The intricacies of being a good yoga teacher

Thanks to my past experience as a part-time art teacher for small kids as well as conducting dance workshops, the concept of teaching isn’t exactly new to me. I’ve always enjoyed the experience of connecting with others through sharing something that I was passionate in to others, and hence teaching professions when it comes to various art forms always intrigued and excited me. That was why when my friend Mandy asked me to join the yoga teacher-training course with her, it honestly didn’t take me long at all to say yes.

After joining the course however, I then learnt about the level of intricacy and amount of keen observation/experience required to be a good and effective yoga teacher (which was incredibly different from any teaching experience I had). From the get go, we were exposed immediately to the concept of body identification, which allowed us to identify the student’s potential strengths and weaknesses. This would then guide how we can best support the student during the yoga class. For example, if a student has narrow, downward sloping shoulders but wide hips, the student could be strong at standing postures, but has probably weaker shoulder and arm strength that would make it difficult to support their body weight. Hence, we should pay attention and provide support for him/her when attempting inversions. If a student has uneven shoulders, it could reflect that one side of the body is stronger than the other, and hence we can provide support for the student when he/she is doing an asana on their weaker side.

In the first week of the course, I remember coming home each day honestly being boggled by the amount of details to note for each asana and the anatomical knowledge required to best guide others to use the right muscle in each gesture. I think the acute   judgement of what to look out for in each asana really comes with experience, and I gained a new found respect for all the yoga teachers for being able to pull off each class in such a seamless, satisfying and informational manner. Little did I know the amount much work has to be put in behind the scenes. I guess it’s like the saying, “the more you know, the less you know” – learning more about yoga each day has revealed to me the vast amount of knowledge that I was still unaware of and made me realise that there is always so so much more to learn :””)

Later in the course when we put our hands into lesson planning, we were then exposed to the various layers of the class that we should pay attention to in the class. From crafting the lesson in a way such that pacing, transitions and the asanas flowed well, to the communication skills required in order to convey clear instruction and connect with all students, as well as the right knowledge of what muscles/drishti/breath/directions come with each asana – the list goes on. There is also a need to be adaptable and student centred, providing modifications, adjusting the lesson plan according to the experience level of each student and how they are feeling in order to make it a comfortable and intentional experience for them. While it was undoubtedly challenging, I was glad to have had this learning opportunity to truly experience what it is like to helm an entire class and to also notice the different teaching styles of others.

What I really appreciate is that beyond the yoga profession, the things that I learnt from this course – from yoga philosophy, anatomy as well as the keen sense of detail when it comes to teaching – can be applied to my everyday life and inform my teaching method in other areas such as dance as well. While this one month intensive has definitely helped me to improve and expand my practice when it comes to asanas, I’ve also gained a new found appreciation and deeper understanding of the role of the teacher. As this course is slowly coming to an end, I am thankful for the growth that has come with this journey and am heartened to be able to grasp a little more about the art of teaching through the exchange of experiences and wisdom from the masters and all other classmates 😊

Interesting studies on Kapalabhati

According to the Yoga Sutras, an ancient text compiled by Patanjali in 150 BCE, pranayama is one of the Eight Limbs of Yoga. Referring to the extension or regulation of life force (known as ‘prana’ in Sanskrit), implementing pranayamas to our yoga practice is said to help us stay healthy, cleansed and balanced.

 

Amongst the 120 pranayamas, an important pranayama is Kapalabhati, also known as skull shining breath. Involving short, powerful exhales and passive inhales, Kapalabhati forcefully expels breath out through the nostrils using the lower transverse abdominus muscle and serves as a traditional internal purification practice (kriya), removing toxins from the body and cleansing the respiratory system. Personally, practicing Kapalabhati has led to me feeling more refreshed, alert and invigorated and I thoroughly enjoy starting the day with the Kapalabhati exercise.

