In an oft-repeated phrase, the American actress Mariel Hemingway once said, “Yoga teaches you how to listen to your body.” This is exactly what yoga should do. But the irony of the way yoga is practiced in our society—perhaps because we are so programmed to always be competing, whether with ourselves or with others—is that even if we begin our yoga practice by slowing down enough to listen to our bodies, by mid-way through a class we’ll hit a challenging pose or flow and turn away from what our bodies tell us. Or we’ll hear a yoga teacher offering modifications and variations of poses, and rather than staying in the variation that most suits our bodies in this moment (and not yesterday or ten years ago!), we’ll feel like we have to try every single variation until we get to the ‘deepest’ or ‘most advanced’ version of the pose.
As a yoga instructor, I can see this happening when I look around a room: breath being held as you try to hold your balance in tree pose; jaws clenching as you try to sink deep into pigeon pose; brows furrowed as you lift into upward facing bow pose. Perhaps we stop listening to our bodies because we are so used to the “no pain, no gain” mantra that at one time defined the fitness world. Or perhaps it is because we live in the era of Instagram and Pinterest, so that when we envision our yoga practice what we see in our mind’s eye is a photo of a skinny yogi or yogini twisting him or herself up into a handstand or arm balance in front of a gorgeous backdrop, "memed" in a beautiful font with the message, “Your body can do it. It’s your mind you need to convince.” But what if it never was your mind that you needed to convince to do more or push harder? What if it was simply that you needed to allow your mind to listen to what your body was already telling you?
Don’t get me wrong. I am a lifelong athlete, and I believe in hard work. I played competitive soccer in men’s leagues and qualified for Boston in the first marathon I ever ran, and I couldn’t have accomplished any of that without a lot of willpower and thousands of hours of training. But I also proceeded to run all 26.2 miles of Boston on a torn meniscus with a surgery scheduled for the following week—completely ignoring my body for the sake of a goal. I no longer have a medial meniscus in one knee. I can’t run marathons—or even 5ks—anymore. It took three knee surgeries and about three decades for me to realize that sometimes just because you can or want to doesn’t mean you should.
Be good to yourself!
This is where yoga comes in. Yoga is not about being good at something—at least not in a way that a photograph or a PR can capture. It is about being good to yourself. About befriending our bodies. About finding ways to move that can make our bodies sing, that can remind us how to be playful, and yet at the same time can teach us about the way we hold ourselves and our stresses all day long. When I teach, I tell students that they can spend the entire class in child’s pose if they need to, simply being mindful and focusing on their breath and the sensations in their bodies, and they would still be doing beautiful yoga. I offer multiple levels of poses, and if I see everyone in the room going straight for the “deepest” variation, I ask if you can still breathe there, if you can smile, if this variant feels like a friendly thing to ask your body to do. And if it isn’t, why not allow yourself to back off a little bit, at least until you feel that your breath can flow without constriction? Why not cultivate, as Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras tell us we should, sthira sukham asanam: a steady and easeful posture?
The Best Yoga...
When I teach this way, people respond. After class last week, one student commented, “The best yoga classes are the ones where you don’t ever look up to see the clock. I didn’t want this class to end!” Another, with her phone in hand, told me, “Two of my friends were supposed to meet me here for this. I can’t wait to text them and tell them they have no idea what they just missed out on!” And a third, walking out with a look of bliss on her face, said, “I feel like I just walked out of an hour-long, full-body massage.”
So the next time you find yourself on a yoga mat, I invite you to try this: to make a practice of befriending your body. If you find yourself working too hard to hold or find a pose, consider what you could do within that pose to treat your body kindly. And if you find yourself frustrated or irritated because you have fallen out of balance, or your body isn’t arriving at a shape you would like it to make, I invite you to take a step and ask yourself how you can respond as though you were responding to a friend. Because, as Swami Amar Jyoti says, “Each body is a universe. As good a universe as you could conceive.” And in the words of Ekhart Tolle, “Look after your body, or you’ll have nowhere to live.”