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Yoga Pose Notebook: Eka Pada Urdhva Dhanurasana

Eka Pada Urdvha Dhanurasana

{illustration by MCKIBILLO}

Before we get to the post, a quick, shameless plug for my upcoming trainings. You can join me live at my 500-Hour Yoga Teacher Training in San Francisco, London, or Hong Kong. I also have three separate online teacher trainings, focusing on arm balances & inversions, sequencing, or anatomy.

I think I’m pretty good at teaching yoga. But, I also think I get lazy once in a while and I don’t expose students to the world of backward bending that exist beyond Urdhva Dhanurasana. I regularly teach a couple of prone backbends, some bridge pose variations, then conclude the backward bending series with Urdhva Dhanurasana. That’s it. Time and time again. So, I’ve turned over a new leaf. We’re going beyond Urdhva Dhanurasana in all of my experienced-level classes. And, the first pose to tackle in this progression is Eka Pada Urdhva Dhanurasana.

If you have a reasonable degree of proficiency in Urdhva Dhanurasana, you can start working on lifting one of your legs for Eka Pada Urdhva Dhanurasana. It’s literally one step away.

But, this step introduces a ton of instability into the posture, so there a few things I like to do in order to make the posture accessible—and less likely to make your SI and lower-back feel tweaky.

How to Find Balance  in an Asymmetrical Pose

First, Eka Pada Urdhva Dhanurasana is referred to as an asymmetrical backbend. There’s an essential component of alignment in asymmetrical backbends that applies to this one, too. Ready? It’s essential that only part of your body that is asymmetrical are your legs.

You do NOT want your hips to be asymmetrical or your spine to be asymmetrical. Your top leg is flexing and your bottom leg is extending. The pelvis, however, needs to stay level and your spine needs to backbend without any twisting motion. Rotating your spine while doing a deep backbend may over stress your lower-back.

There are a couple of ways to keep your hips level in Eka Pada Urdhva Dhanurasana. First, the leg that stays connected to the floor has to work much harder. Obvious, right? In particular, the abductors and the gluteus maximus on the standing leg need to work like mad. Without intense engagement in these muscles, your opposite hip (the side of the lifted leg) will drop slightly toward the floor. If this hip drops, the pelvis and spine will rotate. Not good. Also, be mindful that engaging your glutes and outer hip muscles may externally rotate and abduct your bottom leg. I don’t actually have a problem with this, since it’s preferable to the opposite hip collapsing. But, if you don’t like the feel of it, you can also hug your leg toward the midline by engaging your adductors.

Committing to strongly reaching your top leg toward the ceiling also helps keep the pelvis level. You can’t phone in this pose. You’ve got to reach the top leg full barrel. To do this, I like to pull my lifted knee toward my chest as strongly as I can. Then, I reach my top heel toward the ceiling. I find that flexing the top foot instead of pointing my top foot gives me more levity and height in the posture.

Tips for Eka Pada Urdhva Dhanurasana

There are two more details that help me with Eka Pada Urdhva Dhanurasana. First, I step my feet a little closer to each other before lifting my leg. Second, I place my hands wider apart than I do for Urdhva Dhanurasana by about six inches.

Think about it this way. In regular Urdhva Dhanurasana, you have a rectangular base. When you lift one foot off the ground for Eka Pada Urdhva Dhanurasana, you have a triangular base. In order to make the triangular base of Eka Pada Urdhva Dhanurasana more stable, it’s helpful to broaden the arms and center the remaining foot. This provides more stability in the posture, which allows for greater range of motion.

See also Essential Sequence: Ease Into Urdhva Dhanurasana

Give these steps a try and see how the pose feels in your body. Of course, your practice isn’t just about doing harder things like Eka Pada Urdhva Dhanurasana. It’s also about continuing to learn and grow. And, even if you can’t do this variation, practicing it a time or two will make the regular version of Urdhva Dhanurasana feel like a piece of cake.

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Survivor’s Guide to Teaching Yoga When Life Throws You a Curveball

Yoga Teaching Tips for When Life Throws You a Curveball
Nearly six years ago, my daughter Sofia-Rose was born. She brought me happiness I could have never imagined. She also obliterated my home practice beyond all recognition for more than a year.

