The Yoga of Discernment

Sweat dripped off the tip of their noses. Some of the women had an expression of fierce determination on their faces. Others looked panicked. A few of them shot me dirty looks.

I was teaching yoga to a room of twenty pregnant women. I asked them to hold a wide utkatasana or squat against the wall and I had just given them this speech:

“We are going to hold this pose for 60 and then 90 seconds, and we’ll do it two or even three times. Here are some things that might happen. Your knees may start to hurt. While that may not be immediately dangerous, it is probably not beneficial either, and I want you make shifts in your pose until your knees don’t hurt. Try coming up a little higher, or squeezing a block between your thighs. It is also possible that the muscles of your lower back start overworking and that won’t feel very good. If that happens, makes some shifts, or call me over and I’ll help you figure out what needs to change so your lower back feels more supported. We may have you press your lower back into the wall, and slightly engage your belly more.

Here are some other things that might happen. Your quads may get really tired and shaky. I know this isn’t comfortable, but it’s probably not dangerous right this moment. If you can stay, that might be interesting. It is also possible that your mind starts panicking because you are asking your body to hold a challenging, uncomfortable position. Now, don’t push past your edge, but if you can stay for the full 60 seconds, then stay. You get to decide how much challenge is interesting and how much is too much”.

In my classes, I like to offer up enough a challenge that students are able to explore when enough is enough in a low key and compassionate environment.

This is what I call the Yoga of Discernment.

One of the greatest benefits of the meditation and asana practices comes when we learn to sit with discomfort. We will encounter lots and lots of uncomfortable things in this world that we have no control over, and if we can be with it without making ourselves crazy, that’s quite beneficial. Meditation, in particular, can be extremely uncomfortable for me, and just having returned home from spending six days in full silence on a meditation retreat, I am well acquainted with the Inner Critic that makes my life so challenging sometimes. Sitting with that discomfort and exploring it was truly enlightening, and I am so grateful for the experience.

And yet, it is of the utmost importance to me that my students, and you, don’t hear me say that it is virtuous  to sit through every kind of hell that is thrown your way. There are some situations in life {like in our bodies} that are dangerous and that we need to get ourselves out of, sometimes IMMEDIATELY.

The Yoga of Discernment comes in knowing the difference between a situation that is uncomfortable but we can learn to sit with, and situation that is really unhealthy and dangerous and we need to do whatever we can to get ourselves out of that situation.

There is a huge benefit as a human being in knowing the difference between beneficial discomfort and injurious discomfort, and I think a really great place to start to learn that is in the body. Partly because every person’s body will have different kinds of movements and ranges of motion that are beneficial, just as every person’s heart will have different kinds of experiences that are interesting or heart breaking and every one of us gets to decide for ourselves.

That’s my favorite part: You get to decide!

A teacher I was mentoring earlier this year described a situation in which the attention she was receiving from a co-worker felt “icky”.  She was questioning herself though, because she has often been told she was “too sensitive.”

YOU GET TO DECIDE, I told her.

If it feels icky, than it is icky. End of conversation. That’s how boundaries work. That’s how discernment works. You get to decide what is good for you and what isn’t.

In my yoga classes I love to teach this idea in a very direct, physical way.

I offer my students a simple but physically challenging pose, like the utkatasana example up above. I will, as best as I can, tell them about some of the physical sensations that might occur and give them an idea about whether the sensation is beneficial or dangerous. I make sure they know the benefit I intend for them to receive, but even more importantly I give them freedom to explore the pose for themselves and decide what version or variation of the pose has the most benefit to them RIGHT NOW. Beyond just telling them to do “whatever feels good”, I’ll share anatomical and biomechanical information that INFORMS their understanding of what might be of benefit to their body. To be able to do that with confidence it helps to have quite a bit of teaching experience as well as a really strong anatomy background. If it would be helpful for you guys, I can go into more of the anatomical details in future blog posts. Let me know if that is something you would like to learn more about!

The Yoga of Discernment is something I talk about in almost every class I teach because it is of the utmost importance to me that you and your students don’t use your practice as one more place to beat up on yourself.  {That is all too common, I’m afraid.}

No one needs to learn to be harder on themselves. No one.

You can learn to ask more of yourself. You can ask yourself to be more clear and to be more focused, but that is not the same thing as beating up on yourself.

One of the central tenants of my teaching is giving my students a place to work hard and engage in their experience with focus and clarity. BUT… to do so from a place of warmth and love and not of aggression or competitiveness.  The Yoga of Discernment is something that can be practiced both on and off that mat or cushion. The questions are the same:

Does this discomfort have some benefit for me or someone else? If I am not sure, who can I ask? Is this situation challenging or dangerous? Am I sitting with this discomfort because I am trying to prove that I am worthy of love?

I’ll just remind us all that…

We can be more productive when our offerings come from an inner world that is healthy, well-developed, and full of love.

