YOGA ASANA : THE PHYSICAL PRACTICE
The ancients knew that although the body wears out, it serves as a vehicle for self realisation and as such it has to be kept in good condition. The yogi masters the body and makes the body a fit vehicle for the spirit.
Asanas purify the body and mind and have preventative and curative effects. They are innumerable, catering to the various needs of the muscular, digestive, circulatory, glandular, nervous and other systems of the body. They cause changes at all levels from the physical to the spiritual. Health is a delicate balance of body, mind and spirit.
The body is controlled by the mind: if the body is to be disciplined or mastered, then the mind must be disciplined or mastered. If one aspect of life can be disciplined, then there is no limit to anything in one’s life that can’t be mastered.
The essence of yoga asana is not of attainments, but how consciously we work with our limits, wherever and whatever they may be. There are different basic frameworks of mind that people bring to a class. One involves viewing a posture as an end to be achieved: how far we get in the posture is what counts. Another one views the posture as a tool to explore and open the body. Instead of using the body to “get” the posture, we use the posture to open the body.
STHIRA & SUKHAM
The Yoga Sutras teach us:
2.46 Sthira-sukham asanam. (Asana: postures; sthira: stable; sukham: comfortable.)
The third limb of yoga: the physical practice – is stable and comfortable.
Patañjali’s only advice concerning asana is that helpful posture is steady and without strain. Being calm and soft, while strong and stable takes the practice to a deeper level, that of a mindful meditation. The student may open themselves to a feeling of inner peace amid the relative intensity of a pose.
To understand movement we must feel, not strain. To learn we need time, attention, and discrimination; to discriminate we must sense. This means that in order to learn we must sharpen our powers of sensing, and if we try to do most things by sheer force we shall achieve precisely the opposite of what we need. - Moshe Feldenkrais
Physically, under the conditions of maximum effort or struggle, the student has already reached the limit of their capacity. At this point breathing is arrested; there is unnecessary effort, little ability to observe, and little prospect of improvement.
aesthetic VS functional asana
Group classes are typically dominated by aesthetics. The aesthetic approach to yoga asana is “what do you look like?” and implies that if you don’t look like the ‘ideal pose’, then something is wrong with you and maybe you should be fixed. Aesthetics believes that to master the body every pose should be achieved. It attempts to get every student to look the same in every posture, using concerted effort to make it happen, pushing further and trying harder.
We now live in a yoga era where we see the highest number of yoga injuries ever recorded. Now I don’t think that’s a good thing. We get 150,000 hip and knee joint replacements a year – that’s not a design fault. That is user error. - Gary Carter
The functional approach to yoga asks “What Do I Feel?” It’s not a performance art — it’s introspective — it’s an “I do it because it feels good” art. It asks to know where we are and progress from there. Rather than jumping ahead at the expense of sthira and sukham. This means letting go of preconceptions about students and classes. Instead, observe where they are and keep moving them from there.
Carefully consider the physical requirements of each asana and the class as a whole: physical strength, stamina, flexibility, risks, and contraindications. Instead of getting the student to look exactly like the intended pose, encourage the student to understand the intention behind the pose and that moving away from an aesthetically pleasing alignment is allowed. By doing this we can work with individual students to find ways to achieve the intention that works best for that student. How a student feels in a pose is his or her principle source of instruction and refinement.
The functional approach advocates the use of props — blocks, belts and blankets, etc. — helping students gain the correct alignment suitable for their individual body.
To help you teach functionally here we break down each individual posture and study these key points :
Name of pose
Draw a stick figure of the pose
Describe the general shape of the posture
Category of posture
Benefits / target areas
Contraindications / risk areas
Cue in & out
We have grouped together asana into families of postures that similarly shape our bodies into certain patterns and play with how asanas relate to one another, how they work together to open the body, and how they build upon one another to further open and balance us. Using the body's Myofascial Chains as the starting point for understanding.
As we work through each posture, remember the intricate and infinite layers of integration involved. Note that many asanas can reasonably be placed in more than one family; in those cases, we have placed them according to their primary effects or actions.
As we do the postures, we notice over and over, how they touch more than just our physical selves, they touch our minds, our nervous systems, our habits and our emotions.
QUALITIES OF THE YOGA POSTURE
Stable, grounded and aligned foundation.
Active deep front line meridian : The more superficial muscle meridians support the core line, not take over for it.
Aligned Pelvis, Spine and Head.
Expressive limbs: that may be bent to serve the optimal spinal alignment over the final stretch.
