My inspiration for this article came out of a conversation I had recently about competitive Yoga. While people around the world, including in India, enjoy Yoga as a competition I personally feel that much of what IS Yoga is lost when it becomes competitive.
Everyone and every body is different. Yoga is a state of connection between body, breath and mind, and of connection with our environment too. But Yoga is also a practice – of turning inwards, of deep listening and of honouring the messages that the body gives us in each moment. Each of us needs to find our own edge in our practice to have both growth and longevity on the mat and in life…
Building body awareness
Honouring our own bodies in yoga requires that we become intimate with our body’s sensations. It requires that we build not only ‘outside in’ awareness – an awareness of where we place our body in space or on the ground – but also an ‘inside out” awareness – feeling how our movements or breath … or thoughts … affect our bodies from the inside.
When we are new to a movement practice, or new to yoga specifically, this can be quite a learning curve.
This is not just about learning the postures but about learning your body. Some of us live up in our heads so much that we are disconnected from our bodies. We just go through the motions while we continue to plan, worry and replay stuff. When we are disconnected from our bodies it can also mean that we are disconnected from our relationship with the body of the Earth too and perhaps also underlying emotions that we hold in our own bodies.
I know that for me it was a journey into the subtleties of the practice. Coming from a background in dance, I was certainly flexible and able to place my body into shapes with relative ease but I had to learn to listen to the messages my body was sending from the inside. Not to stretch too far just to attain a certain shape, not to allow myself to collapse into my flexibility in certain areas but to also build strength, even if that meant holding back a little in other ways.
Once I was able to feel the subtle sensations I also was able to become aware of the way my body felt when I was angry or excited or afraid… I was able to sense the support I got from the ground, the nourishment I got from certain foods, the depletion I felt from certain places…
Our bodies send us wise messages when we slow down and listen in to them. When we step onto our mat we need to check in with our physical bodies. Is there injury here right now? Does the body feel tight or open? What is our energy like? Tired, restless, dull, full of the vitality of life? Are we carrying some emotional baggage? Grief, anger, sadness, excitement, anxiety? These are all important things to be aware of as a foundational base for our practice and to honour as we move through it.
If we’ve had little sleep and been screamed at all day by an emotional toddler (yes… I know those days!) it might not be wise to take every opportunity to move through a full Chaturanga vinyasa and take the fullest extension of every pose.
If we are carrying an injury and a pose exacerbates that injury then this is definitely a sign to modify our practice (and don’t be afraid of approaching your teacher prior to class to work through alternative options – a good teacher will want to help you have a sustainable practice and should refer you to another teacher or practitioner if they can’t help you).
Being aware of our own competitive nature
When we step onto our yoga mat we have an opportunity to turn in to our experience, to create a sacred space of deep listening and to let go of distractions around us. But in reality this is a process and a journey in itself. Particularly when new to yoga we need to look at the visual cues of the teacher and other students around us to help us to put our bodies into the yoga postures or asanas.
Through this it can be so easy to fall into the comparing mindset, judging ourselves against what other students are doing and perhaps striving for a particular expression of the asana. This then becomes an opportunity to notice that competitiveness (whether within ourselves, wanting to improve our practice, or in competition with others – however subtle that is), when it arises and keep coming back to feeling the poses and the breath in our own body.
Finding your ‘edge’
When I teach I often talk about finding your ‘edge’ in each shape and even in each breath.
The edge is that point at which you feel sensation in a pose (whether a sense of strengthening or stretching the muscles, compressing or expanding the body) but it is not overwhelming and it doesn’t create pain or feel like it is going to cause injury to your body (or make an injury worse).
A sense of curiosity and inquiry is required so that we can find the edge without pushing past it. The edge is a place where we feel challenged both mentally and physically but can also find balance and ease. This is one particular reason that my classes are intentionally slow, so that there is time to feel each shape and each expression of a shape.
