Body Awareness Through Yoga: Less Force, More ListeningAugust 22, 2016
The following post was contributed by Julia Travers for the Yoga and Body Image Coalition. Photo credit: Caleb Asch Photography
Like many people, I often try too hard in many areas of my life and get caught up in judgements and expectations. Through my Yoga practice, I have found a way to experiment with being present; in addition to making me feel good, yoga offers me the opportunity to practice balance, self-awareness, and inward listening. Yoga helps me to listen to myself and my body and to use less force in relating to myself both on and off the mat.
Stretching Without Force
Many of my yoga teachers, both in person and in videos, advise me not to use force. By feeling bodily sensations, making subtle adjustments in weight and position to explore a pose, and being willing to stop at a place that feels right, yoga affirms and honors self-awareness. Sometimes this means not moving fully into a pose, not holding it for the same amount of time as others, or using helpful props. Yoga can require strength and be hard, so I am learning to put forth effort without hurting myself. All of these practices can be seen as metaphors for how I can make unique, individually inspired choices in the rest of my everyday life. My choices may not match others’ and while they may require focus and concentration, I hope, as in yoga, to carry them out with less force. I like how Adriene (of Yoga with Adriene) says, “find what feels good.” Linji, a Chinese Zen Buddhist monk, is believed to have said this about listening to our body’s wisdom: “When hungry, eat your rice; when tired close your eyes. Fools may laugh at me, but wise men will know what I mean.”
Tibetan Buddhist teacher Sogyal Rinpoche says that self–love makes sense, because, “[t]he only one who will always be with you, is you!” I get it, but I still struggle with self-love. I hear a lot of directives every day from my own mind and from the world around me. I am often told through advertising, entertainment media, conversations with others, and various forms of propaganda to improve myself, my body, my views, and my life. There are often competing and severe voices in my head instructing me, evaluating me, and even chastising me. Yoga can serve as a relief from this state of being in that it asks me to listen to myself instead of trying to command or control myself. In the unknown, open space of receptive, inward listening, I feel my muscles respond in a stretch to know how far enough is, and I feel my breath and balance. At times when I am disconnected from my body, it can be both strange and relieving to be vulnerable with myself and just listen. While body judging, insecurity over how well I complete poses, and self-doubt certainly still arise while I practice yoga, over time I’m developing trust with myself that this is a place where it is safe to let go a little and to listen inward.
Because yoga allows me to become more aware of how I move, balance, breathe, and feel within my body, it helps me to experience embodied presence. When I am more present in my body I feel things more deeply. The emotions, thoughts, and bodily sensations that come up during yoga practice can be difficult at times, but there is also a sense of aliveness as the powerful energy that flows through me is loosened and recognized. I am reminded of writer, feminist, and activist Audre Lorde’s enlightened discussion of the erotic in Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power:
“The erotic is a resource within each of us that lies in a deeply female and spiritual plane, firmly rooted in the power of our unexpressed or unrecognized feeling. . . we are taught to separate the erotic from most vital areas of our lives other than sex. . . once we begin to feel deeply all the aspects of our lives, we begin to demand from ourselves and from our life-pursuits that they feel in accordance with that joy which we know ourselves to be capable of. Our erotic knowledge empowers us, becomes a lens through which we scrutinize all aspects of our existence, forcing us to evaluate those aspects honestly in terms of their relative meaning within our lives. . . “
I think this is a beautiful description of how body awareness is intense and empowering.
In a pursuit of perfection, idealized beauty, money, safety, and probably many other unobtainable or fleeting states, cultures across the world come up with standards of how we as humans should look and relate to our bodies. I love how the Yoga & Body Image Coalition supports each yogi and person’s self-definition and self-affirmation. Yoga helps me to listen to my body and myself in the moment and to take a break from critiquing and preaching to myself, though I’m not expecting those tiring practices to disappear altogether. Though self-judgment drives me crazy at times, I also know it is, in a way, me trying so hard to do what it is expected and to feel accepted. It takes a lot of courage to be in my body, listening inward. I don’t accomplish it all the time, but I’m going to keep practicing, and yoga is one of the best ways that I know how.