I was recently leading an anatomy module as part of a 200-hour program for new yoga teachers. I was sharing something I had read that really hit home for me: the preponderance of “rolling up to standing” taught in yoga classes and how potentially damaging this action can be to the spine, due to the anterior disc compression it creates.
One teacher mentioned she was in a class recently where the phrase, “roll up to standing” was used throughout and another teacher said that once she was taught that coming up with a straighter spine could be damaging to the hamstrings. As I listened to their feedback, I responded with a general answer: “There will always be different expressions of alignment depending on whom you ask.”
When I went home, I had trouble sleeping. I felt like I had failed them, not really giving them the answer they wanted. They wanted to know the right way to come to standing from a forward fold. If you’re a teacher and you’ve ever read “The Courage to Teach,” by Parker Palmer, you know of the struggle you go through as a teacher. You want to provide clarity and support and push your students to think outside the box. But sometimes you get stuck. You might feel that the subject matter doesn’t readily fit into the model of “one size fits all” or maybe the subject is filled with different opinions and perspectives. You might of course, recognize this as the way of the yoga industry.
Our industry is filled with thousands of teachers, all teaching in unique ways. So, as a teacher in training, it can be frustrating and confounding that there are so many different ways to approach the same thing. Just take Warrior 1, for instance. You can teach it with the feet aligned heel to heel or suggest that students widen their stance. Which way is correct?
These differences will always be present in yoga. This seems to apply mostly to the anatomical aspect of yoga, the alignment piece and the postural piece more than anything else. So, as a teacher in training, how do you know what to do? My thought is that we need to provide new teachers with a template of sorts; a way of overlaying a structure on top of information they receive so they are able to better understand it and ultimately, decide if it’s something they wish to use in their teaching. Here are suggested components of such an approach:
Understand the reasoning behind the approach. It’s easy when you’re in training to abdicate the thought process to the teacher. They’re the teacher so they must be right, right? Well, that might be the case but as you can see, it’s not so much about being “right” as it is about understanding the rationale behind any approach. As you learn different concepts, ask questions to clarify the position being presented. Be sure you understand why that approach is being suggested so you can offer it appropriately while teaching.
There’s the aspect of learning a concept and then there is the aspect of applying it in real life. As we learn any concept, especially anatomical principles, things can seem rigid and absolute. But there is the important element of applying a principle to real bodies, in practice. This brings into play dozens of other factors. The example above of “rolling up to standing” is a perfect one. The impact of this movement on a young healthy back is quite different than the impact on an older person with a disc injury. Principles are important to learn but the applicability of these principles is important too. Also, with all of these principles, tell your students why you are offering it that way. This way, they can decide if it’s helpful to do for their body.
Learn each concept from the perspective of why you would offer it in class in that way. The bottom line when it comes to all the anatomical and postural positioning we learn is so that we can appropriately apply it in real life to our own bodies and in class. The “not so helpful approach” is to offer something simply because it was what we were taught. Learning something in order to apply it to teaching means we understand why it’s offered to us in the way it is while we’re in training. You should always be able to answer the question, “ Why do you teach it that way?”
Stay open to new ways of thinking. Depending on when you start your teacher training, you may already have some pretty solid ideas as to how you want to teach and the anatomy and alignment behind the poses. But coming into training with this mindset can close you off to other ways of thinking. While some of these principles might not make sense for you and your practice, they could be immeasurably valuable to someone in your class. Stay open minded and inquisitive. This will allow all the information to be absorbed and then it’s up to you to apply it appropriately.
Look for “high level” ways to apply the information. Principles of anatomy are so detailed that as you learn them, you can get further and further into the forest and lose sight of the trees, as they say. This means that the level of detail that you’re at is great to know, but it is hard to apply in a group class with so many varying levels of fitness, health and body awareness. Always ask for general guiding principles along with the details so you can understand the broader application of the information, both from a risk and benefit perspective.
Learning, practicing and teaching yoga is a lifelong endeavor. The aspects of the practice, both from an anatomical and philosophical perspective are many. In my experience, the aspect of learning the postures, the anatomy behind them and the alignment in each pose is a never-ending process. Approach your initial learning experience with the inquisitiveness of a child but the responsibility of an adult and with eyes open to the wonder that is this beautiful practice.