses offer variations. I always ask my clients what their history is: past injuries, any ongoing issues, anything else I need to know. Still, occasionally someone will only mention their achy back or an old knee injury as they struggle with a pose or even wait until after a class to tell me.
It happens. Not because they don't want to share (although perhaps sometimes they don't) but because they didn't think of it, or they didn't think it was relevant, or they just completely forgot about it and it only came back to them when their body reminded them of it by being in pain. This is where the importance of listening to your own body comes in.
It's easy to get stuck in the head but listening to your mind is not the same as listening to your body.
Practicing yoga from the head is a disaster waiting to happen. ok, maybe a little dramatic... BUT. The internet is full of beautiful images of beautiful people in beautifully (although not always correctly i.e. what's best for the body) executed yoga poses. You don't need me to tell you that those are generally not accurate depictions of the average yogi. Or, in fact, the majority of yogis.
I appreciate the celebration of a beautiful body form but I make a clear distinction between art and the reality of my asana practice.
Forget about comparison, forget about all that beautiful imagery, don't look what everyone else is doing in class and always take any pain seriously. The key is learning to distinguish between pain where your body simply screams 'NO, get me out of here!' and discomfort where a part of your body feels tight and uneasy but there is a glimmer of possibility. With practice and patience, something might eventually shift.
Aside from listening to your body, finding a good yoga teacher is another essential because there is a little catch:
What feels good is not always what your body needs.
Yep, that's right. Hearing can be selective and the signals your body is sending you can be easily misunderstood. Take me for example.
My spine is very flexible so any heart opening poses naturally feel really good to me. I used to just go for it. Until a great teacher of mine pointed out that I often flex my spine to the point where it loses stability and becomes vulnerable to injury. Not necessarily the sudden kind of injury but the one that happens slowly over time. Unaware, I wasn't doing myself any favours by overdoing the elements of the practice that just felt great and easy.
It took a little re-programming and for a while I had to pay a lot of attention to engaging my core more and flexing my spine less. I felt the effects immediately: suddenly there was power, strength and stability I didn't have before.
The message here is: There is absolutely no reason to get yourself into a pretzel if your body is not up for it. Mine usually isn't. Lotus pose and all kinds of fancy binds will do no favour to most bodies. Strength, stability and expansion on the other hand will.