Yoga philosophy offers us a great teaching to guide this practice. In the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali it states Stirrah Sukham Asanam (Sutra 11.46) which is translated as “firmness of body, steadiness of mind and ease of spirit” (in BKS Iyengar’s translation). In our practice we can use this as an intention or mantra to continually find this balance of steadiness and ease in each moment.
The breath is a wonderful tool to help find the edge. As a general guide if you can keep your breath long and smooth (breathing through the nose as much as possible) this automatically bring a sense of ease into the body-mind. Often when we push past or through the edge we might find we are holding our breath, or the breathing becomes ragged. Too much tension enters the body and the balance is lost.
Pushing yourself can take you beyond your edge, while holding back can prevent you from ever meeting your edge and thus progressing or growing in your practice. If you tend to push yourself in the rest of your life, you may also push yourself in your yoga practice. Or, on the contrary, if you tend to hold back in the rest of your life, you may back off before you feel sensation in a posture.
Each of us needs to find our own edge and our own balance – everyone and every body is different – one person might find absolute ease in Dancer’s pose while another might be at their very edge!
Cues and Physical adjustments
While this process of listening to your body and finding your edge is a very personal and individual one it is also really important to have a good teacher. Teachers’ cues are vital to help guide the student into their body and to understand the intention of the pose, and sometimes this involves visual, verbal or physical adjustment to a posture to ensure that intention is honoured.
For the most part it is most empowering for a teacher to allow a student to find their own expression of the shape without adjustment. Through verbal instruction and some visual cueing this helps us to feel the way the adjustments we make affect our body.
In a pose such as Mountain (Tadasana) it is so empowering to feel the difference it makes for us to soften our knees, to be balanced evenly across our feet, to find a neutral pelvic position, to press our feet into the earth and feel the support of the ground moving up a neutral spine.
However, particularly if we are newer to yoga, weaker, hyper mobile or our posture is out of balance, it can be difficult to know that we, for example, have locked our knees or tilted our pelvis into excessive lordosis or that we are rolling to the inside of our feet.
In some cases we need the kinaesthetic approach and a gentle physical adjustment in the shape where the teacher shows us with their hands (or support of another body part) where our body is safest and most aligned. This should be an extra option to help us learn our bodies and not to force us into a particular shape. If an adjustment ever feels painful or inappropriate, if there is a history of trauma, or physical touch brings up feelings of anxiety you should ALWAYS feel ok to say no to a teacher’s adjustments.
Individual cues and adjustments are so much more powerful in a one to one setting and so private sessions with an experienced teacher are amazing value in order to personalise your practice, learn your body’s own cues and to find your edge, particularly if you are newer to yoga or have limitations.
Pratyahara – withdrawing the senses
Svavisaya asamprayoge cittasya svatupanukarah iva indriyanam pratyaharah
“Withdrawing the senses, mind and consciousness from contact with external objects, and then drawing them inwards towards the seer is pratyahara” (Sutra 11.54 – Iyengar translation).
The most powerful aspect of this continual turning in and listening to our bodies becomes not just the benefits of growing our practice in a sustainable way (without pain and injury) but the transformation of the practice into a meditation in movement.
Once the basic postures become more natural, we are able to learn to move our body from our centre, to feel our way through the constant subtle adjustments of pressure or of breath to find balance in steadiness and ease. There are more advanced postures and variations and breathing techniques to allow ourselves to continue to grow and we learn to dance our way towards them with the fullness of attention to these subtleties.
We become fully connected in mind, body and breath, an integrated being, and we no longer need to make an effort to come back to the body & breath in each moment.
And then we lose it again …
We catch ourselves judging, comparing, striving, pushing, holding ourselves back, disconnecting from our experience… and we recommit to the essence of yoga again. We remember, we connect, we honour, we come back.
Yoga allows us to learn so much about our bodies and to honour where we are each time we step onto our mat. Yoga creates the space for us to explore and connect deeply with our own inner experience.
When we are disconnected from our bodies, our Yoga practice (and it takes practice) offers us a way home.