Align the body, align the mind

During my immersion at the mega studio, I met teachers from various yoga backgrounds. Once, before a class, I chatted with the teacher, whom I’ll call Joan. She’d studied at a Sivananda centre before taking the mega studio’s three-month teacher-training program.

“That’s one type of yoga I’ve never tried,” I commented about Sivananda, which I know only from their ads (and from 1998 Heisman Trophy winner Ricky Williams‘s connection to it). “I’ve studied primarily Iyengar yoga,” I added.

“Oh, that’s the exact opposite,” she replied. “Sivananda is not really about alignment. It’s all about the practice.”

Huh?

It was almost class time, and I was there to observe, not to debate. But, inside, it both amused and irked me that she’d defined Iyengar yoga as purely physical, just because of its high standards for form.

In a parallel incident, a gym-yoga teacher  once commented to me that Iyengar teachers tend to “over cue.” She meant that they give too many instructions. Indeed, Iyengar teachers aren’t skimpy with specific tips on asana form:

  • curl the tailbone down
  • widen the collarbones
  • lift the sternum
  • slide the shoulder blades in and down the spine
  • elongate the side waist

And these are the simple examples.

According to the gym-yoga teacher, “Let the students feel their own bodies and figure things out for themselves.”

Is she right? Is it better merely to tell students, “Stand in tadasana, spine straight, shoulders back” and leave it at that?

Regarding beginners, I find that detailed verbal cues are effective. Most beginners are clueless about their physical quirks. They’re oblivious of their shoulders scrunched up toward their ears or of their swaybacked lumbar spines. They might do trikonasana with the arm in parsvakonasana (or vice versa). By verbally directing them from head to toe, students learn to adjust their own bodies and to develop kinesthetic awareness.

Further, beginners are often easily distracted. They check out classmates’ skills. Their minds wander. They struggle with discomfort. When they hear a cue, they return to the asana, to their bodies, to their inner selves.

As a student, I’ve always welcomed cues. Ever too many? No. I absorb the ones that make sense to me, and I let the others waft by.

In Iyengar yoga, one is constantly “refining” the asana, sharpening one’s sensitivity. The initial focus is, yes, on the body. But eventually one focuses on the mind itself. To me, working on alignment and form is actually  training the mind for pratyahara (sensory control), dharana (concentration), and dhyana (meditation), the higher limbs of yoga.

I hope that Joan learns more about Iyengar yoga, but perhaps it simply will never resonate with her. Perhaps one is drawn to particular yoga lineages based on one’s personality. I’d find loose, anything-goes yoga only a diversion. And trance dance and loud sighing would feel silly and fake. But they might well suit others. Conversely, the detailed, thoughtful approach of Iyengar yoga challenges my body, hones my mind, and appeals to me.

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13 thoughts on “Align the body, align the mind

  1. I think you’re right–it’s personality and maybe “time of life” based.

    We’ve been having a similar discussion at Namaste Book Club http://namastebookclub.ning.com/

    We’re reading Erich Schiffman’s Moving into Stillness. He’s a very disciplined Yogi who now teaches “feeling what’s right for you” as opposed to going for any external ideal.

    I personally go for getting the essentials down, but then going with feel rather than analysis. But, like you say in your blog, it depends on the individual. That’s just what’s right for me. And it’s also because asana is a relatively small component of my Yoga practice.

    Bob Weisenberg
    http://YogaDemystified.com

    1. Schiffman’s Yoga: The Spirit and Practice of Moving into Stillness is among my favorite books! (He studied with Iyengar in the ’70s.) He emphasizes “feel” but also gives detailed instructions on each asana pictured in the book: tips that the average, avocational student would probably never realize on his/her own. (Looking at Schiffman’s textbook-worthy asanas, it’s clear that he himself takes form seriously.)

      My main point (which might’ve gotten diluted by the “number of cues” segue) is that Iyengar yoga is not ONLY about asana, alignment, and the physical aspect of yoga. Further, Iyengar yoga is NOT about perfect form. (Heck, with all the props and modifications, it’s about perfect form for ANY body.) Finally, the teaching cues are meant to help students to find (to feel!) the pose in their own bodies. So, you are on the same page as Iyengar yogis.

      As an Iyengar student, I was just trying to counter the misconceptions that I find rather disturbing.

  2. In “Anatomy of Hatha Yoga”, David Coulter makes the observation that one of the big differences between an experienced practicioner and a beginner is the ability to absorb and integrate instructions. He suggests that while an experienced student will be able to absorb many instructions effectively, the beginner will only be able to integrate two or three before losing the first ones. This is something I can confirm from my observation of beginning students, and this is why as a teacher you are taught to target your instructions to most important elements, namely the foundation.

    In trikonasana for example, the position of the arms is of much less importance than the position of the legs. Yet many beginners focus so much on the arms that they lose the power in their legs and the length in their torso.

    Another approach I have heard is, provided the student is not at risk of injury, to begin with the least important elements (in standing poses, arms) and work down towards the foundation so if the student only retains the last one or two instructions, they are the most important ones.

    Interesting thoughts!

    1. Thanks for your comment. I agree that bombarding students with instructions is unwarranted and unwise. I never meant 25 cues! I meant three to five cues per pose. It is also effective to repeat an essential idea or to couch it in different words.

      By giving verbal instructions as students do asanas, teachers are actively working, actively guiding. A teacher can personally attend only to one student at a time, but verbal instructions can efficiently reach a whole group. “Lift the sternum” probably applies to the whole class.

