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

Updated: Apr 8, 2022

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!”).

* I lost trust in my body when I experienced a long bout of chronic illness and chronic pain. I alternated between feeling my body had “betrayed me” and “failed me” and feeling guilty that I had done something to my body and this was my punishment or “payback”.

* I got disconnected from my body at times, becoming more invested in how it looked, rather than how it felt.

* I went back and forth between ignoring discomfort and hyper-focusing on it.

* It became difficult for me to know or trust when something was “good” for me; addictions happened when I focused more on how something felt in the moment and forgot to reflect on how it made me feel later on.

Heeding the messages of the body can be especially confusing when the relationship between the practitioner and his or her body isn’t necessarily always a conscious or a compassionate one.

yoga beach

So, what can we do?

-Generally speaking, we can practice listening. It can be helpful to make it a habit to check in with the body on a regular basis, not only during asana practice, but also checking in directly after practice and again a day or two later.

-A yoga nidra and/or a restorative practice can be helpful in acquainting a practitioner with the subtle body and with becoming embodied in general. If you aren’t “in” your body, you aren’t available to hear any messages it may be sending. If you don’t have time for a longer practice; sometimes doing a 3 minute body scan, practicing several minutes of alternate nostril breathing or even just taking a break and checking in with the senses (sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch) can be an effective way to come into the body. As one of my favorite teachers, Jonathan Foust, says, “The body only lives in the here and now, it is the mind that moves forward and back. When you can remember to open the senses you can create a powerful shift in less than a breath or two.”’

-A meditation practice can make you increasingly aware of your thoughts and feelings and with the “story” that we all have and, in some cases, create, about our individual body. Get quiet and watch sensations come and go. You will notice sensations and thoughts often shift and change, even if the change is slight.

-Spend some time developing your awareness of the Koshas, or “sheaths” of the body. According to yoga philosophy, there are 5 “bodies.” Exploring them can help you become more conscious of the deeper aspects of yourself, including your inner “witness” that is always aware, but doesn’t judge or evaluate. You can then develop the skills needed to integrate this wisdom into your daily life. For more information see the link below:

-Attempt to become aware of any potential past and present conditioning surrounding your relationship to your body. Inquire into what you’ve been told, but also what you tell yourself. You can even keep a journal and note inner dialogue when you notice it. Listen with the intent to learn. Be curious! And above all, compassionate.

After becoming a teacher about 9 years ago, I sometimes flash back to that first yoga class and I think about how important it is, not only to cue, “listen to the body”, but to cue how to begin listening and also how to deepen that process of inquiry.

The way I see it, my job is not to tell you exactly what to do and where to go; it is to help you learn how to get there. My hope is to guide you in listening for the inner cues your body is giving you for how long to stay in a posture, how far to go and when to pull back and choose a different position all together.

Many students, including myself, find that this transfers to daily life. You’ll learn to listen to (and with) your body and you’ll come to know how long to stay, when to pull back, and when to choose something else all together; and that is something no one can “teach” you.

Thank you so much for reading!

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