One of my yoga teachers taught us that yoga is a dance between “stop” and “go.” In other words, when you are in a pose, do you heed when your body wants you to push further and when it wants you to back off? The right practice will engage the body, back off a little when the body says so, engage it a little further, back off etc. until the pose expresses itself most naturally in the body.
A practice that our teacher offered us was a standing forward fold (uttanasana) using blocks under your hands and with bent knees. The point of the exercise was to watch when in deepening the forward fold your lower back “puffs” up–a sign that your body is not happy with the pose. When you deepen a forward fold in this supported variation, either by straightening the knees or reaching your fingers to the ground, you will feel when your body is no longer happily challenging itself and is quite miserable forcing itself. The lesson of the exercise is that, so long as your body is dramatically resisting a pose and energetically trying to get out of it, you aren’t honouring your yoga practice.
Notice here how the red lines on my lower back in the left-hand photos create an angle (because my lower back “puffs” up) and are parallel in the right-hand photos (indicating a healthier lower back). Similarly, my upper back is overly curved on the left, but healthier on the right. Finally, the purple lines demonstrate the “energy” of the pose. On the left, my body seems anxious to get out of the pose, curving upwards. On the right, my body is “settled” in the pose and much happier!
The practice of watching for signs that your body wants you to stop or go will help you reap so many more benefits from your practice. Not only will you be able to attune to where your body is tight and resistant and where it is open, it will help you deepen into your asanas in a more natural way by calming your nervous system. When you are not over-stressing your body, when you prove to your body that you are only there to honour and protect it, it will open its gates to you and allow you to reach magnificent healing depths.
Give it a try, first with forward fold, and then with any asana you like!
May you be filled with peace,