Learning Your Body, enjoying (the) experience
Doing yoga isn't about rushing through a set of yoga poses. It's about noticing what is happening within your body as you do them. And that generally means feeling your body.
And if you are doing something that involves more than just your body, then yoga is noticing what is happening around you (as well as within you). More importantly, it's noticing the changes that can affect what you are trying to do, and responding to those changes in such a way that you can continue to do what you are trying to do.
(One over riding proviso, is that you keep yourself and others safe while doing so).
Yoga is about noticing what is happening now. (Also known as being present)
Sensation Is Information
Sensation could be taken to mean feelings like feeling nice, feeling pleasant, feeling euphoric. But on this website, sensation means to take in information about what is happening now.
- Sensation from tension (and in some cases pressure) helps you to feel what your body is doing.
- Tension (and pressure) also helps you to control your body.
Basically they both give you proprioception and control.
And one of the main focuses of this website, apart form helping you to learn yoga poses, is to help you learn your body by improving proprioception and control.
Tension Helps You Sense Change
Tension Helps You Create Change
The sensations within your body that lead to both proprioception and control are provided by tension (generally in connective tissue) and sensations from muscle activation. Sensations between your body and the earth (or any other contacted surface) are provided by pressure.
Whether driven by pressure or tension, sensation gives you information about what is happening now. It tells you the current state of your body. And changes in tension or pressure tell you that your body is experiencing change.
And so the better you get at noticing these qualities the easier it is for you to sense change as it happens, and the easier it is for you to manage change.
Sensation is Information About What is Happening Now
Another way to think of information is that it's like news, but these days, what we think of as news is actually olds (thanks Terry Pratchet) and the idea of using our senses is to get the news as it actually happens, not afterwards.
It might help to think of information (new news) as change.
Change Happens Now
When we take in information we ideally use it to find out what change is going on now. And if we are really good at using our senses, we can find out about change before it affects us so that we can be ready for it by the time it does affect us. We can then respond with minimal effort because we are ready for it.
And because we can respond with minimal effort that means we can still be tuned in, sensing change as it continually occurs so that we can be ready for the next change and the change after that.
Learning to drive
Learning to drive a car or a bike, we generally learn in a car park or area free from other traffic (apart from other learners). We isolate ourselves.
With little or no change going on outside of ourselves, we can focus on the sensing the car and controlling it, or sensing the bike and our body and controlling both of them. Ideally we learn to feel and control a bike with minimal effort, without having to think, so that then, after graduating to driving in traffic, we can sense changes going on around ourselves, and control the bike and ourselves in response.
The better we can handle the machine, with preciseness and minimal effort, the easier we can then blend with it to handle the change that happens around us.
And that same idea can apply to learning your body. Whether the changes you sense are happening within it or around yourself, the better you can handle your body with precision and minimal effort, the better you can handle the changes that are happening now.
And the better you can create the change that you desire despite what is happening.
This could be thought of as Optimal Performance.
Know what you are trying to do
Whether driving a car or doing a yoga pose, an important element that can drive both the way that you direct your senses and the way that you respond is knowing what you are trying to do.
It doesn't how flexible or inflexible you are, if you are clear on what you are trying to do within current the limits of your body, you can work effectively within those limits, and you can work at pushing those limits back.
To push back the limits of the body we can use "knowing" to direct both how we direct the senses and how we respond.
Practice (the gaining of "experience")
If you don't know what you are trying to do, then the task is to gain enough experience so that you can begin knowing based on your current experience. You can think of this as practice.
Part of practice involves knowing what you are trying to do while you practice. And to that end it helps to break things down.
Working towards infinity (a first principles approach)
Breaking things down means creating an artificial set of limits or boundaries. You then focus on practicing or learning what is within those boundaries. If you have a series of connected sets of boundaries, then the task is to learn what is within each set of boundaries. Once you've learned all the sets you can get rid of the boundaries. You then practice infinity, unlimited practice.
