The one tip I never use when I teach yoga

June 20, 2023 0 Comments

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Yoga tips can be tricky.

Communicating complex concepts quickly to students is as much art as science, especially in a classroom with a variety of people who interpret our words and navigate their bodies in different ways. And we, teachers, do not always understand correctly.

I’ll try almost any verbal cue that effectively conveys what I mean, even if it’s not technically accurate. I’m an anatomy teacher, but I don’t hesitate to tell students to “breathe into their stomachs” if I think it will help, even though I’m fully aware that students are breathing into their lungs.

There is simply no such thing as a perfect way to verbally guide all students into a pose. But there is one verbal line that I do not use, have not used and will never use. And it tells someone to take the “full expression” of the pose. The language is not only imprecise and unhelpful, but also potentially alienating to some students.

It is unusual that different yoga teachers and schools practice asanas in different ways. For example, Ashtanga’s Triangle Pose requires the big toe to be grasped, while most styles rest the hand on a mat, shin, or block. Therefore, the actions represented by the phrase “full expression” depend on the context of the class. A student learning in one method who is encouraged to find “full expression” by a teacher in another method is likely to work toward a different orientation or course of action.

But more importantly, even when the same iteration of a pose is known, who defines its “full expression”? Each of us is unique not only in our fingerprints and DNA, but also in the proportions of our bones, the shape of our joints, our movement patterns, and our life experiences. How can a teacher know a student’s “full” ability?

A student with longer arms is likely to have an easier time tying an arm than a student with shorter arms or a wider torso. A student with shallower and more outward-facing hips is more likely to find Padmasana (lotus pose) than a student with deeper or more forward-facing hips.

In each example, one student’s full ability—and potential “full expression”—is markedly different from another’s through lack of effort or experience, and in ways that are not always apparent from the outside.

We must also factor into this equation the understanding that every time a student steps onto the yoga mat, their experience is influenced by prior activity levels, hydration, nutrition, stress, fatigue, sleep, and countless other factors. What constitutes a person’s fullest or 100 percent expression will vary from day to day and from practice to practice.

Perhaps most importantly, using the phrase “full expression” can be as demotivating to some students as it is inspiring to others. As social creatures, we are programmed to respond to expectations and context as much as to spoken words. When the teacher implies that one—and only one—posture constitutes a “full” expression, we may feel our ability to do something is even less or inferior.

Instructing students to find their “full expression” is not only vague, it threatens to negate the benefits of a practice that aims to liberate us and remind us of our inherent wholeness. I would argue that it is unkind to say these words to students and it is an act of propriety to avoid it. And, in the words of Aesop, “no act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever in vain.”

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About our contributor

Rachel Land is a Yoga Medicine instructor who offers group and individual yoga classes in Queenstown, New Zealand, and by request at Passionate about the real-world application of her research into anatomy and alignment, Rachel uses yoga to help her students build strength, stability, and mental clarity. Rachel is also the co-host of the new Yoga Medicine podcast.

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