What does it mean when my yoga teacher says, “Listen to your body”?

Updated: Apr 8

I’m in warrior 1 in one of the first (in-person) yoga classes I have ever officially taken. The teacher at the front of the room cues the alignment of the pose in detail as she demonstrates the posture- seemingly effortlessly- with her arms in the air.

My low back is hurting, my shoulders are aching and my upper back feels like it is about to do that “thing” it does right before it goes out and I can’t turn my head for a few days.

It comes to my mind that earlier in the class, she had said something to the effect of, “If something I offer doesn’t work for you, please listen to your body.”

Even though I remember she said that, I’m at a loss as to what to do with myself – should I keep going? Just stop? It seems like it should be obvious what to do, but it isn’t.

She demonstrates a couple modifications but I’m unsure if I “need” them or not. I look around and search the faces of my fellow students and wonder, are they struggling as much as I am? I glance up at the teacher; can she tell I hate this pose?

Fast-forward a year of daily practice:

Yoga postures that required a lot of stability had often been challenging for me. Flexibility, on the other hand, had always come easy and it “felt good” to stretch, at least, in the moment.

However, multiple teachers had warned me that I was in danger of damaging my joints and over-stretching my ligaments if I kept encouraging my excessive flexibility (I have genetic hypermobility and a gymnastics background) without balancing it with strength.

The truth was, I didn’t know how to “listen to my body” in classes because I had no idea what it really meant- what I was supposed to do and/or how to do it.

But, I knew I had to learn. It seems like a simple enough request- but simple doesn’t mean easy. I think it is worthwhile to take a moment to explore why the cue “Listen to your body” might create confusion and frustration rather than the intended clarity and compassion; and this exploration just may help you to learn how to follow this essential cue.

yoga child pose

First, it’s important to address the very practical and immediate question- what should you do if you are in a yoga posture and you are experiencing intense sensation or even pain, in the moment

You can:

A) Come in and out or come out.

B) Modify the posture (if you don’t know how to modify, simply come into a resting pose and ask the teacher after class).

C) Choose a different position. You do not have to do what everyone else is doing.

D) Stay and watch the sensations with curiosity and compassion. LISTEN. (This is only a viable option if there is no burning, numbness or blinding pain or an acute and/or recent injury.)

My hope is that the above list of options is a helpful guide during classes or home practice, and a jumping off place for the deeper inquiry that may begin to take place as you move along your path.

Now, for the obstacle course that is the mind!

I came up against a fair amount of roadblocks while trying to learn the “art of conversation” with my body. I can only speak for myself but I have found that many of the reasons I have personally had difficulty with listening to my body are common to a lot of students. I share this list because perhaps there is something to which you may relate:

* I have had the experience of someone telling me how I feel or how to feel.

* I got used to overriding my discomfort or even pain in competitive sports.

* I was basically told I was to work against my body and that my body didn’t know best (“no pain, no gain!”).