Alignment and Poetry

An exploration of diverse teaching and learning styles in yoga

If you've gone to your fair share of yoga classes and studied with a variety of instructors at a myriad of place settings, you know that every teacher has their signature style. 

And you, the student, have your preferred learning approach. You may love a slow, alignment-based class while your neighboring yogi yawns and zones out. That same person might live for the jam-packed sweaty happy hour vinyasa class with a slamming playlist and minimal anatomical instruction, but you find yourself feeling robbed of a more soothing, internal experience. One is not necessarily better than the other. We are all different, and what's more, different approaches will work for us at distinct phases of our lives. 

I have been a student to many distinct classes and have found myself loving (or NOT loving) a variety of approaches. During my 4 years of teaching yoga I am cognizant of the changes (and hopefully improvements) in my teaching style. It is part of the creative evolutionary process I enjoy as an instructor: I'm never nailed down to saying "spread your fingers and toes" or "let every pore be like an eye" ad infinitum. In some classes I talk about anatomy, in others I talk about emotions and mental processes, and in others I choose to guide my students' awareness of their breath. 

I wanted to understand why the distinct approaches to doing and teaching yoga can work so well. After all, it is true that there is really only one yoga: by definition, the word itself means union! I think the answer lies in novelty and timing. It can be refreshing to hear a teacher eloquently describe a pose in an original, poetic way. It makes our ears perk up and the cells of our body respond by changing their patterned behavior. 

Similarly, a more technical approach and skillful conveyance of the reality of muscle, joint and ligament might bring us to a new understanding of an asana that had previously baffled us or even was experienced as painful. 

Imagine you are in parivrtta parsvakonasana, revolved extended side angle pose, and you are growing frustrated as you continuously lose your balance. Your breath becomes erratic, your brow and jaw tense, and you're starting to wonder what's the point with trying so hard? The teacher assists you by supporting the left and right sides of your pelvis. Then she tells you to widen your stance 1/2", powerfully straighten your back leg while sinking lower into your front hip, and to gaze softly up past your shoulder. As she slowly releases her assist, the cues remain embedded in your body. You have found the posture for the first time through a combination of her hands-on adjustment and exact alignment cues.

Now imagine you are practicing sirsasana, headstand.* Though you have been practicing headstand almost daily for several years, you know that you always hold onto some fear of falling. This fear manifests as tension in the upper shoulders, stiffening the muscular layers of the neck, and erraticism in the breath. Your teacher speaks to the room: "You are so close to the Earth. She will catch you if you fall. Don't be afraid." Not only do you feel the tension release, but you begin to explore moving the legs in new ways in your headstand: splitting, reaching the legs back behind your head. You feel yourself wobble but the usual gripping for dear life doesn't happen anymore. 

What both teachers have done has been to guide the student toward an aspect of self-realization: that is, a remembrance of who and what we really are, humans that are rooted through the feet to Earth, and through the head, bound for Sky. Between the two is a balance between limitation and possibility. Stability and expansion. Flesh and spirit.

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*I owe the credit for this story to Juan Sierra, Jivamukti Yoga Teacher, whose artful cue helped me to release my residual fear in headstand.