When I get new students with some experience in yoga, I like to ask them: What is this pose for? What are you trying to accomplish here? And I am always amazed at how often the students have absolutely no idea. They’ve been going through the motions without giving a second thought to the intentionality of their practice. If you don’t know what you are looking for, how will you know whether or not you find it? If you DO know what you are looking for, the practice becomes much more personal and much more purposeful. So I believe that it is our responsibility as yoga teachers to continuously educate our students about the intentions behind yoga poses.
Now, I know what you are thinking – Are you crazy? There is a bazillion of yoga poses! Well, technically there are 1,500 native yoga asanas, according to Traditional Knowledge Digital Library (an Indian traditional knowledge repository), compiled from 38 traditional and modern yogic texts. That’s a lot! What does it mean for a yoga teacher and yoga practitioner?
Does it mean that you should know and use all of them (and try to squeeze a bunch of them into every class)? Not at all. It just shows the vast potential that the human body is capable of.
Does it mean that you should know what each one of them is for? That’s a bit unrealistic. What makes more sense is using some sort of classification, both for the purpose of understanding how each pose works and how to teach it. Classification simply means sorting poses into groups that share common attributes, and the most important attribute in any pose is the position of the spine.
We usually don’t talk about the spine much in our yoga classes – you are much more likely to hear something about your hips, hamstrings or arms. Yet the spine is the structural and energetic center of the body.
From the structural perspective, the spine is responsible for balanced weight distribution during any physical activity and it encloses and protects the spinal cord – a bundle of nerves that controls all movement and organ function. You’ve heard it before: ”You are only as young as your spine is flexible.” Any sort of spinal rigidity and/or misalignment can have series health implications. And our modern lifestyle of sitting, driving, computers and cellphones is not helping.
According to the yoga tradition, the spine is also an energetic center of the body – the main energy pathway, sushumna nadi, runs along the spine. Traditionally, yoga poses were meant to move the energy – prana – throughout the body, culminating in the energy rising up along the spine. Therefore, the position of the spine in each particular pose is important both structurally and energetically.
In my tradition (viniyoga) the execution of any yoga pose is pretty straightforward. You begin by deepening the breath; then you use the breath to animate the spine; the rest of the body follows along. So it doesn’t matter whether you do Bhujangasana or Uttanasana, it always follows the same pattern – breath-spine-body periphery.
Thinking about your spine in every yoga pose also helps you understand what it is that you are trying to get out of each yoga pose. Here is how it works.
Directional movement of the spine in yoga poses
Your spine is capable of moving in 5 different directions: forward (flexion), backwards (extension), sideways (lateral flexion), twist (rotation) and slightly upwards (axial extension). Based on these directional movements of the spine we classify all yoga poses into the following categories: forward bends (flexion), back bends (extension), lateral bends ( lateral flexion), twists (rotation) and extension poses (axial extension).
The poses in each group share certain characteristics that help us identify the structural purpose of each particular pose.
FORWARD BENDS: The purpose of all forward bends is to stretch posterior (back) structures of the body. Lower back is usually our primary concern, but, depending on the pose, it can be back of the neck, upper back, hamstrings or calves.
BACK BENDS: The purpose of all back bends is to stretch anterior (front) structures of the body and/ or strengthen the back. Anterior structures include: front of the neck, chest, solar plexus area, hip flexors and thighs.
LATERAL BENDS: there are two distinct groups of poses in the lateral bend category. Group 1 includes poses where the spine is flexed laterally; the purpose of those poses is to alternately stretch and strengthen the lateral (side) structures of the body: obliques, intercostals, QL, lats, etc.
Group 2 includes the poses where one leg is flexed and abducted, creating the “pelvic/hip opening”. The goal of those poses is to stretch and strengthen the muscles that bind the leg to the pelvis.
TWISTS: Twists are important because they rotate the spine, increasing circulation to the intervertebral discs, but also because they realign the relationship between the shoulder girdle and the spine, as well as the pelvic girdle and the spine. That is essential for different kinds of shoulder/ hip imbalances.
AXIAL EXTENSION: When you go to bed every night, you are slightly shorter then you were when you woke up. Gravity causes our spines to become incrementally shorter. Axial extension poses reverse this process by elongating the spine, while integrating the spinal curves and facilitating better posture and alignment in general. They also help create more space in the joints (shoulders and hips).
Understanding the directional movement of the spine in every yoga pose is very useful in practice design. If you want to stretch the chest, you know that you will need to include a variety of back bends. If you want to realign the position of the shoulder blades, you will be sure to focus on twists. And next time your student asks you: “Why are we doing Downward facing dog?”, you will be able to explain, that Downward facing dog is an axial extension posture, therefore the purpose is to lengthen the spine, build better relationship between the spinal curves and create space in the shoulder joints. When you look at it that way, you know that any one of those adaptation will accomplish the task, therefore you can select the option that is more appropriate for your student.
If you are clear about your intentions with each particular pose, it will clarify your thinking of how to choose an appropriate pose, how to teach it and how to adapt it to a specific student.
Next week we will begin our in-depth exploration of those 5 groups of poses: forward bends, backward bends, twists, lateral bends and axial extension postures. We will demonstrate which poses belong in which category, what can we hope to get out of them, and how we can make them work for students of different abilities. We will zoom in on couple of postures within each category and show how you can use them in different situations for maximum effectiveness. Don’t miss it!
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