One of the many definitions possible for yoga is the union of mind and body. This can be expanded in many directions—the union of awareness and sensation; of movement and intention; of presence and practice. If we take a functional view of our yoga practice, as opposed to an aesthetic focus which is concerned with how we look, then each posture or activity has an intention; a reason for being or doing. But, how do we know if we are achieving our intention? By paying attention!
I was recently in the company of Leslie Kaminoff and Peter Blackaby at a weekend seminar they hosted in New York called Beyond Anatomy (along with Amy Matthews and Brooke Thomas). Leslie suggested that the question teachers often ask of their students, “What are you feeling?”, might miss the mark. What if the student is not feeling anything? A better cue to develop awareness might be, “What do you notice?”
He makes a good point: many beginning yoga students respond the question “What are you feeling?” with a blank expression. Their reply is often a monosyllabic response of “Fine” reminiscent of responses from teenagers being interrogated by their parents. “Fine” is an answer to “How are you feeling?” but misses the real question: What? What are you feeling? But many beginners have no idea what they are feeling: our culture has trained them to ignore the body and only to pay attention when something really bad is going on. They have been given no tools to discriminate sensations other than to cast them into two very big buckets: good (pleasant)/bad (unpleasant).
Leslie’s question of “What do you notice?” may be better for many students, but it too can still miss the mark. That question may cause students to notice things happening outside of themselves: things in the room, the music, or the student next to them and what she is wearing or how she is practicing. Any development of attention can be good and valuable training, even external awareness, but it is also possible that students may not be noticing anything: very often they are lost in their own thoughts. Many beginners have no idea what they are experiencing, and that is totally normal and okay because this is where the work starts. It is in the gap between ignorance of what the body is experiencing and our mental presence being somewhere else, that the yoga of mindfulness begins.
Peter Blackaby later in the weekend made an off-hand remark that he often asked students what they were feeling, and felt a little sad that he can’t ask that question anymore. Leslie laughed at that because it was not his intent to kill the phrase entirely. I pondered the same point—does it really matter how we phrase the question? Our intention and the students’ challenge is the same regardless. I decided that I will keep asking, “What are you feeling?” because I do want students to learn how to feel, and how to pay attention to their inward feelings.
From the functional yoga point of view, if every posture has an intention—perhaps a targeted area where we are trying to create a stress and thus sensation, or to develop an inner calm through breathwork and relaxation—then how do we know if we are succeeding in achieving the intention? We check in. We see if we are generating the desired sensations in the targeted area. If we can feel something happening there, we are on track. The next step is to discriminate what that sensation is: this is another level of awareness. Based on that observation, we may apply some wisdom to decide whether to stay, go further or back off. This is a deeper form of practice because we now have to pay attention to the quality of what is arising.
Feelings in this sense is a very broad category: it can include physical sensations, but also emotions and even thoughts. At the initial level of enquiry we attend to the quantitative aspects: what is this feeling?—is it deep, superficial, spread out, confined, constant, throbbing, hot, cold, warm, tugging, tingling, etc. Beginners will find this a difficult practice, because the mind doesn’t normally want to attend to these things—it wants to run away from uncomfortable or challenging sensations and would much rather rest in a lovely day dream of what is going to happen after the yoga class. Holding awareness is what makes yoga a meditation practice. Once this steady attention has been developed, the qualitative aspect begins: are these sensations skillful and safe, or too gentle? Are they healthy or harmful?
“If you are feeling it, you are doing it!” This little mantra is designed to draw the student’s awareness to the targeted area of the pose or practice. Since we have chosen a functional approach, there should be something happening there, and if not—then we need to do something else to affect the targeted area. Alignment may need to be modified away from some standard that only works for an average person. The student may need to explore options on her own, to fidget a bit to find the place that creates the desired sensations. Another posture entirely may be required to generate the desired sensation and stress. Once the student is “feeling it”, then the exploration deepens. What exactly is “it” that she is feeling? Is it skillful? (This is a great yoga koan at any time: pause and ask yourself “What is this?”)
The flip side of this mantra is not true: it is not true to say, “If you are not feeling it, you are not doing it!” Many beginners don’t feel anything, but the stresses are still affecting the targeted areas. They may still be getting the physical benefits of the practice, but they are missing out on the mindfulness benefits: they don’t, yet, know how to attend. But, that’s okay—in time mindfulness may grow, especially with the proper encouragement.
After further consideration of Leslie’s comments, I decided that I am going to continue to ask students, “What are you feeling?” and suggest that, “If you are feeling it—you are doing it!”
- — For more details on the range of sensations that can arise, see Your Body, Your Yoga, pages 19-22.
- — For more on pain and what to do when it arises in your practice, see Good Pain, Bad Pain? Some Pain, No Pain? How to know what I should be feeling?