For Yoga Teachers
I recently read an article on Yoganonyomous that made me cringe a little. Although at face value the article was easy to read and the tips are concise, I actually disagree with the author on several points.
Please let me clarify that I’m not merely going to share my opinion, but also use biomechanics to back this up.
Anatomy requires our attention, and if we are teaching yoga, we’re teaching movement. Which means a shift from right-wrong duality of how to cue and thinking into deeper discernment.
Have you heard these cues before?
1) “Keep your front, bent knee at 90 degrees” for warrior and other wide standing poses
2) “Shoulders down and back at all times even with arms overhead”
3) “Inhale now – exhale” or breathing prescribed with certain movements.
The author did caution against lunging too deep (aka knee past foot) in these wide standing poses, but the expectation to get and stay at 90 is not appropriate for many beginners, especially if they lack the body awareness, strength or joint integrity to go there safely.
To me, this was less a biomechanics issue in the article and more of a ‘dosage’ or pedagogic oversight. Meaning, not all beginner students can and should lunge that deeply, and for a good number of students, they can receive strengthening safely with a more subtle range of motion for the front leg.
Also, what feels – my interpretation of the author’s imagery – like a eventual goal of ‘external rotation like the knee wants to see the pinky side of the foot’ to me is actually an essential part of moving into this pose, not a correction to give after arriving.
Think in terms of movement, not just positions – Asana is dynamic.
Try a few rounds straightening and bending the front leg in a warrior, with continual observation that the knee and front foot have an agreement to aim true. With awareness from the beginning, ask ‘how deep I go?’ Feel for where you’re steady and calm, sustainable – today – in the pose.
I’ve worked with plenty of yogis, runners, fitness enthusiasts, yoga teachers, and therapeutic clients who’ve lost the ability to feel, let alone move their scapula properly.
The voluntary cue and muscular control of ‘shoulders down and back’ can be so ingrained. It becomes a tension or compensatory pattern. They’ve trained themselves out of healthy movement.
I’ll keep this one short and sweet: When your arms move, relax.
When our arms go overhead, our shoulder blades need to move around and up in order to have healthy shoulder function. The scapula should not remain ‘down and back’ at all times, unless you want to experience excess tension and possibly eventual injuries throughout your upper spine or rotator cuff.
See if you can start to feel how the shoulder blades slide in different directions with different movements. Let them glide.
In the Franklin Method, we say “Tension is the enemy of movement.”
I like to add that “Ease precedes healthy movement.” Relax. Smile.
Concerned about shoulder stability? Last I checked a tense muscle isn’t a strong muscle – in fact, it’s often quite weak or that tension is masking some surrounding weakness.
We get stronger through intelligent, full range movements.
Lastly, I realize that sometimes our shoulders end up hiked to our ears. Rather than cueing as this article suggests, how about simply bringing the student’s mind to that area with a simple ‘Notice how your shoulders feel?” That gives the power back to the student to observe and make their own adjustment you sensing, choosing.
Autonomy changes the internal dialogue for the student from ‘this is the right way/wrong way’ to ‘oh, I realized something!’
Ok, that was long winded. Helpful? Great. Stay with me.
Prescribing specific ujjayi pranayam with asana (inhale here, exhale there) works more for experienced practitioners, when working toward what some call vinyasa krama or ‘right sequence and breath’ – especially in looking at sun salutation a and b transitions.
Some teachers really encourage rigor. Breathing with vinyasa can be challenging – which is great if you can meet the challenge with discernment and gentleness…not so great if the challenge is met with more tension, striving, force.
Depending on the state of the student’s breathing patterns and awareness coming into a yoga class (for the first time and/or on any given day due to stress, emotions, postural habits, etc) it simply might not work for the beginner. Or even for an advanced practitioner for that matter.
Although it’s a beautiful thing to move in concert with a community, all breathing in unison, I think we owe it to our students and ourselves at times to allow a bit of slack.
If you’ve ever caught yourself holding your breath waiting for the teacher to cue your next breath or movement – let it go. To me, breathing is about observation more than control, and we could all use more ease and permission to tend to our own breath, timing and pace in this world, right?
Be as gentle and kind as you are focused and strong with your breath. Listen.
May our practice be a space where we learn to sense and discern more clearly, with satisfaction and spirit at our own pace.
Do comment with questions you may have about these cues or others and we’ll discuss!
PS: I’m enjoying reading articles and getting perspective on ‘what’s out there’ before offering a 2 day intensive in late February: Anatomy and Alignment here in Irvine, CA. Let me know what question you’d want answered if you can (or can’t) attend.
PPS: if you’re a teacher or practitioner, feel free to share this and start your own conversation. Feel free to report back! Xo