Deepening into further strength: muscle tension release and expression as we circle though wave like transitions, creative cross- training moves and other variations within poses.
tying it TOGETHER
ELEMENTS of an
Be here now. The starting point of every asana practice. Focussing the attention fully and directly on what is happening in the moment throughout the class. Aim to guide your yoga classes to encourage self -reflective awareness in : Each asana | Each moment within and between asanas | Every breath | Every sensation | Every thought |Every feeling.
Breathing consciously. Explore asana practice through the steadiness and ease of the breath, continuously connecting the breath with the body and mind.
ALIGNING INTO BALANCED INTEGRATION
The quality of balanced alignment is one your students will begin to feel and develop through their personal practice. Apply the concepts of grounding - radiating, rooting - expression, essential for both foundation and refinement in asanas, simultaneously creating space, easing pressure in the joints, and allowing the freer more conscious movement of subtle energy.
Encourage students to sense how they can apply themselves with full energetic engagement while remaining as relaxed as possible. Moving more and more into a sense of effortless ease encouraging students to tune in to the more subtle flow of energy through the whole of their body.
MOVING INTO SYNCHRONICITY
Vinyasa yoga, becomes a practice of movement meditation when the flow of body, breath, and mind are consciously synchronised.
Vinyasa yoga can sometimes feel far from relaxing. The idea of relaxation being termed with letting the body go completely limp. In the context of asana practice, relaxation means letting go of nervous tension while maintaining the active engagement of whatever muscular and energetic engagement is required in maintaining integrity of alignment. BACK OFF TO GO DEEPER - Explore what it takes to support the skeletal structure without straining. There’s a tendency to work the more superficial muscles most intensely, and the deep muscles closest to and most capable of supporting the joints are not appropriately engaged. Play with bending knees, rounding the back, starting on the floor, and other techniques, to back students off so they can move the spine and pelvis again, and re-activate the deeper core muscles from the earth upward. This ensures that as a FIRST PRIORITY, they are always existing in optimal Spinal Alignment. back off the expression to first bring the limbs into service of the spine, not the other way around.
The central irony and challenge in teaching yoga is that the essence and mechanisms of yoga asana practice are largely internal and invisible to you as a teacher. Your role as a teacher is limited, relying on your ability to give clear instructions about the breath, alignment, energetic actions, variations, modifications, use of props, risks and techniques for finding greater ease and stability in each asana and transition.
There are a variety of ways of learning that require a varied approach to teaching. However, the students individual motivation, personality, emotions, physical health and personal will are more significant than a particular learning style in shaping how, where and when they learn. Effective yoga instruction takes into account these variables in engaging with students while still appreciating the below styles:
Verbal / Linguistic :
Visual / Spacial :
Bodily / Kinaesthetic :
Musically / Rhythmically inclined :
LEARN TO LOOK & SEE
Self-reporting is not a guarantee that you will get accurate or complete information on the students condition. Your ability to accurately see students in asana starts with learning to see bodies more generally, training the eye to see different bodies from various perspectives.
Since every student is different, you need to give both general guidance and individual suggestions that address the unique experiences of different students. See and hear your students in their practice. Notice challenges to their alignment, the quality of their stability and ease, their attentiveness. Relate to them meaningfully and appropriately based on your perception and understanding, rather than memorised words.
Is everyone going in the same direction? Look to see if your instruction was carried out. Observe carefully, not just the physical structure of the pose, but also the students’ state of being. Through experience you will learn to notice the subtleties which reveal resonance or dissonance with the energetic form of the posture. Observe eyes, facial expressions, complexion and breath. Distortions, dissymmetry or unequal weight distribution will be easier to spot but other things are less obvious, especially emotional or psychological trauma suffered in the past.
Teach sensitively and systematically.
Teach from your experience, acknowledging your own personal abilities and limitations.
Before teaching, know what you are going to teach and how you will teach it, understanding the target areas of the poses.
Practise first, reflect on what flows easily and not so for you.
Continue refining your knowledge and skills.
VOICE & LANGUAGE
Plain language is easily understood. Consider the background of your students in terms of culture, education, and experience to determine the appropriate language to use in your teaching. Define terms when necessary.
POWER OF WORDS
Words are powerful. We can choose to use them constructively with words of encouragement, or destructively using words of despair. Words have energy and power with the ability to help, heal, hinder, hurt, humiliate and to humble.
Breath | Verb | Body Part | Direction.
Some cues tell students what to do, while others give more information about how to do it. The clearer you become as a teacher about what cues you are giving, the better your students will understand what you want them to perform.
Foundation (Ground & Express) Cue’s
Balanced Alignment Cue’s
Deeper Refinement Cue’s
BUILDING A POSE - WE ARE NOT A BUILDING
The order of teaching ANY pose in Yoga is done in 3 parts, and always in this order, for the most effective outcomes and benefits, and to move the student up their Deep Front Line.
