By Kathryn Boland
Have you noticed how many different people often execute the same common yoga student misalignments? Do you wonder the best ways to help any and all students correct these pose misalignments? It’s a tricky balance, because we of course want to help students grow, learn, feel strong and successful in practice, and avoid injury. Yet we don’t want to sound corrective, in the sense of telling students they’ve done something wrong. Many yoga students already come to the practice with a low level of confidence – so the confidence that they do have is something we want to build up, not bring down.
If we keep our cueing detailed (yet clear and concise), we can keep things focused on the intriguing nuances of practice and not on the capabilities of students themselves (which, as mentioned, about which they might already feel sensitive). For some students, verbal and/or demonstrated cueing works well for that, but for others (especially for more novice students and those with spatial, kinesthetic, or other such challenges) physical cueing is more helpful. Let’s look at a couple of adjustments for a few common yoga student misalignments, those that together offer the tools to help most students learn desired placement in asana.
*Note: for cues involving physical cueing or light manipulation, ensure that you are teaching in a context (students and setting) wherein physical cueing is welcome. Even so, ask students if cueing is all right, or pre-instruct (such as at the beginning of class) them to please let you know if they would rather not receive physical cueing today if you come over to physically assist them.
1) Warrior back foot at 90, rather than 45 degrees
Why it matters – That placement can cause strain on the hip, knee, and/or ankle joints if joints “compensate” or make up for lack of degrees of motion elsewhere. If joints do not do that, students can feel less stable and strong in a pose.
Verbal cue – “Point your back toes to the front (right or left) corner of the room, rather than the side wall”. (Saying “45 degrees” might not translate as smoothly for some students)
Physical cue – Point on the ground where it is best for a student to place the toes of his/her back foot, and say “Toes here, please”. If that doesn’t translate, gently pick up the ball of the foot and move it to the better placement.
2) Triceps/pinkey edges forward, biceps/thumb edges back
Why it matters – This alignment ensures that the shoulders stay safe and strong in the sockets – very important for weight-bearing poses, from Tabletop to Downward-Facing Dog to more advanced arm balances. This prevents injury as well as longer-term strain.
Verbal cue – in an Urdhva Hastasana shape “Face your palms into one another”, “Make a number 11 around your head, your pinky edges spinning forward; in a weight bearing shape “Spin your biceps forward and triceps back, allowing your hands to angle just slightly out if necessary for that action to happen.”
Physical cue – gently (and that is key – keep your grip as soft and light as possible) spin the biceps forward and triceps back, holding from the lateral (side) edge of the arm.
3) Feet too wide in Bridge Pose
Why it matters – This alignment can seriously strain the sacroiliac, knee, and ankle joints, especially if done repeatedly in practice. It also results in the pose feeling a lot less stable and being less effective.
Verbal cue – (best given before students raise their spines off their mats) “Place your feet hips-distance apart, so that you could draw a straight line to your sitting bones to your heels.” *Note: ensure that students are aware of where their sitting bones are before offering this cue, which is good education anyways – perhaps a note for some point prior in class!
Physical cue – Have students lower their backs down, lift their heads slightly up to see you point to where it’s best for them to place their feet (similar to the Warrior back foot cue previously described). If that doesn’t translate, gently (again, key quality there) move feet to where best for the pose (ensuring that the feet are parallel; many students with natural external rotation and/or lack of adductor engagement tend to have their toes slightly turned out in this pose).
This is a good start for correcting common yoga student misalignments. Once these are adjusted we cover more.
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The Top Five Yoga Techniques Commonly Misaligned
An Interview with Candace Morano
Yoga techniques have been known to improve flexibility, strengthen muscles, and enhance balance. However, if practiced incorrectly yoga can do more damage to the body than good. Misaligned poses can lead to injuries ranging from aching joints to pulled muscles. “Yoga injuries are often a result of not knowing or realizing your body’s limitations,” says yoga instructor and educational kinesiologist Candace Morano. “This goes for beginners and advanced students, as some beginners underestimate how strenuous yoga techniques can be and some who are more advanced overestimate their strength and flexibility,” says Candace.
Below, Candace highlights the Do’s and Don’ts of the top five yoga techniques commonly misaligned. Images are available upon request to illustrate each pose. Please let me know if you’re interested in learning more or coordinating an upcoming segment.
#1 Seated Pose with Pranayama:
DON’T: Sit in a slumped position. It decreases the ability to breathe into a straight, long spine. “Not breathing fully into the torso and body can also lead to anxiety and low energy,” says Candace.
DO: Sit in a comfortable cross legged position on the floor or on a blanket. Loop a yoga belt or one of your own comfortably around your lower ribs. The belt will serve as a boundary for feeling the connection between your diaphragm and breath.