The realm of flow
Now you can practice knowing in a larger context. And the nice thing is that you can always create new limits when you need them, say for example when you have a problem in knowing, sensing or controlling some aspect of your body. You can set up limits to isolate that problem part, focusing on it in relative isolation. Then once you've learned it in isolation, you can get rid of the limits and practice it in an unlimited or infinite context.
Another way of thinking about this unlimited context is that it is in the realm of flow.
Flow isn't truly unlimited. It's just less limited. And that's an important idea because when you practice within a set of limits that you've created, part of the idea is to practice knowing so that you can flow within the current set of limits.
Sense Your Body, Decide What to Do With It
Sensing your body means taking in information. It means noticing changes as they occur. Controlling your body means choosing the ways that it changes.
And it can help to think of the body as a vehicle for your mind. The better your mind senses your body and controls it , the better the two can act as one. And rather than your mind being the boss of your body, it's more like a partnership. And so a better word that control, in this case, is decide. The mind makes decisions so that the body can act on them.
How Do We Experience Our Body?
A question that might be asked at this point, is: how do you notice what is going on in the body? What is it that you notice that makes the journey so enjoyable?
While driving (and stopping to take it all in), it's generally our eyes we use to take in the sights. (And indeed, it's our eyes, and our ears, that we can use to sense change before it reaches us.)
Experiencing our body what we can notice is changes in tension, both muscle activation "tension" and connective tissue tension, but also pressure, particularly when the surface of our body touches something else.
This is how we can enjoy the experience of our body, by tuning into these sensations.
By doing so, we tune in to what is happening within our bodies, now.
Tuning the body for proprioception and responsiveness
To make it easier to notice what is happening now, one of the tricks when doing yoga is setting up the body in such a way that it is not only easier to sense what is going on, but so that it is easier to respond, with little or no lag time.
With the body set up appropriately, we can sense change, and based on that change decide on a response. And with the body set up appropriately lag time between knowing the decision and acting on it can be reduced to zero.
Balancing connection and room to move
This comes with practice but two basic principles that can be applied to any yoga pose are creating (and controlling) tension and space.
Creating tension is one principle. Creating space is another.
The ideal is a balance between these two qualities. Not too much tension and space and not too little.
A balanced combination gives room to move when and where it is required but also gives sensation and responsiveness.
Working from the ground up in any yoga pose, the focus closer to the ground can be that of creating tension on both sides of a joint to help stabilize that joint. Further away from the ground (or further from the foundation) the focus can be more on lengthening the body (creating space) and opening it.
I do yoga in part because I want to get more flexible. But, I also enjoy the journey at the same time. I enjoy the experience of my body even as I move towards poses like the splits.
And on the days where I seem to back track instead of going forwards, I don't try to force myself forwards, I look for the way to create the space necessary to move forwards. This could be thought of as self mastery.
Riding a motorcycle I learned a variation of creating space, and that was to position myself relative to the road for the best view of the way ahead. At the same time, I looked as far a head as was feasible and useful so that I could see what was about to happen before it happened and so that I could respond with minimal effort.
All of these are ways of being present. You have to be present to create space (or see it) and having space makes it easier to stay present. You don't have to worry about what might be around the corner. You can see it!
As for creating space, one way to think of this in terms of the body is adding bigness to your yoga poses.
Stability (and Strength)
Sometimes the act of creating space creates stability, sometimes not. But in either case there's a muscular activation component and it generally creates a feeling.
The feeling is different when creating space versus stability but in both cases it is a noticeable sensation.
The irony is that it takes muscle control to create sensation but that same sensation leads to better control.
Flexibility requires stability (just as much as strength does)
Grounding is one way of creating stability, but I should point out that in restorative or resting poses where props or the ground or a wall is used for support, stability comes from outside of the body.
Stability can be easy to confuse with strength just because to create stability often requires muscle activation. The thing about stability is that you need it when working towards flexibility and strength.
As such, something I often do with beginners is work with exercises that improve stability. This can feel like strengthening actions but the advantage of training these seemingly strength building poses is that the same stability can also be used when working to create flexibility.
