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Teaching Yoga Poses

This is an excerpt from Teaching Yoga for Life by Nanette E. Tummers.

For the purpose of instruction, we present the general poses followed by suggestions for modifying the poses, referred to as variations for different age groups and abilities. These suggested age groups are in general; as you know, a 5-year-old can be as developmentally advanced as a 7- or 8-year-old, who can be in the same class with a student lagging behind in development. In addition, some students may be physically able to do more-advanced poses but emotionally have problems concentrating or listening to directions.

Infusion ideas are included with the poses. Infusion ideas are ways to enrich the learning experience by infusing other topics and subjects into the yoga class, making it a holistic activity. The instructions provided are as simple as possible, with a beginning stance or posture and a finishing stance or posture. Often, the finishing pose suggested is considered a balancing pose. In this case, balancing means bringing balance to the whole body. For example, if the pose involves a back bend or the spine is extended, then the finishing pose would involve back flexion to allow for a balanced practice.

Your role as an instructor is to help the students take responsibility for their own self-care, meaning they find the best way to do the pose or find a pose that works for them. This can be thought of as "fake it until you make it." For example, in a balancing pose, encourage students to use a prop such as a wall or chair to help them balance so they don't become frustrated and give up because they are not able to do the pose as presented.

To stay consistent and to avoid confusion, the names included are the traditional Western translations of the Sanskrit names for the poses. Also provided after each traditional name are alternative names meant to sound like fun and be more accessible. Feel free to adapt the names to fit your teaching because many of the names of poses are just made up.

Five Steps for Introducing a Yoga Pose

How you introduce a yoga pose will always depend on the age and developmental level of the students, but here are some general suggestions.

  • Before starting instructing a pose, ask all students to be quiet and still for a few breaths. You can make a few comments about the intention of the pose or tell a story connected to the pose.
  • Set the tone by giving direction for the breath. Some cues to facilitate this include "Listen to your breath as if you are listening to the sound coming from a sea shell," or "Listen quietly to your breath as you breathe in and out through your heart."
  • Make sure that breath is linked with the pose. For example, for mountain pose you might say, "Take a big breath in, and at the same time lift your heart and let your arms reach up to the sky and tickle the clouds" (see figure 4.8). Think of yoga as a dance of movements that are connected to the rhythm of the breath. Typically, on inhalation, the body is moved in order to be open to receive oxygen; on exhalation, the body is moved to release toxins and carbon dioxide.
  • Bring students' awareness to the energy or the intention of the pose. For example, for tree pose you might say, "The supporting or balancing leg is like a strong tree trunk, with the foot growing strong roots deep in the ground below." Back bends provide another example. When the spine bends backward, the area around the heart opens up. Ask the students when they practice this pose to keep the area around the heart open and find the middle ground, that balance between effort and challenge mixed with comfort and ease.
  • Before starting a pose or a movement, it is important to feel grounded and centered, to have a foundation. In yoga, the body needs to be strongly grounded at all times. The feet are the foundation when standing, and the sit bones (the ischium bones) are the foundation when sitting. Similar to building a house, where the foundation allows for floors to be build on top of it, a strong foundation allows the rest of the body to be correctly and safely aligned.

Step-by-Step Teaching of Correct Alignment

Equally important in setting the tone and foundation for each yoga pose is alignment.

Alignment refers to the stature of the body that allows for optimal body mechanics and posture. It is important to note that the alignment principles are not lost or forgotten when the body starts to move. Whether the pose is mountain or seated forward fold with the legs straight out in front, correct alignment still applies (see figure 4.9). Even in final relaxation posture, the body should feel lengthened and open.

The best example to illustrate the concept of feeling grounded, centered, and in alignment is mountain pose, which is the standing pose from which all standing poses begin. If you imagine a mountain, the base is strongly rooted into the ground while the peaks aspire into the clouds and the sky. The following steps describe alignment using mountain pose as the reference. It is easy to see how mountain pose is named, with the analogous lower body firmly grounded, the spine strong, and the heart and upper body open and lifted.

  1. Spread the toes wide, making floor contact with all four parts of the foot: the ball of the foot, pinky toe side, and inner and outer heel. The feet are hip-width apart, with the feet firmly placed into the floor. Briefly lift the toes to allow for the body weight to be shifted back. Then release the toes, and be mindful not to grip with the toes.
  2. Actively engage the muscles of the legs, with the knees slightly bent. "Actively" engaging muscles means contracting and making the muscles firm in the area. Engage the abdomen, or core, of the body as if putting on a seat belt, keeping the area from the hips to the shoulders (core) strong and stable but not rigid. The tailbone will naturally tuck down and under to point to the floor, which helps stabilize the back muscles.
  3. Stand tall, finding length through the spine with the crown of the head reaching toward the sky. Honor the natural curves of the spine, and keep the head as a natural extension of the spine, not hyperextended or arched back. Imagine a string with a weight attached to it and hanging from the ceiling next to you. This string will bisect the ears, shoulders, hips, knees, and ankles.
  4. From the belly button down, there is a strong foundation. With the feet rooted into the ground, the legs are strong as if the muscles are squeezing the bones, and the kneecaps are slightly lifted, with the muscles of the quadriceps (front of the upper legs) engaged.
  5. From the belly button up, the upper body is open and lifted out of the waist but not rigid. Place the head at the top of the spine, the chin level with the ground. Keep the chest open and lift the heart space, the collarbones wide. Roll the shoulder blades back and down as if they are reaching to the back pockets. Do not let the shoulders hunch, creating a lot of space between the ears and shoulders.

Take a look at the elements of alignment shown in the two alignment examples of mountain pose (see figures 4.8 and 4.9).

Figure 4.8 Mountain pose

Figure 4.9 Side view of the mountain pose

Holding of Poses

The holding of a yoga pose refers to how long the pose is held or maintained in order for the benefits of the pose, such as muscle endurance, strength, or flexibility, to be realized. To improve these areas, the principle of overload must be applied. One way of looking at overload is finding the middle path, or the edge. To gain strength, endurance, or flexibility, we must challenge the body in order for growth to occur, but not to a point where there is discomfort or pain. This can be facilitated by asking students to stay with the pose so they feel challenged but not overdoing it and becoming frustrated. You need to continually point out that yoga should feel good. Your language to students must include "permission language," which is discussed in chapter 3. This means giving students the responsibility of being the best judge of what their bodies need, what their middle path is, and when to come out of a pose. Ways to encourage this permission is to state during a pose, "You can hold this pose for one or two breaths and then come in and out of the pose when you need to."

Yoga poses should have a natural ebb and flow to them. This means an intention of a moderate level of steady and comfortable effort and not a goal to push to exhaustion and then collapse. With younger students, it is important to pace the more-active poses with restful poses, going back and forth between play and rest. Paying close attention to your students' breathing and energy levels can cue you as to what is the right mix for them. With older students, encourage the importance of mixing up the effort and rest.



Learn more about Teaching Yoga for Life.

More Excerpts From Teaching Yoga for Life