Listening Without Judgment
As a long time yoga practitioner and teacher I realize why it is so important, to learn how to listen within.
Practicing on the mat or off the mat, I need to listen to my body’s needs such as tightness, knots here and there, and an overall yearning to stretch. Once I am in the heat of the practice, following one pose after another, moving cautiously and propelled forward by a love of the action and the sensations resulting from it. I can almost call it my daily devotional time. Devoting time to my body’s needs in a very intimate and yet universal way. I need to listen to when to stop the stretch, how fast to move into the next, how long to enjoy a particularly pleasant stretch, and how to approach difficult postures without fear.
This comes with practice and with the help of an experienced teacher. I highly recommend to all to find a competent and compassionate teacher, whose example and guidance can change a struggling workout into a blissful and exhilarating journey deep within.
However, the student must first learn how to listen. Listening without judgment, without fear of not being good enough.
And yet, at the same time the student needs to learn slowly, yoga class after yoga class how to differentiate between discomforts of the mind and aches and pain in the body signaling imminent danger.
Let’s examine one of the more challenging poses, the Camel (Ustrasana)
Come to the top of your yoga mat, onto your knees, spread them hip width apart. Feet also hip width apart behind you. Put the hand on to the lower back, fingers facing down towards the buttocks. Gently press the hands into the lower back thus pushing the hips slowly forward, until a slight stretch is felt in the front of the hips and thighs. If this is not your first time doing this pose, drop the head back as far as it is comfortable, start leaning the upper body backwards slowly. Once back far enough, reach with one hand, then the other towards the heels, grab the heels and relax the head and neck completely. Lungs mostly full, breathing normally through the nose, little sips to top off the air in the lungs. Gently but persistently keep pushing the hips forward, maintaining the stretch in the front side, making sure your knees do not hurt.
This deep stretch should be felt in the thighs, pelvic area, as well as in the abdominal muscles, chest and neck.
My aim is to make you listen to these instructions, diverting your attention from a possible pain sensation in your lower back, or even feeling dizzy and nauseous. I draw all your attention to the front side, where the opening is happening. I will try to make you really concentrate hard on this area stretching and enjoying a tremendous release.
If you are at home practicing, you can do the same. Bring all your attention to the positive side of the exercise, and focus with all your might on the benefits and immediate surges of pleasures in the front side of the body.
However, it’s important to listen to your body. If you are experiencing sharp pain, electric jolts of pain, they are signals to come out of the pose, or lessen the angle of the back bend. Those are the safety mechanisms of the body.
Undue compression in the back that feels just too stuck at the moment is very normal and common, and also should be noticed with a listening mind. Regular practice will open this area slowly, safely, so nerves and blood can travel unhindered here.
There is another way we need to learn the art and skill of listening.
I meditate several times a day, and I highly recommend everyone practice a short meditation session once or a few times daily. It can be as short as 5 minutes, or as long as time and energy permits. Sometimes I will sit for an hour, sometimes only half an hour, it really does not matter. What matters is the level of intention, the level of focusing, listening within.
To be able to listen within the body, within the mind, one must quiet the non-stop chain of thoughts, often described by spiritual teachers as monkeys holding hands. These monkeys are very active, and they don’t stop coming and going. Our job is to find one or two tiny instances in between their holding hands. A little gap, a tiny space in between two thoughts, when the mind stands still.
Spiritual seekers often describe these precious gaps as deep clearing in a thick forest, or a velvety dark space with nothing around.
First one starts to notice very subtle sounds from the body, such as breath, or the moving of the organs because of breathing. Then a different quality of quietness arises, a place where the notion of time and space stops, the connection with the body and the environment ceases to be present, and only a suspenseful or mysterious silence IS. In this silence often an interesting sound can be perceived, such as the primordial sound of OM, ever so subtly, but there it is, even tone, even pitch, soft and quiet. Going beyond this listening is very difficult, requiring many hours to sit. It does not pop up into the mind, just out of the blue, one has to patiently wait, and concentrate on the task of listening.
Having meditated regularly for 20 years, I can tell you it is one of the most fulfilling jobs to do.
When I teach about meditation, I sometimes get asked questions about hallucinogens, mushrooms and other substances. Yes, those can offer a very unique, short lived experience, but nothing like a well-practiced meditation session. And yet, many people confuse these two.
I also had the opportunity to experience the binaural beats, and the effect of listening to cd’s offering to bring the mind to the very slow waves of theta, promising the listener better memory and sharper mental skills after the sessions. I used these cd’s for 2 years, almost regularly, enjoying the relaxing effect, but nothing compares to the power of my own sitting sessions without the binaural beats.
Listening is one of the hardest skills, but also one of the most valuable ones that yoga has taught me.
May your yoga practice and meditation session enlighten you to the usefulness of listening.
Aranka Shkolnikov, is a long time yoga enthusiast, practicing not only hatha yoga, but also other esoteric forms of yoga since the early 1990’s.