Have you ever been in a yoga class and the teacher has given you a powerful and detailed anatomical cue to follow, maybe with some firmness about how long you have to stay in that position, and something inside of you started to wave a yellow flag to say that you were in pain, that it did not feel right, but you did not think you were allowed to do something different, so you stayed there?
This is your favourite teacher, that you really admire, and you respect their wisdom and trust that they know what they are talking about, and so whatever you are feeling in your body will be ok because the teacher knows what is best for you.
And has that ever resulted in you realising the next day or days to follow that you may have hurt yourself in that class?
Maybe you did not want to cause a scene or didn't want to show any disrespect by not following orders (I mean cues), of the class? Everyone wants to be a good student and show their teacher that they are doing a good job.
This brings up another great question, have you ever persisted with something in a yoga class primarily because you want to impress your teacher? I know I have.
If you have read any of my articles or watched any of my videos you know my topic flavours by now. If not, I'm very passionate about returning autonomy back to the yoga student in the classroom.
My favourite topic of discussion is skeletal variation and how we all arrive in the yoga studio with an entirely different set of bones and ranges of motion to begin with, therefore universal alignment cues (especially when they are given with intense authoritarian delivery), will never create a room full of identical looking yogis.
I feel I can speak to this notion, because I myself have arrived at yoga studios many times and handed my power over to the teacher.
The more I respected (and quite frankly worshipped) my yoga teachers, the more willing I was to take their anatomical cues on board, and use all of my diligence, fuelled by my need for validation, to do my very best to apply them perfectly to my body.
But I really struggled.
So many times I heard absolute statements about where a body part "should be" or how "one day" a certain something will happen in the body, but the way I felt in a yoga pose never changed, no matter how many classes I went to, or how much I worked on that posture. This chasm of difference continues to widen the more that you see other people in the class, as well as the teacher. achieving the alignment goal that has been verbally set for you.
So often these cues were the good old:
"One day your arms will get to the floor" (No they won't, especially if you are already feeling compression in your shoulder)
"practice practice all is coming" (Except that no amount of practice can change the shape of your bones).
"Roll down through your lumbar spine one vertebrae at a time" (That is impossible to do as the lumbar spine moves as a segment, not as individual pieces).
"Eventually your hips will open in frog pose" (unless your femur heads are already at their maximum compression against the insides of your hip sockets).
Oh I could go on....
With all that I have learned about anatomy and skeletal variation, I look back at many of the moments in classes now and wonder if my beloved teachers really understood the body, or if they only understood their own body, and assumed that everyone should be able to feel and achieve what they could do, if students would just put in the effort?
I mean no disrespect with that statement by the way, I just spend a lot of time reflecting on the particular things I was told to work towards and many of them are actually skeletally impossible for me.
Had I continued with those particular teachers and their classes I would have had a perpetual carrot on a stick in front of my face with all of the out of reach alignment success goalposts that were impossible for my body.
Real World Examples
Here is a specific example of the kinds of contradictory cues that really bother me in a class.
Dancer's pose is a standing backbend. You bring one hand to the same sided foot and pull the leg back behind you which puts that hip into very deep extension, and at whatever level in your spine you backbend (it is different from body to body depending on your bones), your spine will also be in extension.
The more you pull the leg up and back behind you, the deeper that your spine goes into extension, and therefore the more your ribs will flare out to the front (this is because you are not evenly bending through your spine, but at one particular place most likely between T12 and L1).
So I find it really frustrating when in a shape like this a student can receive completely contradictory alignment cues; "take the leg further back"...
yes ok I can do that
"but don't let your ribs flare out in front, pull the ribs in"
ok but if I do that then I will be restricted in I taking my leg any further back??
Listen teacher I can give you one of the other of those cues not both so which one do you want? Also, does it matter if the ribs flare out? The ribs flaring is a sign of the backhanding that is occurring in the spine, which is the actual intention of the posture, unless you are trying to help me not bend too deeply? Do you even know how the body works?? (This is the kind of internal dialogue I have in some classes. I get really frustrated...)
All of this would be so different if instead of alignment cues being given in absolute terms in a class, the teacher could present the postures through the lens of "intention" and ask more questions so that the students have time to feel what happens in their body and make better choices about alignment according to their own structure and how the intention of the pose is felt for them, instead of being told exactly how to find and feel it.
Maybe I can explain what I mean using Dancer's pose again.
"The intention os this posture is to extend the spine into a backbend, and also extend the leg behind you into hip extension. This posture is also a balancing asana, so the intention is the help bring us to a place of centre and steadiness.
