Teach People Not Poses

Or How I Came to Embrace Functional Yoga Anatomy

Credit: JanakaMaharageDharmasena, iStockphoto.com

My first yoga teacher was a student of Don and Amba Stapleton of Nosara Yoga Institute. As a branch of the Kripalu Yoga family tree, Nosara Yoga doesn’t dwell on “proper alignment” for yoga poses. Instead of talking about where to put your body parts, Nosara teachers guide their students to use movement as a way of cultivating a relationship with the multidimensional Self. What this means in lay terms is that we can use movement and postures to teach ourselves how to know ourselves.

When I started practicing yoga, I felt pure joy in my body for the first time. As a student of classical ballet, I was never invited to feel how my body felt while moving. If anything we had to teach ourselves how not to feel the usual aches and pains caused by ballet. As I continued my yoga journey, I started to understand why a healthy relationship to my body is the cornerstone of a positive self-image. The work of getting to know and accept myself helped me to overcome years of struggle with anxiety and depression.

Like most new teachers, I became interested in what other teachers were teaching. I was hungry for novel sequencing ideas and new language for describing postures. I took a lot of classes and workshops with a lot of different teachers, and at some point, I came across teachers who were much more interested in alignment. I remember feeling at once excited for new information and also feeling a bit cheated as if my yoga education to that point was incomplete. Was I really trained as well as I thought I had been?

After a few years trying to practice “proper” yoga alignment, I found myself in a body filled with pain. I discovered that many yoga alignment “standards” don’t work in my body. My bones just don’t agree.

A couple of examples:

Stand With Your Toes Pointing Forward
As I mentioned above, before I practiced yoga, I studied classical ballet. The famous first position (turned out legs, feet like a V) was deeply ingrained in my body. My first yoga class was so humbling because turning my feet parallel threw off my balance completely. My teacher encouraged me to keep trying, that I just needed to retrain my muscles.

Over the next 7–8 years, I worked diligently at keeping my feet parallel. I bought into the yoga myths that feet are supposed to point forward not only in yoga but when standing and walking too. I was told that I would develop knee problems. I believed, again because I was told, that ballet had trained my muscles in an unhealthy way and that I needed to retrain them back to “anatomical neutral.”

Parallel feet never felt right, and I began to have problems with my ankles. I noticed unusual wear along the outside edges of my shoes. And when I stand barefoot with toes pointing forward, my feet supinate or roll towards the outside edge. When I turn out my hips a little and allow my feet to form a v-shape, my feet no longer supinate. After all that effort to retrain my hip muscles not to rotate my leg externally, I had created a new problem in my feet. My bones were fighting against me.

Different degrees of tibial (shin bone) torsion. The ankle is shown in the foreground. The protrusion on the left is the hard bump on inside of your ankle. The person on the right would turn out a little more than the one on the left. Photo: Paul Grilley

It’s likely that I have a combination of retroverted hip sockets (they face more to the side) and tibial torsion (bones twist when they grow) that cause my feet to point more to the side. Years of ballet didn’t create my external rotation; that’s how my body already was. I was good at ballet because I had the bones for it. Bernie Clark‘s great article, “Should Your Feet Be Parallel in Mountain Pose and Down Dog?” goes into this in a lot more detail.

Triangle Sandwich
Let’s talk about triangle pose. The traditional instruction is to sandwich the body between two panes of glass when bending sideways over one of the legs. The leg that is below the torso is abducting (moving away) from the midline of the body. And because the torso is also moving towards the leg, this is a lot of abduction. In many bodies, the thigh bone may bump up against the hip socket creating impingement, preventing further movement.

Owing to the downward angle of the hip socket and its depth, the person on the left would have less range of abduction (moving away from the center) than the person on the right. Photo: Paul Grilley

Hip impingement while abducting the legs is very common and prevents a lot of individuals, including me, from sandwiching ourselves between imaginary panes of glass. Even after all those years of ballet, I was never someone who could do the wide-legged splits where my legs were in line with my body. But if I just let my torso move a little forward (hip flexion), I can get around the impingement and go quite deep into triangle pose. I’m not alone. Out of 30 teachers in my anatomy training with Paul Grilley, only two could do the full wide-legged splits and make a triangle sandwich. The rest of us had to deviate from the standard alignment prescription.

Function Over Form
The anatomy instruction we receive in a typical yoga training involves naming body parts and a little bit about how joints move. We do not learn that our skeletons are as unique as our fingerprints and that our differences affect how our poses will look. The alignment cues of many yoga traditions are not based on how most humans move. Instead, they are idealized, artistic expressions of shapes that only certain body types can create. The rest of us are not doing it wrong just because we can’t achieve that look. Encouraging people to strive for something unachievable in yoga is how people get hurt.

It is evident to me that while some of the traditional cues and instructions are, in fact, useful for a lot of people, we also need to recognize that those guidelines may harm others. For those of us who are teachers, our job is to help our students explore what’s possible in their body, and not try to shoehorn them into particular shapes. We have to ask ourselves, what is this pose for? What are we trying to do here? Does it matter what it looks like?

These questions form the basis of a functional approach to yoga that starts with the inquiry: what area of my body am I trying to target right now? Followed by: What kinds of shapes target that area? Within that spectrum of possible forms, we need to make room for people to do their own thing.

I’ve come full circle in how I approach asana practice and yoga instruction. In my personal practice, I quite literally do what I want and what feels appropriate in my body. I play around with shapes that would be shocking to many teachers.

In my teaching, I use cues that emphasize muscular engagement instead or precise alignment. I challenge my students to pay attention to sensations and learn how to interpret what they are experiencing. I encourage my students to feel where they should be rather than what they think they should look like. I try to lead them towards greater inner awareness so they can make better choices about what’s right for them. This kind of practice and teaching fosters agency in yoga, at a time when many are questioning the patriarchal lineages of the old system, methods that have physically and emotionally harmed many.

I’m reminded that a ballerina’s job is to express the choreographer’s artistic vision, not herself. But that is not the relationship of student and teacher in the yoga room. Obsessive aesthetic correcting of postures not only robs students of their agency, but it creates a dependency on the teacher knowing what is right for the student.

Consider, instead, that yoga teachers are guides, offering the best tools that we have for fostering wakefulness while supporting an individual’s self-knowledge. We really should be teaching ourselves out of a job.

Hi! I’m Jennifer O’Sullivan (Sati Yoga). I write about yoga, meditation, stress management, functional anatomy, and bit of this and that about living a healthy life. I teach yoga classes and workshops in the Washington, DC area, and you can find me online at Facebook or www.sati.yoga.
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