Once I started teaching with anatomy as my theme for each class, the challenge (and the fun) became this: “Sure, this is all helpful on the mat, but what about after they leave? How can I make an impact on my students in all those others hours when they are not in the studio?”
When you teach from anatomy, there is much you can cover. But what’s the point, really? Are you trying to drive your students crazy with detail? No. Are you trying to impress them with your command of the information? Definitely not. Are you sharing the information so that they have a better understanding of how their body works (structure and function-wise) so they can be more proactive in taking care of it, both on and off the mat? YES!
This is what I believe is the reason to teach from an anatomical standpoint. Our time is limited with our students and quite frankly, with the plethora of studios and deals every day that can encourage students to hop from place to place, just following the deals, it’s even more important we make wise choices when it comes to what we present as teachers. Is it important that give them the “hardest” poses so I can push them to their limits? (I use quotes there because “hard” is relative, but I think you get what I mean) Or, better, in my opinion, do we give them information in such a way that it’s helpful to them in that moment and beyond?
Here are some ways you can teach from an anatomical standpoint, the reasons why you’d present each, and how you can easily translate for your students what they are doing in that moment to their life off the mat:
Technique: Start class with a short sequence on the back
Why: Starting class on the back is totally accessible. It requires very little effort to lie down, even for the most physically challenged student. It gives you a chance as a teacher to assess the class from the perspective of beginners, more experienced students and everything in between. It gives them a relationship to gravity that is less stressful than other shapes, like Downward Dog, where they are fighting against gravity.
What to offer: I like to start with students on the back, in a Shavasana-type position. After a few guided meditative cues around the breath and the body, I have them reach the arms back and the legs forward. Then, we hug the knees into the chest, place feet on mat, hip width distance apart, and wag the knees side to side. You could then do a few Bridge Poses. You could have them return to the back and take both arms back and then bend at the elbows, placing both hands behind them at the base of the neck (to stretch the pectorals). You could take a few knee-down twists.
How to offer a translation to “real life:” I like to suggest that if they wake up in the morning and feel stiff, tight and/or uncoordinated, this short sequence is a great way to ease the body into the day. I also suggest that if they have a few minutes and a private space at work, it’s a great way to take 5 minutes and move, breath and relieve some stress.
Technique: Offer various shoulder movements with strap
Why: Most of us hunch over a phone and computer all day. As a result, our pectorals and subscapularis (part of the rotator cuff) are contracted most of the time. Poses and actions that involve external rotation of the shoulder joint will not only stretch those muscles that are contracted most of the time, but will give students a chance to strengthen the muscles in the back like the rhomboids, that are tired from over-stretching.
What to offer: For this, I like to just assume everyone needs a strap and give them out. I figure if someone doesn’t want it, fine but most people can benefit and this way, they have them handy. You can offer the traditional “grab the strap behind the back and forward fold”; you could offer this in Warrior 1 during Sun Salutations. You can take “Archer Arms” in forward straddle folds and in Cow Faced Pose from a seated position. You can also use a strap instead of asking students to take the bind in Side Angle Pose.
How to translate to “real life:” This one is important to translate because we hunch so much all day. I like to explain as they forward fold that if they feel like they’re hunching, they need to bring more awareness to the shoulder blades and squeeze them together. I suggest that they take this movement several times during the day to strengthen the rhomboids and I further state that the rhomboids bring the shoulder blades closer together. No diluting here, no yoga-speak, just solid information they can use off the mat.
Technique: Use various lunges to bring hips into extension
Why: Just as most students will hunch all day, they will also sit. As a result, the hip flexors are overly contracted and the hip extensors, like the hamstrings and gluteus maximus, are possibly weak from underuse. So, the more we can “do the opposite” by taking the hips into extension, the more we can create balance in the body overall.
What to offer: I love to start with Low Lunges. You can offer it with the back knee down or up. I like to start there because it’s very accessible (more so than Warrior 1). I use shapes like Crescent Lunge next to encourage hip extension, Dancer’s Pose to both extend hips and build balancing skills and Warrior 1 and 2. Once we get to the floor, poses like Bridge and Wheel are offered but with extensive cueing in Wheel around keeping the feet straight to counteract the tendency of the gluteus maximus to externally rotate the hips.
How to translate to “real life:” I share with students that the main hip flexor, the psoas, can create some discomfort in the lower back due to its origin on the lumbar spine. Sharing that highly accessible poses like Bridge are great to do in the morning to relieve lower back pain as well as throughout the day if they have space is also helpful. Also, just standing up and taking a standing backbend can be helpful (standing, reaching arms up overhead and leaning a bit back).
Looking for more content like this? My online courses provide a ton of information at a very reasonable price. They each provide a focused review of a different aspect of anatomy:
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Within the next few weeks, I have my next online course coming out, a free video series on anatomy AND a free webinar. Lots going on to bring this information to you in many different ways.
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