In our daily lives, it can be hard to make the time to pause and reflect about how our body is really feeling. Hours turn into days, and days turn into months and even years. A routine continues even if it’s not the best way for us as our circumstances change. In fact, sometimes we then realise things ‘too late’ – such as muscular and postural problems. These can increase the risk of injury, decrease our fitness performance, restrict our body’s efficiency…and just generally may lead to periods of continued discomfort.
And so, as many of the older fitness generation have suggested: develop self-awareness about these things as early as possible – aka ‘listen to your body’.
What you may currently think…what I did think…
When I first heard this advice, I somewhat brushed it off as something that was more relevant to ‘other people’ than myself.
I thought that I was really self aware already to know when the body was tired and needed to rest.
In fact, I even thought that I was quite good with my rest periods, training intensity and rest days.
But these people could tell.
They had figured me out.
And so, they too were as persistent as I was. They continued for many many months to repeat that message: slow everything down, you have more time than you think and listen to your body.
And honestly…I’m really glad that they managed to drill that message.
It took that constant message together with a period when I realised that my workout performance wasn’t improving and I didn’t really know why – to accept that my strategy had to change. In fact, I was at a constant level of fatigue that it had become ‘normal’ to me.
So, what does ‘listen to your body’ really mean?
Is it something much deeper than a current and constant feeling of ache or pain so that we learn more about our limits and capabilities?
Does it suggest that we aren’t as invincible as we think we are in our ‘youth’ and so need to do things more smartly?
Could it just be taken that we need more rest between workouts?
What Pilates and Yoga have to say…
It wasn’t until rejoining Pilates after a few years’ gap and experiencing Yoga for the first time in October 2021 that my view has reached a deeper appreciation.
For those unfamiliar with these exercises, Pilates and Yoga are about flexibility, mobility, posture and breathing. Although they look gentle, slow and somewhat ‘easy’ on the outside to an untrained eye, these workouts are actually quite tough!
After these experiences, here’s my updated thoughts about how we better ‘listen to our body’:
1. Regularly ‘check in’ with your body via meditation
Imagine yourself or some shape or object travelling around your body (starting at the feet and travelling upwards) and pausing at junctions for a few minutes. During this time, allow your body to tell you how it’s really feeling. You may soon discover some mild tightness or discomfort that you hadn’t noticed before. Consider why it’s there and what can be done to improve it.
2. Embrace the stretch as the stretch
When stretching, think about the intention of the stretch. It’s common when we stretch for the mind to sometimes wander. What if we stayed focused and present on the stretch is taking place? What could we learn about our body?
Instructors have placed emphasis on the following:
a. Are you feeling the stretch in the right place?
b. How is your posture?
Sometimes this indicates tightness or weaknesses in the area or other supporting areas. It is also easy to overlook the position of the spine and back.
3. Take the movements slow
Engaging with the movements slowly helps to better understand how the body is responding.
It’s helpful to ask yourself:
Is mobility limited or uncomfortable?
Mobility is defined as the movement within the joint.
Are you balancing your weight accordingly?
We may overcompensate weight distribution by putting out weight more on one side if the other is slightly weaker or strained. It could just be habit. But over time, this could lead to an unbalanced posture.
Is the function of the movement clear? Is the movement co-ordinated with your breathing as intended?
Many of us have a tendency to hold our breath during the movements and exercises. This can make our experience more difficult than is necessary.
4. Hold and relax
Hold a position and allow the body to relax into it.
One point that I’ve heard time after time in Pilates is to not hold a position to a maximum where you feel tense and breathing a little harder due to the discomfort. Instead, reach a position where you are comfortable but not at the point of discomfort. As the body relaxes, one can naturally go further a little more. This is more about the mind and body working together and can reduce the risk of injury.
There’s an overall message that captures all of the above: slow can be more difficult than doing things quicker.
Patience of the slow is needed to understand the present condition of the body.
Appreciation of the slow is required to make time for it in our daily or weekly routines.
Perseverance of the slow is important to develop stronger foundations on which we can perform and do things more effectively at a quicker speed.