When was the last time you did some good old-fashioned yogic spelunking? I’m talking about digging in and going on an inward journey. I’m talking about seeking out new sensations in the dark, unexplored spaces of your muscles, fascia and bones. Oh, and your mind too!
If you’re new to this kind of trekking, here’s what you need to bring: Slow movement, unrestrained breath and focused attention. You’re going to use these tools to track down sensation. Your practice will become less about the external physical form (what the postures look like objectively from the outside) and more about your subjective internal landscape.
The number and magnitude of sensations that can be felt as you flow through yoga postures depend upon the speed and mindfulness of the movement. Vigorous and fast movement can hide the underlying sensations. Like a blur, they come and go too quickly to really take them in individually. That’s why a slow practice can be the juiciest. Slow movement lets you really be there for the sensations as they arise. Slowing down equates to feeling more. The more you can feel, the more transformative your practice can become.
When moving quickly, the brain is either wrapped up in the motor control needed to produce the choreography or is on autopilot, distracted with making the grocery list or deciding what color to paint the bathroom or any number of one-way conversations. Either way, movement keeper-upper or checked out, the brain is producing movements without much connection to those movements (this is where the risk of injury increases). The body is invested in the movements, but the brain is not. You’re not fully there to receive detailed feedback in the form of increasingly subtle sensations. You produce (movements) but you don’t receive (sensations).
Yoga teachers talk about exploring the edge in a posture while sensory neuroscientists talk about thresholds, and they might just be talking about exactly the same thing. A threshold can reflect the discrimination of two different sensations – sweeter than, colder than, bigger than, more vertical, more blue, more melodious. That tiny range where we tip from one perception to the other is a just noticeable difference (jnd).
Slowing the pace of our movements and repeating postures gives opportunities to find these jnd’s. Positioning the self right at the jnd is the edge to explore, not going to the edge of pain. After all, what is pain? It’s a sharp signal that something is going wrong.
Do you think it is more skillful to listen to subtle signals from your body or have it SCREAM at you?
Fast movement requires faster, shallower breathing and, for this reason, I personally have become less interested in fast-moving vinyasa classes. As my lung capacity has expanded, the pace of flying through Plank-Chaturanga-Up Dog-Down Dog feels rushed.
If I follow my own breath, timing my movements to the depth and pace of my inhales and exhales, then I’m much slower than the rest of the class. I’ll fall out of sync with what the teacher is leading, which is OK, but it took me some time to learn to be confident with being the oddball in class. Being at the Kripalu Center for a couple of years helped me with that. At Kripalu, indulging in different postures, self-pacing, luxurious exhales … and, yes, occasional strange sounds… are all the norm. When I left Kripalu and went to public yoga classes again, I had forgotten that not everyone is weird and noisy!
So if you’re waiting for permission to set your own pace and seriously exhale like there’s no tomorrow, then wait no longer. Permission granted.
Go to the back row of your next class. Pay attention internally. Get weird and dive in. Your practice is yours. It’s all about what’s happening on the inside not the pretty choreography on the outside. Go ahead, jnd it up!