“Listen to your body” is something yoga teachers often say. I know I say it myself! I say it because I want you to feel you have permission to adapt the poses and the practice to your own needs on that day. And because I believe that yoga is about cultivating self-awareness more than about perfecting a pose.
But how do you listen to your body? I think this is quite an advanced yoga skill — I’m certainly still learning how to do this myself, hopefully with increasingly degrees of subtlety.
On a most basic level, you can listen for obvious messages or warning signs from the body. If you experience pain in a pose, particularly a sharp shooting pain in a joint, you should move out of the position slowly. This level of intense sensation is best avoided. It can be a sign from the body that this is not a good place for you right now.
Other physical feelings in the body can range from the intense to the more subtle and encompass a multitude of sensations like throbbing, aching, stretch, tingling, tightening, opening…. You will doubtless add your own words to this list from your personal experience. You will also come to understand over time something about what these sensations are telling you and to what degree and how you might respond to them. You might choose to shift position quite obviously, visibly changing the alignment. Or the movement might be a subtle shift in muscular engagement that is almost invisible, but is felt within your body. You might release the depth of the pose a little, pause, then move closer in again, noticing changes in the physical sensation along the way. Or you might feel you need to stay a while longer and simply observe the sensation, noticing perhaps that it changes over the course of several breaths.
Careful listening to your breathing and your breath pattern is another way of tuning in. You can listen in a very literal sense if you are employing ujjayi breath (also known as ocean breath). Or you might be ‘listening’ metaphorically. The quality of the breath (smooth, ragged, constricted, even, catching etc) or the pattern of inhale/exhale (even length and quality, more emphasis on breathing in or in breathing out etc) contains much information about your emotional state and can also help you determine if you are working too hard in your physical practice.
Ultimately the skill of listening to the body and the breath leads us to a greater understanding of, and intimacy with, ourselves. We develop patience and compassion as we observe our longings, our fears and our vulnerabilities, as well as our innate joy and sense of wholeness and wellness.