This article is a companion to the practices we explore in yogāsana class in the Heart of Sound yoga teacher training. My development of this work is inspired by my experiences with Leslie Kaminoff, Judith Hanson Lasater and Denise Kaufman.
This type of practice has very different goals than an āsana class that focuses on more gross-level forms and actions. While your students probably won’t get very sweaty, their subtle awareness skills will get a great workout.
Now that you’ve experienced this very special approach in your own body, we’ll review key components and some practical examples here. I’ve also provided a few philosophical ideas to support your teaching and help deepen your experience and your students’ understanding.
Guiding questions, with philosophical connections in italics:
- How do I feel most stable? Most activated? Most connected? Most free?
- cultivating spaciousness, awareness and discernment
- In what ways am I pushing myself? In what ways am I holding myself back?
- Ayurveda of the mind: discovering hidden tāmas, soothing rājasic tendencies
- If this pose were easy, what would that be like? (And do it!)
- rewriting your thoughts, līlā, sukha
- This practice is a prayer for peace. Let that idea seep into every movement.
- pūrṇa concept, āsana as fullness instead of grasping for external successes
- Instead of transcending the body and its limitations, we celebrate the body as an instrument of grace, made perfect in its limitations — just as the holes and stops in a flute are what creates its music.
- Tantric connection, non-dual principle, the unity of fullness and yearning
- In addition to this celebration, we practice yogāsana keep our body instruments tuned, graceful and clean, ready to be used by Grace.
- precision and specificity as devotion, like learning the mouth positions in Sanskrit pronunciation
- We savor space, we savor stillness, we savor silence.
- listening inward first, like nāda yoga or vocal toning for the gross body, or a physical practice of NVC self-empathy
- Resist the urge to “fix” your posture to fit an external image of “good form” or “proper alignment.” Stay with the feeling.
- progression of satya
- Encourage feeling the shape from the inside rather than adhering to a look or style. Eschew canned alignment points such as “square the hips,” or “front knee at 90 degrees” and “second toe points forward” for example.
- Prioritize students’ awareness of their breath and, further, their postural support muscles. Coach scanning for necessary engagement and unnecessary tension.
- Favor layman’s terms and descriptive language. Resist the urge to overstate anatomical details. Rather than “lift through the quadriceps and draw the femur head into its socket,” I might suggest, “Move your leg muscles around until you can feel your front-of-thigh muscles engage. Keeping that, pull your hip back toward the back of your mat.”
- Avoid using abstract ideas of body parts and “should-ing” through important alignment details. In my view, “the sacrum” doesn’t exist, and it certainly doesn’t have any prescribed way it “should” be. However, my particular sacrum likes to tilt slightly backward in seated postures (which has been quite distressing to a handful of my teachers). Your sacrum may very well be similar or dissimilar to mine. There is no canonical alignment, no idyllic sacrum in the sky to which we must aspire and try to imitate.
- Remind students that they are free to adjust themselves at any time, that there is no obligation to “power through” any discomfort, that they can decide to come out of a pose when needed, or to opt out entirely. Conversely, you might also remind students to explore their edges and attempt challenging things, but to do so with compassion and curiosity.
- The point is not to get all students to align as perfectly as possible; rather, to invite all students to listen deeply to their own bodies as lovingly as possible.
Examples of specific poses:
- In “Warrior 1,” students might take a shorter stance.
- In “Triangle,” students might turn the front foot outward slightly and let the front knee bend slightly.
- In “Triangle” and “Revolved Triangle,” the top arm need never be vertical. Start with top hand on hip, cue students to maintain space in the upper chest, and only then direct them to extend their top arms only as far as they will go without compromising their breath.
- In “Mountain Pose,” have students close their eyes while bending and unbending their knees. Coach them to try stepping their feet wider apart, closer together, one forward, one back, turned in, turned out, all the while asking the question, “How do I feel most stable here?” Remind them to keep their feet just that way as they open their eyes and look, resisting the urge to “fix” themselves.
Examples of things to explore:
- Specifically describe a shape without giving it a name. Then, once students feel your interpretation of the pose and have had an opportunity to find what works for them, you might say, “We’ll call this our Triangle Pose.”
- You might cue “step one foot forward” instead of “step into Warrior 1,” to help students loosen their expectations of what a named pose “should” be.
- Reverse the pattern of in-breath and out-breath. For example, if you habitually teach inhaling to Cow Pose and exhaling to Cat Pose, switch it up. Whether you love this variation or hate it, you’ll gain useful information about your body. Further, you’ll give your students powerful permission to experiment and make their practice their own.
- Instead of cueing students to breathe more deeply or more fully, invite students to breathe as subtly and shallowly as possible without holding the breath.
- In balancing poses, draw students’ attention to the tiny movements that occur within what looks like stillness. For example, holding an arm balance or a one-legged standing pose requires a lot of dynamic adjustment.
- If you habitually teach Seated Forward Fold with a flat back, try inviting students to let their spines round forward. Continue coaching deep inquiry: “Does this feel more comfortable, or not?” “Does this feel more open, or not?” “Are you able to breathe more easily, or not?”
- Play with going “too far” — take Crescent lunge really deep, or in Half Moon float your bottom hand, or in any twisting pose take a bind with a strap as needed. Consider these guiding questions: “How are you changing the shape of your breath to accommodate this position?” and “Where can you expand more?” For safety reasons, this exploration is more appropriate in smaller groups.
- Some of my students love working their bandhas and for them, I suggest releasing the bandhas as much as possible. I reassure them that their pelvic floors won’t fall out if they stop lifting and they can return to the bandhas anytime they want. These students are often surprised to find they have difficulty relaxing in this way, and I humbly suggest that anything that presents a challenge is a good opportunity for renewed tapasya.
- In simple static poses like Sukhāsana or Śavāsana, draw students’ attention to the subtle Cat/Cow movements of their spines and the rise and fall of their ribs with in-breath and out-breath. These small movements happen consistently in all bodies but differently in each individual body, and the key point is awareness, not “correctness.” (In other words, your spine and ribs and organs move with each breath and mine move too, but how your parts move is different from how my parts move.)
Integration with other Heart of Sound topics:
- For ideas on how yogāsana works to change karma, see the “Yogāsana and Karma” article.
- For more ideas and connections in using breath practices, see the Prāṇāyāma articles.
- For more on the topic of physical body awareness, see the article “Mantra and the Nervous System,” as well as the article “Voice and the Enlivened Spine.”
Note from Stephanie:
I put quotation marks around the pose names in this article when I mean to indicate my loose interpretation. In class, I explain my re-definition of each pose to meet my needs for clarity, safety and inclusion.
For example, I might introduce a pose like this: “Stand at the back of your mat. Step one foot forward, whichever one feels like it wants to go there. Bend and unbend your front knee, and adjust your foot placement — turn them in or out, step them together or apart — until you can point your bent knee straight forward without discomfort. Let your back foot root down firmly, especially through your heel and pinky toe edge. Point your eyes forward, your heart, your hips. Now, lift your arms skyward with soft shoulders. As an option, you might rest hands on hips. We’ll call this our ‘Warrior 1.’”
I find this approach to yogāsana very refreshing and my students often find the practice revelatory and empowering. On an esoteric note, I connect this free interpretation of āsana to the journey “from form to formlessness”!