      My pet peeve: Teachers who call out a pose and then perform the pose with the students… followed by silence… Where is the teaching? The best teachers can work the room and teach each student as an individual. The next-best teachers give pertinent verbal cues. Take baddhakonasana. If a teacher simply calls the pose and does it with novices, most will be clueless that they’re slumping, with rounded, posteriorly tilted sacrums. If a teacher at least instructs students about healthy pelvic position, some will adjust their own bodies.

      And what’s the big deal? One reason is safety. Repeatedly sit improperly and you’ll tweak your back. Another reason is body awareness, an understanding of yoga asana and of one’s own body. A further reason is mental focus: is one’s mind on the asana, feeling one’s body from the inside, experiencing life in the moment?

      The teacher who is silent and doing the pose along with students is just lazy: a class leader but not a real teacher. Students might learn the gross form by watching, but they realize the subtleties by words (and manual adjustment, which is another ball of wax).

  3. Bart and Lisa do an awesome simhasana!

    I wrote about something I read a while back, and I’ll copy and paste part of that post here:

    “Everyone thinks they know how to run, but it’s really as nuanced as any other activity,” Eric told me. “Ask most people, and they’ll say, people just run the way they run, that’s ridiculous, does everyone just swim the way they swim?

    For every other sport, lessons are fundamental. You don’t just go out and start slashing away with a golf club or sliding down a mountain on skis until someone takes you through the steps and teaches you proper form. If not, inefficiency is guaranteed and injury is inevitable. Running is the same way, learn it wrong, and you’ll never know how good it can feel.” – Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen, Christopher McDougall

    http://www.nikkiyoga.com/why-we-need-yoga-teachers/

  4. I’ve been doing yoga for a skosh over 6 months now, so I *am* a beginner, and personally, I prefer a few important corrections rather than trying to focus on *everything* at once. After a while, I’m taken totally out of the experience if all I’m doing is constnatly being corrected.

  5. Hey you! 🙂

    I have to say, I’m not advanced enough or familiar enough with different forms of yoga to really comment on this post. But as a beginner, I really appreciate cues that help me to understand what my body is doing and how to take advantage of the pose I’m in. It’s amazing how much of a difference it can make just to shift your awareness to a different set of muscles.

    At the same time, because I’m such a beginner (and in the forseeable future, will probably always practice yoga recreationally, not so seriously) I appreciate being allowed to just let go. My favorite thing that my college yoga instructor (Prem Prakash, Green Mountain School of Yoga in East Middlebury, VT) tells us while we are practicing is to think of appreciating our strengths while respecting our weaknesses. It definitely takes the pressure off and turns yoga into an escape from the stresses of college.

    Anyway, that’s the best I can do– mostly I just wanted to say hi! It looks like this blog is doing great, and I’m so happy to see that!! 🙂

  6. Great post! I wrote a very similar one yesterday. I think it’s important to give alignment hints verbally and to do adjustments, but to also find a balance of allowing the students to figure it out on their own. Certainly I don’t have the answer as I’m following my own intuition on it. Thanks so much for your thoughts!!

  7. as my practice has evolved over the past five-six years, my ability to absorb instructions has as well. I have been in classes where the instructor is CONSTANTLY talking through postures- and often it’s too much. however, the silent “do downward dog-go” teaching style isn’t my favourite either.

    Each person has a different learning style as well, and my body awareness must be pretty poor (as I’m sure many individuals actually), as I seem to have gotten the BEST instruction from gentle adjustment. Sometimes using anatomical (although important) or analogical verbal instructions doesn’t help since a) you can’t see your body and b) most people are so out of touch with their bodies in the first place. As a result, I need a step further with adjustment.

    I think what you are touching on, Yoga Spy, is the delicate balance that most teachers strive for in their classes. I have only been to one Iyengar class, but it was FAR from the only class to give verbal, specific and helpful instruction.

    Also, (finally! haha), I like to have silence during a posture in order to try to integrate the body-mind aspect. Yoga is about moving meditation for me, a way to help connect my body with my mind. If a teacher is prattling off while I’m practicing, without stopping (whether it is instruction or simply talking about “letting go” blah blah blah) it gets annoying.

    So- like I said; a balance 🙂 (as i’m sure you’re aware 🙂 )

    A studio in the city sent out an online survey (I think it was survey monkey) about their studio and student’s preferences. It allows for anonymous feedback on your teaching style and classes. I thought it was fantastic. Most students wouldn’t DARE approach a teacher with constructive feedback.

    Just some thoughts 🙂

  8. Coming from an Ashtanga and Vinyasa background, I will do both: cues to establish foundations, move safely into and out of poses and build body awareness; and then, minimal cues to just allow people to move.

    The minimal cues is mostly in my Ashtanga class when it’s my regular students. In the Yin Class I subbed, I did cues to move people out of a pose and into the next one, but then remained relatively quiet as I moved around the class – it didn’t seem right to keep up a constant stream of chatter during a more reflective practice.

    There is something liberating? a meditative aspect perhaps? about being able to just *move* as one entity without me yammering away the whole class.

    This was a very interesting post with some great comments. Thanks!

  9. Nuts! How did I miss this post…oh well, here’s my two-cent’s worth.

    Every once and awhile I try a silent class. I demo the pose, let the class do it, and walk around doing minimal adjustments. A few people like it (I always liked these classes with my teacher in DC, I found myself much more focused), but I always get a few comments from people who really missed verbal cues. As EcoY said, Balance.

    But, in this litigious age, I’ve found verbal cues are a nice way to make corrections without touching anyone. Especially if most of the class could use the adjustment. Usually, students can figure out how to drop their shoulders or lengthen the back of their knees on their own. I do touch, but usually after I’ve had a student in class for awhile and “get” where they’re coming from.

    Nice observations, and a good discussion!

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