“We do not use the body to get into a pose, we use the pose to get into the body”
-Bernie Clark “The Complete Guide to Yin Yoga. pg. 29.
Many people use "I can't do that" or "I'm not flexible" as reasons not to practice. I then in turn reply, If you can't now or you are not flexible, then these are the perfect reasons to practice. We practice because we want to improve or abilities, not because we already have then.
Those who have been practicing yoga for some time will certainly realize how important tuning into sensations can be. Those newer to the experiences from the practice may take a bit to start to understand and discern what is really going on both inside and out.
Discernment between discomfort and pain can ride a very fine line. Shoelace as pictured above, was what felt like nearly 'impossible' for me when I started practicing the posture and now it's one of my favourites to embody. But, if I had chosen to believe my limitations at the time or kept thinking about how uncomfortable it was, then I wouldn't have found the satisfaction nor comfort now when embracing it.
As we first start practicing some of the postures (asanas) can be quite intense, especially if you are a bit (or a LOT) tight, carry a large amount of tension or don't have a very physically active job or lifestyle. Heck, even those who have intensely physical jobs like those within trades or athletes, often carry a LOT of muscle tension, causing deep, intense sensations while practicing yoga. Those who have demanding sedentary jobs, usually feel tightness & stiffness due to lack of movement, so it appears that everyone can benefit from yoga asana.... Who knew?...
The time spent in yoga allows you space to acknowledge deep sensations within the tissues and within the mind. As we begin to acknowledge these sensations, once the brain recognizes your effort to pay attention, it can react very prudently and begin flooding you with sensations!
Sometimes these sensations are of deep relaxation, other times they are immediate pain and sometimes they are somewhere in between. Sometimes the mind experiences emotional or traumatic pain. Yoga can, especially with breathing techniques (pranayama), help provide coping skills and much needed relaxation & stress reducing tools to allow you to process all these experiences.
In a slower moving practice especially, if we recognize a deep sensation that is difficult to discern whether it is discomfort or pain, this is a common feeling or thought. It takes time to recognize what the body is telling you. If you feel immediate pain – absolutely honour it and move consciously out of the posture without question. If however, you are in a state of discomfort, either mentally or physically, can you find a supported version of the shape that can assist you in experiencing the posture on a level that you can handle on that particular day, in that particular practice? Maybe the assistance of a teacher to guide you into a supported shape is needed.
In so many classes, I have mentioned the concept of "holding tension in the hips". This is a huge area of energy in the body and has a strong connection to our sense of grounding & stability. At our base, the hips, tailbone and sacrum house our grounding framework from an energetic perspective and while we are in seated postures. Our legs & feet give us physical support and grounding through standing. If we have movement challenges because of tightness, inflexibility or joint limitations, this can cause problems for both moving or being still. Tension held in the hips, low back, thighs, calves or feet can affect many aspects of our well-being as well.
The energy centers contained in the body in these regions hold a lot of connection points. They are grounding in nature and represent our body’s foundation (meaning our connection with our inner most nature). Our upbringing, family life as it was as a child and continuing on to our current family life, our roots (ancestry) and our ability to create foundation for those around us. Also our connection to the earth.
On a slightly less metaphysical connection base: Our hips tend to hold emotional factors that we tend to push aside from past experiences. Traumatic experiences - physically, emotionally or spiritually can be held very deeply in our foundation. In TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) & acupuncture – hip opening poses deeply stimulate the kidney/bladder meridians (energy channels). Kidneys are our “store house of fears” and also moderate our “chi” – vital energy flow of the body. Examples of hip opening poses (comfortable seat, pigeon and reclined pigeon, bound angle and “shoelace” or cow face pose). On the flip side, these postures also stimulate the liver/gallbladder meridians. The liver is our "store house of anger". There are times in practice when both of these 'store houses' can be stimulated and brought forward in our emotions during practice. If you've ever gotten emotional, agitated or quickly had to head to the bathroom in a yoga practice, this could be a good indicator that these energy lines are kicking into gear.
On a completely physical base: Our hips are ball and socket joints. As we age, with years of use (& potentially abuse – known or unknown) our joint pliability, range and ease of movement can become restricted and with this we need take an active role in maintaining what we have & potentially improving its current state, as much as we can. Back, knee and leg pain also are affected by what we do and don't do in our daily lives. Repetitive tasks, frequent bouts of standing in one spot, physically demanding jobs, jarring joints, sports injuries, workplace injuries, and just living life all have roles to play in how our bodies function. Stress, poor food habits & dehyration are often times also big factors.
There are many factors at play (activity, food & beverage, environment, weather, emotional health & ability to deal with stress, among others) that will help to shape our body’s ability to move (or on the reverse side - ever decreasing ability to move) based on what we do and how we do it.
I appreciate the old saying “move it or lose it” – this is very apparent when it comes to flexibility, strength, balance and co-ordination…hmmm, that’s ironic – we work on all those things while practicing yoga…interesting… :)
When we feel pain in the body, asking ourselves through yoga dedicated practice to better discern is it truly pain or is it discomfort?
At the joint level, we can be feeling this for many reasons, some of which I’ll highlight briefly here.
1) Limited range of movement b/c of lack of use
2) Limited range of movement b/c of previous injury
3) Limited range of movement b/c of abuse or over-use (improper exercise or activity, repetitive strain – known or unknown)
4) Genetic factors – skeletal make-up (pelvic alignment & boney structures, etc. outside of our control)
5) Nerve occlusion or impingement (nerves being pinched between 2 boney structures (i.e. vertebrae on vertebrae squeezed together causing nerve “pinch” or radiating “nerve pain”)
6) Boney structure calcification (excess mineral deposits on the boney structures that create a rough surface that when we glide across creates grating noises, ache or pain sensation (can lead to osteoarthritis). This is also usually accompanied by inflammation (pain, swelling, redness & heat – visually not always available from the outside) at the site.
7) When we experience pain on the resting side (the one baring the weight), there can be physical limitations as indicated above, but also may be affected by emotional factors (by things held back, unwanted and repressed feelings that are blocked).
8) Nutritional excesses and deficiencies – I am compelled to put this in here as a nutritionist… hahaha – just ask me about acidity &/or inflammation in the body some day and it will open up a whole can of worms!!!
This is certainly not an inclusive list, but gives you a place to start when thinking about your body during and outside of practice.
When we practice asana, while utilizing our pranayama, our conscious and subconscious mind are more closely connected. The awareness created in body and mind when we practice offers opportunity to learn about our own body and what it is constantly trying to tell us. Until next time, keep breathing, keep moving and do so mindfully as often as possible.
If this creates more questions, please feel free to connect with me. If I am unable to answer your question, I’ll hopefully be able to guide you in a direction where you can find an answer.