As in life, the greatest rewards in our practice come from doing the simplest things. With the awe-inspiring grace of complex postures and the promise of a sculpted, balanced body it’s easy to overlook the benefits that come from a simple, sane, satisfying yoga practice.
Teaching has a similar pitfall: teachers often exert more pressure on themselves to come up with new sequences, posture combinations, and themes than to develop a consistent point of view and repeat the most essential teachings of yoga.
I spend the majority of my classes returning to the same, essential themes. After all, most of us can’t be reminded of what is most important often enough. These themes help my students connect to what’s most important inside their mind, body, and heart. These teachings will never become dated.
- Integrity of Movement is more important than range of movement
It goes without saying that a consistent yoga practice will increase your range of motion. It also goes without saying that this is a good thing since so many of us need greater space, comfort, and freedom in our body. Yet, too much focus on range of motion can easily steer us in the wrong direction. Yoga emphasizes even, sustainable, and integrated movements that facilitate our breath and stabilize the nervous system. Of course, we stretch our body in the practice but we’re looking to cultivate something much more subtle and harmonious in our body than simply pulling on various tissues. We’re looking to cultivate an even, balanced tone throughout our entire body. We’re looking to experience a unified field of sensation so that we can feel our totality, not just create more degrees of pelvic rotation.
- Postures can be practiced differently on different days for different reasons
Should triangle pose or warrior 1 include a backbend? Well, it depends. Should you go bring your bottom hand as low as it can go in ardha chandrasana or should you put it on a block so that you can rotate your spine more? Well, it depends. In these scenarios—and many, many more—the nuances of the posture depend on the experience you are looking to cultivate.
There is wide-range of options within each posture and you can emphasize different aspects of postures on different days. Using triangle pose as an example, you could focus on engaging the bottom tips of the scapula, extending the thoracic spine and extending the top arm much more if you were focused on backbends. If you were focused on twists, you could elevate your bottom hand on a block, fire your obliques more intensely, and firm the bottom scapula against the back ribs.
It’s important that we remember these postures are simply templates and that we’re encouraged to explore within their parameters.
- Distribute your actions, distribute your awareness
Practicing yoga awakens the sensations of your body. When beginners awaken the sensations of their body, they are likely to pay all of their attention to the part of the body that is most intense. For example, a new student will tend to focus their attention on their hamstrings in a forward bend because this is where the most intense sensation is present.
As students mature in their practice—and teachers mature in their teaching—this equation should shift to include the entire body. Instead of focusing all of the attention and action in local areas—such as the hamstrings—practitioners should draw their attention into their entire body in every asana. This cultivates a unified field of awareness and sensation throughout your body. While the hamstrings may be the initial draw of a forward bend, we want to observe our feet, hips, torso, neck, facial muscles, breath, mind-state and so on. A pose is never just about one area of the body—it is about one area of the body in relationship to the other parts of the body, the breath, and the mind.
- Exploring your comfort zone and playing your edge
Your edge is the threshold in a pose—or moment in seated meditation—where physical, mental, and emotional resistance comes rushing to the foreground. Reaching your edge is like applying an enzyme that ignites a reaction and magnifies your physical, mental and emotional patterns. This magnification—while challenging—allows you to see yourself (and your conditioning) with greater clarity. In short, you become conscious of previously unconscious patterns.
Most instructions focus on trying to get students to go even further in a posture—even when they’ve already hit their end range of motion. It may be more beneficial to focus on helping students nurture greater ease and relaxation when they’re at their edge instead of trying to get them to go further. Instructions like “lengthen your exhalation, acknowledge the resistance that’s present, and soften your face,” are some of the most powerful, transformative instructions that you can provide your students.
Jason Crandell was recently named one of the next generation of teachers shaping yoga’s future by Yoga Journal for his skillful, unique approach to vinyasa yoga. Jason’s steady pace, creative sequencing, and attention to detail encourage students to move slowly, deeply, and mindfully into their bodies. Jason credits his primary teacher, Rodney Yee, teachers in the Iyengar Yoga tradition such as Ramanand Patel, and ongoing studies in Eastern and Western philosophy for inspiring to him bring greater alignment and mindfulness to Vinyasa Yoga.
Jason is a contributing editor for Yoga Journal and has written over 13 articles for the magazine and website – many of which have been translated internationally (including Japan, China, Italy and Brazil). His integrative and accessible teachings support students of every background and lineage, helping them to find greater depth, awareness, and well-being in their practice – and in their lives. Follow Jason on Facebook and Twitter.