Before she was born, I was so hopped-up on adrenaline, oxytocin, and optimism (not always my strength) that I didn’t think her birth would change my practice. In fact, I was delusional enough to think that her birth would inspire even greater dedication to my practice. I thought her presence would be my shot at a complete renewal, a total overhaul in which nothing could get between my mat and me.

Yes, I love her to the point that it makes me tremble. Yes, parenting has taught me more about patience, breath, and love than the rest of my life combined. No, I wouldn’t trade her for the world. But did my practice stay the same? [email protected]#l no! Not even close. My asana practice crumbled to a shell of its former self and I grew a Dad-bod like you wouldn’t believe. Even more to the point of this post, my teaching temporarily suffered with these changes. Now, it’s better than ever since I have more life experience to draw on (and I’ll share some of the yoga teaching tips I learned below). But, I didn’t see this at the time.

Everyone goes through different chapters in life. Everyone faces curveballs. And, like a good curveball, you usually don’t see them coming. Being a yoga practitioner and yoga teacher doesn’t inoculate you from life. It just provides you with insight and skills that help you manage the complexity of the human condition.

Since we all face unforeseen circumstances from time to time that affect our practice and teaching, it’s important to know how to stay honest and authentic in your teaching when your life gets (even more) complicated.

Here are some practical yoga teaching tips to work with:

1. Don’t Press Too Hard

When baseball players are in a slump, they sometimes perpetuate it further by pressing—or, becoming overly eager to make something happen. This undermines their ability to relax and respond to the game in a skillful way. I’ve noticed the same thing in myself at times. When my teaching becomes stale, I often overcompensate by trying too hard. I get too wordy, too complicated, and too hurried.

If you’re going through a challenging phase in your teaching, try this tip instead: Step back slightly and let the practice shine. Minimize the impulse to overdo and trust that the practice itself will be enough for your students.

See also 5 Ways to (Re)Inspire Your Yoga Practice

2. Be Transparent Without Being Overly-Indulgent

Never make class about you and what you’re going through. After all, the students are paying you—you’re not paying them for group therapy. At the same time, it’s nice to be relatively transparent and to acknowledge what’s happening in your life (at least in limited doses). Students appreciate the reminder that you’re a real, flesh and blood person—and, that yoga is a practical, accessible practice for everyone (at all times). It’s likely that many of your students have experienced what you’re currently going through and this may help them connect to your teaching even more deeply.

3. Don’t Radically Change Your Class or Teaching Style

It’s important to be consistent with your students. When teachers go through a significant transition in their lives, they sometimes make abrupt stylistic changes to their teaching. While it’s important to be relatively transparent, it’s also essential to provide a consistent experience for your students. If you’re a teaching a vinyasa class, don’t randomly teach a Yin or restorative class because you’re tired or overwhelmed. Sure, you can play with the pace, but be responsive to your students and provide them with the class that they came for.

4. Practice – Even If It Looks Very Different Now

My practice was shorter, milder, less frequent, and less focused for 18-months or so after Sofia was born. But I still practiced. I still connected to my breath and did the occasional Sun Salutation. I still did some shoulder and hip openers most evenings. I also made sure to have one slightly more intense practice each week. Instead of being attached to the way you were practicing before the curveball came across your plate, do whatever you can to survive the storm—and do your best to savor it.

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Yoga Pose Notebook: Lizard Pose

Lizard Pose Infographic

{illustration by MCKIBILLO}

Before we get to the post, a quick, shameless plug for my upcoming trainings. You can join me live at my 500-Hour Yoga Teacher Training in San Francisco, London, or Hong Kong. I also have three separate online teacher trainings, focusing on arm balances & inversions, sequencing, or anatomy.

One Thing to Learn About Lizard Pose

I’ve been easier, softer and lighter on my hips for the last couple of years. I used to bludgeon them with intense leverage and long holds, thinking that I was creating more flexibility. I finally came to terms with the reality that this approach usually left my hips feeling achy, sore, and stiff for a couple of days. After nearly two decades, I’ve changed my tactics.

I still stretch my hips and I still hold postures for a reasonable duration. I still practice lunges like Anjaneyasana (Low Lunge), Crescent (High Lunge), Pigeon Pose, and Lizard—the topic of this instructional. I still love “hip-openers,” and I teach them regularly. Of course, I balance this approach more skillfully than I have in the past by including more strengthening work for my hips. But, also, I treat my hips like the dynamic joint they are when I do “opening” postures. Instead of staying for long periods in the same pose, I do several repetitions of the same posture. For example, instead of staying in Pigeon for 3 minutes, I might do 3 or 4 versions of Pigeon for approximately 1 minute each. Instead of loading all my weight onto my hips during deep lunges, I often use my arms actively so they take some of my weight instead of letting it all go into my hips.

