Listening to your body

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No one knows your body like you do. The more you practice Yoga, the better you can become at determining your limitations, as well as your strengths, with each posture. Each posture presents its own unique challenge. You want to feel encouraged to explore and expand your physical and emotional boundaries without risking strain or injury to yourself.

Some teachers speak of practicing at the edge, the point at which the intensity of a posture challenges you but doesn't cause you pain or unusual discomfort. The idea is to very slowly and carefully push that edge farther back and open up new territory. Cultivate self-observation and pay attention to the feedback from your body to be able to practice at the edge.

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Each Yoga session is an exercise in self-observation without being judgmental. Listen to what your body is telling you. Train yourself to become aware of the signals that continually travel from your muscles, tendons, ligaments, bones, and skin to your brain. Be in dialogue with your body instead of indulging in a mental monologue that excludes bodily awareness. Pay particular attention to signals coming from your neck, lower back, jaw muscles, abdomen, and any known problem areas of your body.

To gauge the intensity of a difficult Yoga posture, use a scale from one to ten, with ten being your threshold for tolerable pain. Imagine a flashing red light and an alarm bell going off after you pass level eight. Notice the signals and heed them, particularly your breath. If your breathing becomes labored, it usually indicates that, figuratively speaking, you're going over the edge. You're the world's foremost expert on what your body is trying to tell you.

Beginners commonly experience trembling when holding certain Yoga postures. Normally, the involuntary motion is noticeable in the legs or arms and is nothing to worry about, as long as you aren't straining. The tremors are simply a sign that your muscles are working in response to a new demand. Instead of focusing on the feeling that you've become a wobbly bowl of jelly, lengthen your breath a little if you can and allow your attention to go deeper within. If the trembling starts to go off the Richter scale, either ease up a little or end the posture altogether.

Moving slowly but surely

All postural movements are intended for slow performance. Unfortunately, most people are usually on automatic with movements that tend to be unconscious, too fast, and not particularly graceful. Most people are generally unaware of their bodies, but yogic postures lead you to adopt a different attitude. Among the advantages of slow motion are

✓ Enhanced awareness, which enables you to listen to what your body is telling you and to practice at the edge.

✓ Safer practice. Slowing down lowers the risk of straining or spraining muscles, tearing ligaments, or overtaxing your heart.

✓ Quicker relaxation.

✓ Improved breathing and breathing stamina.

✓ Shared workload among more muscle groups.

For the best results, practice your postures at a slow, steady pace while calmly focusing on your breath and the postural movement (flip to Chapter 5 for more info on breathing and movement). Resist the temptation to speed up; rather, savor each posture. Relax and be present here and now. If your breathing becomes labored or you begin to feel fatigued, rest until you're ready to go on.

If you find yourself rushing through your program, pause and ask yourself, "Why the hurry?" If you're truly short on time, shorten your program and focus on fewer postures. But if you just can't shake the feeling of being pressured by time, consider postponing your Yoga session altogether and practice conscious breathing (which we discuss in Chapter 5) while you go about your other business.

If you're rushing through your program because you're feeling bored or generally distracted, pause and remind yourself why you're practicing Yoga in the first place. Renew your motivation by telling yourself that you have plenty of time to complete your session. Boredom is a sign that you're detached from your own bodily experience and aren't living in the present moment. Participate fully in the process. If you need more than a mental reminder, use one of the relaxation techniques that we describe in Chapter 4 to slow yourself down. As we explain in Chapter 5, full yogic breathing in one of the resting postures also has a wonderful calming effect.

Practicing function over form with Forgiving Limbs

In Yoga, as in life, function is more important than form. It's the function and not the form of the posture that gives you its benefits. Beginners, in particular need to adapt postures to enjoy their function and benefits right from the start.

We call one very useful adaptive device Forgiving Limbs. With Forgiving Limbs, you give yourself permission to slightly bend your legs and arms instead of keeping them fully extended. Bent arms and legs enable you to move your spine more easily, which is the focus of many postures and the key to a healthy spine.

For example, the primary mechanical function of a standing forward bend is to stretch your lower back. If you have a good back, take a moment to see what we mean in this adapted posture that's safe for beginners:

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1. Stand up straight and without forcing anything, bend forward and try to place your head on your knees with the palms of your hands on the floor (see Figure 3-1a) or hold the backs of your ankles.

Very few men or women can actually do this, especially beginners.

2. Now stand up again, separate your feet to hip width, and bend forward, allowing your legs to bend until you can place your hands on the floor and almost touch your head to your knees (see Figure 3-1b).

When bending forward, be sure not to bounce up and down as most people are inclined to do. You're not a bungee cord!

As you become more flexible — and you will! — gradually straighten your legs until you can come closer to the ideal posture. A common lower back injury occurs when weekend warriors inspired by young, nubile instructors try to do the seated version of the straight-legged forward bend and push too far.

Figure 3-1:

Standing forward bend without and with Forgiving Limbs.

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