I get this question a lot after class or sometimes even during (I actually love when people ask questions while in a pose!). It’s a tricky one in a way, because I don’t think there is really a definitive sensation you’re supposed to feel in any pose. We can certainly describe poses in terms of their shape, the positions of the body (external rotation, flexion, extension or whatever else) and the muscles that are engaged as well as the muscles that are lengthening. This can give us some suggestions in terms of what to offer a student but in terms of what they specifically will be feeling in the pose, that is very much tied to their particular body and what’s going on underneath the skin.
As yoga teachers in group classes, we are working at a huge disadvantage in that we do not know the health history of our students. Even in those classes where teachers may ask at the start, “Does anyone have any injuries I should know about?” this quick question doesn’t always lead to an accurate representation of any individual student’s physical condition. For instance, if someone said at that point, “I have a lumbar fusion,” what would the appropriate response? Perhaps you might suggest that they “take it easy,” or “refrain from forward folding,” or “take it easy in the twists,” but until or unless you sit down individually with that person and evaluate them one-on-one, you really have no idea how that surgical intervention effects their mobility, flexibility and strength. This is why I don’t ask that question before class. I hope that students will talk to me before hand if they have something going on.
So, with that as a backdrop, let’s go back to the scenario where a student comes up after class and asks the question, “What should I be feeling in ( insert pose name). Let’s take Pigeon Pose as an example, because this one seems to be the pose where this question comes up the most frequently. I start out asking them, “Where DO you feel something in the pose?” This can lead to a number of responses, everything from, ” I feel nothing,” to ” I feel tightness in my backside on the bent knee side,” to “my back hip hurts.” I usually ask them to come into the posture at this point. This allows me to see what kind of alignment they have in the pose and how they approach setting it up. For this pose in particular, this gives you a chance to see if the student is hell bent on getting their shin parallel to the front of the mat. If their concern is medial knee pain, this is a perfect opportunity for you to share with them that there is no need for their shin to be parallel to the front edge of the mat (I never teach it this way). Because this is a rather old-school instruction (like being able to “touch your heels before coming up into Bridge Pose”) many students have it in their mind that they are not doing the pose correctly unless their shin is parallel. However, if they lack the requisite strength in their external rotators and accompanying length in their internal hip rotators, it’s very hard to get there safely ( at least in terms of the knee).
Once you have them in the pose, discuss the overall alignment with them. Look for other opportunities to bring them into a more neutral position, meaning, healthy, safe alignment that is more in the “middle zone” versus to an extreme degree. Look for overall balance in their body. This is often an issue in Pigeon in particular, where students tend to “check out” and slump into any which way while facing the ground. I like to approach the pose from the perspective of looking for balance between both sides of the body so that there is healthy support through the entire structure of the pose and no one joint or muscle is getting exploited.
In many instances, once you help a student with this neutral alignment, the sensation about which they were concerned dissipates. Please know that by “neutral alignment,” I’m not suggesting they avoid the pose, simply that you look for correct alignment or what would be correct for them and you look for places in the body where they are sinking or collapsed or over-stretching or hyperextending, for instance. For many students, no one has ever taught them the pose in the first place! This is one of the challenges with yoga these days; students are learning through watching others and taking classes with so many teachers that the variation is confusing.
Once they are in a more neutral place, discuss with them the muscles that are working and the muscles that are lengthening and the actions in the pose. So, for Pigeon on the right, you can discuss the external rotation of the right hip, the extension of the left hip, the extension in the spine, the lengthening of the gluteus maximus on the right side and the contraction of the gluteus on the left. Have them point to where they feel the sensation and describe it. If the question is more related to “what am I supposed to be feeling,” walking through the different muscle actions and joint positions can allow you to see if there is a connection between the muscle’s action and any sensation they feel.
I know that some teachers are concerned about discussing “feeling” in yoga classes with yoga students. Imagine if you were teaching a group class in Pigeon and you said, “You should be feeling a stretch in your right gluteus maximus here.” That would be a pretty broad assumption to be making and certainly quite the blanket statement to be making in a group class. There is nothing that a student “should be feeling,” first off and secondly, because of the individuality in every student, it’s impossible to make a blanket statement like that and not result in it just confusing the class.
What I often say instead is something about the anatomy and actions in the pose. I might tell them that on the right side, their hip is externally rotating and this requires a good amount of strength from the muscles that turn that hip out to the side. I might suggest they bring awareness to their overall body to find balance between the left side and the right. I might offer up that the back hip is in extension and if they have tight hips, they might support the hip with a blanket (not a block) or slightly bend the back knee (some people call this “Fallen Pigeon,” which is a nice variation for people that have this issue). I think in this way, we’re educating students about the actions of the pose and helping them determine the best way to approach it. We’re not straying away from talking about “feeling” but by the same token, that’s not all we’re talking about either.
I have found in almost every single one of these conversations, students are looking for objective information about the pose, how to do it correctly and in a way that takes into consideration their body, their approach to the practice, their overall conditioning and maybe even other factors in their exercise program. For instance, helping a student in Pigeon who is a competitive runner would involve a number of specific actions that might not be involved when working with a student who is returning to yoga after a long hiatus.
I had a student ask me the other day if Pigeon pose can help “release stored emotions” in the hips because she’s heard from teachers that “the hips store negative energy.” This takes this idea of “feeling in a pose” to a whole other level, now doesn’t it? While this kind of instruction is not part of my teaching, I have great respect for teachers that study the energy dynamics, chakras and healing styles of yoga such as Yin and Restorative. It’s important that we don’t compare one style to another and a question like this gives us a chance to educate the student about different styles. Even the most anatomically based teacher has to acknowledge there is an emotional component to feelings one has in their body and who can really say if the tightness in their hips, for instance, is due to stress, loss, pain, fear or lack of compassion for themselves? I certainly stick to the more concrete in my classes but there is no denying that all these factors have an impact on the body as well. I think teaching students to have compassion for their bodies and to work in meditation and yoga as a way to naturally relieve stress is a great conversation to have.
So, the next time someone comes up to you and asks, “What am I supposed to be feeling in this pose?” what will you say?