In yoga, we have language for describing different aspects of our physical experience in the postures. We can use the language of our felt sense in yoga and we can use anatomical language to describe an experience in our body. The two languages each contribute something different to our overall assessment of what is happening in a yoga pose. To truly make our best hypothesis about what we are experiencing and why, we need to use each language for what it’s good for. And, we need to be aware of the limitations of each of these descriptive tools.
What is felt sense?
Let’s start with some definitions. Your “felt sense” in yoga is what you are describing when you relay information about sensations you feel and their quality in your body. You might describe their location, intensity, or qualities by using words like: sharp, achy, strong, stable, pulling, weak, engaged, tired, or simply good.
We also use felt sense language to describe our overall experience in a posture. As a practitioner, for example, we might say that when we have the intention of lifting the arches in our feet in samasthiti, we feel taller through our spine. As a teacher, felt sense language is something we often use when verbally cueing students during class. These types of words can create an intention of a certain experience. In standing postures, like warrior pose for example, you might have heard a teacher encouraging you to “ground through your feet” or “lift through the crown of your head”. This is all describing your qualitative experience in a posture.
Your felt sense in yoga is subjective. There are no right or wrong answers to describing the experience that you’re having in a yoga posture. Our felt sense is a real description of what we’re aware of in a yoga pose and that’s important. No one else can tell us what our experience is like.
What is anatomy?
Now, let’s contrast that with the language of anatomy. Anatomical language includes specific terms which describe structures and actions that happen in the body. Anatomy exists in the world of objective science. There are right and wrong answers with respect to what structures and actions in the body are called. The long bone in your thigh is your femur. It would be incorrect and confusing to call it your humerus, because that is actually the name of your upper arm bone. If we say we are flexing our elbow, that describes a specific action. It also describes an action that means the same thing for everyone. Having one anatomical language helps us create some clarity around specifically what we’re talking about.
Where do felt sense in yoga and anatomy come together?
The information we gain from describing our sensations and our knowledge of how the body works, anatomically, gives us the most complete information when we use them together. But we need to use each of them in the right way. We can use the language of anatomy to form hypotheses (guesses) about WHY we might have the sensations or experience that we’re having.
Knowledge of anatomy can be a very useful tool if we are trying to puzzle through why a posture isn’t evolving in the way we would like. It can help us identify what’s missing from how we’re approaching a posture. It can also inform our hypothesis about why something hurts or doesn’t feel “right” in some way. Our felt sense in yoga is our body and our nervous system giving us information. We can use our knowledge of anatomy to better interpret those qualitative cues.
Where do felt sense and anatomical language get misused?
Both the language of felt sense in yoga and anatomical language sometimes get misused, particularly by teachers. It’s up to us as teachers to understand enough about each language (sensation and anatomy) that we can ask additional questions if needed to further understand what a student means when they describe the experience that they’re having.
We also need to be careful, as teachers, about not using anatomical language to cue something that is really a felt sense. If we’re using anatomical words, but asking students to do something which is physically impossible, then we’re probably guilty of using the wrong language to cue our intention. For example, if we’re asking students to try and make their tailbone touch their pubic bone, which is technically impossible to do anatomically, then we might want to consider phrasing that cue a different way. This doesn’t mean that there is nothing relevant behind that cue. But, for example, if your intention with that cue is to create a different sensation in the pelvic floor, why not just say that?
Teachers sometimes overuse felt sense language in verbal cues and adjustments. It can be difficult to cue a whole class of students using felt sense language because not everyone has the same sensations or experience in poses. Nor should they, since everyone is practicing in a different body. As teachers we should avoid telling students what they should be feeling. Of course, trying to help students find sensations that are helpful is a good thing. Just remember, different bodies experience postures in different ways.
What are those felt sensations telling us?
Now let’s take an example of a felt sense in yoga to better understand how we might use that information to inform our practice versus how that information can get misused. Let’s talk about the sensation that we feel something “stretching”. We might also describe that feeling by saying something feels “tight”. The sensation of stretch is part of our felt sense experience. It’s important to examine that felt sense in yoga through a more objective anatomical lens to steer our practice effectively.