 

The health benefits of Kapalabhati are numerous. In fact, a coronavirus survivor has even stated that practicing pranayama as a COVID-19 patient was very effective for him in complementing his treatment for the respiratory illness. Some of the common benefits of Kapalabhati include:

  • Improving lung capacity
  • Clearing mucus in the air passages and relieves congestion.
  • Clearing nadis (energy channels)
  • Reducing bloating
  • Promoting digestion
  • Improving blood circulation
  • Refreshing the brain and calming the mind

 

Upon further study, here are a few pieces of interesting research that showcase the benefits that Kapalabhati can bring:

  1. Kapalabhati combats metabolic syndrome

Metabolic syndrome refers to a cluster of conditions (e.g. being overweight, high blood pressure) that puts one at risk of having serious chronic conditions such as heart disease and diabetes. In an article published by the International Journal of Yoga, it is stated that Kapalabhati accelerates fat metabolism as it stimulates vital areas of the brainsteam, cortex and effector organs, regulating the endocrine and metabolic processes. Studies have also found that Kapalabhati results to a change in body fat distribution and reduced waist and hip circumference. Furthermore, being an abdomino-respiratory exercise, Kapalabhati is shown to directly stimulate the pancreas to release insulin and counteract hyperglycemia (high levels of glucose in the blood).

 

  1. Kapalabhati improves reaction time

A 2013 study published by the Journal of Clinical and Diagnostic research suggests that simple eye exercises along with kapalabhati helps in improvement of visual reaction time.

The study proposes that Kapalbhati improves the oxygenation of blood in the body which hence facilitates visual reaction through better nourishment of all the nerves and structures of the eyeball. The decrease in mental fatigue after performing pranayama is also hypothesized to lead to the improvements in visual reaction time.

 

  1. Kapalabhati can help children with ADHD

According to Gosewade et al. (2015),  practicing pranayama such as kapalabhati can help to calm the mind and even increase attention span for it helps to absolve and remove distractions from the mind. Its soothing effect can greatly help children and adults calm overly excitable behavior. Overall, the study suggests that all individuals can benefit from high levels of concentration and reduced stress.

Yamas in a material and results-oriented society

Living in Singapore where we pride ourselves in our fast-paced, efficient culture, it is honestly not easy to resist being caught up in the rat race and material achievements. Since a young age, comparisons and competition are encouraged such that we will be motivated to work harder, achieve more and ‘do well’ in the future. The notion of being ‘successful’ spurs us to participate in things that we don’t truly enjoy or see meaning in. But what does being successful really mean?

 

I think many of us are (or have experienced being) largely motivated by comparisons, as well as the fear of not being ‘successful’ – whatever this means to us. In large part, me too. Yet, before this course, I don’t think I’ve actually considered what success actually means to me. Instead I’ve let society define my idea of success – having a good-paying or high-ranking job, maybe a nice house, nice clothes, being able to afford various material things. As a result, we wind up in the hustle culture and partake in various behaviour that do not actually serve us.

 

Learning more about yoga philosophy through this teacher training course has helped me reflect more about my desires and how I lead my life. In particular, the introduction to yamas – a guide/diplomatic management of how we can best act towards ourselves and others – reminds me to be more in tuned with myself, what my body needs and don’t let comparisons/greed/ego drive my actions. In particular, the concept of Aparigraha which translates to ‘non-possesiveness’ reminds us that we should be content with what we have and have a non-grasping attitude towards the things in life. This yama conveys that we should be aware of what serves us in the moment, to not be concerned or possessive over the outcomes and to let go of things when the time is right. As Krishna states:

Let your concern be with action alone, and never with the fruits of action. Do not let the results of action be your motive, and do not be attached to inaction’. 

 

Reflecting on my daily life, it dawned upon me that a lot of the accomplishments that I strive for are partially due to the ego of wanting to appear accomplished. Similarly in yoga practice, I often find my mind being distracted by the final outcome of a beautiful posture.  Keeping Aparigraha in mind allows me to realign my thoughts and focus on the joys of the present – to appreciate and be content with the current moment, be it in yoga practice, dance, studying or teaching. To not be possessive of the outcomes and material achievements, but to simply let the enjoyment of the current moment lead me forward.  

 

Furthermore, as someone who sets quite high expectations for myself, I can often be rather critical of my performance and easily stressed. Learning about Ahimsa, which refers to ‘non-violence’ or ‘non-harming’, I am reminded to not let negative thoughts takeover, and to be kind to my body and my mind. Negative thoughts are said to be harmful not only for the mind, but also for the body as the secretion of cortisol (stress hormone) lowers the immune system, making us more susceptible to illness and pain. Remembering Ahimsa in daily life for me, means respecting my boundaries and listening to my body – while challenging myself to grow, I should never push myself to harm. Applying this to school, this could mean taking care of my mental health and not overworking or partaking in too many side projects. In yoga practice, this could be knowing my limits when performing challenging asanas as well as taking care of injuries instead of aggravating them for the sake of practice. 

