How do you teach movement without focusing on alignment?

My trauma informed yoga classes are largely made up of postures and breath. While I don’t teach a lot of vigorous pose-to-pose sequences, I do incorporate simpler breath/movement coordination. I don’t believe that achieving a certain alignment in yoga postures is the goal of yoga, even though my classes are mainly physical in nature – but how can you teach yoga postures in a way that isn’t solely about alignment? For many yoga teachers, learning alignment is a huge part of teacher training, perhaps the main part.

Cues
In my trauma informed yoga classes, I’m not assisting, and I’m mostly doing the practice with students. I still give alignment cues, but the fact that I’m doing the poses too means my cues can be fewer and farther in between than if I were not.

I also try to choose cues that speak to things other than physical alignment. “Resist gravity with your arms.” “Feel the length from your front big toe to your fingertips” “Notice where you feel the most sensation from this pose” “Focus your gaze somewhere that brings ease to your neck”. I offer options and agree that choosing what to do with one’s own body can help rebuild a sense of control that is sometimes lost in trauma.

Assumptions
I avoid assuming that the goal is the deepest most challenging expression of each posture every time. Rather than “sit lower” in chair pose, I might say “if you’re interested in more depth, draw your hips lower and further back” or “draw your hips lower and further back, notice what’s going on in your quads. Choose to stay here or to come back up”.

There are many reasons why a person may not want to get into the “deepest” or “fullest” expression of the pose. It may feel unpleasant. They might not physically be able to reach it. They might be exhausted after a long day on their feet. It might remind them of past trauma. I can still speak to the alignment of a pose and allow the option to not do that – or even not to try to if that is what is best for you today. In my view, what’s “best” is a holistic view of well-being (feeling successful in a class, enjoying the one hour of free time you’ve chosen to spend going to yoga), not simply the physical benefits of a single yoga posture. You are the only one in your body and you are the best judge of what is best for you, not your yoga teacher! Most yoga teachers would subscribe to this view on issues outside of the studio, but often our words in the studio contradict.

Sequencing
I do speak to alignment in terms of safety (keep your knee on top of your ankle in warrior two rather than forward of it) but I tend to avoid postures where bigger safety issues come up or where people tend to mis-align in ways that are unsafe.  Dancer, plow, chaturanga, upward dog. And sometimes with yoga’s focus on alignment, as yoga teachers we speak as if having “perfect alignment” is the only way to be safe …. there is a wide range where people may not be in “correct” alignment or in a deep expression of a pose, but they are also not unsafe.

Rather than sequencing with a peak pose in mind, with the goal of opening or strengthening specific parts of the body so they will be “ready” for an arm balance or something, I sequence with a general framework (warming up the spine, Sun A / simple breath per movement flow, Sun B with arm vinyasa or standing postures, seated postures, hip opener/s, spine strengtheners, surrender postures) and within each class choose postures based on where we can go with a minimum of changes to the orientation of the body. This makes it less necessary to spend excessive time on alignment cues because we are already in a stance that makes sense for the next posture.

“Fixing” people
I chose this term for assisting deliberately and ironically, because I’ve more than once heard a student use it to describe hands-on assists. As teachers, most of us know that hands on assists have many diverse intentions (and many more positive than “fixing” people!), but this is sometimes how students see it.

Even in public classes where I do assist, when someone’s alignment is very different from that of the pose I’m speaking to, verbal cues are often more helpful than trying to physically move the person. Even more so in trauma-informed classes – if I’m doing the pose, speaking to the pose in accessible language, and a student is still doing the pose “wrong”, me trying to move their body into the “right” shape will likely make things more complicated, rather than less. There are a million reasons for why people move how they move; they may not want to share, or they may not even know the reason, but their body tells them to stop – and I’d rather they listen to that than be moved into a different shape by me. I don’t need or want to force their body into the “right” shape.

Students who seem totally lost
Some students move in ways that indicate they are a bit lost in the class, or their facial expression conveys this. Some teachers are adept at moving over to an individual student, giving a few spoken instructions, and things are all good. Sometimes you can make eye contact and give cues to help an individual which they clearly want and find helpful, without feeling put on the spot.  I don’t think this is necessarily bad or wrong,  in some cases it is clearly welcome and a few words could make a big difference. But it’s still rare that I do this – I think it makes sense to examine our intentions when we feel tempted to help in this way. Why?

Particularly in a trauma informed class, I do my best to teach to the least common denominator in terms of level (this can be trickier in public classes with a set “level” or written description; in these cases, I try to be welcoming and accessible to beginners, but also aim to honor those who came to take the class as described). If a student appears lost in a trauma informed class, it may well be an indication that I need to slow down and consider what I’m teaching. I might give very basic cues to the whole group, or I might just move on to the next pose if a particular pose seems to be causing a problem. Sometimes it’s possible to speak to a student just with a glance so it’s clear to that person I’m referring to them, without addressing them by name or moving into their space.

If I’m doing the poses with the group and I stop in order to walk over to one person to give them attention for doing the pose “wrong” (in their mind), this focuses the attention of the whole class on that person. I don’t like this as a student, and I would rather not put the spotlight on my students for this reason – or alternately, for doing a yoga posture “really well”. I think we often highly overestimate our ability to intuit what a person is thinking – I don’t necessarily know my student is feeling “wrong” – but I’d rather err on the side of caution and avoid making the person feel worse. I trust that my voice and behavior and overall demeanor will convey to students that I care about them and their well-being even though I don’t come over with specific instructions.

The bigger intention

In the 23 hours of the day that we are not in a yoga class, we all take care of our bodies in a way that doesn’t require us to look to or listen to another person. As a yoga instructor, I give a lot of cues, but I also encourage students to bring that intuitive sense into class. That intuitive sense is valuable and worth listening to – they don’t need to be dependent on me to tell them where to move their body, or to any outside source. They already have the wisdom they need to move their body! If something is painful, don’t do it. Make adjustments the same way you would off of your mat to find something that DOES feel okay.

It’s okay for different people to be doing different things in the class, and provided you aren’t hurting yourself, it’s okay to be uncertain about what to do. That happens in life, in much more serious circumstances than a yoga class. If I respond to a student’s uncertainty by singling them out and telling them “how to do it right”, I’m taking away their opportunity to tune in to their own body, honor their intuition, and adjust accordingly. And, rather than giving the idea that your own intuition is worth listening to, I’m reinforcing the idea that students are dependent on the teacher.

Ultimately, I don’t believe it matters if your arms are equally parallel to the ground in warrior two, or if you take an open-arm twist from tadasana or utkatasana and one of your hips comes forward of the other. Do you get “less” of the benefits of the pose? If you consider the benefits to be “building shoulder strength”, or “compressing the internal organs”, sure, you get that less if your arms are uneven or your hips come “out of alignment” in a twist.

But if the benefits are higher order things like “linking breath and movement to rebuild the connection between the body and the mind that is often lost in trauma”, “regaining a sense of control over your own body”, “gaining a stronger intuitive sense of where your body is in space so you can use that sense to take care of your body off your mat as well”, “noticing sensation in the body and bringing your awareness to the present moment to allow the mind a break from ruminating on the past or anxiously anticipating the future”, then I’m actually detracting from my students’ abilities to gain those benefits by coming into their space, moving their body, or giving specific individual instructions to “fix” their posture.

Is it always bad to approach an individual with an alignment tip? Of course not. Might it help calm a student down to do so, so they can relax and gain these broader benefits? Sure. I would not critique a teacher for doing this – but there’s an intention behind my teaching too; doing the poses “right” is not that intention.

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