Thursday, December 10, 2009

Dem Bones

While waiting for his little brother's nap to end, Eamonn and I sat watching old Pink Panther cartoons. In one, Pink was being chased around and into a grandfather clock by a skeleton haunting an abandoned hotel. After much smashing and crashing in the body of the clock, the two emerged and Pink whacked the skeleton, rendering him a jumbled pile of bones. With a world-weary sigh, Eamonn commented, "Well, that's what happens to skeletons." Spoken as a five-year-old who has seen it all, as far as cartoon verities go.

It got me to thinking about how we learn these cultural axioms: if some one runs off a cliff he won't realize it until he looks down; when you start running there is a boo-ga-dee, boo-ga-dee sound until your legs generate enough speed to take off; dogs hate cats; the tinkling run of a
backward scale on a xylophone means a skeleton is disintegrating. They become safe reference points to guide us through the treachery of childhood.

Same with teaching yoga--you learn your sequences, the best way to teach a pose, basic modifications--and you head out on your merry way to change the world. But, like a pre-teen realizing that culture norms are a good thing to rebel against, a more experienced teacher starts to let go of the static and, perhaps, begins to experiment. How would a different arrangement of poses affect a class? Help some students understand the alignment better? Make a more comfortable forward bend?

In all our discussions of authentic yoga and teaching, we only barely touched on dealing with asana. We cited lots of texts to consider and traditions to uphold, but we didn't go very far into the physical. More superficial, perhaps, but still a very vital part of the practice to a majority of us.

I love to modify. All of this stems from a class I taught a few weeks ago, where I tried to make Surya Namaskara more palatable for an older group of students. Basically we came to standing in between each pose, so everyone could regain their balance before moving on. And they loved it and many came up to me after class thanking me for teaching a Sun Salute they could finally do. Was that wrong? It certainly wasn't Ashtangi (not that I ever pretended to be one), but it reached a lot more people than it would have otherwise.

So I want to know--how do you feel about asana? Do you feel at ease modifying poses for your students on the fly? Do you go with what you already know, or do you experiment? Is experimenting allowed in your style of yoga? Is there something that you would consider going "too far"? Is this another "hands-off-the-tradition" situation, or something more maleable?

Does your skeleton defiantly pick up his skull and keep running, or not?


Linda-Sama said...

Do you feel at ease modifying poses for your students on the fly?


Do you go with what you already know, or do you experiment?


Is experimenting allowed in your style of yoga?


I'm a long-time student of Paul Grilley who says "yoga is all in the bones", i.e., how you're put together, so I do not follow any asana "rule book" other than the rules of safety.

Jenn said...

I definitely modify on the fly. Especially because I teach a class 3Xs a week that's geared towards seniors...many of whom have very individual needs...spinal stenosis here, a hip replacement there, positional name it that class brings it. But I LOVE those classes.

Thinking about it, I don't think I approach other classes any differently. Regardless of age/ability we all have our special needs. I feel it's my duty as the teacher to respond in a caring way to those needs when I see them. With over 12 years working in the fitness world, 10 years practicing yoga myself (including through 2 pregnancies) and 5 years teaching yoga to the young and old and everyone in-between I feel MORE comfortable responding to what I see than teaching a preset plan. I always tell people our practice often develops organically to fit where the class collectively is on any given day. It's how I practice and how I teach.

That being said, I think to be a safe and effective teacher whose style is to modify on the fly, you have to have a firm foundational knowledge about asana, safety, the human anatomy, why/when/how to modify. I guess that's why I am such a stickler about continually pursuing educational opportunities. In order to support my teaching style, I have to support my individual knowledge base.

Kristin said...

What a great post! To use Linda-Sama's style of replying

Q: Do you feel at ease modifying poses for your students on the fly?


Due to the nature of the vinyasa flow class and ashtanga classes I lead, sometimes I need to move a student back to a safer pose rather quickly w/o disrupting their session.

Q: Do you go with what you already know, or do you experiment?


Q: Is experimenting allowed in your style of yoga?

A: I think Linda-Sama said it best: THE OPERATIVE WORD IS "MY" YOGA.

Q: Is this another "hands-off-the-tradition" situation, or something more maleable?

A: I like to think back to a comment by David Williams: "If you like what you are doing today you are more likely to do it again tomorrow." I try and make class enjoyable and approachable for everyone because I would like them to try yoga again. I find nothing more annoying than to be told "You have to do the asana or the sequence THIS way because "tradition" says so." Ooo. That just ticks me off...

Just last night I did (a personal practice, not class) the standing sequence in the Ashtanga tradition then switched to a claming Lunar sequence by Shiva Rae. I needed to move before I could bring myself to calmness but didn't want to do a full 90 min Ashtanga sequence at 8p at night.

I enjoyed my blended session very much! :)

Rachel said...

As a KHYF influenced teacher I think modification is essential. Everybody's body is unique and has its own capabilities.

As someone with back issues and chronic pain issues who teaches people with back issues and chronic pain issues it is essential to modify asana. Like you I have several Surya Namaskara modifications depending on the group I am teaching.

I do modify on the fly as well. In fact most of the modifications I use were originally invented on the fly!

Jamie said...

disclaimer: I'm as green as it gets when it comes to teaching, so take my opinion for what it's worth : )

One of my favorite phrases is "fit the pose to your body, don't fit your body to the pose." I just try to give myself and my students the knowledge of the proper alignment to prevent injury, and then I encourage them to try whatever version works for them.

It has been working well so far : )

Rebecca said...

I am currently in a yoga teacher training program, and we are just learning to assist "correctly," but I think it is imperative that we bring yoga to each person individually, so yes, I think teaching a Sun Salute where you stand between every pose is awesome. I wanted to become a yoga teacher for a lot of reasons, but I have always been more drawn to the spiritual than the asana . . . until now. I have come to find that asana is awesome, and it is vital to the practice of finding the spirit. In just a few months, my practice has grown more than it has in years, and it's because I'm learning all sorts of new ways to understand my body. As teachers, if we can transfer that knowledge and enthusiasm to our students, we will have done our jobs.

Also, I have explored this idea on my new blog at

Thanks for the post; these are great things to consider.

Anonymous said...

I have been teaching for about 12 years and sometimes I will adjust on the fly but for some reason, most of the time I need to have a student come to a few classes before I will adjust them. Sometimes it's just a vibe I'm getting from a new student that they just don't want to be touched but most of the time I need to observe there body for a few weeks....even after all these years...hummmm!

PetalsYoga said...

I modify all of the time and often think I'm not teaching yoga so much as living happily in one's own body. Thanks for this post and for the boo-ga-dee, boo-ga-dee sound... I so heard that exactly as you meant it.

Brenda P. said...

Thanks, all. I can't imagine teaching without doing some tailoring along the way. I wonder how something like Bikram deals with the situation, since I think they have a very specific, unchanging series of poses to follow.

@Kristin: How does it work in a vinyasa class? Do you have to catch people the second time around? or anticipate if you know their habits?

@ Anon: I agree, I usually wait a few classes to adjust a new student, so I get a better idea of what's going on with them and how they might respond.

@Petals: I had to sound it out a bunch of times to try and figure out the spelling. The cats thought I was nuts!