We start every yoga class by practicing “centering” as way to our relax mind and body so that we can focus on the lesson to follow. We do this ritual so often that we may not grasp its importance, but developing this mindful state makes a significant contribution to our health and well-being.
When it comes to yoga practice, focus is everything. When I see articles about how people can injure themselves in yoga class, I hardly consider this news. I believe there are basically two ways to practice yoga: ‘wrongly’ and ‘correctly.’ The fact is that when you do anything physical ‘wrong,’ you risk injury. Can you injure yourself by sitting in your office chair? Yes, if you’re not paying attention. Try sitting in your chair incorrectly for ten years and see if your low back hurts.
The root source of a ‘wrong’ movement in any posture is a lack of focus on what your individual body is telling you about itself – like an inner referee watching the game intently, always on alert for infractions. Without this referee, we move habitually without any regard for how the challenge of the pose affects us. And even worse is simply ignoring strains and pains that arise – the referee who blatantly turns a blind eye to obvious fouls. The single and direct statement in the Yoga Sutras about asana practice dictates that a pose should be held steady and with ease, neither one of which involves hardship-inducing pain or strain.
This means really, really listening to all the details, down to the smallest. Small and simple movements repeated over and over can have a profound effect. Sometimes the most experienced students are the ones who have stopped really listening. In my therapy work, it’s quite common to work with an advanced student who suddenly starts experiencing pain in a joint. I ask if they are practicing correctly – and the answer is always yes. And I believe they think they are. Then I suggest a pose that would usually exacerbate their problem and ask if they feel any strain. The default answer, because of their experience and knowledge, is ‘no.’ But when I ask again, if they feel ‘any little strain at all,” the answer becomes, “well a just a little, but it’s nothing and I’m used to it, I hardly even notice.” And then there’s the eureka moment – how not listening to even just the littlest strain every day for years on end will eventually turn into a chronic problem.
With ‘correct’ yoga, we scan and listen to every internal message as we move in and out of poses, making the adjustments that the body needs as we find our own proper alignment. When we listen to the body, we create the conditions that lead to healing. And practicing this alignment over and over creates new habitual and 'correct' alignment patterns that spill over into your daily life.
Maybe you’ve heard the tale of the frog who jumps in the pot of hot water and knows immediately to get out before he’s boiled, as opposed to the other frog in the cold water that gradually warms to a final boil. This frog didn’t notice the temperature rising, because he wasn’t really paying attention to how it felt when things were heating up. Practicing yoga asana with a keen sensory awareness to every detail, every shift, every metaphorical temperature change becomes a life-long habit of awareness that can be applied to any area of life – work, relationships, eating, and daily habits of living.
Try the practice of really, really listening. Start in yoga class, and bring it with you after you roll up your mat.