The other day a friend and I were talking about eating habits. We were both marveling at how much our eating habits have changed. I grew up eating sugary cereals (I was the kid who picked the mini marshmallows out of Lucky Charms cereal and greedily slurped down the milk left over in the bowl after scarfing down my Froot Loops), bagels, Twinkies (Ding Dongs and Devil Dogs too!), candy, fried foods, and any other unhealthy thing you can imagine. I get a little disgusted just thinking about it, actually. My friend asked me what I did to turn it around and change my eating habits. My answer -- I changed my relationship with my body and, therefore, food.
I remember the day things changed -- I was on my way back from a weekend yoga workshop and I stopped in a natural health food store. All of the food looked so fresh and delicious and I knew that I wanted to take care with what I put in my body. As my yoga practice helped me become more aware of my body, I began to notice how different foods made me feel. That's when it became easy to give up the bagels, Twinkies, fried foods, etc.
For a long time, food had been a head game for me -- I thought about food in a certain way, I thought about how it felt to eat a certain food, I thought I knew what I liked and what was good for me. That worked for my head just fine, but it certainly wasn't working for my body (and I had enough occurrences of heart burn and acid reflux to prove it). It wasn't until I started feeling (noticing how you feel after eating a certain food -- gee, what a novel concept!) that I made different choices and became a healthy eater. Funny thing about the feeling over the thinking -- it wasn't a lot of work, a test of willpower or a difficult change.
This discussion about food got me thinking about yoga (doesn't everything get me thinking about yoga?!?!). So often I'd be in a yoga class thinking about what I wanted my body to do, or thinking about which parts of my body needed to be engaged at a particular time or thinking about what my body should look like in a pose. As a result, I wasn't feeling the pose in my body. Needless to say, I found this frustrating. After all, I was such an in-my-head person off the mat that I didn't want to make my yoga practice into a head trip as well.
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What's a frustrated yoga practitioner to do? Well, first I ditched the yoga classes. I know, I know -- this is making yoga teachers everywhere cringe. Being that I'm one myself, I'm not saying that we don't need yoga teachers. I'm just saying that I noticed for me that being in a yoga class caused me to go unconscious. That's why I started practicing at home more often than not.
Then I slowed things down. Rather than rush through a flow, I spent a little time in each pose experimenting. What would happen if I moved a bit to my left or bent my knee a little or moved my arm this way or that? I did this with poses that were easy for me so I didn't have to think about proper alignment. After a while, I started to feel the poses in my body. It was like the poses were doing me rather than me doing the poses.
Granted, my brain got a little annoyed by this, as it liked to work hard during my yoga practice (it seemed to always concern itself with my shoulder girdle, the placement of my pelvis, the relationship of my legs and arms to the ground -- frankly, it was exhausting!). It was then that I started to notice -- really notice -- my breath during my practice. I began to feel how my inhale and exhale supported my body in the movements. It was my lightbulb yoga moment.
Years later when I was working with a teacher whom I admired greatly, my little thinking vs. feeling experiment from the past came in handy. The practice I had received from my teacher was one I enjoyed, and from a mental perspective it should have been just what I was looking for to work on some of my tight areas. Heck, if I had to give myself a practice, it would have been similar. Despite the mental sense that it made, it wasn't helping my tension at all. In fact, it made it worse at times. Realizing the practice didn't feel right, I went another way.
Now I'm not suggesting that students everywhere should ignore their teachers (I had enough experience with yoga to be able to create a practice for myself, so it wasn't risky to follow my feelings rather than my teacher's directions). What I am suggesting is feeling your body in your yoga poses. That means rather than think about how you want your body to be in the pose or think about how your body should be in a pose, simply feel how your body is in the pose. Instead of focusing so much on alignment and form, ask yourself "how could I feel better in this pose?"
While your yoga teacher may have thousands of hours of training under his/her belt, he/she isn't in your body. Only you know when something doesn't feel right. That's why when I work with my students I encourage them to feel the sensations in their body rather than simply mimic what I'm doing. I don't believe in adjustments but awareness. Yes, correct form is important so as not to injure oneself, but form isn't everything.
Where is your head at during yoga? Is it driving your practice or does it take a back seat to your body? What would happen if you took a simple yoga pose like Downward Dog or Sphinx pose, hung out in the pose a bit and...felt into it (for lack of a better term)? What microadjustments would you make to feel more at home in the pose? How would your yoga practice change if you approached it from a feeling place rather than at thinking place? What would happen if you made your yoga practice a body trip rather than a mind trip? Would it be possible to balance both body and mind?
Just a little something to do (rather than think about). Have fun experimenting!