For students new to yoga, some cues in class may seem to need decoder rings—“Listen to your body,” for example. Initially, I found this advice confounding and objectionable. Now I love it for what it attempts to say and all that is enfolded in it. The explanation below is for yoga students who are perplexed by this cue; the suggestions that follow are for instructors interested in playing with it.
As is the case with most cues, there are many ways “Listen to your body” could be misconstrued. For some of us, the advice to be obedient to our bodies may set our minds running, beginning a chain of but-what-abouts. We may want to protest: But what about when my body wants me to skip yoga class in favor of sitting in my living room and watching TV? Sometimes relaxation is just what a body needs, but aren’t there times when it would be possible to shrug off some lethargy with gentle movement? What about the times my body says, “Nah,” just because something is a little challenging or because it’s new? It always makes good sense to steer clear of movements that aren’t right for us, but aren’t there some appropriate challenges that are worth a try?
What if the instructor is teaching tree pose, and everyone is concentrating on their balance, but my body has the sudden impulse to breakdance? What about the times my body says it would like to emit a really loud belch in the middle of opening meditation? Is my body always right in these cases? Do our bodies really have our best interests in mind all the time?
Other students may understandably take this as a cue about tuning in to the sounds their bodies make: an invitation to listen to their breath, their heartbeat, the cracklings of their joints. These students may wonder why they are supposed to do this sort of listening and what messages they are supposed to receive.
In fact, both interpretations may get at aspects of the cue, but I don’t think either of them gets to its heart. Rather, there is a third sense of “listening,” in the sense of “pay attention,” “be interested,” “be ready to respond,” and I believe it is this ongoing alertness that yoga instructors are trying to foster with this cue. (“Check in, not out” is cousin to this cue, as is “Honor your inner wisdom.”)
“Listen to your body” is a kite with a long tail of meaning. It means pay attention to our bodies when they are telling us something we need to know to make our yoga practice work better for us. It means we get to prioritize inner signals over what the instructor says or what other students are doing. It means the instructor values our autonomy and defers to us to make the choices that suit us. They are inviting us to check in with each pose, to ask ourselves, “Is this a good idea for me?” and “How am I doing?” Now that I’ve realized this, I relax as soon as I hear this cue: It tells me that I have latitude to do my own thing if my body tells me that something isn’t working for me.
“Listen to your body” is a kite with a long tail of meaning. It means pay attention to our bodies when they are telling us something we need to know to make our yoga practice work better for us.
If, with “Listen to your body,” we are encouraged not to be unthinkingly obedient to the instructor’s direction, similarly, it is probably not the best idea to be unthinkingly obedient to every single impulse of our body. Our minds do not get to surrender entirely in yoga class: We still need them. Isn’t it, after all, the mind that’s being invited to listen to the body? This cue invites an ongoing collaboration between our mind’s good judgment and the signals from our body.
In other words, “listening” doesn’t always mean “agreeing” and “obeying.” We can listen to our body without getting on every ride it suggests. A corollary is the yogic ideal of witnessing our impulses without necessarily reacting to them immediately. (This is what yogis mean by nonreactivity: not that we don’t react at all, but that we don’t react in a knee-jerk fashion to what’s happening in our bodies or in the world; we pause, stand back, and consider the response that would be best.) We can then decide if the message we are getting from our bodies is necessary and helpful—or tangential and unhelpful. Differentiating between the two is not always easy. Developing viveka, “discernment,” is an ongoing process.
In a live group class, one aspect of discernment is weighing the freedom we grant our bodies against the common good. We may choose to curtail our bodily sounds or to stem the sudden craving to do an acrobatic, front-row practice of our own devising that in no way relates to what the instructor is suggesting. And these considerate choices, too, grow out of a sort of listening: Perhaps we listened to ourselves when another student disturbed us in class a while back, and we wish to avoid similarly disturbing our fellow students.
One way of acknowledging our bodies’ less beneficial impulses is to say to ourselves, “How interesting” in response, as in, “How interesting that I’m hearing you say you are feeling lethargic right now and would rather skip yoga. What if you gave it a try and then see how we feel after? It’s possible we feel tired because we haven’t moved yet today. Remember how good we felt after yoga class last time?”
Of course, this won’t always be the case for everyone all the time (remember, sometimes skipping class in favor of rest really is exactly what we need), but other times, overriding our body’s impulse toward forgoing practice is beneficial, and comes out of a kind of listening—a listening not just in that moment, but to what our bodies have told us over time.
Of course, there are some things the body tells us in the moment that do require immediate responses.
We listen to our bodies to make our practices feel as good as possible and to avoid the injuries that can occur with any kind of physical exercise. The sounds of our breath and heartbeat and crackling joints may give us helpful information, so listening to our bodies in a literal sense is not a bad idea. Short, uneven breathing or rapid heartbeats may tell us we’re working too hard and need to cool our jets; that repetitive snap from our knees may tell us that a movement isn’t working for us as is.