See also Essential Sequence: Quick Hip Openers

Lizard Pose is perfect for this approach. When you look at the illustration of me in Lizard above, you’ll see two important details that will keep you lighter: My elbows are on the floor directly under the shoulders and my front shin is vertical. Try it this way—instead of sinking all of your weight into your hips, press your forearms and front foot down into the floor to lighten the load on your hips.

If you’re a little less flexible, put a block or two under your elbows. You’ll still get plenty of stretch in your hips, but these actions will slighty lessen the intensity. I’ve come to believe this is a good thing. If you want more intensity, add a few more repetitions.

Experiment with this approach to stretching your hips and see if having a lighter touch is helpful to you. Let me know how it goes in the comments section. Enjoy.

WHERE CAN I LEARN MORE ABOUT ANATOMY, SEQUENCING, AND TEACHER TRAINING?

I offer both online trainings and live, in-the-flesh ones around the world. Here are a few of the courses that are currently open. (For a full schedule, go to my Schedule page.):

Essential Anatomy E-Course

The Art of Yoga Sequencing E-Course

500-Hour Training in San Francisco (2018)

100-Hour Training in London (2018)

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Common Errors in Manual Yoga Adjustments – and How to Fix Them

Common Errors in Manual Yoga Adjustments | Scorpion Pose Adjustment

A conversation about manual yoga adjustments (also called “hands-on assists) in yoga is long overdue. For the past five years in my workshops, trainings, and weekly classes, I’ve been advocating for a paradigm shift: I believe that yoga teachers need to stop acting like stretching machines and exerting leverage on students’ bodies to intensify or “enhance” a stretch.

Why? The answer is simple: This is a mechanically flawed approach to working with bodies and it results in countless avoidable injuries.

I’ve seen plenty of anecdotal evidence of this – and, if you’re a yoga teacher, I’m sure you have, too. During my trainings and workshops I ask students to raise their hand if they’ve been injured during a manual adjustment. There has never been a group where less than forty percent of students have raised their hand. I think you’ll agree that this is too much. As a community, we can drastically lower this number.

I’m not saying that experienced teachers shouldn’t provide appropriate manual feedback. I’m still an advocate for manual yoga  adjustments—or, what I usually call them, “manual cues.”(Listen to this week’s Yogaland podcast to hear me talk about this more.) There is nothing better in class than receiving an excellent manual cue. The body falls into place and the nervous system relaxes. Unfortunately, the opposite is also true. There’s nothing worse than receiving a poor or inappropriate adjustment—the body strains, the breath tightens, and the nervous system becomes agitated.

A good yoga adjustment skillfully communicates the actions of the pose to your body so that your body understands the posture more clearly. A bad adjustment is invasive and misguided. During lousy adjustments, the teacher is either working with a lack of experience and information or an abundance of ego.

See also Verbal Cues for Yoga Poses: The Easiest Ways to Immediately Improve Your Communication

So what is the paradigm shift I’m talking about here? First, I ask that teachers stop exerting leverage on the part of the student’s body that is moving. Instead, provide increased grounding and stability to the part of the student’s body that is fixed. Let’s take Wide-Legged Seated Forward Bend (UpavisthaKonasana) as an example. In this pose, the pelvis and spine rotate forward over the thighbones—they are the “moving” parts of the pose.The thighbones root down into the ground—they are the “fixed” part of the pose. Do not add leverage to the pelvis and spine. Instead, press down on the thighbones. Grounding the student’s thighs will allow the pelvis and spine to release further into the pose without the vulnerability that comes from adding direct pressure onto the pelvis and spine. This is just one of countless examples.

Another component of this paradigm shift is to view manual cues the same way we view verbal cues. Manual cues—like verbal cues—simply communicate the actions of the pose to the student. The idea is to use your hands to communicate directly to the student’s body so he or she has a better understanding of the pose. The idea is not to use your hands to press a student further into the pose. You are not a stretching machine that is doing the pose to the student.

