Thursday, July 30, 2009

How to Listen to Yourself

A recent article in the New York Times about learning how to listen to your body when exercising. The basic question is how do you know when to push through resistance and when to back off?

As a yoga teacher, the article made me sad because it contains several stories of runners who push through pain and end up seriously injured. A running coach is quoted:
"I never listened to my body,” [Tom Fleming] said. “Maybe I should have. So let’s get that clear right off: I think it’s an impossible task.”

When he was training, Mr. Fleming said, he couldn’t train less or make himself go more slowly. And, he added, if you really listen to your body, you will not achieve what you are capable of.

Athletes need someone else, a coach if possible, he said, to tell them when to rest, when to take an easy day and when to work hard.
There is a feeling of self-hatred here.  It's part of the regrettable Western tradition of separating the mind from the body. (Thanks a lot, Descartes!)  This attitude is the total opposite of what I hope to teach in my yoga classes.  It is ONLY through listening to your body that can you achieve your fully capacity.  Of course, I happen to think our full capacity goes far beyond running insane distances.

Asker Jeukendrup, a triathlete and director of the Human Performance Laboratory, has a more refined view:
Listening, he said, means that you are supposed to listen for “valuable information” and learn to disregard “other negative information that may come into your thoughts that is actually irrelevant.”

Dismiss, for example, “some niggles, some feelings of fatigue,” he said.

The goal is to push your body to its limits, but not beyond. Easier said than done, he admitted. And, he added, not everyone can do it.
The key is learning to distinguish between genuine feedback from the body and mental noise.  Yes, it takes practice, but there are numerous modalities that develop this very skill: yoga, Feldenkrais, vipassana meditation, Body-Mind Centering, Integral Bodywork.

I don't believe there is anyone who can't learn to listen to their body.  The body is always there, trying to communicate.  But many modern Americans (like the running coach) are so alienated from their bodies, so driven by their egos' craving for achievement, so trapped in their heads, that their body's non-verbal messages are drowned out.  We do have to slow down and quiet down, which may well feel impossible for some (especially runners?)

Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy is one of the most direct routes to reconnecting with the body that I've encountered.  Supported postures create sensation, and the dialogue encourages you to listen - again and again - to what those sensations are saying.  Simple and profoundly challenging.

When we really start to hear the body, we find that it wants to move.  It wants to exercise and eat a healthy diet and feel good.  I think our fullest capability is to live in harmony with ourselves and the world, with abundant energy for all our responsibilities.   That may not seem as heroic as running a marathon, but it's actually much more challenging!

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