How perceptive are we in Yoga Practice?

Perception is a key element in yoga practice – in life generally – and it requires patience. It can take a long time for something to “click”, for an idea, a thought to “land”.  It can take a long time for us to notice something in our yoga practice – in particular, I believe that it can take a long time to understand relaxation and to recognize tension.
Why is this?
Perhaps it is due to our trying to make changes to the way we move, live life, manage work etc by focusing upon thinking in a different way.  You know the formula – perhaps if we think differently, we can change our behaviour?  This is true, to a certain extent but it is “top down” processing which does not always take into account the many complex processes that affect our thinking; the many layers of which we would be wise to be aware.
Dr Alan Watkins is a neuroscientist by background who elaborates upon this in a TED talk linked below.  He uses this illustration:
***with thanks to
Dr Watkins suggests that for real change to take place, we have to start with our physiology – our body data.  Awareness of this body data is called feelings. Watkins says that we can’t sort out Feelings before we sort out our emotions.  He notes that feelings and emotions are different – that we need to be aware (perceptive) in order to feel what is going on.  He illustrates the specific physiological data produced by anxiety – showing the effect upon a volunteer’s heart rate.
Watkins’ talk is interesting and it reminded me of something that Pete Blackaby taught some years ago along the lines of  “emotions come first, then feeling, then the mind kicks in..”  I wrote this down, have been using it as a guide in my teaching but, in truth,  its significance has taken a long time to “land”.  Like Alan Watkins,  Antonio Damasio, an American- Portuguese neuroscientist whose main field is neurobiology says that “…In order to understand “feeling” we need to understand what an emotion is. ..”  Watkins defines it as “energy in motion”. Damasio says that it  is a complex process of actions.  Some actions are movements – ie change in our face and body when we are afraid; or movements that are internal -that happen in the heart or gut.  Essentially, emotion is movement and action in the broadest sense.


Emotional response has been laid down through evolution to enable us to cope with threat (eg. predators) and to take opportunities (eg. food) without spending too much time on thinking around many options.   Emotion is largely non-conscious but when we feel it happening and we connect the feeling to what we are perceiving the whole process is made conscious and it “enters your mind flow” (Damasio). Now, some …years later…I think that I know what Pete meant when he said “emotions come first, then feeling, then the mind kicks in..”

How does this help us in our yoga practice?

Emotions occur when the “stakes” outside the organism are fairly high in a positive or negative direction.  If we can’t recognize the difference between tension and relaxation, if we stop breathing in order to achieve a specific shape then we will hold onto tension and creates stiffness, thereby interfering with the natural balance of the body.  By practising in a relaxed way, by seeking to find the most comfortable way to move, we listen to the physiological messages that are the bedrock of our feelings and thoughts.   Equally, if we can’t sense that the body is under-supported then our structure suffers also.  Perhaps in this mode of practice real change can happen




A friend has shared this quote which sums up much of what I write about our yoga.  It is helpful to simply notice in our practice and to abandon the quest to be “right”.  It is uncommon that we can all be right but we can all have a chance at freedom of movement .  This does, I think, reduce anxiety.

Anxiety can be present in a yoga class if there is an expectation (can be self-induced) that there is a perfect pose/shape to be achieved.  The shape of a yoga asana is the visible “proof” of our practice but there can be a conflict between how we sense ourselves and we how think others see us.  The emotional connection or disconnect between these two perspectives can be anxiety-inducing, I think.

Recently, a student was struck by the fact that one movement was beneficial to her but produced discomfort in another student.  The movement was a combination of getting up/down from kneeling and it created an opportunity to discuss how each student might notice when discomfort (stiffening) occurs and whether anything extra is being added to the movement – compensation that may well make the tension habitual.  An example of this would be a limp that continues and becomes habitual after an injury has healed.  If we notice tension by staying in the moment and not anticipating a shape or a perfect yoga pose, we will eventually – be able to move in a way that is tension-free.

You may be interested to read these past blogs.  I will be re-tweaking them and any comments are most welcome.

The feel of Balance


Emotions and Pain

In the next blog I will investigate Dr Alan Watkins talk on rhythmic breathing.


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