The Yoga of Listening and Critical Thinking


Yoga Tree, San Francisco, CA


The trick of a well-taught power yoga class is in making it seem as though you hardly have to think at all. The teacher breaths with you, speaks clearly, and gives you a general feeling of ease, guiding you through challenging poses while also supporting you. In time, you begin to understand and feel how each pose is operating in your body, what muscles are being stretched or strengthened. You begin to pay attention to the way your body is moving on a daily basis both in and out of class. And you begin to think more critically about how to approach a pose, and possibly even how to approach life.

Often, one of the first things a yoga teacher will ask you to do, after guiding you through a series of calming and grounding poses to help awaken the body and encourage you to be present, is to set an intention. Another way to put this question is, “Why are you here?” or “What do you want out of this practice today?” It is a fundamental question asked throughout the ages, and you are challenged to seek from within an answer to it for this moment. Immediately, your intellect is challenged. This practice is no longer only about moving your body, but it is about moving your mind. One go-to intention I use is to learn how to be in my body. I am overjoyed when in a yoga class I experience epiphany, whether it is finding a new adjustment to make a pose more comfortable, finally coming into a pose I once found quite difficult, or an expanse in depth of thought.

The other day I had an epiphany about open palms. For a long time I considered the open palm as a symbol for readiness to receive, but I realized, at least as it applies to me and my connection to Spirit [God, Holy Spirit], that the open palm both receives and gives. Seated, I folded forward, palms open, my body demonstrating my communication with God, and as I allowed the spirit in me to guide me, I turned over my palms to the earth to send love and peace to those around me.

Listening to one’s body, one’s mind, and one’s spirit comes with practice. And in the class setting it begins with listening to cues. I may have my own way of coming into a pose, but when I’m in a class I practice listening to the teacher for new ways at arriving at a particular pose because I want to know and feel the difference. I want to be open to learning knew ways of operating in my body, of moving my body in this world, and of simply being. Listening, in the moment, to step by step instruction improves our ability to pay attention.

Often in class, we are asked to let go of our thoughts, but this does not mean we stop thinking. Rather our thinking changes from things we’ve done or want to do, to the thing we are doing. We become present, paying attention to precisely what is happening in the moment. If we are in Ardha Chandrasana (Half-moon Pose), we are paying attention to the grounded foot. We pay attention to our abdominal muscles and the stacking of our shoulders and hips. We pay attention to our breath, finding balance through it. We feel supported as our teacher tells us, don’t worry if you fall out of the pose. We listen to her prompting us to bend the front knee and slowly bring the floating foot back down to the mat. Our ears are open, our mind is exactly where our body is, and as we, through practice, reach that place of yoga– union between mind, body, and spirit– we gain a clearer understanding of our intention here. In a moment of epiphany, without saying a word to anyone, I prayed and sent the love of God out to the people. Other times, I simply find the rest I didn’t know I so desperately needed, and often I learn how to move in my body through challenging moments with greater ease. Ultimately, I learn to listen, to think, and to trust that I am being supported by something greater than myself… no matter how many times I fall out of Ardha Chandrasana.

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