For example, if I see a student with a very rounded upper back, they might tell me that they feel a lot of stretch in their upper back. Or, they might say that their upper back feels tight. Both of those words, stretch and tight, describe a feeling. A student who feels tension through their upper back muscles might then jump to the conclusion that the muscles on their upper back need to be stretched more.
Where can felt sense language go awry?
This is where the language of felt sense in yoga and anatomical language often get into a confusing mess. Stretch and tight describe feelings. Those words are not anatomical language. I often hear students equate the sensation of tight with the anatomical concept of a short muscle. This confuses things because one of those words describes a subjective feeling (tight) and the other word describes an objective anatomical observation (short). When students say something feels tight, they are describing a real feeling of tension, but we shouldn’t leap to the conclusion that a feeling of tension is equal to a muscle being short.
When might a muscle feel tight, but not be short?
Contractile muscle tension
This is where we need to examine that feeling of tight through an anatomical lens. Muscles are both contractile and elastic. Muscles increase in tension when they shorten to contract (a concentric contraction). When our biceps brachii shortens to contract and bend our elbow, it has contractile tension. And, if we have chronically shortened our biceps from too much weight-lifting at the gym, then when we intentionally lengthen them we will likely feel a sensation that they are stretching.
Elastic muscle tension
We often forget about muscles’ elastic quality. Generally speaking, when we think of stretching we assume that a muscle is relaxed. In terms of it receiving a signal through the nervous system to contract, that is true. Typically, when we stretch muscles passively, they receive very little if any signal to contract. However, when a muscle is lengthened, as it is when we are “stretching”, it does not get soft. In fact, its tension increases.
Think of two people each pulling on one end of a rubber band. The rubber band is experiencing plenty of stretch, but as the two people keep pulling it, it is getting longer NOT shorter. So, what would reduce the tension on the rubber band? One or both of the people pulling from each end need to come towards each other. They shorten the rubber band.
Forming a hypothesis
Let’s go back to the student with the rounded upper back who feels like it’s stretching or tight. In that situation, how might I come up with a hypothesis about what is happening in their body? I would interpret what the student is telling me about what they’re feeling by adding information about what I observe visually in their body. I could then make a hypothesis by considering both the felt sense information the student shared and what I know about anatomy.
In this example, what makes sense as a hypothesis is that the muscles on the front of their chest are actually the muscles that are short. I can see visually that their back is rounded, so I can see that those muscles are unlikely to be short. If the rhomboids on their back were short, for example, they would pull the shoulder blades closer together. But instead, we see that the shoulder blades are pulled apart.
So, would I suggest that they should stretch their upper back more just because they have a felt sense of tight? No. In the case of the rounded upper back, what muscles are likely short which would pull those shoulder blades farther apart and indirectly put that feeling of tension into the upper back? Those would be muscles on the front of the chest, like pectoralis major, pectoralis minor, and maybe the anterior fibers of the deltoids.
Alternatively, there may also be nothing to do. The student may simply feel that their upper back is tight because that part of their back is being lengthened. When those muscles are lengthened, the tension increases because muscles are also elastic. It could just be that the student is feeling a muscle that is tighter than the surrounding area and the fact that they are feeling a sensation there is a good thing.
A process for solving puzzles in our practice
So, that brings us to a process for using both our felt sense in yoga and knowledge of anatomy to assess our experience in practice and then make any changes that we would like.
- Observe felt sensations. Start by observing the sensations you’re experiencing in a pose. What sensations are you aware of in the posture? Do you have an area where you feel a stretch? Are there any concerning sensations like sharp pain? What about subtler sensations? Are there areas that feel stuck in some way?
- Observe visual patterns. This is where we’re looking for objective information. While you’re in a posture, notice where the parts of your body are located in space in relationship to each other. Is something on the right side different than the left side?
- Hypothesize decisions about practice by filtering your observations through the lens of anatomy. Ask yourself, what would likely cause the patterns you’re seeing or the sensations you’re experiencing?
- Test your hypothesis. How can you change the posture, or how you’re doing the posture, to see if what you think you know is correct?
- Give yourself some time for change and then reevaluate. First give the change some time to work in your practice. Subtle changes to how we move often take days, weeks, or even months to produce change. So give it some time. But then, reevaluate. Has your felt sense of the posture changed? If not, bring in what you know about anatomy and consider a different hypothesis.