Here are 10 more ideas for honing our approach to manual yoga adjustments during yoga class:

First, a note about ethical considerations

While this is a huge topic for discussion in a teacher-training program, it’s outside the scope of this article. So, let me just say that teachers should never touch students inappropriately. Period. (To hear my wife, Andrea, talk about ending sexual misconduct in the yoga world, listen to episode 94 of Yogaland.)

1. Observe Before You Adjust

You’ll get pretty busy during class: you’ll be sequencing, verbalizing, adjusting, observing group dynamics, managing the clock, adjusting the tempo, and so on. It can be challenging to simply pause and patiently see a student’s body clearly. Instead, you might notice the most obvious element of a student’s pose and set your sights on giving an adjustment that involves leverage. However, it is important to observe your students before you dive in. This pause will not only help you more accurately assess the room, it will help you become grounded before you attempt to steady someone else.

2. Put Fires Out First

As you assess the room, look for dangerous or uncomfortable postures. Adjust these folks before you walk around and offer a “deepening” adjustment to someone who doesn’t actually need any help. It’s more important that all of your students are working safely than deepening someone’s backbend.

3. Create Steadiness, Not Intensity

Aim to help your students find greater steadiness, ease, and integrity in their postures. Instead of trying to increase range of motion, figure out how you can help them feel more grounded and balanced. Adjustments that increase intensity can be dangerous—especially if the student is not grounded. Unfortunately, many teachers want their students to have “breakthroughs” in their class since these experiences can build an attachment to the teacher. These types of egocentric adjustments often contribute to injuries.

4. Stabilize the Foundation

One of the best ways to adjust your students is by helping them create balanced, stable contact with the floor. If a student’s postural foundation is off, the rest of their body will have to work even harder to maintain equilibrium. Their effort will be inefficiently distributed, creating unnecessary tension throughout the body.

5. Help Them Find their Stride

It is common for students to have a stride that is too long or too short. Helping students size their stride correctly can be one of the most thorough stabilizing adjustments.

6. Know Your Student Before Deepening A Pose

Most students are near their maximum range of motion (at least in the short term) before their teacher adjusts them. This means that your students are already at their edge before you give them any manual cues. Your student is already at a stress point and any additional motion in the posture should be mild. There’s a fine line between deepening the pose and creating an injury. A very fine line.

It’s much safer and more skillful to work with a student that you know well. And, remember our earlier point: You’re not a stretching machine—don’t exert force on the part of the student’s body that is already moving in the posture. Simply use your hands to create more stability and grounding so they can release deeper into the pose on their own.

7. Take Your Time

No one likes a rushed adjustment. Hasty yoga adjustments are unsettling to the mind, body and nervous system. Take your time adjusting your students and surrender to the fact that people aren’t going to get touched 800 times in class. Fewer good adjustments are always preferable to more mediocre adjustments.

8. Observe How Your Students Respond

Sometimes when you adjust a student, you will feel them melt into the new position with comfort and relief. Other times, you will feel the student’s body resist by flinching or tensing. Sometimes a student may not want additional intensity or they’re protecting themselves because they’re nursing an injury. It’s important to observe your student’s breath and physical signals when you give them an adjustment. Sensing and responding to these signals is essential for developing skillful touch.

9. Complement Your Manual Cues with Verbal Cues

In most manual adjustments, you can only guide one or two actions of the posture at a time. To enhance your student’s pose, offer a verbal cue that complements the manual cue. Let’s say you’re adjusting your student in Revolved Triangle by stabilizing their hips while lengthening and rotating their spine in the twist. You can verbally cue them to reach through their back leg and ground their outer foot.

10. Ask the Correct Questions

Don’t ask your students if an adjustment feels good! You won’t always get candid feedback since very few students will feel comfortable telling you that they don’t feel good in the adjustment. Instead, ask your students, “Do you want more intensity, less intensity, or the same intensity?” You don’t have to ask this question every time you make an adjustment. But, if you’re going to ask them if the adjustment is working for them, this is the best way to go about it.

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Verbal Cues for Yoga Poses: The Easiest Ways to Immediately Improve Your Communication

verbal cueing tips for yoga teachers

As we discussed in Part I of this series, the ability to give clear, compelling verbal cues is one of the most distinguishing characteristics of a good teacher. If you haven’t read Part I, which examines the most common cueing errors we all make, take a moment and read it here. Like all skills, you can significantly improve your verbal cues for yoga class with a clear strategy and a little practice.

