What Does 'Listen to Your Body' Mean?
Have you been in a yoga class where a teacher directed you to listen to your body, and you where thinking 'What in the world does that mean?!' Well, I know that feeling, so let me break it down for you.
When in a yoga class, often if the style is vinyasa, this instruction is given so the students have the option to challenge themselves into harder variations of the postures, or so they know it is an okay time to take a child's pose and rest. This leaves you a moment that's wide open to do a few extra chaturangas, be in your down dog or catch your breath. The question is: how do you know what to do? Which is better for you? Yoga is a very individual practice, and by learning to listen to your body you can deepen your experience in a way that benefits you the most.
Why You Should Really Listen
Listening to your body means knowing what is healthy for you, what will fuel you, and what can injure or deplete you. It is knowing what will challenge you and bring to your edge. It is not about doing what you think you should, but being present to how your body feels in each moment. Your body is constantly changing, and how you stood in tadasana (mountain pose) yesterday could be very different today. Learning to watch for the subtle changes in your equilibrium will allow you to listen to what your body needs most. It is about slowing down and noticing.
In a yoga class if we aren't listening to our bodies and mindlessly moving through poses, or if we are listening only to the teachers directions and not our bodies, we can end up injuring ourselves. Last year I was taking a class at a studio I wanted to teach at, and pushed myself much harder than I should have in my three legged down dog. I let my ego drive my postures which led to an injury. Maybe I was trying to impress the teacher or I thought if I did the poses to my max I would get the teaching job. At that moment my ego had taken over and I created havoc in my lower back, which I am still paying for today. I only had to make that mistake once, and now I listen to my body in every class, no matter who the teacher is or what studio I am at.
How to Begin
The guidance of 'listen to your body' can be helpful on and off the yoga mat, but again what does it really mean? Does it mean that if your body is telling you to eat a double cheese burger and fries you do? Or if it tells you to drink lots of whiskey you should?
There is a difference between the ego and the body, and being tuned into the body so you know what fuels you rather than depletes you. Notice in a yoga class: do you feel you have to do every advanced variation? Are you doing the advanced versions to deepen your practice or show off to the teacher or fellow students? Take a second before rushing into a posture to see what is really going on. Think about a double cheese burger before you eat it. Are you craving protein, or searching for comfort food to soothe you after a stressful day? What might be a healthier option that can also help you reduce stress?
Now I admit I have some days where eating pizza for breakfast is what my body is telling me to do, but before I do it I evaluate. Will this make me feel fueled for my day? Or will it tire me out? Taking those few seconds before eating to see if it is really what is best for my body at the moment allows me to make choices that support my life.
Not everything needs to be a large analysis. In your yoga class or before a meal don't take so much time that you miss what is going on, but learning to listen to our body allows us to be more conscious in our lives and therefore make healthy choices that benefit us and help us live light. Try the Live Light Practice below to really feel what 'listen to your body' is like for you.
A Yoga Meditation:
This is a five minute practice that will get you in tune with your body. (Tip: Set a five minute alarm so you are not worrying about the time and can have your eyes closed as you explore.)
- Stand in Tadasana (mountain pose) with your feet hip distance apart so you can feel steady and connected to the earth.
- Once you feel steady, close your eyes and bring your focus to your feet. Notice how you are standing. Are you leaning to one side? Do you feel the entire sole of each foot on the ground?
- Slowly allow the mind to bring its awareness to each part of your body. What do you notice about your ankles, knees, legs? Take time to see what sensations, thoughts, and feelings come up. If your mind wanders just coax yourself to focus on your breath for a few moments and then come back to searching your body.
- Continue noticing how your hips are feeling. What emotions are coming up?
- Scan each individual body part, and when you are done scan your body as one. What do you notice?
- What is your body telling you? Is it your ego speaking to you? Can you get past what you think you should be feeling and be true to how you are in the present moment?
- When the alarm goes off don't rush away. Slowly shake or wiggle your body and transition with ease back into your daily life.
What does "listen to your body" mean for you? Do you have any mental cuing you regularly use to assess your body? Let us know if the comments section below!
Liza Laird is a Life Coach and Yoga Therapist based in NYC. She leads retreats around the world. Join her for a retreat and follow her blog at lizalaird.com/blog.