I feel this is a very important question. It is something that almost no teacher talks about in class. Yoga is in many ways about experiencing the present moment and that is only done through our senses. That is how relevant this topic is. And that is why it’s also so complex. How can you explain a feeling? Philosophers and poets write about love but we only trust our own definition based on our experiences. However, I think we could establish some guidelines.
You shouldn’t feel pain: I have said it many times before. But I understand that sometimes it is hard to tell when you feel pain or just discomfort. That is part of the journey. I still ask the question to myself once in a while. A good hint is that pain doesn’t go away while holding the pose. Discomfort occurs when you reach your edge, but it melts away while in the pose. Sometimes pain hides behind intensity. When a muscle or group of muscles are fully contracted or fully stretched, lack of oxygen creates a temporary sense of numbness. An extreme example can be seen in cases where weight lifters break a bone during performance. But when pain hides behind intensity you notice later after the practice, when pain appears again as result of muscle stress.
You can feel intensity: This sensation comes when doing poses that require full contraction of a group of muscles. This can be noticed especially in poses where the core is fully contracted like Chaturanga or Chair. Oxygen and sugar are being burned fast and big amounts of energy are being generated. The challenge is to control this energy through the breathing, making it move through the body.
You can feel relaxation: Depending on the pose and the yoga style, some muscles fully relax. Yin yoga is based on this sensation. Though it sounds simple, I find that most people have a hard time trying to relax. Everybody is stressed out. Work and social environment are designed to keep us alert. Some people even have the idea that relaxing is a waste of time, as if you are not being productive. I cannot emphasize enough how wrong this idea really is. Prolonged high levels of stress lead to anxiety and, in consequence, to depression. For most psychologist and psychiatrist it is considered a pandemic of the modern world. If you feel stressed, then you need to experience the exercise of relaxation and its sensations.
You should feel pleasure: I believe that feeling pleasure should be present during the entire practice. Pleasure is present in both intense and relaxed states of the body. A teacher once told me that yoga is like a self-massage. That changed my way of approaching a pose forever. Like a massage, the sensation can be strong or mild, but the overall feeling is good. But again, I believe that many people have trouble relating to this sensation. In our culture, pleasure sometimes has negative connotations. People can feel guilt while feeling pleasure. Western culture believes that through suffering we purge our sins and pleasure becomes a reward in the afterlife. This idea transcends from religion to social behavior. You don't necessarily need to be religious to feel guilt out of pleasure. Some eastern cultures have the opposite view, where suffering can be eliminated from this life and is through an extended and conscious state of ecstasy (samadhi) that we free ourselves from the reincarnation cycle. Based on this idea, pleasure is a tool to create a deeper connection between the mind and the body, which is a key state during the yoga practice. Under this perspective, pleasure has a more positive connotation.
The overall feeling: When people ask me how a pose should feel I always come back to the same example. Whenever I feel that I am experiencing the most of a pose is when it feels like the first stretch after waking up. Sometimes you haven’t even opened your eyes. You bring tension to arms, legs, toes and fingers. You take a deep inhale and contract the belly a little. And you sigh. That moment, when you sigh, when you are almost smiling, that’s the feeling I always come to.