The Iyengar method of teaching yoga is precise and detailed. Instructions are conveyed visually (through demos) and verbally (through words). Teachers sometimes discuss whether specific anatomical terms should be used. Is it better to say “hamstrings” or “back thighs”? Can students identify “psoas,” “sacrum,” and even “big-toe mound”?
The common wisdom is that teachers should not bombard beginners with overly specific terminology (which the average layperson would need to look up in an anatomy textbook). Having practiced law for a nanosecond myself, I can relate to the overuse of “legalese” and other esoteric/insider language.
That said, I wonder if simplifying anatomical instructions is always the best course–even for beginners.
If students are athletes or dancers, they are typically quite familiar with anatomy, especially if related to muscles, tendons, ligaments, bones, and joints. If students are health professionals, from physicians to massage therapists, they might actually prefer specificity.
Even absolute laypeople nowadays have basic medical knowledge. If they’ve lifted weights at a gym, they’ve probably scrutinized their “pecs” and “quads,” and maybe “patella” and “rotator cuff.” And if you’re a closet hypochondriac, you’ve surely Googled the name of some peculiar body part or rare syndrome–as evidence of your self-diagnosis.
Teachers can always define uncommon words using a visual aid (skeleton model or student’s body). Why not define the cervical, thoracic, and lumber regions of the spine, for example? Students might view such teaching as “value added” to Iyengar yoga.
Some teachers are health professionals themselves. If so, they might well focus their teaching accordingly. In Calgary, physiotherapist and yoga teacher/trainer Susi Hately has created a booming career around her understanding of anatomy, kinesiology, and “teaching people to get out of pain” (her motto).
Perhaps I’m OK with anatomical specificity because I’ve always been fascinated by medicine and, in my personal life, I’m surrounded by MDs and MD/PhDs. More relevant, my formative years (yoga-wise) were guided by teachers, eg, Donald Moyer and Mary Lou Weprin of The Yoga Room, Berkeley, who have no qualms about citing the “greater trochanter,” “solar plexus,” and “intercostals.”
That said, others probably zone out when they hear unfamiliar terms or simply too many words. I’m not implying that teaching with specificity is ideal for everyone.
That’s why the multi-pronged Iyengar method of teaching also emphasizes the “demo.” For the visually oriented, a solid, crisply performed demo is invaluable (and worth a thousand words).
In one class, a teacher might face students with divergent learning styles. For example, I recently taught a class that included a professor of dentistry and an ER nurse (experienced students) and a Chinese immigrant with limited English fluency (avid beginner). Teaching a varied group, one can only try to accommodate everyone’s needs.
Demos versus words
Is teaching through verbal instructions generally the best way? I’m currently reading W Timothy Gallwey’s The Inner Game of Tennis, a classic guide to sports psychology and peak performance. The author pinpoints how tennis players sabotage their game by “trying too hard” and “doing too much self instruction.” He advises teaching with minimal verbal instructions (to reduce left brain chatter)–and instead to demonstrate an action and to let students experiment, simply observing their results, avoiding immediate judgments.
His ideas are somewhat inapplicable to Iyengar yoga because of the vast difference in time frame: Tennis involves super-fast action (eg, returning a 125mph serve). There’s no time for step-by-step, left-brain directives. In yoga, we’re moving relatively slowly, with ample time to scan to body to “ground the big toe mounds,” “lift the inner arches,” “widen the collar bones,” etc.
Still, shouldn’t verbal cues in asana ultimately fade? In performing a pose, left-brain management should eventually bow to right-brain instinct. It should be akin to returning that tennis serve–if a split-second could be stretched to 30 seconds, a minute, five minutes. In other words, shouldn’t we do asana by integrating all instructions simultaneously–expressing the words without actually hearing them? Of course, we must start somewhere.