Why “listening” to you body is not always a good idea in yoga and in life.
by Hala Khouri
Yoga teachers love to say the phrase, “listen to your body” during class. I understand why. Yoga can be a way to tune into our bodies, and encouraging our students to listen and feel what is going on inside of them is first step. So many people are disconnected and alienated from their body, and reconnecting to our sensations, emotions and desires is a really important part of self-regulation and healing. Although this instruction isn’t always the wrong thing to say, it needs to come with a caveat: sometimes our bodies are not guiding us properly, and we need to reflect on what we think our body is saying.
For the first decade of my yoga practice, my body “told” me to go deeper into hip openers, splits and hamstring stretches. I loved the feeling of the stretch, and I loved the feeling of accomplishment when I could get my chest to the floor, or do a full split. I got accolades from teachers and felt “advanced” in my practice. After a while, all that stretching started to cause me injuries. I tore my hamstring, and developed chronic hip pain. Eventually I started to back off on such deep stretches and focused more on stability and got back on track. I didn’t want to back off, it didn’t feel right. But the more I resisted the urge to push the stretch, the better I felt. My point: it’s hard to distinguish our body’s wisdom from habit or even from external pressure. It was my habit to go in deep, and my desire to please my teacher.
Last night my body “told” me that I should eat a second serving of dessert. With this example, it’s fairly obvious that my body is not sugar deficient and needing dessert, that was a craving. But it felt like a need. One day, after my 6 year-old hit his younger brother he said to me, “Mommy, my body told me to do it, you tell me to listen to my body,” to which I responded, “you shouldn’t always listen to your body. My body tells me to hit you sometimes but I don’t do it.” (Maybe not the best parenting strategy here, I’ll admit). Then, my 4 year-old replies with, “that’s because you do yoga!”
What I find fascinating is that my 4 year-old knew that yoga was helping me manage my body and distinguish impulses I should follow and those I should not. We all have impulses that it’s better not to follow. Many people feel ashamed for these impulses (some can be violent, sexual or mean). Social pressure tells us that we are supposed to be “civilized” and deny the animalistic part of ourselves. This is important because if everyone were just following all of their impulses without restraint the world would be a violent and unpredictable place. An although restraint is important, denial of the impulse altogether is disconnects us from ourselves. This disconnect from the more primitive parts of ourselves, in my opinion, is the source of a lot of our pain. Ideally, we can be in relationship with our impulses (and emotions) such that we don’t act on them inappropriately. We need to find healthy outlets to express our anger, aggression, sexuality, etc. But if we deny the impulse, we can never find healthy outlets for it. The impulses remain unconscious and come out in other ways. This is the foundation of Freud’s work. He thought everything boiled down to sex, but we now know that impulses can span a variety of motivations.
On another day, my younger son broke a Lego creation that my older son made. The scene goes something like this: Sebastian, the older one, is trying to hit Marley. He says to me, “Marley ruined my Lego and I’m so mad. The only way I’m going to get the anger out of my body is if I punch Marley in the face!” I explain to him that he can’t hurt is brother. We get Marley to safety, and then Sebastian and I try a few things to get the anger out. We try screaming into a pillow, punching a pillow, stomping up and down. A few moments later he call to me from the backyard. He’s on the trampoline. “Hey mom! It’s working!” My job as a parent is to teach my kids to be in relationship with their impulses and emotions so that they can find healthy ways to express them. Had I yelled at him for wanting to hit his brother, he may have contracted in shame and then felt bad. The more we feel guilty or bad about ourselves, the more likely we are to lash out or lash in with our feelings.
Our bodies have a lot of wisdom, and they also carry imprints of our past stressors and traumas. If we haven’t developed the ability to relate with our sensations with curiosity, then we can’t distinguish from impulses we should follow and those we should channel in other ways. Many of us weren’t give these tools by our parents. Not because they were bad people, but because they didn’t have the tools. But we can develop these tools as adults.
Reflection: What were you taught to do with your big feelings and impulses in your family of origin?
Yoga can be an opportunity to be with ourselves and notice what our body is “telling” us and to get curious about when it’s guiding us in a healthy way and when what we feel is a habit or an old pattern. I don’t think we always now the correct answer, but if we let the question guide us, then we can begin to reveal and shift patterns that don’t serve us.
Many years ago I was taking a yoga class. The teacher invited us to try a balance pose. I opted out. He then said, “Don’t worry, if you fall you won’t get hurt.” As I reflected on why I wasn’t trying the balance pose I realized that I’m not afraid of getting hurt, I’m afraid of not doing it perfectly. I didn’t want to risk it. This was a mirror for me in my life- how many times had I avoided trying something new because I didn’t want to be bad at it. I was missing out on some potentially positive experiences.
I like to tell my students, “Whatever habits you have on your mat, you also probably have off your mat.” Our practice is an amazing opportunity to observe ourselves and be curious. Without curiosity we can’t have the insight. Judgment stops the flow of insight and healing. Judgment can be an excuse to not do our work.
I still love deep stretches, but I make myself back off. I can observe my desire to want to drop into a hip opener, but now I also notice the pulling in my knee that emerges if I stay too long. I also notice an aggressive energy in my chest that tells me I’m forcing. Some days I’m really able to know what my body is saying, and others I can’t. This is an imperfect practice, but, like I said, the question is way more important as a guide than always having the right answer.