on alignment versus alienation.
Lateral. Medial. Proximal. Distal. Hyoid Bone. Xiphoid Process. Linea Alba. These all might be familiar to you if you’ve taken anatomy and kinesiology recently, if your a PT, or if you’re a particularly alignment inclined yoga instructor. All of these may, or very likely may not be familiar to you if you’re part of the rest of the general yoga practicing population.
We’ve often joked about the different categories that yoga teachers tend to fall into. you know, compartmentalizing our peers because that's what people do to make themselves feel safe. and because it makes life easier to digest when you know where everyone lives so that you can put them neatly into their pretty little boxes.
Recently, I have discovered a new category. a new box chalk full of very big words and often very little emotion. a dissection of the practice, looking only at bodies without also listening to the rhythm of their breaths.
If you’ve taken class from me, whether its a regular Monday afternoon yoga practice or a weekend workshop, you can probably attest that I too, like to be specific. I like body parts, and I like to know where it might be helpful to put them, how it might be interesting to think about them, and I’d generally like you to inquire also. I think alignment is important* (*to the extent that that a specific alignment is your goal), I think injuries suck* (*clearly), and I want you (and me) to be able to practice until we peacefully drift away into our final 95 year old savasana. I repeat, paying attention to our bodies matters. inquiring as to what might be happening, how, and why is part of the practice, I like it, and I like teaching with that inquiry in mind. However, and this is a pretty big however, there is a difference between educating our students, and alienating them.
There are times when it may be important, or it may be your kick for the day, to explain the way, for example, how the baseline idea of reciprocal inhibition works. ie: contract the quadriceps to help release and lengthen the hamstring. and you can call it reciprocal inhibition if you want, sometimes it helps to remind the students that you do know what you’re talking to encourage them to tune in. But can we ask ourselves, what is really important here? Is it that the student knows what reciprocal inhibition is? is it that this is your peak for the class? Is it to help provide specific focus for a flittering mind? is it so they see how smart you are? is it to cultivate healthy movement patterns? or is it to help facilitate self inquiry? In my humble opinion, it is more of the later few. We want our students to cultivate body awareness, we want them to be happy and healthy, to practice mindfully, and to keep practicing, no matter what that practice looks like.
I love to break things down so that students understand what the hell is going on in their miracle of a body. I also love to find a way to do this with real talk. with terms, and cues, that the students understand. Unless you’re teaching at a physical therapy convention at the Mirage in Vegas, telling your students to move their Xiphoid Process toward their Pubic Bones, or to descend the proximal end of the femur bone in crescent lunge, it’s usually just too much. Drawn your front ribs down towards your pubic bones. lift your lower belly. cinch your waist. tighten a pair of suspenders. or can you lift the top of your back thigh up toward the ceiling, but keep a still slight bend in the knee?
It is possible to direct our students in a strong anatomically informed way, without requiring them to google everything that was said after class.
If I am feeling distracted and possibly even overwhelmed by the medicalized nature of language in a yoga class, you can sure as hell bet most of the rest of the class checked out long ago as well. I get it, we know something helpful, we know something cool, and we want to share it. That is the nature of teaching, and I will certainly say that this trend scares me much less than the aerobics/yoga/72 vinyasa’s per minute trend of many popular classes. My real emphasis here is that there is a spectrum. Just like Goldilocks, there is a too hot, too cold, just right, kinda thing at work and as teachers I believe we are doing a disservice to our students by letting that porridge sit out for 3 days before eating it. it’s too damn cold.
How can we be succinct and still get the point across? Can we inform our students without intimidating them? Can we teach to the physical specificity and still retain the metaphysical, mystical beauty of the practice? Can we, like yoga suggests, find a way to mesh and find union between the two?
I know that I tend to focus a lot on language. Clearly I like words, but it’s more than that. The way we formulate our languaging is important, it is powerful and often times, it’s all we’ve got. Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me? lies. words are one of our most powerful tools and as teachers, it is our job to use them responsibly. We invite students into our world with our presence and speech. we can wrap them up with the warm fuzzies of enthusiasm or compassion, with knowledge or charisma, or maybe we pull them in by keeping it real and talking to them like a rational human being for the first time all day, or possibly we don't talk much at all and they settle into that lovely rare sacred space.
When it comes down to it, alignment and anatomical precision can and likely will prolong your practice, it will keep you moving safely and mindfully, but will it change your life? probably not.
As we cultivate compassion for our bodies, we cultivate compassion for ourselves and those around us, I firmly believe that. but it is not the pronation of our forearms, the external rotation of our arm bones, and the distance between the Xiphoid process and the pubic bones that makes yoga so prolific and life altering. it’s all the shit in between. its the breath, and the quiet, the connection and showing up, it is nervous system shifts and the relief that flows over us when we step both on of off of our mats each time. It is often a quiet (or slightly quieter than usual) mind that can be truly be life altering. The power of the practice comes from the practice itself, not from the words we use to describe it.