How about “Tune in to your body”?
This is a phrase you will hear throughout yoga classes anywhere you may go. At first, this phrase, “Listen to your body” may seem confusing…our bodies don’t speak to us like people do, how do we listen to them?
When you hear this you may wonder, “How do I listen to my body? What does that even mean?” You may think, “My body doesn’t talk to me, how am I supposed to listen to it?” All valid points. This is a confusing phrase but, also, a complex phrase. In taking time to write this, I’ve found it difficult to condense my thoughts to clearly show and explain the true and deep meaning of this phrase: “Listen to your body.”
It’s true that our body does not “talk” to us as we talk to other humans around us. However, our bodies do communicate to us. They communicate to us through gentle, subtle ways in, what I’ll describe as, feelings. So gentle that the communication can be easily missed or overlooked. So subtle that we may take it for granted. Or, these feeling can be quite powerful and strong, so dynamic and compelling that they cannot possibly be ignored. We’ve all experienced what we term as that “gut feeling.” Another term I use for this experience is “knowing” or “a sense of knowing.” This gut feeling makes itself known, it’s in your face with the message, “Listen to me, or else.” This is a form of communication to you through your body and this is one of many.
Listening is generally linked to our sense of sound; feeling is linked to our sense of touch. Both of these senses participate in composing our experiences. Each sense represents a layer of an experience—we perceive depth and color of our surroundings, we notice different scents, we hear sounds, we engage in the world by manipulating and using our hands, and we differentiate between flavors and textures of what we put in our mouth. First of all. That is so cool!!! Our bodies are amazing. But for real, we have the ability to use all of these tools to interact with, manipulate, and experience our world.
Our senses are stimulated by our environment. Information is sent to the brain, and we process the information according to our ideas, perceptions, and habits through language that we are familiar with.
An experience is a culmination of information we bring in through our senses.
As an example, let’s pretend you have the experience of listening to someone speak with a heavy accent. Perhaps you’re unfamiliar with this particular accent and you’re having trouble comprehending exactly what the person is trying to express. This may lead you to feel frustrated because the appropriate connections aren’t being made between what sounds you are hearing and what words are populating in your head, or maybe no words come to mind. So there is a disconnect—what you’re hearing isn’t matching to your established repertoire of words—or rather sounds. However, since you can’t understand each individual word, you’ve paid extra attention to the tone of voice this individual is using because that is another layer of information we receive. And while words are not universal, I believe tone is. Tone of voice is, like I said, another layer of data we pick up on. In doing this, you are able to add this information to the words that you are understanding to form a conclusion of what you think this person is trying to express or convey. In paying attention to this person’s tone of voice, you noticed the individual sound of the person’s voice. Their voice alone, not taking into account words, just the simple sound of their voice.
You understood most of the words, filled in the blanks using context and tone of voice, and noticed something unique and individual to that person. Based upon your perception of each layer of this experience, you have the choice to decide whether it was pleasurable, or not.
So we’re all on the same page: this is an external experience and there are many layers that make up this experience. Now, let’s move inward.
Have you ever met someone who you immediately liked? Or, someone who just rubbed you the wrong way? There was something you couldn’t quite put your finger on, but you knew it. This is an example of an internal experience as a result of an external experience.
Just as we have external senses, we have internal senses—listening and feeling to what is happening inside our body and mind. Here is where things get a bit tricky. In our example from before, you could ask someone to verify if they heard the same thing you did. Here, you cannot.
No one else can tell you what is happening, what sensations your feeling, what your gut feeling is expressing—it’s all up to you.
When I use the terms “listen” and “feel” in regard to yoga, I’m referring to things happening internally. The listening that I am referring to is different from having sound vibrations activate the workings of your ear canal. It’s important to ask, “What does this mean?”, and it’s important to ask, “How do I listen to my body?”
Just as we struggled to understand what the person with a heavy accent was saying, when we first start listening to our body it may be frustrating. To be able to listen to our body, we need to quiet the mind and still the body. It sounds like it would be easy, but anyone who has tried before knows how hard it is!
In a society that facilitates the opposite of this—keeping us constantly in motion and distracted, our internal listening skills are drowned out. As I mentioned earlier, our body is always communicating to us but in a subtle, quiet way which is usually drowned out by other people, the radio, television, shopping, driving, working, studying, the list goes on…
Like any other skill, if you don’t use it, you lose it, right? Listening is a skill too. Some people practice more than others. And remember, no one got good at anything overnight—it all takes work, time, and energy. Luckily, we’re all equipped with the software: either install it, or update it, and start to use it!
The first step is awareness. You must first be able to notice that something is happening. Many, many processes happen throughout our body and mind. Usually, when we’re going about our day, they go unnoticed—like the breath, or our heart beating, or our hands operating a vehicle, or how our feet and hips adjust as we walk.
In feeling or listening to your body, you bring your awareness to what is happening internally—in your muscles, throughout your nervous system, parasympathetic system, respiratory system, etc.…so starting to feel—to notice.
If you’ve never done this before, it will take some time to develop this skill.
Why does this matter? What’s the point?
Listening to your body is important because in yoga, specifically with an asana practice, you’re using your body in new and different ways. To avoid injury, you need to be able to decipher what your muscles and skeleton are, or aren’t, capable of. The ability to know where your “edge” is. “Find your edge”: another yoga phrase you’ll hear. This is the point where you are able to feel a stretch, but you can also find some relaxation and keep smooth, even breath. I like to think about it as sustainability. When you’re in a posture, ask yourself, “Am I in a sustainable position? Can I realistically hold this position? Can I breathe fluidly?” If your answer to any of these is “no,” then back out a little bit. If you honor your body and listen to what your muscles and nerves are telling you, you’ll progress much quicker than if you’re fighting yourself the whole way and pushing past your edge, or limit, before you’re ready. If your answer is “yes,” then maybe take the pose a little deeper, try a different expression, explore where the edge really is. This is how we grow.
Taking time to listen allows us to develop the ability to notice and be present with the feelings, thoughts, and sensations that arise as we move our body. The ability to notice them, see them for what they are, give them space to exist, accept them, and then move forward with that information we’ve received.
Practicing listening to the physical body prepares us for developing the deeper level of listening which deals with our intuition, our sense of knowing and truth. This is another layer of communication that is available to us if we take the time to create a meditative, contemplative state of mind where we are able to stay present with what arises.
Make sure you’re not harming yourself – practice ahimsa. If you’re unfamiliar with this term, I suggest reading about all of the yamas, but this one in particular regarding this article. The yamas are the first step of the 8 Limbed Path.
Listening to your body means: notice what is happening. The breath flowing, the muscles supporting and lengthening, the nervous system relaxing. Do this to avoid injury in the physical body and to cultivate the ability to use your intuition for your greatest good.