Over these past several years of teaching yoga, I’ve often seen someone in a pose that they clearly look uncomfortable in. When I’ve asked them ‘how is that feeling for you?’, I’ve gotten the response that in some fashion the pose was either uncomfortable to a distracting degree, or that they were so tired they just couldn’t keep up. Or something to that effect.
A couple of weeks ago I was observing a student after I had shown everyone how to come into a supported child’s pose, which is meant to promote comfort and relaxation. She did not look comfortable. She did not look relaxed. But she was so intent in her focus I didn’t want to disturb her at the time. At the end of the class I asked her about her experience. She said that her knees were in a very painful state, but that she wanted to stay in the pose to ‘push through the pain’, in the hopes that doing so would relieve the pain in her knees.
Of course I said to her my standard line… ‘never stay in a pose if there is pain! No pain = no pain!’ etc. But it made me think. When do we know whether coming out of a pose (or getting out of a bad marriage, or leaving a toxic work situation, or withdrawing from any activity that causes pain) is better than pushing through that imaginary barrier in the hopes of getting to the promised land of healing, happiness, wellbeing?
I have to admit that there are many times when I’ve overstayed in something that wasn’t good for me. Hoping it would get better. Going past a limit I knew was there, but ignoring that sensing for a variety of unclear motivations. Sometimes life is like that, and there is always something to be learned from every situation. However, here are some of the clues I’ve come to recognise as being signposts to withdraw, to step back, or to let go:
- Breathing becomes disrupted. This happens as much in day-to-day living as it does in a yoga practice. I always start a yoga practice by establishing a clear connection to a steady, relaxed rhythm of breath. Any time the breathing becomes shallow, ragged, strained, or otherwise disrupted from that steady, relaxed rhythm is a time to examine – am I pushing for an outcome that won’t naturally come? Am I going beyond my natural limits? If, in this examination, the breath pattern cannot be resumed with ease, it is time to shift or modify in some way to allow the breath to return. This naturally applies to all life situations, I believe. Even when engaged in vigorous extended exercise, if the breath cannot find a steady, relaxed rhythm then likely the body is being pushed and forced beyond true capacity.
- The mind / thoughts become erratic. If you are working within the natural limits of your capacity, then it is easier to keep your awareness on the present task at hand, thinking and acting coherently. When capacity becomes stretched beyond its limits, my thinking tends to become either catastrophic (I’m going to die here!), erratic (thoughts bouncing in all directions with no ability to focus on this experience now), or dull (avoiding the sensations by numbing out, disassociating from my body by going off in my imagination). One of the central tenets of a mindful yoga practice is being aware of the thoughts that arise as well as the sensations of the body, and continually refocusing on this moment now.
- Emotional responses become erratic as well. I’ve actually gotten angry at yoga teachers when I’ve been a student, for ‘making’ me do something that is too difficult for me… when all along it has been my choice to go into that pose or sequence or not. Sometimes it’s been rush of sadness at my limitations. There’s nothing wrong with feeling emotions in a yoga practice, or in any situation in life. It’s when the emotions become projected out onto my world with an attitude of blame or anger that I know the warning bells are going off. I’ve gone past my capacity to handle this, time to withdraw, try a gentler or different approach altogether to that pose or life situation.
- Pain in the body! The most obvious of all, and yet it’s surprising what capacity we can sometimes have to just bear pain. Sometimes it may be good to bear pain, and sometimes we have to. In general, though, pain is a signpost and a warning to heed the call of the physical sensations and find a way into more comfort. If you are unsure, you can always stay a few breaths in your painful state and if it doesn’t start to lift or shift AND you notice that your breathing pattern is disrupted, your thinking can’t settle, and you feel like biting your yoga teacher’s head off – well. Pay attention! and respond appropriately.
Ultimately, it is up to each person to self-manage in a yoga class, as in life. A good yoga teacher will usually be able to spot a misaligned knee, or an overarched neck, or a shoulder scrunched up in tension. It may be a bit more difficult to know, however, when a student is just bone tired and would benefit more from settling into a restorative pose while the rest of the class charges on with sun salutations. In a group class, it’s up to the student to find that balance for themselves. Using the signposts listed above will be helpful to maintain equilibrium and ultimately make your yoga practice a mature one that honours your actual needs, replenishes your nervous system, and settles you into that deep sense of wellbeing that is sought.
I love to see a student choosing their own path this way in one of my yoga classes. If they’ve chosen to come out of a pose I actually feel quite chuffed as I know my message has gotten across. Self-mastery in yoga and in life involves deepening understanding of oneself, and being kind enough to honour that understanding.
Feel free to lie down and rest in my class anytime!