Drawing Awareness into the Body

Autumn Leaves

If you’ve come to my classes, you know that one of the cues I repeat often during our meditation at the start of class and in preparation for Savasana at the end is “take a deep breath and begin to bring your awareness back into the body.” I then, typically, ask you to begin to envision different parts of the body and notice how they feel. I imagine that most of you follow along for a bit, some of you truly seeing your bones, muscles or organs such as the heart, and connecting with an inner vision of how they feel in that moment. Others of you may drift into thoughts of grocery lists, homework that might not be finished, schedule challenges, or even begin pondering, ‘how long do I really need to sit here?’ This is all normal, expected and perfectly okay.

Sitting still can be one of the most difficult parts of a yoga class. This is why I have always been drawn to more active yoga practices like Ashtanga and Vinyasa Flow. The movement is my meditation. It is what helps me drown out all of the to-dos and what if’s and focus on me, in the moment, and how I am feeling. The value of these moments of stillness or ‘moving’ stillness are that we can tune in to things going on in our mind or body that we are often too busy to notice. This awareness can be transformative as many of us adapt to discomfort, pain, injury or illness with little recognition of how good we could feel because we have accepted a new normal.

I’m coming off of a weekend of training with Lara Heimann, founder of Movement by Lara, and my personal yoga guru. Lara is a physical therapist and yoga teacher who developed a style of yoga called streaming which involves training the body to move through anatomically optimal movements. She refers to this as mind mapping. Everyday every one of us walks a certain way, sits a certain way, holds a fork a certain way and so on. But are we walking in a way that effectively supports our body? Is our head actually positioned where it should be over our neck? Are we using the right muscles to lift the leg with each step? You might be asking why does this matter? The answer is that we have all adapted movement patterns out of habit or injury that are likely contributing to our physical and emotional health in ways we don’t have the tools to conceive of. Lara’s training involves teaching us to better identify the imbalances and resulting effects in our own bodies as well as our students’.

My regular students know that I begin each class with core work. Yes, I often joke that this means we get the hardest part out of the way first, but there is a very practical reason for this approach. Our core muscles, particularly our deep transverse abdominal muscles (TVAs) are essential to our movement patterns. As these muscles stabilize the spine and the pelvic area, weakness or disengagement of these muscles can mean that other muscles over compensate which can lead to pain or injury. For example, the TVA play an integral role in poses such as locust and downward facing dog. However, if you are not actively engaging those muscles, lifting in locust will come primarily from the low back, causing compression and discomfort in the spine. This same theory applies in down dog where an inactive core could mean leaning far too heavily on the shoulders, forcing them to take most of the lift. Repeatedly following this movement pattern could easily lead to shoulder injuries. These are just a few of the scenarios I have experienced myself and witnessed in my students.

The benefit of this deeper awareness of our movement patterns and muscle engagements can be very transformative. There is a shift in energy and lightness in our bodies that is often experienced when we begin to wake up muscles that have been inactive and bring our alignment back to form it was intended to follow before text necks, bad backs, pulled hamstrings and so many of our own self-inflicted imbalances took hold. Not only do we physically begin to feel better, but our minds begin to clear.

A couple of weeks ago I was working with my son on a leaf identification project in which we needed to collect ten different kinds of leaves. I have lived in wooded areas for my entire life and have never taken the time to truly notice how different the leaves are that fall beneath my feet every single day. Leaving my training last weekend, as I walked to the car I found myself looking closely at the leaves on the ground and noticing their unique colors and shapes. I smiled as I related this metaphorically to the work we had been doing in our yoga practice.

Our lives are full and busy and crazy, but each day that we wake up is a miracle and an opportunity to look more deeply into what is happening in and around us. Take a deep breath, notice how it feels and take a moment of gratitude. The smallest moments of awareness can change everything.