Updated: Nov 24, 2018
During my classes and workshops I often find myself talking about tuning into how a posture feels being the important thing. It isn’t what it looks like on the outside but how it feels. (Although paradoxically alignment cues are of course a huge part of my teaching.) Your version of a pose will never be identical to that of the person on the next mat. We are all anatomically built differently and our bodies carry our own histories. As practitioners of yoga asanas we are working with our own bodies. Day by day that body is not a constant. It may feel quite different from one day to the next.
When teaching adolescents this week and talking about standing in mountain posture – standing tall, planting the feet with equal weight on each, engaging the legs and core, reaching the crown of the head skyward and rolling the shoulders back – I asked how it felt. It made them feel “important, strong, balanced, more confident” … Hurrah - result! This mind-body conversation has always fascinated me. As a student of dance and theatre it was always the body and its language - emotional states embodied through movement and posture and the effect that movement and posture has on the emotional state of the wearer - that I found endlessly of interest. Then that in theatre and in life there is a visceral transfer of one person’s emotional state through their physical state to another.
We should be listening and feeling constantly when practicing asana. It is a time to go inside the body: to check in and monitor what’s going on. Firstly on a physiological level - It may be that time on the mat highlights injury or potential injury, tighter or weaker muscles or muscular and skeletal imbalances. We listen, we learn, we take action or we back off and learn to take it easy. On a more psychological level a posture can affect our emotional state. Curling in in a forward fold like child’s pose feels very different to opening up in camel for example. Sometimes students feel a release emotionally when practicing chest or hip openers or simply when they finally allow their bodies to breathe fully. Their stored emotional states (their feelings) or memories (of feelings) can burst to the surface during a physical practice and as teachers we must be ready for this.
A simple exercise I often use asks students to sit in an easy cross-legged position. Firstly, try placing your hands on your knees palms facing down. Notice how this makes you feel - weighted, grounded, strong and stable. There is a feeling of rooting to the earth and a downward energy. Now, simply flip your palms so that the back of the hands rest on the knees and the palms of the hands and the softer under-side of the forearms are exposed. Notice how this feels – lighter, pleading, more open across the chest, perhaps a little vulnerable. There is an upward energy. Without analysing why that might be, tune in to the feeling. Your body or more specifically your proprioceptors are sending messages to your brain about how your joints and muscles are organised. A minor change in position is interpreted by our brains and offers a different feeling.
In terms of setting intentions and goals, something I read this morning struck a chord. Perhaps our goals should be feelings led rather than achievement led: intrinsic rather than extrinsic. How do you want to feel today? How do you want to feel this time next year? What in your life makes you feel more the way you’d like to feel? Loved, loving, in love… proud, content, important, valued,… secure, pampered, calm, safe…. relaxed… alive… On our mats we naturally aim to make progress physically, but how do we want to feel during and after a practice? Rather than setting an accomplishment goal, like I want to get my leg behind my head or I want to stay in handstand for more that 20 seconds (my current accomplishment goal!) - what is it you want to feel today, tomorrow, next year? How might your yoga practice bring you closer to your more general life goals?
If we make feelings our goals perhaps there is less likelihood of a self-destructive feeling of failure. Making and working towards a feeling a goal is less tangible but is surely more profoundly life changing. Identify the moments when you feel closer to the way you want to feel. Small things – taking the time for a warm bath, a country walk or going to a wild party or paragliding – giving a speech, attending a lecture or workshop…. whatever floats your boat. Do more of the things that make you feel how you want to feel. Perhaps keep a feelings diary. Look for patterns. Spend time with people who make you feel how you want to feel – comfortable in their presence, listened to, encouraged, valid and appreciated, lighter, amused, inspired, interested in what you have to say, content for no one to say anything at all… Spend less time with those that don’t. Sounds simple! I’m not getting it right. My god I am sometimes so far from getting it right! But, we are all works in progress and I am willing and wanting to learn. Perhaps that’s the feeling I should try to cultivate? The feeling I have when I am learning, when I am being inspired and enlightened. That’s the first feeling goal on my list. I want more of that feeling. What’s yours?