Other signals worth listening to in yoga class include sharp discomfort, tingling, numbness, and dizziness. Repeated bone-on-bone contact is probably also best avoided: the feeling of thigh bone clunking against hip bone may exacerbate some hip issues like femoroacetabular impingement (FAI). All of these messages suggest that we may want to back off.
Then what? What do we do if we have received one of these signals? We have plenty of options if a pose doesn’t feel as good as it could. We could go into a version of the pose that feels less extreme for us. We could also try the movement in a different way, changing how we got into it, or adjusting our alignment in it.
No dice? We could do something else instead: the other version of the pose the instructor offered, or a different pose altogether—maybe there was a pose earlier in practice that we wouldn’t mind spending more time in. If we need a break, a restful pose, like “child’s pose,” balasana, is a tried-and-true go-to. If we are unsure about what a good alternative would be, we can check in with the yoga teacher. If that’s not possible in the moment, we can consult with them after class about what to do instead next time.
There’s another important, if unstated, layer to this cue, and that is to keep listening. It’s not enough to listen to our bodies in a pose once or twice; it’s a good idea to check in every time we do the pose since our bodies are going to respond differently from day to day.
We can also keep listening after practice. If, for example, every time you do chaturanga in yoga class in the morning, your shoulder hurts by the time you go to bed, that might signal you to approach the pose in a different way, or skip it, even if your shoulder doesn’t talk to you during practice.
“Listen to your body” has boons beyond injury prevention: It can tune us in to the cause-and-effect relationships in our lives that we may not have noticed. If we continue to listen outside class, we may find ourselves not only noticing the belated effects of our yoga practices, but the effects of our life choices.
We may hear the messages from our bodies when we spend long hours working at a desk, when we go to yoga class, when we don’t get enough sleep and when we do, and when we hold tight to an old grudge and when we forgive. As our listening becomes more continuous, it can become life-changing. Our minds may agree to do what makes our bodies feel open and vital; our bodies may agree to do what gives us peace of mind. More and more, we might find the two in accord.
For a class of veteran students, this cue may not need unpacking. For new students, it may. I can imagine an introductory class in which a teacher asks their students what they take “Listen to your body” to mean, then reflects on their responses, perhaps adding what their personal intention is for giving that cue. I can imagine a playful, community-building class in which students are invited to share aloud what their bodies are saying throughout the practice.
In addition to expounding as needed, it can be helpful to add specific variation ideas for students who may not know how to personalize a pose or be able to think of something to do instead. Whenever you do teach a pose that is less accessible (and most poses are inaccessible for someone), be ready to suggest a variation, saying, “Try this or that,” with neither pose being presented as more advanced or beneficial than the other. This can prevent students from feeling at a loss. It’s even possible to teach a choose-your-own-adventure class, offering all of the poses in pairs and letting students choose whichever option they like best.
“Listen to your body” can be among the most valuable cues we give our students, especially when supplemented with explanation, as needed, and pose variations—and repeated, so students know that we still mean it, that our “permission” hasn’t expired. However, it is not flawless. (Most cues can have unintended consequences.)
“Listen to your body” can be offered in lip service; an instructor who says it may still encourage students to push farther into poses or to do something other than what they are happily doing. If we give this cue, we should mean it, and respect students’ bodily autonomy throughout yoga class. One way of doing that is to assess the situation before we tinker with our students’ practices. For instance, if a student is not doing the pose we are teaching, we could ask if what they are doing is working for them. If it’s not, sure, let’s suggest away, but if it is, we might resist the impulse to meddle.
If we give this cue, we should mean it, and respect students’ bodily autonomy throughout yoga class.
The shadow side of the empowerment offered by this cue is the blame it could be made to carry if students are injured in our classes, as in, “You should have listened to your own body and you wouldn’t have gotten hurt.” This is a warping of the cue’s supportive intention, and unfair. It is a myth to think that a self-aware student will never be injured in yoga class.
It is important and compassionate to recognize that some injuries happen without much in the way of warning, that sometimes discomfort may not set in until hours after practice, and—in the case of repetitive motion injuries—may not be felt until after making a movement many, many times. The body can be an imperfect speaker, the mind an imperfect listener. (To be better listeners to students’ stories of injury, we can offer our acknowledgment while steering clear of judgment.)
Lastly, “Listen to your body” can be delivered in vastly different contexts. Repeatedly using phrasing like “Listen to your body to protect yourself,” “Listen to any signals of pain,” and so on can actually prime students to fear movement and push negative sensations to the forefront. (This article—“If It Hurts, Don’t Do It”—examines the language we use around pain in yoga.)
It’s a fine line to walk: How can we offer a cue for injury prevention without dwelling on the possibility of injury? One method is to situate the cue more positively, offering it as one that will help to enhance experience (rather than, say, to avoid risk or danger). Perhaps we could even encourage students to listen to positive sensations, to notice not just what feels “off” in a pose, but what feels good.
Paying close attention to our own language, and noticing how students respond, is another version of the careful listening we are encouraging them to do, and one that may be just as revealing.