Exploring the Yoga of Discernment teaches your students how to move through the world in a more embodied way and how to live inside their own body with more presence and care.

Really, is there anything more beautiful or important we could be teaching?

21 Responses to “The Yoga of Discernment”

  1. Heather

    Beautiful Francesca! Would love to hear an example of how you weave the anatomical instructions into your classes as to inform and not overwhelm. You are a master at teaching “discernment.” I think that is your gift ; )
    Welcome home and thanks for all you do!
    With Joy,

    • Francesca Cervero

      Thank you Heather, that is so kind! I will definitely write a follow up blog post about this and include some ideas about how to weave anatomical info throughout the practice without overwhelming. Thank you for the prompt!

  2. Myra

    Well said, a good reminder and a new way to talk about ahimsa and loving your body just as it is and just as it isn’t…thank you, Frances!

    • Francesca Cervero

      You’re welcome Myra. I like the way you said that, “just as it is and just as it isn’t.” Ain’t that the truth!

  3. Katy Taylor

    Yes, Yes, Francesca!! You are speaking my language!

    I would love to hear more anatomical descriptions.

    For someone like myself, who has pushed past her edge too many times in her life and injured herself, there can never be enough reminders about listening and not harming yourself…including what going over the edge into harming feels like. Some of us don’t know until it’s done. 🙁

    • Francesca Cervero

      That is such a good point. What does going over the edge EVEN FEEL LIKE? For us hypermobile folk, there is often less feedback from our bodies. I’m going to write a follow up to this post, and I’ll include some of this in it. Thank you! <3

  4. Colleen

    Very well put, and I love how you phrase the discernment piece. I’m going to incorporate some of it for my classes. I always appreciate new ways to language information. It really does no good to just say “do what feels best for you”. The student may just feel that exiting to the bathroom at that time is what is best. They really don’t know what is best because they have been taught to “feel the burn” and “give it your all, give 150%”. They also mostly are just not in touch with their own bodies and their own needs. There is also fear around discomfort. Societal norm and advertising tells us to run like heck from discomfort, numb it, ignore it, take this drug, take that drug. It’s crazy-making.

    • janie ganga

      Yes! I also find that students have a hard time feeling confident that they know what their body is telling them… Francesca – Can you comment a bit more on the aspect of people numbing out from their bodies and helping to bring people back into sensation and willingness to feel? I also find that when folks have an injury, they are very reluctant to feel anything at all in that general region… more of a focused numbing. From personal experience, I’ve noticed that just moving into a pose / area of the body gently helps with healing, but if you have more language about how to encourage exploration of stronger sensation, I would love to hear that, too! THANK YOU for excellent food for thought!

      • Francesca Cervero

        Thanks for your thoughts Colleen and Janie! It is clear this post deserves a follow up, so I will include some thoughts on your questions there. Stay tuned and thanks for being part of the conversation!

  5. Annette

    Thank you for this post, Francesca. I feel that this is one of the most important practices in yoga. I remind students to take a moment and notice what they are feeling and to adjust what is necessary, that we don’t need to stay in a space just because we are already there (or even worse, because a teacher or another person says so).

    • Francesca Cervero

      Yes! l love the way your phrased that: “we don’t need to stay in a space just because we are already there.” So wise. <3

  6. Donyne

    Thank you. This is such an important message! I loved getting to read a concrete example of how you speak this to your students, it is a great help in continuing to refining my delivery of this message. I’ve been working at it for awhile and still feel like it is one of the most important pieces I can offer my students.

    • Francesca Cervero

      You are so welcome Donye! I am so happy to help. I am constantly working to refine and clarify my ability to communicate around this super important topic as well. XO

  7. Mona

    Thank you for the article! I would love to learn more about anatomy! even a list of resources would be amazing.

  8. Tina Lear

    Holy Mother of God. Thank you Francesca for this article, and especially for the anatomy resource list in the post above. I was extremely hard on myself in past years, so much so that my teaching veers into the “too permissive” realm. Just realized that perhaps I’ve been letting my emotionally battered, ease-starved self drive the teaching…”if at any time you need to stop, just rest in child pose,” or “if you’re getting signals that you don’t wanna do this, listen to that and don’t do it.” Oy. This is too broad, and doesn’t help them distinguish between healthy and unhealthy signals. It’s like I’m telling them that when their body-phone rings, they should pick up the receiver and immediately hang up…instead of picking up the receiver and then LISTENING.

    Another thing I think is driving my permissiveness is an insecurity about the anatomy piece and not wanting to injure anyone with undue effort. So thanks a million for the resources. I’ll be reading/listening…

    • Francesca Cervero

      You are so so welcome and I LOVE the way you describe this here: We want to pick up our body phone and LISTEN, not immediately hang up! Love to you. <3


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