We always start at the FOUNDATION, neutralising first, grounding down then TRANSITIONING (contracting) through waves up the spine - into full EXPRESSION of the pose (expanding). Once you’ve opened up into the posture, we can refine further, circling back again to the beginning, either within the pose or at the beginning of the next, and the beginning of the next pose too! At any point, you can return to foundation and refine the alignment.
FOUNDATION : NEWTONS 3RD LAW OF MOTION For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. e.g pressing down into the floor with your feet when standing, the equal and opposite reaction of energy drawing up the body occurs. In rooting down, we naturally stimulate muscular engagement and manifest space through the joints, particularly through the spine, creating the foundation of structural stability and ease.
*Remember the positions of hands and feet are dictated by what is happening further up. So even though we start by routing down, the alignment of them is least important. We should focus on the core out, the same way we were developed in our mothers womb.
Ground the bony points of whatever is in contact with the floor, allowing Deep Core Lines to spring from arches of hands and feet, Mula Bandha, or crown of head:
· Sit Bones:
TRANSITION : Let the foundation grounding cause an uprising through the deep core muscles until they meet the pelvis. Align the pelvis using the following 3-part activation (each counterbalances the other) creating a pelvis that, for whatever pose you are in, is not over-stretching, or constricting the gateways of the hip joints, nor compressing the sacrum or lumbar curve.
Mula Bandha: Pelvic Diaphragm - Draws BASE of spine IN & UP.
Quadratus Lumborum: Moves BACK of lumbar Spine/draws low back curve and Sacrum IN & UP.
Psoas: Moves FRONT of low back spine IN & UP/activates low abdominals and lengthens tailbone.
Then continue to WAVE the SPINE LONG from root to crown, aligning the abdominal muscles and bandhas with breath, to keep the energy flowing.
EXPRESSION: Expression cannot be forced, or gripped into, but is an almost effortless outcome of supreme effort in the foundation/core duality. Many teachers and students make the mistake of trying to ‘make’ expression happen (as in hopping forward in Crow before setting the foundation or activating the inner thighs and core.) The final outcome, or lightness, or expression of any pose is only an organic result of the work you are doing underneath it. If you can work this earth-to-core duality (foundation down, core muscle lines upward) enough, the outcome will be a transformation and growth within the pose.
Once the core energy is drawn into and ignited, and rising, as you wave up the spine it will infuse the limbs, which can then move into full expression. No matter what the students level or physical capabilities, they can begin to accomplish a seed of any pose by setting [foundation], draw energy into the core (transition) and then move into their edge as they [express] without losing that firm connection to the earth, and to themselves.
When approaching a pose, think “how can I begin from the properly set and activated foundation [fingertips ground down!], and how could we back off the leg and arm stretch at first, in order to access the pelvic alignment. Then once the pelvis and spine are aligned, how can we move towards expression without losing that core connection?”
· Back out of the full expression.
· Align the legs and pelvis.
· Wave long through the spine.
· Move towards full expression until you hit your edge.
· Breathe and make Space.
'Ground down strongly into your Foundation: Hands, feet, whatever’s on the earth, root them down to activate the arches of hands, feet and/or pelvic diaphragm - all will activate the Deep Core Line upward to support the body from the inside: Draw energy up from earth through the limbs into the Pelvis & Low Back. Lengthen through the Tailbone. Pull up through the Pelvic Floor. Draw the front Low Back Spine In and Up: Or draw the front and back of your lumbar spine in and up evenly. Round your back/Integrate the Low Ribs: Often rounding the back at first as you pull in the ribs & abs, but being sensitive not to strain the low back curve. This can open the mid & upper back that tends to take over every pose, build tension in the back and shoulders. Offer your Spine and Head long: This opens and lengthens the body so it is supported and long, not still rounded.'
WAVING - TRANSITIONS
Consider every transition between poses as important to align as the poses themselves.
Guiding students out of asanas involves applying your understanding of what is at risk in the transitional movement and giving specific physical actions that students can apply. In most the transition begins with bringing awareness back to the foundation and reestablish a feeling of stable grounding. Encouraging students to keep the spine and other potentially vulnerable joints in mind, your verbal cues should guide them through sequential releasing actions in which the stable foundation of the asana is maintained. In most asana this involves bringing greater effort into a specific line of energy that, when activated, relieves potential pressure on vulnerable joints:
Move slowly through the transition, often using wavelike, undulating movements.
