Modern yoga teacher training programs offer many standardized cues for each posture learned. Standards are nice—they make it much easier to learn how to guide students into the large number of poses taught in yoga classes, but unfortunately students are not standardized. There is no average student. The alignment cues absorbed by teacher trainees are approximations: at best they can serve as guidelines but they should never be used as dogmatic requirements. If the student’s intention in taking a yoga class is to regain or maintain optimal health, then postures should serve a functional role, making the aesthetics of the pose secondary, at best. The following 8 tips may help the new yoga teacher become aware of this important distinction.
See also The A-to-Z Guide to Yoga Cues
1. Not every pose is for every student
No two individuals have the same biology and biography. Due to genetics, anatomical structure, lifestyle, nutrition, level of activity as a child, injuries and accidents, and a wide host of other biographic and biological factors, we are all truly unique. This applies to every yoga teacher as well as to each student. Just because the teacher has learned to master a particular asana does not mean that every student, following the same directions and path, will also be able to master that posture. The reality of human variation guarantees that no one can do every posture in yoga; and every posture will be a struggle for some people.
2. Is your goal function or aesthetics?
It is important to understand the intention of the yoga practice. If a student’s intention is to optimize health, a functional approach to her yoga practice is required. If the intention is to look good in a pose, an aesthetic approach is sufficient. From a functional perspective, how a student looks in a posture is irrelevant; what is important are the sensations being created. Alignment cues based on how a student looks in a posture is aesthetic yoga; cues based on generating sensation are functional.
3. Stress is different from stretch
Yoga postures create a variety of stresses in the tissues. These stresses may create a stretch or they may not. A tensile stress is likely to create a stretch (but not always). For example, a backbend may create tensile stress in the front of the body stretching the abdominal muscles. A compressive stress does not create a stretch. For example, in that same backbend you may feel the spine's vertebrae hitting each other before a stretch can occur. The intention in a functional practice is to generate a stress, regardless of whether a stretch occurs or not. The stress stimulates reactions and communication at a cellular level within the body and within the fascia. Embodied sensors monitor, measure, and react to stresses, creating a cascade of signals that stimulate growth and healing. We know we are stressing our tissues if we can feel the stress of the pose. This leads to a mantra we can recite often, “If you are feeling it, you are doing it!”
4. Each pose needs a purpose
If we are taking a functional approach and want to create a stress in the body, then each posture becomes a tool to help us generate an appropriate stress: either tension or compression. As a teacher, ask yourself, “what type of stress do I want the student to experience, where and how much?” That will lead to a choice of which posture to use. For example, if your intention is to stress the spine, you can do so via both compression and tension. To compress the spine, you might choose postures like Bridge Pose and Cobra. A desire to stretch the spine will lead to postures like seated and standing forward folds. Rather than starting with a playlist of postures that simply seem cool, start with an intention, which then leads to carefully selected poses which you can combine in an elegant choreography.
5. “What are you feeling?”
Let students know the intention of the pose and the targeted areas. This allows them to monitor whether the practice is working for them or not. Asking a student, “What are you feeling?” helps them develop an inner awareness. This is both a meditation and guidance toward a more effective and deeper practice. The greatest gift any teacher can offer to her students is the one that allows the student to become her own teacher. Answering “What are you feeling?” guides the student to determine for herself if the pose is having the desired effect, and if not—the student is allowed to modify the alignment of the pose to get sensations in the targeted area. In this way, she finds her own alignment for that posture.
6. Never ignore pain
If the answer to “What are you feeling?” is pain, something needs to change. Not everyone has the same subjective experience of pain, or the same tolerance levels. One student’s pain is another student’s discomfort, but pain is a signal the body is sending that it is on the verge of being damaged. Listen! With a deepening inner awareness, the student will become wise enough to know whether the sensations experienced are healthy or harmful. If a pose has become painful, change the alignment or do another pose that obtains the desired stress in the targeted area without the pain. (Also, be aware that the pain may not be felt while in a pose, but while coming out, or even the next day. Whenever pain arises, it is worthwhile to review what you have been doing over the last day or two to see if you can find a cause, and then resolve not to do it like that again.)
7. Explore options—avoid dogma
Paul Grilley, developer of Yin Yoga, has noticed that two students can look identical in a posture and yet be having two very different experiences: one may be marinating in the juiciness of the stress in the targeted areas while the other may be feeling nothing, or may be struggling to stay in the pose due to pain or discomfort. This second student needs some options: let her play with the pose until she can find the stress in the right places. Aesthetic dogma that demands she look a particular way is not helpful. Let her find her own way to the appropriate sensation.
8. There are no universal alignment cues
While important, alignment cues are not universal. Since everybody is different, there are no alignment cues that will work for every body. Alignment’s purpose is to create a solid, stable, and safe position in a posture, but which position is the best alignment will vary drastically from person to person. The intention of a functional practice is to create appropriate stresses in targeted areas, without pain. The alignment that does this is the correct alignment, even if it does not fit with the aesthetic principles found in standard alignment cues. For example, not everyone is aligned properly when their feet or hands are pointing straight ahead in Down Dog. You are unique and so is every student. Find the yoga that works for each body.
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About the Author
Bernie Clark has been teaching yoga and meditation since 1998 and is the creator of the website www.YinYoga.com. He has written several books on yoga including his latest Your Body, Your Yoga: Learn Alignment Cues That Are Skillful, Safe, and Best Suited To You.