November 12, 2012

Start Listening to Your Body. ~ Kathryn Slater

Pressing your boundaries and exploring what is possible is both healthy and important. Consistently pushing your body to the point of pain is counterproductive.

Listen carefully to your body, and you’ll be surprised at what it will tell you. It’s pretty smart, see. And often times we get sick, injured or both because we have ceased listening. Or maybe we never started in the first place.

Either way, the body sends signals. At first they are whispers and easily ignored. But ignore the whispers long enough and you know what happens. The whispers turn into loud talking which turns into yelling which turns into screaming. You get the picture,we’ve all been there. It’s hard to listen to the gentle suggestions that our bodies send because we’re all smart enough to know what they mean, and quite frankly, we don’t want to hear it.

Unfortunately, the longer you ignore it, the worse things will get, until the ignoring is impossible and the doctor type is brought in to solve the problem that your body was trying to solve for you. For free.

So maybe we can work on this together. As I mentioned previously, the body is incredibly intelligent. But our brains tend to get in the way, stepping in to make decisions based on past experience. The brain is big, evolved, important and in charge. Also, it is easier to do what we’ve always done. New patterns are difficult to cultivate and even more difficult to maintain.

Your brain wants you to ignore the twinge in your knee and keep training, because the four hour bike ride or the long run or the first series Ashtanga practice is on the schedule, which needs to be adhered to. Your brain wants you to ignore the weird pain in the arch of your left foot, the fact that your right hand is completely numb, the ache right between your shoulder blade and your spine and the sinus pressure that you just can’t shake.

So go ahead, ignore it. Ignore all of it—but you know as well as I do what will happen next.

Your knee pain will get worse until you can no longer pedal or run or practice yoga without pain. Your smart body will compensate for the pain in your arch in some manner that will surely create pain not only in your foot, but also somewhere else that sucks. Your hand will remain numb until you’ve convinced yourself that you have some sort of nervous system disorder which will add anxiety to your tingling fingers.

Oh, and that ache near your shoulder blade? I wouldn’t ignore that if I were you.

Luckily, there are simple things that you can do along the way, in order to keep everything running as it should. But this will take some practice in noticing, in exploration, in problem solving. And you won’t get the solutions from the outside world. Your coach is amazing, but he/she is not in your body. Your doctor may be fabulous, but also not in your body. Yoga teachers spend a lot of time analyzing how things feel to them, but they are not you—you are!

So give it a try. Be receptive to the signals. Really listen and commit to exploring potential solutions. Here are three that immediately come to mind, that I use every day.

1. Focus on your big toe.

Now I know, especially if you are not an avid yoga practitioner that this may sound weird. But I’m telling you—the big toe can be an incredible tool for athletes and yogis alike. My experience is focused around cycling, running and yoga, but I imagine this trick could be helpful for anyone. Let me explain:

In yoga practice, when things feel misaligned, I always go back to my big toe; I stand in tadasana (mountain pose) and I reconnect to the earth. I press down strongly through all four corners of my feet, find my big toe and then press down more. This simple action of pressing down through the big toe brings your knees into alignment. It encourages your thigh bones to internally rotate, your tail to be free and your pelvic halves to widen.

This also works in the midst of difficult postures. Try it in downward dog. Try it in triangle. If you want to go deeper in your warrior postures, press down strongly through your big toe and roll your sitz bone forward. Focus on that toe and you will see.

I used to encounter knee pain during long runs, and then, as yogis tend to do, I wondered how I could bring my yoga practice into the equation. I found that the big toe trick works here too. I meditate on the big toe during long runs, much like returning to the breath. When I feel my form getting sloppy, or feel that twinge in my knee, I find my big toes and press down through them. This almost always brings my hips back into alignment, alleviating the knee pain.

The same is true for smoothing out that pedal stroke. Just try it next time you’re on the bike.

2. Regardless of what some coaches/yoga teachers will tell you, pain is not the goal.

I have a teacher who always says, “If you keep pushing to the point where you feel pain, you will never fully heal.” I completely agree with this statement and I steal it all the time, because there is a big difference between pain and discomfort. Obviously, when we push ourselves, there is often discomfort. And learning to breathe and stay calm in those moments is a critical part of any practice. Pain is different, and often signifies that you’ve gone too far.

Your body trusts you to a point. But if you continue to ignore the signals and signs that something isn’t quite right, or that something you’re doing doesn’t feel good, the trust erodes and your body revolts. This is like any relationship in your life. We all want desperately to be heard. You can be strong while remaining soft. You can use a yoga strap when your hand won’t quite reach your big toe. It’s ok to take a day off of the bike when your back needs a rest or your central nervous system is shot.

Pressing your boundaries and exploring what is possible is both healthy and important. Consistently pushing your body to the point of pain is counterproductive.

Learn to really listen.

3. Calm your breath to calm your mind. And vice versa.

It honestly doesn’t matter which comes first, because this works both ways. Also, you can use it anywhere and anytime. Take five deep, slow breaths. Try it now. So much that happens in your body is a direct reflection of what is happening in your mind. So if your body is tight, wound up, full of kinks and aches and pains, try focusing on your breath for a few seconds. Extend the inhales and exhales. Try pausing in between, giving your nervous system a true rest.

Close your eyes. Stop checking Twitter and really check in with yourself.

Where does the breath feel full and free? Where does it feel caught and shallow? Just notice it, exactly as it is.

These are just a few things that I thought of this morning, that I use almost every day to support my relationship with my incredibly capable body. Sometimes the only action necessary is the noticing, and simply drawing attention to an area of discomfort can alleviate the problem. And then other times, the noticing is just the beginning. Ether way, cultivate this practice and it will serve you forever.

Or keep going along like you have been, but don’t come crying to me when your back goes out.


Kathryn Slater is a loud talking, fast walking yoga practitioner/cyclist. She loves any excuse to share her personal experiences and is excited to contribute to the ongoing discussion concerning all things yoga, the fabulous world of bikes, and also, the art of combining the two. Learn more at www.yogabodyrock.com



Editor: Jennifer Townsend

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