Finding Your Own Truth
I desire to emulate the teachers who've had the most impact on me, and in turn offer my own experiences to my students in the yoga classroom. But occasionally I find myself in a yoga teacher struggle. Should I emphasize (perhaps even require?) strict + precise alignment in myself and my students at all times, or should I allow for them to explore sensing/feeling/joy of movement/freedom in their bodies? I know I have an obligation to keep people safe, which to my mind means aligning well. But is it restricting for the feeling body or the subtle body to tinker with alignment non-stop, while holding a pose?
Everyone's body is a little bit different. Even if I have a similar body shape/type/medical history/athletic history/injury history as someone, their experience is always going to be a bit different from mine. And I can only teach from my own understanding and knowledge of how a pose feels in my body + mind + breath. I'm sure you all know that one teacher who just loves backbending or forward-folding and you always seem to be doing it in their classes? They have a felt experience which happens to be their favorite, and also which they are excited to share with you. But just because it feels a certain way to them, doesn't mean that you'll have the same experience. I think it's fascinating that a single class can land differently on all 15 people in the room.
One way that I try to keep it fresh and applicable to everyone is to teach a different direction every week. In my new workbook, I outline the "planes of the body" or five ways that the body can move. They include side-bending, forward-folding, backbending, twisting + core engagement. One benefit to working in a new plane each week is that it encourages me as well as my students to be comfortable with all the ways of moving. Full range of motion in the spine is a worthy ideal, achievable through working with all the ways of moving. There are seemingly endless possibilities of exploration within each plane. For example, forward-bending can focus on the feet, ankles, calves, hamstrings, hips, spine and neck. Within forward folds I can work with straight legs, bent knees, balancing, inversions, arm balances, seated forward folds, supine poses, and standing poses. See? Limitless possibilities.
Teaching Alignment Yoga
From the beginning of my own yoga experience, the principles of alignment-based yoga have always resonated with me. To me, refining your pose to create optimal structure for the bones/muscles/connective tissue is a no-brainer. Why shouldn't we want to make our poses more integrated, more expansive?
To keep alignment in mind, I always encourage the use of props. Some people think that props are just a crutch and only for people who can’t work in the full expression of the pose. I call bullshit on that. For me, props encourage deeper integration, strength building, integrity in the spine, and safety in asanas.
Let’s consider a shoulderstand (sarvangasana) and its need for props. In the full expression of shoulderstand, one stands on their shoulder blades with shoulders deeply tucked under. The hips stack directly above the shoulders and the chin draws in toward the chest (jalandara bandha). For many people, this extremely beneficial posture is just not accessible without props. Common misalignments are too much pressure on the head/neck, splaying elbows, pikeing at the hips, and sagging in the upper torso/spine.
How can props help?
To keep weight out of the head/neck and the neck safely in flexion, I encourage at least 2 if not 3 blankets stacked under the shoulder blades. This allows for maintenance of the cervical curve and the weight to stay primarily in the support of the upper-body skeleton. It takes a boatload of strength to get the hips over the heart in the position, so using a block as a “launchpad” can help some people by creating a sense of lift. This way they are less likely to “fling” themselves into the pose, sending pressure into the neck. The shoulders have a difficult time staying tucked under, so belting the elbows encourages that a shoulder-width distance is maintained. With the shoulders safely held in place, it is also easier to keep the weight balanced and to open up through the frontal hips. Other options for safe support are to place a chair under the sacrum and also to put the feet on the wall rather than trying to extend fully. None of these props diminish the integrity of the pose, they simply improve one’s capacity to hold the pose longer and with greater emphasis on safe alignment.
Accepting Your Truth
So, while I can understand the potential for joy in free movement and dancerly-style yoga, what feels most true to me is to stay the course. My teaching style is heavily based in prop-usage, clear and concise cueing of body alignment, and progression to a peak pose for a reason. It's what feels the truest to me. I know that it won't land on everyone, I may not be the right teacher for you. But if you're looking to keep things sharp, safe + aligned, I just might be your gal.