How does it feel? Learning how to experience yoga

Here's the thing: yoga looks weird. For everyone. 

This is because how yoga poses look is almost entirely beside the point (I say ‘almost’ for a reason — I’ll come back to that.)

What is instructive in yoga, and really what’s most important is how it feels.

How yoga feels is a challenging question. Yoga is not (at least not entirely) about feeling good

Instead, yoga is about working with what’s actually there. I like to call this working with what you find, rather than what you hope, fear or expect to be there. Sometimes this is bliss and happiness, sometimes not. 

The point is, yoga is about learning to notice what's there in the first place. 

The physical postures are about learning to feel our stance, gait, gestures, and breathing; essentially they’re about becoming more intimate with our physical bodies. That is, yoga poses are about learning to notice what it is that we experience in our physical bodies. 

To fully understand what that means, it’s helpful to look at a dictionary definition of the word ‘feel’: to be aware of or experience both physical sensations and mental or emotional sensations.

Becoming more aware of physical sensations through yoga poses can and usually does make you more aware of how you feel emotionally and mentally about your body, yourself and other stuff more broadly.

For example, for me lately, by far the most challenging physical posture in my yoga practice has been savasana. Yes. Just lying on the floor. What I’ve felt lying on the floor at the end of my practice is the tightness in my neck, shoulders and upper back, their unwillingness to relax. I’ve also felt frustrated with and disappointed in myself for not being able to let go. I mean, it’s just relaxing right? Why can’t I just do it? This tells me a lot about what's going on for me just now. (I'm feeling Busy.)

Lying on the floor is really difficult sometimes. 

Lying on the floor is really difficult sometimes. 

Many of us are not in the habit either of noticing how we feel — physically or mentally/emotionally. Many of us need practise at noticing our experience. To notice which sensations are stretch or effort and which are pain. And, especially at the beginning, taking the time to notice how we feel or what we’re experiencing can be confronting and challenging. 

For this reason, it’s important to know that you can always back off if something becomes too much. If a feeling — physical, mental or emotional —  is overwhelming. 

How you, specifically you, feel in a yoga class is important. Your experience of yoga postures is more important than how you look.

If you need to rest, do. You don’t need to wait for the teacher’s instruction. 

If you need to rest, you might choose child's pose...

If you need to rest, you might choose child's pose...

...or perhaps what I like to refer to as 'constructive rest pose', whichever feels most comfortable for you. (Can you see those tight shoulders I was describing before here, creeping up off the floor?)

...or perhaps what I like to refer to as 'constructive rest pose', whichever feels most comfortable for you. (Can you see those tight shoulders I was describing before here, creeping up off the floor?)

If you have questions about your experience, ask them, either at the time, or at the end of class. Most teachers I know are very welcoming of questions. And, trust me, there’s no such thing as a stupid question — bodies are odd and complex and there are endless questions that any one of us could ask about them. This learning is an ongoing process. It’s one that, despite its challenges, can be very satisfying, and does, of course, come with some pleasant sensations too (yes, yoga can and does often feel good).

Let me come back, for a moment, to how you look in yoga poses. 

How you look is not totally irrelevant (though let me reiterate: it is not, by far, the most important thing). Particularly when you’re learning a pose you’re unfamiliar with, looking at how the parts of your body line up with one another can be a helpful way to get familiar with good alignment. This is part of what your teacher is looking at when she walks around the room peering at you. So, for instance, you might look to see that your front knee is directly above your ankle in a lunge so you’re not putting extra pressure on either of those joints. 

Keeping in mind that each of us will be working with different body sizes, different tight bits, strong bits, flexible bits etc, you can see how considering how your body looks in this specific way is very different to making sure you look the same as the person next to you or the teacher. (You don’t and won’t. But that’s the beauty of bodies: their variety is endlessly fascinating.)

What I’m trying to get at here is that how you look in yoga is not totally unimportant, but it’s essentially a stepping stone to noticing how you feel.

How you look is not the endpoint.

For practise at noticing how you feel, try this witnessing exercise, lying or sitting on the floor. 

Notice the parts of you that are touching the floor in the post. Notice everything you can about how those points of contact feel.

Now notice how the air around you feels on your skin. Is it warm or cool? Is there a breeze or is it still?

Now notice your breathing. Where in your body do you notice it most? Is it fast or slow? Does it catch anywhere? Are your inhales longer than your exhales or vice versa?

Throughout this process, you might notice certain emotions or thoughts come up. That’s okay. That’s normal. If you find you get caught up in one of those thought trains or emotions, that’s okay too. When you notice that, start this witnessing exercise again from the beginning.

You might also notice physical discomfort or pain. That’s okay too. Notice what you can about those physical feelings. But if they become too much and you need to move, do. And then just start the witnessing exercise again from the beginning. 

It doesn’t matter how many times you start again. 

Just as how you look in a yoga pose is not the end point, being calm and super-focused is not the end point in this exercise either. Instead, you’re just trying to practise noticing how you feel, in all senses of that word. 

Learning how to feel is difficult. Many of us tend to think of our bodies and our minds as separate entities — and possibly we identify more readily with our minds. The thing is though, our bodies are not merely vehicles for our minds. Our bodies are us too. We are our bodies. The messages between our bodies and our minds go both ways, and our bodies hold tensions that come from stress in the mind.

Which is a pretty good reason to have some idea what the messages from our bodies are saying, don’t you think?