Friday, August 3, 2012

When the Body Does Not Behave

Apparently this is my week to write about old high school English teachers, but I have another story to tell about a different high school teacher. During my senior year in high school, my English teacher had to have open heart surgery. He said something to us before he left for his surgery and recovery that has stuck with me all these years. He said, “I always expected my body to work. It has always been there for me, and I always expected it to be there for me in the future.” Ok, that’s not an exact quote, but the sentiment is there and with my memory, that is about as good as it gets. 

Interestingly, like the English teacher I mentioned in the last post, this one had a profound influence on my current yoga path. Toward the end of the school year, as we all had senioritis and had finished taking a national examination, the teacher shared with us a practice he did daily – Tai Chi. It was my first encounter with any real breath-body practice, and I loved it! Absolutely loved it! Over the years, I have practiced Qigong, and I never can without thinking of my old English teacher and my gratitude to him for sharing that practice with me long before it was “in vogue” as they say.

But back to his other lesson – the body not behaving. I have written before about pain and injuries on this blog. For someone who is almost never sick, I seem to always be hurting myself in one way or another. I have pulled hamstrings doing yoga and hurt my shoulder in a way I still do not understand attempting a handstand. I have sprained both of my ankles, and the other day I even managed to drop a water bottle on my middle toe (and yes, only my middle toe) just before a yoga class. I never considered myself accident prone, but apparently it has caught up to me.

But I have not mentioned the nagging pain, the pain that ostensibly has no origin. What does that pain tell us about ourselves?

Yoga has given me a much greater appreciation for my body and all its intricacies. I notice muscles I never knew existed and can move in ways I never imagined possible. I was the kid who could not reach my knees on a seated forward fold in elementary school, and today I have the freedom, at times, to bring my nose to my knees. I still do not try handstands though. And I certainly cannot get into some of the more “advanced” postures, but that is not the point. From yoga, I have learned to understand my body and its cues like never before.

This understanding is how yoga can bring us peace in our bodies. When done safely and appropriately, yoga can be the healing salve our bodies so desperately need. So many people who start doing yoga find their pain decreasing, their sleep improving, and their breath getting deeper. Those are usually the first steps in a yoga practice. The body comes down from its intense modern stress and pain and relaxes into a new way of being.

But the honeymoon does not always last. What do we do when the body does not behave or stops behaving? What do we do when the practice becomes painful? What do we do when our bodies hold pain, and we do not know why? What do we do when the tools that have worked before no longer work? We do “everything” we can to care for it, and yet it still has trouble?

That is the great and frustrating part about yoga. The tools and learning are endless. When the ways that used to work no longer do, there are infinite new ways to help ourselves. To paraphrase Einstein, you cannot keep doing the same thing and expect a different result. This is the moment when new tools can come to the forefront.

If an intense asana practice is causing harm, try a restorative class. If you notice your breath is shallow, try new pranayama, or breathing, techniques. If you sit all day, try moving. As our practices deepen, our understanding of what our bodies need deepens as well. And the most profound lesson I learned in teacher training is also the simplest – “if it hurts, don’t do it!”

Even if you don’t know why the pain has begun, or why it persists, pain exists to tell us something. It is vitally important that we listen. When we ignore it for too long, it gets more intense, and eventually can become debilitating. But with the insight yoga provides, we can learn to tune in. We can learn to understand what our bodies need before they break down.

We can teach ourselves the skills to discipline our bodies before they stop behaving the way we would like.

How do you listen to your body?


© Rebecca Stahl 2012, all rights reserved.


  1. it's funny, but i've had to adjust my practice over the years which is frustrating. you're right- we do just assume that our body will always be there for us, we take it for granted. until it stops working.

    i have a friend who actually had to stop practicing yoga altogether, mostly i think, because she really only wanted to do ashtanga and it was damaging her wrists. since she wasn't open to trying non vinyasa-type yoga, she stopped practicing. in a sense- i think this is fine. she knew what she wanted and didn't want out of yoga and found alternative methods of moving (swimming for one).

    1. Exactly. That is a scary prospect, but it is definitely something we all have to keep in mind. My practice grows and changes daily.