What I say and what I mean. How many times have you found they don’t match up? Or, put another way, what I say and what is heard are not the same. For now, I’m narrowly focused on the words I use to teach yoga. But first, a confession. Yoga is this transformative experience, or it can be – learning how to breathe and be in your body. And yoga teachers take shortcuts all the time to communicate what we want our yoga students to do. And our verbal cueing does not always make sense. Here’s one way to decrease the proverbial head scratching. Educate our students before we begin moving. For example, strengthening your core does not operate in isolation. We’re not just engaging our “six pack muscles” (the rectus abdominis) in the front of the body.
In fact, our “core” refers to a community of muscles front, side, and back of the body working together. Why is a strong core important? Basically, we want to avoid injury by distributing the forces moving from upper to lower body and from lower to upper body. Engaging these muscles protects the spine from bearing too much load. Load means force, stress, or strain.
It's complicated, which is why teachers use shorthand. What do students want to know?
Ultimately, it’s about inviting your students to explore in the laboratory of their own bodies. Most good teachers have an intent behind their language. My Yoga Medicine® training has given me such depth in understanding the human body. And I want my students to experience the potential and the limitations of living in their bodies with acceptance.
Here's my first of a series of post entitled, What I say and What I mean.
For starters, here are a few cues and my intent.
When I want you to engage your core muscles front, side and back, I might say… Imagine you’re wearing a wide belt and draw it tighter. A belt hugs in. Or more often I say cinch in the waist ‘though the engagement is three dimensional. I’ve even said tighten your corset (so yesterday!). Draw navel to spine is good but students can take that to mean flattening the natural curves or over tucking the tail.
When I am leading a mini sun salutation, I say…Circle the arms up then wide, hinging from the hips, folding forward with a long spine and soft knees. Arms opening to the side is easier on the back than straight arms forward. It’s all about reducing the load on the spine. Finding that hip crease by hinging allows the spine to stay long. Softening the knees or micro bending allows the focus to be on the spine, releasing the head, letting go of expectations about touching the toes. In fact, I model bringing hands to blocks, lifting the earth. Forget about those pesky hamstrings! My intent is to avoid rounding the spine decreasing the risk of injury. Plus, it feels good to create space. Hands holding elbows while forward folding adds that lovely traction that lengthens the spine while releasing the top of the head towards the mat.
Next in the mini sun salute, half way lift or rise half way. I might add hands to shins or knees. I try not to say flat back anymore. Some students can’t extend their hips to flat back; others, may extrapolate that rigid, flat backs are always good. So, between some frustrated that they can’t do it and others overzealous that they can, I figure it’s just not helpful.
When I’m adding on a low lunge, I say bend knees deeply, position blocks for support framing the front foot, step back long with other foot, leg long, toes tucked (or something like that) Why do I cue blocks? It’s not that many folks can’t place their hands on the ground but it detracts from what I submit is most important – transitioning lower to the ground with an emphasis on hips, legs and spine. I really don’t care what’s going on with hands, arms and shoulders so much. Others may disagree. I emphasize not dumping weight into the wrists, hands on the block but feeling the strength of the legs instead. In many poses where shoulder mobility or stability isn’t the main event, shoulders get bossy and insistent to take center stage. So when I can, I de-emphasize these show stealers.
That’s it for now. There are so many cues other teachers and I use. And then there’s even healthy debate over what’s helpful, what’s not and what’s just wrong. I remember a gifted, nationally acclaimed yoga teacher expressing her agitation when hearing the cue, “squaring the hips” because the curves of the hip are round and can never be angular in that way. Good cue, bad cue? I’ll cover this one in a future post.
If you’re curious now, I encourage you to listen to the Yoga Medicine® podcast on controversial cues. You might get hooked and want to subscribe. Excellent for the curious yoga enthusiast. These are my teachers! If your curiosity is boundless on this subject, you might read Yoga Myths, what you need to learn and unlearn for a safe and healthy yoga practice by Judith Hanson Lasater.