The most effective yoga teachers wholeheartedly work toward basing all of their instructions on a clear understanding of the philosophy that underlies asana practice. In a nutshell, we use the body as a tool to concentrate the mind so we can see and identify with the stillness that underlies the chatter. According to Patanjali, this deep work generates organic cultivation of actions that are based on clarity, rather than ignorance. That insight results in actions that align with the behaviors and attitudes listed in the yamas and niyamas of the yoga sutras. Patanjali’s 10-itemed list begins with the intent to cause less unnecessary harm (ahimsa) and ends with the understanding that we are doing all of this physical stuff so that we align our identity more perfectly with the non-physical (isvarapranidhana).
My fascination with teaching practitioners how to teach asana as yoga practice has kept me keenly aware of what I hear teachers of all experience levels say when they teach classes. The way that we say things matter. When you are teaching with words, the words must be chosen carefully or you may steer your students away from their best practice. In observing teachers, I have heard a million amazingly helpful and potent instructions that surely benefit the practitioners who follow them. But I have also heard a short list of cringe-worthy instructions, the discussion of which inevitably weaves its way into all of the teacher training I lead. Here are four of them:
1. “Feel the stretch” … (or feel almost anything else).
Have you ever heard a teacher say that in a certain pose we are stretching some part or that we are having some particular experience? For example, in a forward bend one might say that we’ll feel a hamstring stretch or that in a hip opener, we might feel emotional or that in a backbend we might feel less depressed. While these sensations may very well be likely in many practitioners, they are not sure things.
If we’re trying to teach people to be present, and I think we all are, we have to teach them to observe the present on their own. Let them see what they feel, not what you feel or what you think they should feel. Telling a student what they are feeling defeats much of the purpose of yoga practice. I was somehow very fortunate in finding my most important teachers in that they never told me what was happening inside of me. Instead, they taught me how to practice and left the observation, the svadhyaya, up to me.
What if a student doesn’t feel what you are saying they feel or should feel? Doing an asana guided by a desire for a particular sensation might lead to injurious or aggressive practice. Or, if a student doesn’t feel what you are saying they should feel, they might think that they are doing it wrong. Or they might just think you don’t know what you are talking about. And if a teacher is telling the student what the student should feel, the teacher is certainly teaching something that they do not know. You can avoid all these pitfalls by focusing on telling them how to practice well and by trusting that the good practice you are teaching them will show them the rest of what they have to learn.
2. When the arms are overhead: “Pull your shoulders down”
When we take our arms overhead alongside the ears (called shoulder flexion or abduction depending on how you get there), the entire shoulder-blade rotates like a spinning slice of pizza. Imagine two slices of pizza on your upper back with the pointy ends down and the crusts at the top. At the outer top corner of the slice is the shoulder joint, a very shallow little crater into which a small part of the humerus (arm bone) fits. As the arms lift, the arm bones and the scapulae (the pizza slices) move in sync with each other. This paired movement is called glenohumeral rhythm. We can’t really move our arms very much at all without having the shoulder-blades move also. It’s the way things naturally happen and it’s a good thing because it moves the shoulder joint through an arced path that promotes stability. The way the pizza slices move when we take the arms overhead is that the inner edges near the spine move away from the head, the pointy ends at the bottom move far outward around the side ribs under the armpits and the outer upper corner, the shoulder joint itself, moves up …. way way up. When we pull the shoulders away from the ears while moving the arms overhead, we aren’t letting that rotation of the shoulder blade happen and it leads to injury.
Here is why: The shoulder joint is highly mobile and therefore prone to injurious instability. There are no ligaments in the shoulder joint that we can rely on for stability during movement. Therefore we must rely on a set of four small muscles that together make up the rotator cuff. Connecting parts of the shoulder blade with parts of the arm bone, their main purpose is to work together to prevent dislocation when the shoulder joint is moving. They pull in different directions at the same like the supporting cables of a circus tent’s central pole, thereby keeping the arm bone and the shoulder blade from moving too far away from each other. When we pull the shoulders away from the ears when taking the arms overhead, we are putting the joint into a position where these muscles can’t stabilize it. Because we pull the shoulders down with muscles much larger and stronger than those of the rotator cuff, the little guys don’t stand a chance and the joint is put into injurious instability.
This gets particularly dicey when we have the arms overhead in a weight-bearing position. Think Downward Dog, Upward Bow and Handstand. In the flow-style of yoga that is so popular today, with its emphasis on repeating many of these poses, the shoulder seems to have replaced the knee as the most commonly injured body part. I think this is happening because so many students think they should always be pulling their shoulders away from their ears. When you force the shoulder blade away from its natural position of rotation into this position of being pulled down the back, there is little support for joint stability.
Picture the pizza slices again, but this time in a handstand. Now the crusts are nearer the floor and the points are pointing up to the ceiling. When we allow the natural rotation of the blades to happen (about 75 degrees when in a handstand), the shoulder joint, the outer corner of the pizza slice, has arced around so that it is actually under the torso, which means that the arm bone is supporting the shoulder blade and the weight of the body well because the arms are under the blades. The arm supports the body’s weight well because it is under the shoulder joint and the arm bone stays seated in the socket.
