Yoga is a catalyst for thoughts and feelings to be freed in the body, imprinted viscerally, then transmuted to understanding in an intellectual sense. Yoga’s magic is when the worlds of our being meld, and a deep sense of transformation can occur. Of course the hardest part of the practice is remaining attentive to these changes when off the mat, and this is documented in all of yoga’s teachings. You must stay dedicated for it to continue to work, and in doing so you build a stronger ability to hold steadfast in difficult times. It’s a nice little feed-itself circle.
In some way, what I just wrote about yoga is part of its vernacular, or typical language used to describe the practice that is so unique to each person. Despite yoga traditions spanning a spectrum, I see a vernacular existing in the teaching of yoga, in particular the Surya A + B series, and I question it. I question it because a student who attends my class once a week, and mostly goes to whatever other vinyasa classes are good for her schedule at the studio, asked me after class about chaturanga dandasana, why her wrists still hurt, and what to do to fix the problem. We spent some time talking about and looking at how she actually does the pose, and in watching her I saw what she was taught – to “squeeze her elbows in by her ribcage”. I taught her not to do that anymore, and instead to lean more forward, engage her hands stronger, bring her shoulders back, not worry as much about what the elbows do, and her wrist pain went away.
In my experienced time of teaching, mostly in studios and environments where the most common practices of yoga are vinyasa, there’s an interesting language used that’s almost become lingo. Certain poses are continually taught in a particular way, as if because its been passed down generation to generation, it’s got to be the right thing, regardless of whether or not students are actually learning from this lingo. But really – does it work? Are students healing / opening / thriving from the way these poses are taught? Are they getting what they want out of their practice, or are they getting injured or not healing?
In the Anusara world, we had an incredible amount of common language used to teach the ‘principles of alignment’. In fact, it was almost all vernacular, give or take a few fluffy words. We learned the principles through the lingo, but were taught that to teach the principles, you had to teach the alignment technique in anything BUT lingo – and in fact, being reviewed for certification, you’d likely not pass if you used lingo. I’m forever grateful that I was taught to teach yoga in this way, and its provided me with incredible insight to the functional mechanics of the body, in and out of poses. Despite this, there ended up being catch phrases used to teach particular actions. “Spin your inner thighs back and apart” is one that comes to mind. Martin Kirk is a great teacher, old colleague and friend, and anatomy/therapeutics expert who wrote an interesting post about this very topic a while back on whether or not the language of ‘spinning your inner thighs back and wide’ is actually feasible and beneficial (He says yes, and I concur!).
I’ve unravelled some of that vernacular AY-heart-language-requirement-speak. Now I really just speak from my heart, my experiences, from what’s alive in me these days, from what am I reading / studying / discovering in myself through the practices of yoga, and what the practices themselves are revealing about me, my perception, and the world.
I love teaching yoga because it challenges me to be an excellent communicator. It asks me to draw into Sarasvati, the goddess of language and art, and not just speak words with no meaning, but to always consider the consequences of my words. Since we shape reality through events that create narrative, yoga teachers have an exceptional job – to craft a narrative worth a students attention and time in body, heart and mind.
By nature I’m a questioning person, and look to redefine everything for its value. I question what works and what doesn’t, for me personally and for my students. Is what I’ve been teaching and saying still true and meaningful to me? Is this jive, what I’m saying? This is important to ask in anything you do, but particularly in yoga, when I see so many over-achievers in the practice. Everyone wants to do well, and do it right, so by golly, if I say ‘hug in’ I know they’re going to do it. So, is what I’m saying worthy of their undertaking? And, is it really being understood?
Back to this chaturanga student and her very common issue. Chaturanga dandasana (‘4 limb staff pose’), the quintessential pose of strength in the Surya A + B series is done a lot, sometimes 10-14 rounds in a typical flow class. It’s a darn hard pose and is more than just a transition pose even though its thought of as one. It’s super easy to loose connection to alignment and action, let alone that breath leads the way, particularly as class moves uninterrupted and continual. Soreness in the front of the shoulder or in the wrists bares the truth of losing integrity in the alignment for the sake of the movement. Moving so quickly and repeatedly, the wrong muscles often work to do the pose. I’ve always examined closely the how-to’s of chaturanga, and I don’t teach it casually as if everyone in class already knows how to do it, even in an advanced class – I watch the students. It’s a complex pose that’s very power driven, and involves not just upper body strength, but power drawing from the legs to the core too. The bones have to be aligned well in order to access the power the pose needs, and then invites. When you get it, you can find more of it – when its aligned well.
This one student like so many others still come to my classes confused about hearing “hug/squeeze your elbows by your ribcage” as a common instruction for chaturangha, as I never, ever say that. Many of them are either injuring themselves, or not healing well from previous wrist / elbow / shoulder / or neck stuff. Honestly, it irritates me that this instruction is still being used. It seems part of a vernacular in teaching the Ashtanga-vinyasa styles of yoga that include many Surya A + B that is dreadfully over-used, and under modified for students. Are teachers actually watching how their students’ are practicing chaturanga with that instruction? I get why it may have been incorporated in the first place, to by-pass the likely elbows-flaring-to-the-sides tendency occurring in an inexperienced, weaker, or untrained student. “Hug your elbows in by your ribcage” however, is also incorrect to teach if there is no previous instruction to hold steady in the foundation of the hands, where your initial action derives from in order to bring the shoulders into healthy alignment, and get the upper back muscles to operate and engage. The elbows don’t have much to do with it actually, and I always teach this now – it’s not your elbows job to hold you up in the pose.
We all know that yoga injuries are on the rise and the shoulder / rotator cuff stuff is quite common. Usually this injury comes from overdoing chaturanga in poor integrity of alignment, action, and awareness. If so many students get injured during classes that teach it so much, why is it still being taught in the same way, with the same language, and so often?
What I’m really concerned with is this post is, how are teachers teaching? Does it work? Can you help a student if it doesn’t? And more importantly, can you actually teach and instruct using different language than just what you were taught some years ago? And for those leading TT’s, open the dialog with your trainees to adopt the Teach To What You See principle more truthfully, and help them explore the other ways it might work to teach a student action in an inspiring, direct, and clear manner. Maybe the real issue is about Surya Namaskar itself, and who indeed is “ready” to begin taking on the challenging sequence, which includes chaturanga, and in teaching to what we see, truly determine how many of them are needed.
There are no steadfast yes’s and no’s in yoga, which is why I chose the tagline “Redefining Yoga” for my website / brand. Every teacher is different, and learned from a particular lineage they likely honor and respect, and I respect that to the utmost. But we as teachers have to remember our students are different from each other, and one way of saying something won’t necessarily work for all students in the room. The one-size-fits-all version of yoga is over (the former Anusara folks realized that a while ago).
So the question I have is for teachers. Are you stuck in a language rut? Do you teach on auto-pilot? Is what you’re saying as alignment instruction really working? Are the students getting it? Our language holds power – it can turn the inner world dense, or open it in the most expansive and liberating ways for our students. Use it wisely.
*Next blog: My list of poses most commonly caught in the language vernacular-rut, and optional instructions!