Alignment in yoga

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When I trained with Mitchell Bleier I learned that verbal cues can be broken up into two categories: form and action. When we teach we begin with giving instructions that describe the form of a pose (where you place your feet and hands, how to position the pelvis, etc..) after that we use words that evoke action. This is the most important part as the action piece is what holds the asana together. 

Articulating the shape of an asana is relatively easy, but evoking a good action, is much more complicated to do with words. In fact, there is a school of bodywork, called Ideokinesis, which studies the relationship between language and movement. Ideokinesis practitioners use descriptive images to help improve dancers’ on-stage performance and movement coordination. In the book Ideokinesis: A Creative Approach to Human Movement and Body alignmentAndrés Bernard explains what he considers an “effective” image:

“The image, in order to work, needs to make a strong imprint on the nervous system, and in order to do that it has to be unusual.” It should not be boring, and it should be of great interest. “It can achieve those objectives by being outrageous, ridiculous or so beautiful, or anything that is excessive, in order to grab the attention of the nervous system.”

It so happens that my favorite yoga teachers use very suggestive images to guide their students in poses that are apparently static. Richard Freeman, for example often speaks of “spreading the kidney wings.” Certainly an unusual image. During a lead class while we holding a pose called parivritta parsvakonasana he challenged us to put a little more effort into the pose and reach with our arm “as if you were getting payed.” He mentioned a ridiculous sum of money for every millimeter we advanced in the pose. “Think about it,” he said, “you could be rich!” That image was completely ridiculous. But it worked.

Dena Kingsberg, on the other hand, uses images that are irresistibly beautiful. they are inspired by her daily life, by the breathtaking nature she’s surrpunded by and by her experience as a mother of small children. She speaks of waterfalls, trees, and birthday balloons. The way she explains each image is hypnotizing. You can’t help but pay close attention when she speaks. Dena said that despite having studied anatomy a zillion times, she does not retain the information. The subject bores her. However she knows the body well and knows how to use images that transform you.

Using images in yoga is a wonderful resource: firstly because the images capture the students’ attention; secondly because they are easy to hold on to, and one can return to them whenever he or she wants. From the teacher’s perspective using images is doubly hard, not only does it require experience, but it also requires courage! One has to overcome the fear of making a fool of herself, or of confusing her students. It is possible, nevertheless to start with baby steps.

Dena spoke of the importance of Awakening (at least) two opposite directions in each posture. For example in tadasana (standing with the feet together and hands by your side) ‘something’ moves up while ‘something’ else moves down. It could be the crown of the head is moving up and the metatarsals are moving down, or it may be that the heart slides upwards as the shoulders glide towards the floor. These two oppositional movements draw a vertical line that awakens the posture.

If in your classes you’re starting to sound like a broken record, perhaps it’s time to refresh your repertoire of instructions. Check the guidelines you use and analyze them from the perspective of the shape and action of each pose.  Make sure to stay simple and use clear cues that outline an axis of movement. Then, if you’re feeling bold, give a touch of color to your words by adding a suggestive image.

Will you try this out? I hope so. I also hope you’ll tell me how it went afterwards! 

This article was written by
Julia Zatta

Julia is a yoga anatomy teacher and bodyworker based in Barcelona, Spain.

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