Maybe you’ve heard a teacher remind you to focus on your breath in class. I know as a teacher I say it often. But this week a student asked me a question that made me go deeper. “How do I know if I am stretching the body or doing damage to it?” This gave me great pause, because while I can teach a challenging class, I’d like each student to feel that they have the space to explore themselves beyond my cues. So, in response, I’d like to share some advice given to me many years ago:
There is no one more experienced with your body than you. You are the expert, whether its your first class or 10,000th. In fact, the time you spend on the mat could be the most intimate conversations you’ll ever have. The conversation between you (your mind/heart) and you (your body). The mind requests and demands things of the body daily, but the magic of a Yoga class can be the opportunity to LISTEN to what the body has to say back to you, and the opportunity to OBSERVE the response. The postures are merely a tool to begin this conversation. How you respond to the body will set the tone for the conversation. Is it demanding? Compassionate? Inquisitive? Curious? Only you will know.
If you are not used to listening, the breath is the means of communication. Like you would check the signal on your cell phone, check in with your breath. Long deep fluid breaths suggest your body and mind seem to be present and working together. When the breath wains or holds may suggest that you’ve found an edge; whether it’s worth pursuing is your prerogative.
Here are a few questions to consider in those moments. Do you find yourself avoiding the source of the sensation? Are you just waiting for the teacher to guide you out of it? Do you have the energy to go in and seek to understand? Does directing the breath to the root of physical (or emotional for that matter) intensity dissipate the sensation? Is there a sharpness that does not subside? For the latter, I recommend backing off completely. In my opinion, there is no posture for which sacrificing your body holds value.
As a visualization, I see the breath as a wise teacher extending a guiding hand inviting me to take hold for a precious journey of self-inquiry. Are you willing to take her hand and trust the wisdom of the breath?