To up your verbal cueing game, you’ll want to minimize the various pitfalls that all teachers encounter. Then start to include the following verbal cueing techniques when you’re giving instructions. These tips will dramatically enhance your students’ classroom experience.

Tips for Improving Verbal Cueing for Yoga Teachers

Provide Landmarks

Do you remember how confusing it was to be a beginner? How you suddenly couldn’t discern your right from your left? How you didn’t know which way was up and which way was down? Providing landmarks (such as the wall, the windows, the clock) when you give instructions helps spatially orient your students and minimize this confusion. Providing landmarks that describe which direction the student is moving, rather than just telling them to turn a specific direction is hugely beneficial.

For example, think about instructing twists. Your students’ bodies are so tied up, overlapped, and crisscrossed that their left is on their right and their right is on their left. Instead of saying, “Turn your torso to the right,” tell your students to “Rotate your torso toward the windows (or, whatever conspicuous landmark is to the right of your students).” Something as simple as instructing your students to “Reach your fingers toward the ceiling,” will improve the quality of your students’ action compared to telling them to “Reach your fingers up.”

Create Space

It’s not enough to provide good verbal cues. You also need to give students time to process and respond to them. This means providing time and space between each cue. The best way to do this is to simply take a breath between every instruction you provide.

If your directions are clear and you provide enough space between each one, your students will be able to follow along. If, however, you give 15 instructions in a row with no breath or pause between, your students will be lost. Bottom line: Always provide time for your students to digest your words before blazing ahead.

Edit Yourself

What you do not instruct in class, allows what you do instruct to have greater impact.

Don’t tell your students everything you know about each pose. Some teachers, your author included, are tempted to fill every second of class with instruction, precaution, lore, personal revelation, and more. After all, there are few moments when we have a captive audience for an hour and a half.

But this is yoga class, not a storytelling seminar, so don’t overcrowd your students or compete with yourself. Stick to an average of three instructions per pose. You can use more instructions to get them into the pose, but once they are in the asana, be judicious. If these instructions are related to each other, richly descriptive, and relevant to the overall theme of the class, they will give your students plenty to work with while allowing them to have their own experience.

Give Instructions in Pairs

I was terrible at math, but when I think about good verbal cues the topic of Algebra comes to mind. Specifically, the process of keeping equations balanced. The teaching of yoga is rooted in the process of establishing and maintaining a sense of equilibrium. In yoga, we call this “sama” which loosely translates to equanimity. One of the most effective ways to facilitate the experience of equilibrium in a pose is to give your students instructions in complementary pairs. The best way to get a feel for this is through some examples.

If someone is in Warrior II and you’re asking them to “deepen” their pose by lowering their front thigh further, complement this instruction by asking them to engage and lift their back thigh. This helps keep both halves of their pose balanced. Another example in Downward Facing Dog would be telling your students to stretch their inner heels down and while also asking them to lift their inner thighs. Again, you’re simply taking two parts of the same continuum and instructing them to move in opposite ways.

Use Your Students’ Names

As a yoga student yourself, you are well aware that everyone spaces out in class once in a while. Truthfully, whose eyes don’t glaze over after 90 minutes of impersonal and generalized instruction? Make your teaching more skillful and intimate by using your students’ names. Instead of repeating the same tired instructions, look at your students, and help them clarify, expand, or deepen their poses by relating to them directly. Try saying, “Jeff, please bend your front knee more deeply” or “Lauren, relax your neck and soften your jaw.”

Personalizing instructions is not only a good way to take care of your students, it is the best way to make your communication direct and relevant. The added bonus is that everyone else in the room who needs to relax his or her neck will probably follow suit. Of course, you should use a soft, encouraging tone when you use names so that people don’t feel like they are being singled out or scolded.

Vary Your Communication Style

Different students learn different ways. Also, different students resonate will different types of instruction. Some will hear you when you give straightforward, direct commands like “Press the top of your femurs back.” Others will hear you more clearly when you provide an image or an analogy to articulate an instruction. Some students will only engage when you share a personal story that highlights a teaching. Don’t force yourself to use a style of language that doesn’t resonate with you, but do your best to vary your language and style of delivery so that more students can learn from you.

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