This has four major benefits:
1. Takes the overused outer body muscles more offline, so that:
2. The Deep Front Line of muscles can activate.
3. Creates more skeletal support (true core strength), and releases unhealthy pressure on the spine and joints.
4. Aligns the foundation and core (pelvis and lumbar spine) before coming into full expression of the pose, so the student is more supported and open than if they came into the full pose first, and then tried to re-align. The body is mostly frozen out of movement in the full posture.
You can do the wave, small or more obvious, as you come into any pose, whether it’s coming up from the floor into a standing pose, a foot stepping forward from dog pose, or kicking up into a handstand. When done in order and linked together smoothly, creates a wave.
These transitional waves help students to hit many alignment points within one breath or so, without you as the teacher having to explain them all in order, which would take more time than sometimes we want to spend within a flow.
Once you understand the wave’s components, you can simplify the instruction to something like:
“Ground down into the (feet, hands, whatever) draw the front pelvis & spine in & up and wave (or roll) up into the pose.”
CUE VOCAB :
Foundation (Ground & Express) Cue’s :
Core Activation / Balanced Alignment Cue’s :
Deeper Refinement Cue’s :
Individualising Instruction :
VISUAL CUES & demonstrating
Demonstrations give your students a visual impression of the posture or key action or refinement you are instructing. When used effectively, demonstrations are an invaluable tool for helping your students progress in their practice.
Know what you are demonstrating and why.
Stand clearly visible, select good viewing angles/ mirror.
Present the pose with dynamic, observable actions.
Keep uniformity between words and body.
Demonstrate mistakes after you have observed them in your students.
CORRECTIONS + ADJUSTMENTS
Whenever possible, offer your assistance with sensitivity to why the students may not be achieving what you are asking them to do. Get them to wiggle, move around to see whether some slight or greater adjustment creates the sensations they are after. Remember, it doesn’t matter what they look like, as long as they’re experiencing no pain.
If a student is doing a pose in a way that might hurt them, give a general verbal correction first. You may need to give the same instruction in different ways. Hopefully most of the students will adjust. If the instruction doesn't result in the changes you want to see, try to make eye contact with the target student and repeat or demonstrate the pose in front of them. This is the visual correction. If that doesn't work, walk toward the student and demonstrate and/or verbally (and quietly) give the instruction. This is the proximal instruction. If you feel it is helpful to physically adjust the student, first ask permission. This can be asked, to all, at the start of the class.
Offer a prop / modification / alternative posture
Offer hands on (with permission)
Without touch, progress is very slow. - Sri K. Pattabhi Jois
There is a magic to touch that is the very thing that draws many people to a yoga class in the first place. Through hands-on assists we have the potential to convey information clearly, directly, without words. Touch can accelerate progress. Types of touch which to use or avoid.
DEPTH OF TOUCH
Gentle, medium and strong touches all have their unique applications. Gentle touch moves the skin and provides clear and precise directional cues that indirectly guide the underlying tissue and muscles. The quality of touch must be direct, purposeful and clear, not distracting, confusing, annoying, or susceptible of misinterpretation as an uninvited caress. Gentle assists can give information, focus awareness, release skin tightness and impart confidence without intimidation. Medium touch moves not only skin, but also directly moves underlying muscle and tissues. Medium assists can provide a sense of support and thereby relax psychological and physical resistance. Strong touch moves skin, fascia, muscle, bone, organs and perceived limitations. Strong assists can guide skeletal alignment, inspire, create space and open up new physical and psychological range.
There is no universal alignment cue — that is, there are no alignment cues that work for everybody. That is not to imply there are no principles of alignment. There are individual principles of alignment. In the asana labs we will be looking at specific alignment principles for individual asanas.
Alignment rigidity is a consequence of TT programmes trying to make it simpler to mass produce teachers,…At any time an art is constrained to mass production it will be simplified, codified and rigidified. Simpler is easier to teach and absorb, but it also leads to inaccurate generalisations, and intolerance of individuality… We cannot teach effectively with out some generalisations, but we haven’t reached maturity until we have outgrown generalisations and can completely focus on the unique needs of every student in every pose….The onus of continuing growth is on every yoga teacher to reach their full potential.- Paul Grilley
While you can teach your students technique and provide them with sound biomechanical alignment principles in the individual asanas along with kinesiological principles of movement, the quality of balanced integration is one that your students will begin to feel and develop through their personal practice.
Stress is required for the health of our tissues, including our ligaments and our joints. Many aesthetically prohibited alignment positions that look awkward can actually provide healthy stress to a joint. Refraining from those alignments may rob students from healthy stresses.
Like stones on a beach, both stacked and perfectly balanced, which is more aligned? What is ‘correct posture’?
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