When teaching yoga, what are the fundamental, or central, themes to focus on, and among the numerous poses, which are the most important ones for your students to practice?

In yoga, the following themes are essential:

  • Alignment. It is vital to pay attention to alignment, or symmetrical range of motion (ROM) right to left, in any given position. Yoga practice can help students discover how to monitor the intensity of forces needed to achieve strength and stability in any given pose for the purpose of stillness and meditation.
  • Anatomy. All yoga teachers need a strong knowledge of anatomy. This means not just memorizing muscles and bones, but learning about jointsÔÇötheir capabilities and structureÔÇöand the associated muscular attachments.
  • Force. Paramount in the teaching of yoga is the understanding that we are responding to force. We must understand how a force becomes a resistance; learn how to apply force; and look at whatÔÇöin our anatomyÔÇöopposes and creates force. We have muscle that is designed to develop tension and to directly or indirectly oppose forces that occur inside and outside of the body.
  • Limitation. There are reasons for limitation and tightness in the body. It is fundamental for yoga practitioners to understand the reasons for their tightness. One cause of muscle tightness can be weakness. Since yoga is about holding isometric positions, it can strengthen weak areas if poses are performed correctly.
  • Individuality. The most important aspect of yoga that many teachers and practitioners miss is attention to the individual. Realizing that not every body can fit into every pose is crucial. We must see that in addition to having general anatomical knowledge, there is also the anatomy of the individual to consider. Yoga practice should never violate the bodyÔÇÖs current status and ROM.

Getting Back to Basics

Many instructors are bored with looking at the ÔÇ£basics.ÔÇØ We like to learn new poses and new ways to choreograph them, and we are impressed when an instructor can ÔÇ£get intoÔÇØ advanced poses.

What happens if we take a fresh approach to teaching some of the basic poses? Instead of blindly doing what weÔÇÖre used to, our thought process can include:

  • looking at the traditional method of practice;
  • deciding if there could be a better approach;
  • identifying the joints involved in the pose;
  • identifying the forces needed to achieve the position that an individual is capable of;
  • determining the cues that would help a student achieve the pose; and
  • adjusting the process to account for each individualÔÇÖs barriers to ROM and ability.

LetÔÇÖs apply this process to a yoga pose.

Supta Padangusthasana, or Supine Big Toe Pose

Traditional Method. Lie supine on mat, flex involved hip, extend knee and dorsiflex ankle. Place strap around bottom of foot, or grab foot/big toe, and pull hip further into flexion. Common adjustments include teacher pushing studentÔÇÖs hip further into flexion and pushing opposite hip further into floor or student pulling herself further into passive ranges.

Could there be a better approach?

Joints Involved. Hip (flexion), knee (extension), ankle (dorsiflexion) and shoulder (scapular retraction).

Forces. Resist hip flexion by placing hand on front of studentÔÇÖs thigh. Instruct student to press opposite leg against floor in order to perform hip extension.

Cues. ÔÇ£Press thigh lightly into hand while actively drawing dorsal surface of foot toward knee. Think of lightly pulling foot away from belt to draw attention to anterior shin muscles.ÔÇØ

Individual Barriers to ROM and Ability. Check studentÔÇÖs ability to dorsiflex right and left (R-L) ankles, and to flex R-L hips, with flexed knee to make sure pose does not violate active ROM. Also, assess individualÔÇÖs ability to be supine on floor when gravity is pushing against her.

Learn how to apply this thought process to four other popular yoga poses in the full article, ÔÇ£Yoga Fundamentals: Pose by Pose,ÔÇØ in the online IDEA Library or in October 2009 IDEA Fitness Journal.