 

Integrating these yamas in my daily life and practice will be a continuous journey and a process of unlearning different cultural ideals that has been ingrained in my system. Common notions such as ‘no pain, no gain’ often push us to neglect the well-being of our body and keeping pushing, keep grasping for more. For example, in my past dance training, instructors and dancers often push their bodies beyond their limits, encouraging hyperextension for the sake of aesthetic appeal and training rigorously even with injuries, leading to unsustainable practices. In university, it is a norm for students to have all-nighters, rely on caffeine and unhealthy foods and overwork themselves such that they will have a good portfolio. 

 

Undeniably, it might take a while for me to be more in tuned with the present in this fast-paced and results-oriented society. But through yoga, I find myself slowly learning to be more present, focused and accepting. The practice on the mat provides me with respite from negative thoughts and comparisons as I take the time to listen to my body. While I can’t say that I can entirely escape from social pressures and comparison, I definitely find myself being clearer in what serves me and negative criticism and distractions hold much lesser space in my mind. Studying yoga philosophy has definitely provided apt reminders and lessons applicable to my daily life, and I’m keen to see where this journey takes me! 

Utthita Hasta Padungusthasana

One of the yoga asanas that I find rather intriguing and complex is Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana. While my past ballet training often required us to perform similar stretches that involve lifting one leg off the ground, my focus during dance training was more often on the aesthetics of having my leg held high and close to the face. Proper alignment of the hips were often neglected to bring the leg higher. As such, I realized that till today, doing such postures with correct alignment still remains very challenging for me.

Literally meaning ‘Extended hand-toe pose’, Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana entails having flexible hamstrings, open hips and having strength and flexibility in the feet and ankles for balance.

Benefits of the pose:

  • Lengthening the hamstring of the extended leg
  • Stabilizing the hip joint of the standing leg (the gluteus medius and minimus, piriformis, superior and inferior gemellus undergo eccentric contraction to keep the pelvis level)
  • Improving single leg balance and stability
  • Strengthening ankle, knee, hip and shoulder joints

Skeletal Joint Actions in Utthita Hasta Paschimottanasana

Spine
  • Neutral spin
  • Pelvis leveled
Upper limbs

(Lifted arm)

  • Shoulder flexion
  •  Elbow extension
  • Finger flexion
Lower limbs

(Standing leg)

  • Neutral hip extension
  • Neutral knee extension
Lower Limbs

(Lifted leg)

  • Hip flexion
  • Neutral knee extension
  • Neutral ankle dorsiflexion

Muscular Joint Actions (information from doctorlib.info)

Upper limbs (lifted arm) Concentric contraction to stabilize and flex shoulder joint
  • Rotator cuff muscles
  • Coracobrachialis
  • Pectoralis minor
  • Anterior deltoid
  • Biceps Brachii
Lower limbs

(standing leg)

 

Concentric contraction to keep knee in neutral extension and balance on single leg
  • Articularis genu (muscle right above knee joint)
  • Quadriceps
  • Hamstrings
  • Intrinsic and extrinsic muscles of foot and lower leg
Eccentric contraction to allow lateral
  • Gluteus medius and minimus
  • Piriformis
  • Superior and inferior gemellus
  • Tensor Fasciae latae
Lower Limbs

(standing leg)

 

Concentric contraction to flex hips and slightly adduct leg towards midline
  • Psoas major
  • Illiacus
  • Rectus femoris
  • Pectineus
  • Adductor brevis and longus
Passively lengthening
  • Gluteus maximus
  • Hamstrings
  • Gastrocnemius
  • Soleus

 

After understanding the muscular anatomy of this asana, I now understand that my previous practice has not prepared me in utilizing my deeper gluteus muscles in stabilizing and leveling my pelvis. Other common problems faced when performing Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana include:

  1. Hiking up of the hip of the lifted leg
  2. Spinal flexion as a result of tightness in the hamstrings and gluteus maximus or hamstrings. In such cases, it is better to keep the knees bent
  3. Using the quadratus lumborum to help with lifting the leg due to weakness in hip flexors

While much emphasis is placed on increasing flexibility of the hamstrings in the lifted leg, we should also not forget that developing the strength in both the lifted and standing leg is equally important for proper alignment!

 

Resources:

https://beyogi.com/learn-yoga/poses/extended-hand-big-toe-pose/

https://doctorlib.info/anatomy/yoga-anatomy/7.html

https://www.yoganatomy.com/utthita-hasta-padangusthasana/