A few weeks ago in a class led by Vanessa Van Noy, our class was encouraged to view tension as an additional thing that you may bring to your mat, something that when the body moves and creates energy down to a molecular level, that energy is given to everything that you bring into the room. If you are holding on to something physically, tension in the jaw or shoulders for example, that may actually increase during your practice if you are not consciously aware of relieving it. Similarly if you are holding on to something mentally or emotionally, that has the chance to be exacerbated during your practice. So do your best to let go and enable yourself to have a clean slate each time you arrive on your mat. Check it all at the door.
It always feels like a “no brainer” to let go of negative emotional and mental stuff when I come to my mat. Not that it’s always…or ever…a quick, easy, painless or successful exercise, but the awareness and intention are there. I have learned to take physical cues to direct me to deeper emotional tensions, but Vanessa’s class intro made me realize how little I think about what I bring into the room physically and how that affects my practice. It’s almost as if I’ve taken it for granted that I am physically able, strong for the most part, and capable of performing each asana.
One of the ways I use my physical practice and asana work is to ease physical tensions in the body through stretching, elongating muscles, strengthening my back and core. Some of these physical tensions are hard to ignore, for example nurturing an injury or feeling fatigued, but the body is able to provide cues on such a subtle level that if you aren’t in tune, you will miss them and with it miss the opportunity to get the most out of your practice.
In nearly every class I teach, I invite my students to “scan the body” early in the practice. Whether it’s soles of the feet to the crown of the head, or tips of outstretched fingers to tips of pointed toes, I encourage conscious awareness to each body part, often thinking as deeply down to that cellular level. Once stiffness, aches or pains are identified, I teach to use the breath to ease. If that fails, I teach to back out of the pose or just establish a different, kinder edge for that pose, always mindful that our bodies and our practices will likely feel different each time.
Given my age and the physical edges I push myself towards on a daily basis, I accept that I will feel achey and sore most of the time. My main goal in my yoga practice is to bring calmness and peace into my chaotic life, and that usually requires a daily effort. I think excessive efforts to alleviate emotional tension led to a growth in physical tension, which then led to minor injury. I continued my daily practice, “somewhat” dialing it down (but not really), until one day recently I couldn’t take a deep breath without very sharp pain under my right shoulder blade. It brought me to the yogic concept of “ahimsa”, which means “non-violence”. I’ve managed to put that concept into practice in my life off the mat, showing myself love, kindness, forgiveness, and it has done wonders to heal my heart and soul. How might I draw strength from that practice to heal my physical body? It will require rest and ease, two things that I am not so good at, time and trust. I trust my teachers like Vanessa and Stacey Kasselman who have brought my awareness to the fact that tension uses energy. I trust in what I tell my students that we are our own best teachers and need to listen to what our hearts, minds and bodies tell us and act accordingly with self-love and kindness. I know I will have to utilize alternative methods to manage stress if my physical practice is on hold, and to be honest that is not only frustrating but borderline frightening. But asana is only one of the eight limbs of yoga. Maybe I can view this as a gift to lead me to discover the benefits of the other seven limbs. And as I return to my mat when I feel able, I will do so gently and with kindness towards myself and my body. If I can follow this path, the only thing that runs a risk of injury is my ego. That is the most important thing I have to check at the door.