Part of the trick is noticing the change in sensation in these exercises.
Learning to practice without Judgement
Something that I got both from my practice of Tai ji and also from learning to paint Chinese characters is the idea of breaking things down and practicing little bits at a time with a smooth rhythm.
I'd say for learning, that working towards a smooth rhythm is even more important than moving slowly because it makes it possible to practice without thinking and without judgement. This could be thought of as a state of no mind.
It basically makes it possible to practice and learn while in the same mind set as enjoying a journey. It makes learning a lot more enjoyable.
Judge after, not during
Note that the judgement is still helpful. However, the assessment comes after the experience, like an "After Action Review" in the armed forces. In a firefight you haven't got time to judge. You act. And only afterwards do you assess and then train for your shortcomings.
And that's where judgement comes in, in deciding how to break things down so that you can practice little bits at a time, either as a preparation for learning or in order to work on things that you haven't quite got the hang of.
The Smallest System is a Relationship
The idea of breaking things down is to create clearly defined ideas. But when practicing, you don't practice a single idea, you practicing connecting two or more of these clearly defined ideas. You practice the transition between them so that what you practice feeling and controlling is a relationship or a series of relationships.
Relationships and working within the limits of short term memory
A general guideline for breaking things down, whether it is a yoga pose, a Chinese character or a tai ji routine, is that there needs to be more than clearly defined element one element or brush stroke but no more than five.
The idea is to stay within the limits of your short term memory.
That way you can practice the relationship without having to think about it. You can experience it.
(Trying to learn Russian, if I'm learning a new sound, I may focus on it in isolation, just to get the right motor control, but after that I'll listen to multiple syllables so that I I get a better feeling how the sounds relate to each other in different contexts to form words).
What's a relationship? Two or more clearly defined things (or ideas) that are connected. What are ideal qualities of a relationship? Each part has room to move relative to the other(s). But even with room to move, they still remain connected.
Dealing with pain and other problems
If I have problems, like knee pain or hip pain or foot pain or low back pain, then I notice the parts of my body that may relate to that pain.p If I'm working on fixing winged shoulder blades, then I focus on the muscles that control the shoulder blades. If I want to improve posture, then I focus on the things that relate to posture. If I'm working towards a pose that I can't yet do, then I notice my body in such a way that I can find the way towards that pose. If there is excess tension or a lack of control in one part of my body then I notice the things that may cause that excess tension or lack of control.
Often times an understanding of anatomy helps in solving these problems. And actually, a large part of what I do when I teach is help my students experience their own anatomy. Whether it is anatomy or the body in general (without the "anatomic focus" the more we experience the more we understand. The more we understand the better our experiences.
Anatomy as a road map to your body
Do you need to know or understand anatomy in order to enjoy the experience of your body? I didn't have to be a mechanic to drive my car across America. However, with the body, anatomy is one tool that you can use to guide the way you direct your senses and the way that you isolate parts of it. It's like a road map and that is a handy thing to have when you are driving from one place to another.
And like using a road map while you are actually on your road, the point with learning anatomy is to actually experience your anatomy.
The importances of moving slowly when learning your body
Now I did say that breaking things down is more important that moving slowly. But, moving slowly is also important when learning your body or parts thereof.
Moving slowly and smoothly (or working at it) makes it easier to sense what is happening in your body. In combination with focusing on little bits at a time (breaking things down) you can then learn to feel and understand how the parts of your body relate.
And that's why I remind my students to move slowly and smoothly. It forces them to be more aware. It helps them improve control (or practice it). And, if they move slowly enough (not too slow) there's a certain speed and rhythm at which point the pose or action becomes enjoyable. Moving slowly then becomes its own reward.
Neil Keleher is a Systems Design Engineer with a bachelor's degree from the University of Waterloo.
He has taught yoga for over 22 years. He specializes in anatomy related to proprioception and movement.
He illustrates his own anatomy articles.
His classes focus on improving body awareness while at the same time building strength, stability and flexibility.