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Yoga Ouch: Is it in Your Mind or Your Body?

Posted Nov 19 2009 10:00pm

The other day I heard a yoga teacher say something that made me cringe a bit (I'm paraphrasing here) -- "If you want to stop, that's only your mind. Push through and keep going." I'm a fan of the listen-to-your-body club, so this direction didn't sit all that well with me (it's right up there with a yoga teacher going up to a student and aggressively adjusting him/her to suit an ideal form). But then I thought about some examples where this might be true.

For instance -- childbirth. I haven't had a child myself, but I understand that many women get to a point where they feel like they can't possibly continue. Yet somehow their bodies know what to do. A woman wracked with pain may be overwhelmed by sensation to the point of giving up or she may feel fear about a process through which she hasn't undergone before and feels somehow wrong. And while the physical pain is very real, in this case, it's part of the process of giving birth. The yoga teacher might have something here when she says "push through the pain."

Then there's the triathlete that trains very hard and puts his/her body through an enormous amount of strain in the name of sport and competition. Many times you hear about an athlete who crosses the finish line only to collapse shortly thereafter. This person was pushing his/her body, using the power of the mind to finish a race even though the body was shutting down. 

So, which is it -- do you push through the pain in yoga or is the pain a signal to stop? I often go by the motto "no pain, no pain," making my clients stop if something hurts. Yet sometimes feelings/thoughts play a part and staying with sensation can provide a yoga practitioner with a release.

That said, I think the name of the game is discernment. Ask yourself -- am I feeling sensation or flat out pain? There's a difference. Sensation may be uncomfortable or intense in some way, but pain is sharper. It's important to differentiate between the two. The ability to discern can mean the difference between a beautiful experience on the mat and a harmful one that hobbles you with injuries.

Just last night I was doing a Yin Yoga practice. I came into Happy Baby  Pose and immediately I felt an intense sensation in the upper thigh/hamstring area of my left leg. Thanks to lack of discernment in my early yoga years, I've injured this area in the past. As I settled into the pose, my immediate reaction was to come out -- NOW. Rather than come out of the pose, I ease up just a tiny bit and stayed. A minute passed and sure enough, I could feel the tightness loosen and the intensity lessen and turn into something warm, soft, and -- much to my surprise -- pleasant. In this case, staying in the pose served my mind (rather than look at this area as tight and injured, I'm now starting to realize that it can be loosened and feel good) and my body well. 

Before you can exhibit discernment in your yoga practice, you must have awareness. If you're practicing yoga automatically, you won't notice when you push past the point of no return until it's too late (believe me, I've been there, done that, felt the pain of it). So how do you amp up your awareness and powers of discernment? Try these helpful suggestions:

  • Stay with the breath. I know that this instruction is pounded into your head in yoga class, but it's for a good reason. Staying attuned to your breath keeps you from tuning out. Minds wander -- that's what they do best. Keeping your focus on your breath helps you bring it back to where it's needed -- the here and now. And noticing the quality of your breath will keep you informed as to your effort. If your breath is smooth and even, you're staying within your physical limits. If you find that your holding your breath or your breath is short and choppy, you might want to pull back on your effort, as your overextending yourself.
  • Eliminate the baby bathwater mentality. If you're someone who believes that it's all or nothing, try this on for size -- a little goes a long way. Rather than fall into the belief that your yoga practice has to be all out and you have to do everything to your best ability, ease up. As soon as you notice sensation in a pose, ease up a bit in the pose. Don't go as deep. Then notice how easing up affects the sensation. Play with this using micromovements until you find the place that's just right for you -- enough sensation to keep you interested but not so much that you're "gutting through" the practice with a grimace and choppy breathing.
  • Build up your discernment muscle. When you first discover ice cream as a child, you notice that it's cold. You may also notice the sweet taste. As you get older, you realize there are different flavors of ice cream, different brands, etc. This is an example of your differentiating one thing from another. Try this in your yoga practice. Take just one pose in your practice to start with (and build up over time) and ask yourself as you move in an out of intensity (using the micromovements mentioned above) -- how is this (and intense form of the posture) different from this (a less intense form of the posture)? When you're doing an asymmetrical pose, ask yourself -- "How is this side different than the other side?"
  • Make a connection with your every day life. How you approach your yoga practice often has similarities in how you approach your life. After you finish your practice, take 10 minutes journaling about your experience and how it connects with your daily life. Here are some questions to get you going:
    • How am I showing up?
    • How do I approach my practice?
    • Does the intensity level of my yoga practice fit or reflect my truth (or not)?
Mind, body, emotions -- all play a part in your yoga practice. The key is to acknowledge all three and pay attention rather than sacrificing one (or two) for another. Being aware and using discernment can transform your yoga practice -- and your life -- for the better.


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