As you begin to breath feel your lower belly expand. Then feel your breath extend higher above the belt, into the mid-chest as you extend your breath further into your top chest. Follow this pattern as you begin to descend downward and start to exhale. Using the belt will help you understand how to breathe into the lower and upper torso and how to preserve the space that is created within, even as you exhale with full attention.
#2 Standing Forward Bend:
DON’T: Hyper-extend knees.
DO: Slightly bend knees and move your hips directly over ankles. This will encourage top of shin forward and engage your front thighs and avoid hyperextension. “Yoga practice has a building block effect,” says Candace. “Remember to take what you learn in every pose and apply it to the next.”
The Standing Forward Bend is the practice of grounding into the support right under our feet. Standing tall in mountain pose, inhale, lift your arms upward and extend your spine forward towards your toes. Inhale from the heels to the balls of the feet, keeping the toes relaxed, and follow muscular attention upwards. Feel your kneecaps lift towards thighs and thighs engage strongly towards pelvis. This will help to bring the knees into alignment over the ankles. On the exhalation, stay with the essence of strength in front of legs as you practice releasing any tension in the back of the legs, back to the source under your feet; the earth. Practice this cycle of attention and breathe 3 times. Feel the upward magnetism of energy into the pelvic floor as you lift and extend back down through tailbone on the descent towards the earth.
#3 Warrior III Pose:
DON’T: Extend in one direction rather than feeling polar attraction of opposites.
DO: From mountain pose, inhale lifting your left leg off the floor reaching your arms straight out in front of you and as best you can, bringing both hips points level to encourage them to be even and square. As you bring your torso forward, extend through your left leg imagining a see-saw playfully finding balance between the front and back body, using your arms and legs as anchors. Your head and chest stay lifted. Make sure to practice the other side and notice any differences and imbalances on one side versus the other.
#4 Upward Facing Dog:
DON’T: Tense and compress neck and shoulders, hyper extend elbows, or put any strain on the wrists when practicing yoga techniques. “Tense shoulders cause problems in the wrists,” says Candace.
DO: Micro bend elbows or as much as needed until you can keep your shoulder blades engaged on back as you lift your chest high. Lie on your belly with your chin or forehead on the floor. Your palms are shoulder distance apart and next to your chest. Breathe into your hands, pressing evenly through the palms as if you were energetically pulling them back to your feet. Grounding hip points, legs and tops of feet down into earth, lift pubis, belly, chest and head toward the sky feeling the length you are creating from your waist to your armpits. Feel a soft bend in elbows as shoulder blades soften onto your back. This muscular action encourages your chest to expand while feeling vulnerability in the heart. Exhale and slowly lower back to the support of the earth allowing any stress, extra effort or tension to release.
#5 Triangle Pose:
DON’T: Hyper-extend the front knee or lean weight into bottom arm and front leg, shortening bottom side of front waist, allowing torso to lean in towards the center instead of lifting upward and away from the earth.
DO: Stand tall with your feet wide apart. Turn your right toes forward and your left toes 45 degrees towards the front, arms extending in a T position. The instep of your back foot aligns with the heel of your front foot. Inhale, grounding into both feet and exhale tilting your hips towards your back leg and lifting your navel and chest as you extend your spine long and out over your front leg. Inhale, lifting from the earth up through your body. Exhale with your right hand to your right ankle, a yoga block or the floor on the outside of the right foot if you have found flexibility without compromising the extension of both sides of the waist and spine. Inhale into the ball of the right toe mound, as you reach down into the support of the earth to rise up to extend upward to the expansion of the sky.
Practice taking your left arm forward towards the center on the inhale and then exhaling and extending the left arm back to the sky. This will give your body an exploration of its own intelligence via the breath and repetition of movement.
Meet Candace Morano
Candace Morano is a certified yoga teacher & educational kinesiologist based in New York. For the past seven years, she has brought together the teachings of yoga, kinesiology, psychotherapy, and aromatherapy to transform the lives of the adult, children, and disabled clients with whom she works. Combining her degree as a social worker with yoga and educational kinesiologist, Candace began to work privately with children with Cerebral Palsy, Down Syndrome and Autism. For three years, she taught the yoga program at the Cooke Center for Learning, working with a body of students with a wide range of special needs. Candace also works with adults. She has taught programs to the parents and teachers of the Learning Spring School and the Rebecca School both based in NYC, incorporating yoga techniques, educational kinesiology, and stress reduction techniques. Candace’s practice incorporates the use of medicinal oils for injuries and aromatherapy in the private classes she runs throughout New York City.