From Tadasana, shift the weight over into your leg leg, bending up your right knee, take your right hand behind you to hold onto the foot. Find a soft steady place to rest your eyes to help you to find focus and calmness as you reach the left arm up to the sky, inhale, and as you exhale, press your right foot into the right hand and begin to reach forward with the left arm until the arm is reaching right out in front of you.
As you continue to press the right foot into the hand notice how much sensation you are feeling into that right hip, and if it is too strong, soften the pressing just a little.
Where in your back are you feeling most of the backhanding happen? Does it feel like it is all happening in one place? If this is too much, try lightly activating your abdominal muscles which will lengthen your spine a little, and reduce the feeling of back bending.
If it feels ok for you to backbend deeply, notice how much this action sends your ribcage forward as the back bending is directly relational to where your ribcage meets your lumbar spine."
Take one more long inhale, and then slowly begin to release yourself from the posture and return to Tadasana. As you return, take a handful of breaths to notice what you are feeling as the body rebounds from its' backbend. And when you are ready, let's explore that on the opposite side......"
Asking mindful questions is the most effective method I know of, to help direct the practice back to the student, and encourage them to become aware of what they are experiencing, rather than them trying to attain what I am prescribing them to do and feel.
This whole journey of undoing and unpacking the ways in which yoga is taught to people has made me very interested in the psychology of the practice. What kind of mental impact does prescriptive absolute cueing in yoga have on a person, versus intentionally explained, inquiry based cueing? I think it can create an unnecessary feeling of inadequecy. If someone is telling you that a certain posture "should" feel a certain way, or that one day "you will get your arms to the floor" and you never do, most people will simply assume there is something wrong with them and encourage the old dreaded story of "I am not good enough." There is so much competition and insecurity perpetuated in our culture already, we really don't need any more places where this is reinforced.
And what is the psychological impact of placing a teacher's ideas about your body on a pedestal above your own sensory perception?
Placing our teachers on pedestals
There has been so many examples in the yoga community over the past few years with what happens when we place our teachers on pedestals and give our power away in the process. What kinds of internal intuition do we switch off or divert away from, when an external source has been given the position of authority over our physicality?
I often think of the awesome question Bernie Clark asks in his training; "what is the difference between a doctor and a pilot?" The doctor (yoga teacher) is someone external to you giving you instructions on what to do with your body. The pilot is on the plane with you, so if the plane goes down, you both go down. So the pilot has way more interest in what happens to you because they will be directly affected. The doctor or yoga teacher has no idea what is feels like to be in your body, and yet they can both at time be so authoritarian in telling you what you should do with your body. (You, the yoga student, are the pilot of your own plane).
My personal opinion of my role as a yoga teacher is to guide the practice, share the intentions and "why's" of what I am offering, and include at least one other option of the thing we are exploring so the student can decide for themselves the best way for them to get access to the intention.
If I am truly holding space as a yoga teacher, then a big part of my job is to continually give the practice back to the student.
I have no idea what the posture feels like in their body!
It is not my job to know this.
That is their responsibility.
But because there has been so much cultural conditioning in yoga for students to give authority of their bodies to the teacher, part of my instruction needs to include regular open-ended mindful questions to direct the student back to their own senses and reclaim their decision making when it comes to alignment, choice, and intuition.
And If I am truly holding space, then I also need to be okay with a student being challenged, or frustrated, or struggling with whatever arises for them.
Of course I want to take my visual cues to see if I need to reiterate or clarify an instruction but sometimes people can come to yoga and a whole lot of unresolved emotions can surface, or they are very agitated, or they choose to completely omit postures or do entirely different ones. That is ok.
What they experience, and what comes up for them is theirs, not mine.
My job is to hold space, give instructions with plenty of options, and give room for them to have their practice and be in it.
I would make myself available if they wanted to check in with me about it afterwards, but maybe whatever came up for them was really powerful to help something clear out, or build awareness, as long as they are safe, it really is not any of my business!
Never underestimate the glory of space and silence in the practice. Getting the balance of this takes time; how much to say and how much silence to give. We all need space for great ideas to be digested, and especially when the ideas are intended to be embodied.
If you teach yoga and you are reading this, give yourself permission to get comfortable with periods of silence in your classes.
If you are a yoga student reading this, don't be afraid to make some choices that are different to the ones being offered in class, especially if your body is giving you signs and signals (sensations of pain, stuckness, burning, compression) telling you that the alignment cue isn't a great fit for your bones and joints.
There are powerful changes happening all over the world. Many paradigms are being turned inside out as we find ways to collectively return home to ourselves and reignite our common sense, intuition and strength.
I envision wonderful examples of this happening within the yoga community and I am thrilled to be a part of it!