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Mindful Yoga: Trusting Your Own Experience

mindful yoga

Teaching Trust

Mindful Yoga:  Trusting Your Own Experience

The only time I’ve ever injured myself in 30 years of practicing yoga happened when a teaching colleague told me my Headstand was incorrect because I was putting more weight on my arms than on my head.

I was a novice student, only four years into my yoga practice. I knew my neck was not very strong due to a whiplash injury, but I decided to trust the teacher instead of my own intuition. I equalized the weight between my head and arms and stayed in Headstand for about five minutes. It didn’t feel very good at the time, but I was more concerned with doing it “right” than with how it felt.

For six months after that “correct” Headstand, I experienced constant headaches, stabbing on the inside of my left scapula and neck pain. After lots of acupuncture, chiropractic and deep tissue treatments—and six months of not doing ANY headstands or shoulder stands—things got back to normal.

Perhaps the teacher could have worded her comment differently, less judgmentally. But the truth is, it is my reaction to her comment that caused the injury. Being a novice yogi, I was still very much concerned with accomplishing poses, and doing them “right.” I ignored the cues my body was giving me in favor of doing what I thought would impress the teacher.

As a teacher, I learned from this experience that the most important thing I can do is to empower my students to trust themselves. We can’t know exactly what’s going on in another person’s body. We can observe and see where a student’s alignment lacks continuity—where they might be stretching or pushing harder in one area than another. But we can’t feel what a student is feeling.

For this reason, we need to teach our students the most useful tool for their safety and for their continuing evolution as yoga practitioners:  mindfulness. How do we do this? Well, first, we have to practice mindfulness ourselves—as a daily discipline, with intention and commitment. It ain’t easy. The fallback position for most of us is for our minds to be off in past or future thinking. This is not bad or wrong. It’s just what our minds have always done. The momentum is very strong. And here’s reality:  If our minds are focused on what we think a pose “should” be instead of what is actually true in our own bodies in this moment’s pose, we are more likely to hurt ourselves.

Asana is a Process

One way I like to teach and practice mindful yoga, is to teach each pose as a process rather than a set form. Instead of thinking of the picture-perfect Yoga Journal cover pose as the asana, my asana actually starts with the seed of the pose—the intention to move into a pose. As I teach and practice, I’m aware of each movement associated with setting up our bodies to move into a pose, the actually moment-to-moment process of moving into it, the constant, fluid changes in the body as a pose is “held” (this can only happen if our asana is soft and pliable enough that we can feel how our breath moves us), and the moment-to-moment process of moving back to neutral. Then, I take a moment in a neutral position—Tadasana, Dandasana, Savasana, depending on whether the previous pose was standing, sitting or lying down—to feel what happened.

No part of this process is more important than any other part. Each moment of each asana is an opportunity for full expression, no matter what part of the asana we are practicing—beginning, middle or end. In this way, students learn to feel—and more importantly, trust—their own experiences, and to begin to let go of the idea of a pose as a form that needs to be “nailed.”

Do you think mindful yoga practice is important? If so, how do you instill awareness in your students?



About Charlotte Bell

Charlotte Bell discovered yoga in 1982 and began teaching in 1986. Charlotte is the author of Mindful Yoga, Mindful Life: A Guide for Everyday Practice, published by Rodmell Press. Her second book, Yoga for Meditators (Rodmell Press) was published in May 2012. She writes a monthly column for CATALYST Magazine and serves as editor for Yoga U Online. Charlotte is a founding board member for GreenTREE Yoga, a non-profit that brings yoga to schools and to underserved populations. A lifelong musician, Charlotte plays oboe and English horn in the Salt Lake Symphony and folk sextet Red Rock Rondo, whose DVD won two Emmy awards in 2010.

2 thoughts on “Mindful Yoga: Trusting Your Own Experience”

  • Laurie

    I am thankful to have a yoga instructor who encourages us to listen to our bodies and trust ourselves to know what we can or cannot do during class. We are free to say "I don't think I should go there tonight" and she will help us choose an alternative pose. The times I have not listened to my gut and pushed beyond what my body was telling me (when my mind takes over and says 'you've gotten lower before, you need to do it again this time'), I end up with sore joints and muscles. I have to remind myself that yoga is not P.E. class - there are no artificial standards that I have to meet.

  • Charlotte

    It's great that your teacher has an understanding of the bigger picture. I've observed that it is more often the inexperienced students that want to push beyond their limits in order to meet an artificial standard (that I haven't set!). Most of my more experienced students feel perfectly fine modifying or skipping poses altogether when they just don't feel right. I guess the difference is that the more experienced students have learned to trust their guts, and that yoga is not about what your body can or can't do.

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