Evaluating Your Students Body Alignment



One of the greatest transitions from practicing yoga to teaching yoga comes in evaluating the body alignment of other people in yoga poses. There is a strong drive at first to focus on limbs, their position in space or straightness or grace. However, even when your target is an arm or leg, the best way to effect a change in body alignment is rarely to ask the student to do anything with their arm or leg.

Just as you learned to build a backbend yoga pose from the pelvic and abdominal engagement, based on cues that seemed to have nothing to do with shoulders, chest or back, your evaluation of student’s body alignment must build from the foundation in order to effect lasting change. Yoga poses are built from the inside out and your instructions and cues for enlivening a yoga pose should move your students from the inside to express outward, thus aligning their expression with their optimum internal state.

The most general clues about whether a yoga pose is growing from the strongest possible foundation is in your student's face, breath and energy. If their facial expression is slack, uninterested or their jaw is disengaged allowing their breath to move through the mouth, this is a clue to low or blocked energy. Something needs to be engaged. On the other hand, furrowed brows, squinting eyes, clamped jaws, forced breathing are all the outward manifestation of forced energy: something needs to be released. This is why sometimes the best body alignment cue is to ask the whole class to smile; the people who will benefit from engagement will find some and those who need relaxation will find some of that as well.

Often you’re giving more individualized, specialized body alignment cues; for that you want to be able to say not just that something needs to be relaxed, but that the shoulders can come away from the ears, or the back of the body can soften. Perhaps you’re inviting a student to wake up in the yoga pose, and you want to give them a very specific instruction to press the outside of the left little toe into the ground, not just “Wake up!”

The most important landmarks for physical cues are the toes, outsides of the feet, arches, knees, front and back ribs, shoulders and sternum. Mountain yoga pose, or Tadasana, is home base for all standing yoga poses, so the same points of body alignment should be maintained in ever standing yoga pose:

  • Weight evenly distributed over all four corners of the feet
  • Relaxed toes
  • Knees over ankles
  • Hips over knees
  • Pelvic neutral body alignment
  • Ribcage over pelvis
  • Shoulder blades on the back
  • Head balanced over neck

The feet tell the entire story when quickly evaluating body alignment. Arches fallen indicate lack of energy in the lower leg and inner thigh. Gripping toes often are tied to a clenched posterior with inadequate engagement in the thighs. Gripping buttocks compromise the low back and often compensate for a weak core. Heels indicate engagement in the back of the leg.

When evaluating body alignment in the upper body, the sternum tells you all you need to know. A sunken appearing chest indicates the back body is insufficiently engaged; an instruction to draw the shoulder blades together on the back will lift the sternum, relax the shoulders and begin to engage the core. The sternum out in front of the body indicates the upper core needs to be engaged. An instruction to draw the front ribs in or to breathe into the back body will help to draw the diaphragm up and under the rib cage.

Engaging the core is the surest way to enliven the rest of the yoga pose, and the deepest level of core engagement is mula bandha, or lifting the pelvic floor. However, for most students, that instruction won’t help them execute the action. In order to show them how, you can tell them to try to draw the front bone of their pelvis back to their tailbone. The usual instruction for engaging the abdominals is to draw the navel back to the spine; however if you ask them to lift their ribcage evenly up off of their pelvis, this will evenly engage the front and sides of the abdomen, though you’ll probably need to follow it up with an instruction to relax the shoulders.

By attending to foundation and deep core instead of photographic perfection in a yoga pose you can teach them how to access their deep inner reserves in all the postures of their lives and improve theri body alignment.

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