The charming Andrew McGonigal, aka Doctor Yogi; doctor, turned yoga teacher, began his workshop with this statement:
“No natural movement made by the body is inherently bad”
It got my attention. And I had a feeling this simple statement was going to have a big impact on my teaching.
As a yoga teacher, we are constantly adjusting and tweaking our students, ‘fixing’ their alignment to get them into the ‘correct’ position. That’s our job right? That’s what we’re there for. But if all natural movements are ‘correct’ then why are we constantly adjusting students during their practice? That ‘why’ was the key to everything else Andrew taught us throughout the workshop.
In almost every discipline, class, course, teaching; everything the teacher tells us is gospel, we usually believe it and begin from there. So during my teacher training, if I was told to not let the knee collapse in, then I made damn sure all my students kept their knees out. Andrew pointed out that even the use of the word ‘collapse’ gives a negative meaning to the reality of just a simple movement of the knee to one side.
Of course one big reason we give cues is because like everything, there needs to be some structure to what we are doing and practicing. Some basic principles and poses we can all relate and refer to in order to work certain parts of the body. But every single person on this planet has a unique makeup, skeleton and body. So how can we be dogmatic about alignment and our cues if there’s simply certain movements that don’t feel good for certain people?
The key to applying the statement “no natural movement made by the body is inherently bad” to our yoga practice and teaching, lies in its accompanying principles. Andrew explained these principles in his hugely informative and surprisingly funny and entertaining workshop.
Firstly, we start with our intention; the ‘why’ of our movement. We must always enter into a pose knowing exactly why we are doing the pose, what are the benefits to each part of the body and know why we are giving certain cues. For example, if we are asking students to go into a tree pose and our intention is to build strength in the standing leg, then we cue them to keep a slight, micro bend in the knee so the muscles stay active. If our intention is to stay in the pose for as long as possible, maybe working on balance or concentration through the use of breath, then we might cue to lock out the knee so it’s easier on the muscles of the leg and the students can stay in the pose longer. Intention gives us the reason for each cue.
This may go against what so many of us have previously been taught or have read about locking out your knees. But I have never heard or seen anyone faint or even feel slightly lightheaded from locking out their knee, have you? The body is an incredible and complex machine, I think we should its ability to function correctly, a little more credit than that.
Next is control. Practising yoga allows us to continuously connect deeper within our bodies and gain more control and understanding. So everything we do in our practice should be done with control and intent. Controlled movement also insures we are stable, secure and helps us move in a safe way, avoiding injury not just in our practice but in our everyday movements and life.
An obvious priority in our practice, but one that is unfortunately too often overshadowed due to the ever present ego, is to avoid pain. Our practice should always feel good! Yes, it should also sometimes be challenging in order to help us improve and grow, but it should never be in any way painful.
And lastly, the whole reason we have a physical, asana practice, is our breath. Breath is our number one priority in yoga. To bring us back to the present moment, to connect with our bodies, to consciously breathe. This is the origin of yoga; a breathing practice.
Once our movements stay within these parameters; they are aligned with the breath, have a specific intent, you move with control and are pain free, then we don’t need to be so dogmatic about getting every pose ‘perfect’. If someone knows a certain pose is, in part, to strengthen their adductors, and you as a teacher are sure they know what that feels like, then they can make the small tweaks, following your cues to see, testing to see what works for their body. This is a much more inclusive approach, and one that really allows each person to full connect with their own unique bodies.
So in other words, in our practice, ‘what’ we are doing is a breath work, we always start here. The ‘why’ of our movement, is set by our intention; our reasons for practicing a certain pose. ‘How’ to do this is simply to move with control, feeling what is right for our own unique bodies and always ensuring it is pain free.