When we pull the shoulders away from the ears we disallow the rotation of the blade to happen. When we deny the rotation of the shoulder blade, we are keeping the joint held at the side of the body- the arm bone is next to the body in this case. Therefore it can’t support weight and it is prone to dislocation. Imagine building a house. You’d want the supporting beams to be under the house, not next to it. If we put the beams for a house next to the house, the house falls down. When we need the arm to support weight while overhead, but we force the arm to stay next to the body, we dislocate the shoulder. Even tiny and quick dislocations lead to painful injury in the types of practice we do because we repeat the same movements so often. So, let the shoulder blades be free to move as is their birthright! Lift the shoulders!
While it’s true that many beginning students do take their shoulders way too far up along the head when they lift the arms, we need to learn to tell them to back off in a more sophisticated way than simply telling them to pull them down. One of the things that my teacher, Chuck Miller, used to always say was that we should give instructions that will always be true because the student may remember it forever. I find that people latch onto this instruction of pulling the shoulders down because it may have been the first instruction they got in a yoga class that they could actually do. While I definitely recommend against teaching each of your students the sophisticated (and beautiful) pattern of the shoulder joint’s movement in a yoga asana class, you, as a teacher, must know it very well before you tell people to do any version of standing on their hands. Which takes us back to the idea that underlying all of a yoga teachers’ instructions, no matter how simple, is a broad and detailed understanding of what exactly it is we are asking them to do.
3. “Soften your front ribs.”
This goes with the last one a bit. When the arms reach up along the ears, because so many bodies have tight shoulders, the arms pull the spine into an arc, usually in the flexible low back. This is not ideal for a couple reasons. First, if we move a flexible part (in this case it’s the lower back) so that we can create the illusion that a stiff part (the shoulders) is moving, we are avoiding the work and discomfort of positive change (the 3rd niyama: tapas). Further, we’re not being totally honest in our actions (the 2nd yama: satya). But most importantly in this case, by arcing the low back without intelligent support, we’re likely dropping into the lumbar discs and setting up or reinforcing a pattern that leads toward injury … we’re not practicing the first yama: ahimsa or non-injury.
So, with all of that in mind, teachers often say with the very best of intentions to soften the front ribs. There a couple reasons that this isn’t effective. First off, ribs are bones. They are hard and they are hopefully going to remain hard for as long as you live. Asking the student to soften ribs is asking them to do something impossible.
Second, when we instruct to soften here, the result is that the student drops the chest down, closing the space around the heart and lungs. To correct the drop in the low back, we’ve asked the student to drop the chest down to balance it. Much of yoga is about lifting up! And this is no exception. it is a sad sight indeed to see a student who is trying hard to push their chest down! It’s heart breaking!
Instead, let’s get them to keep the chest up! It’s beautiful and healthy to lift there. But let’s also teach to lift the low back. The integrated muscular actions that lengthen the lumbar spine in shoulder extension are way too complicated to be included in a regular asana class. But, the teacher should know how it all works. If you don’t know, find out! One tip: it won’t work to just tell your students to lift the low back. You have to teach them how to do it. And that means you have to know how it happens, which is why I include this in all of my teacher trainings.
4. “If you’re a beginner/advanced/flexible/tight … then do this”.
We often ask students to choose between two or more actions during a class. For example, we will have them choose whether to use a particular prop or the wall, whether to straighten the legs, whether to go up into a particular inversion or whether to use a wall. But I rarely hear teachers explain how to choose which action to take. Instead, it’s most common to hear something akin to: “Grab a block if you need to” or “If you’re tight, use a strap” or “Do this if it’s comfortable” or something similar.
For two reasons, I recommend being more clear in explaining how to make a choice when you offer it.
The first is that when we keep it vague, the student simply doesn’t know which one to choose. They might use a prop when they don’t need one or, more likely, not use one when they need one.
Second, and this one relates right back to the essential purpose of yoga practice as I understand it, when we say something like “If you’re a beginner/advanced, do this/that” or “If you’re tight/flexible do this/that”, we are directing the students to make a choice based on what they think about themselves instead of basing it on what is happening in that moment. If yoga is about being present in the now (The first yoga sutra is “Yoga is now.”), then we are directing students AWAY from the yogic path by asking them to rely on possibly outdated notions that they have about themselves.
When I started practicing yoga I was very tight in the hamstrings. So whenever a teacher said “Do this if you’re tight”, I would do that. After a lot of practice, my hamstrings did open up but for a long time after that, I was still telling myself that I was tight because it reinforced the old beliefs I had about myself. Eventually my ignorance of what was (This ignorance, called avidya, is said in yoga to be the root of all suffering), led me to pull my thighbone out of my hip socket- an injury that took several years to heal. My own practice hadn’t taught me to pay attention. Dislocating my hip did.
When we don’t observe what is actually happening in the now, we tend to base decisions on memories of the past or fears about the future … we’re not really learning what yoga feels like. If we can teach our students to base their choices on what is actually happening with concrete and indisputable observations like whether the knee is straight or whether one body part is in line with another, we teach them to be observant (svadhyaya: self-study). And when we teach them to do those things without attaching any value to either available choice, for example if one means your are open and one means you’re tight, we are teaching them to be content with what is (santosha: contentment).
So, whenever you give your students a choice between things, tell them how to choose so that they keep their practice safe, honest and effective. This will keep them practicing for a long time and will show them the way to their own yoga.
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