(image: my recent anatomy workshop at Jolly Llama Yoga, Philadelphia)
When I was a training to be a teacher, part of my role was to assist senior teachers like Baron Baptiste and Rolf Gates. It was one of the BEST training tools out there. I could assist, not worry about teaching, and really focus on the students. I could listen to the teacher while moving about the room in silence and learn from them. I wish more studios had assistants in class. It’s one of the things I feel really elevates a yoga class both from the perspective of learning on their part and the experience of the student.
In any event, during that time, I was always interested to see the number of students that approached the teacher after class. I remember thinking how terrified I’d be if someone asked me a question. I wasn’t sure of what I knew yet and as I overheard the questions, often the answers to them seemed outside of my knowledge base.
Fast forward 15 years ahead and now I love getting questions after class. Much has changed for me since those early days and part of it is understanding my role in the experience of teaching yoga to people. Back then, I thought I had to be the authority and know everything. Now I realize that I’m a guide and there are a lot of ways to approach answering questions after class.
Because much of my teaching focuses on anatomy, I seem to spark a lot of questions about the body from students. Everything from, “What do you think this sensation is?” to questions about yoga injuries. I had an experience over the weekend and thought I’d share it so you can see my approach:
Student: I’m having this funny sensation in my hip (points to the back of her body, around her sacrum)
Me: What does it feel like?
Student: It feels like tightness as I’m moving. Do you have some stretches I can do?
Me: Did it just start recently? Are you doing anything else for exercise besides yoga, like running, bootcamp classes, gym?
Student: Yes, it just started and no, yoga is my primary form of exercise.
Ok, so understand that when someone approaches you, you have no health history. You only have what they tell you in the short interaction you’ll have with them. Also, as yoga teachers, we lack having any significant diagnostic tools to “see” what’s happening (x-rays, MRI’s) so obviously we’re working off of what the student reports they’re feeling and what we can determine through movement.
I like to approach these situations by first determining if the feedback the student is getting is red alarm pain. If so, I suggest they see a doctor and that’s about it. If it’s more of a new sensation and not red alarm, I look at my role as one where I can give them some movements/poses/actions to take that can help the effected area by simply moving it in various ways. Rather than looking at every issue a student has with the “it needs to be stretched” mindset, I liked to look at both strengthening as well as lengthening movements. Because I have very limited information, this approach can get at the effected area from both perspectives. Tired muscles that are overstretched will get stronger and short, overly contracted muscles will get lengthened.
So, let’s proceed with the conversation:
Me: Ok, so let’s take a look at some of the muscles that are in this region of the body. We’re looking at the gluteus maximus, medius and minimus. Generally, these are in the side and back of the hip area and are responsible for hip extension (demo) and lateral stabilization, as you’d see in a balancing pose like tree.
We also have the internal and external rotators. External rotators turn the feet out (demo/have her demo)
Student: That’s it! That’s where I feel most of the sensation.
Me: Ok, so let’s hone in on your external rotators. These are a set of muscles that turn the hip out and you can imagine that they start on your sacrum (put her hand on her own sacrum) and connect to the femur (trace a line for her to her femur). As you can imagine now, as you turn your hip/foot outward, these muscles contract. One of them, your piriformis, is a pretty big muscle and also has a nerve that runs through it, your sciatic nerve. Sometimes as the piriformis gets overly contracted, it might compress the nerve resulting in some tingling down the leg.
So, what we can do to investigate this further is to take different actions that turn the hip out (external rotation) and turn it in (internal rotation).
If we do these things on the back, it decreases the work effort from you, so you can focus on the actions.
At this point, I showed her a number of things she can do on her back to both turn out and turn in the hips. Things like Happy Baby, Eagle Legs on the back (think Cow Faced Pose legs), Spinal twists and a few others. We then moved to Pigeon on the back and front facing as well as a few standing poses.
She left with a set of exercises to do and a suggestion to investigate further the sensation both before, during, and after practice and then to integrate about 15 minutes a day for these special focused poses.
I think you’ll find that when you approach questions from students in a partnership mode, you take the pressure of of YOU to “have all the answers.” It puts the both of you on the same team in terms of how you’ll work together to come up with an approach.
I created a tip sheet on how to work with students who have recently had surgery or are post-injury. You can get it here:
As with all things related to anatomy, the more you know about it, the more comfortable you’ll be in answering student questions. It took me a while to get comfortable talking about the muscles and their key actions and being able to share this knowledge with confidence. But once I mastered the key aspects of anatomy, my teaching really transformed from just parroting cues I’d learned from others and really helping students learn more about their body.
If you’re looking for a quick read, my e book on Amazon gives you an overview of key aspects of anatomy. You can get it for $5.99 here.
If you’re someone who learns through practice, my class on Vimeo gives you 60 minutes of practice filled with anatomy tips. You can get that for $10 here.
Please comment with any questions or feedback.
Thanks for reading!