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We asked The Art of Teaching Yoga mentors—Alexandria Crow, a YogaWorks national teacher trainer; Coral Brown, a teacher trainer, holistic psychotherapist, and longtime student of Shiva Rea; and Giselle Mari, a worldwide master Jivamukti teacher and teacher-trainer—for their best tips for teaching alignment (hint: it's all about personalization).
1. Understand that alignment is not one-size-fits-all.
The biggest key to teaching proper alignment is to completely accept and understand that there is absolutely no proper alignment that works for every student, period. To further that, skeletal differences, musculature, connective tissue, and injuries create a unique story for each student that will make certain postures work for them, while others will absolutely never work in a wise way. It's also incredibly important to develop an intuitive eye that moves students into shapes that work best for their physicality and moves them away from trying to mimic the people next to them or what they've seen in photos or textbooks. It takes years to develop an eye that sees the individuality in students, and it's something that becomes more and more refined over a lifetime.
2. Know your anatomy.
Understanding mechanically how the body works and how the joints interact with one another in a coordinated way is the first step to general understanding of alignment. From there, we must teach students how to get in and out of postures with wisdom, how to explore a pose further if it's available to their structure, and when to stop so they don't race past the finish line unnecessarily.
Asking students to make subtle adjustments in the pose will help to inform them of where their body is in space. But don’t speak solely in anatomical terms; most students don’t have an extensive background in anatomy. When students hear a cue that they don’t understand, they often get stuck trying to process it. Instead of accessing the feeling body, they get stuck in the thinking mind. I often ask students to move into an asana with their eyes closed so that they can access the feeling state vs. relying on their external senses only.
4. Let the breath be your guide.
Perhaps one of the most effective ways to facilitate alignment is to connect the movements of the breath to the movements within a pose. For example, the movement of the inhale causes the body to rise and expand. When in a heavy-feeling pose like Chair Pose, cue students to focus on the buoyancy and expansiveness of the inhale. Suggesting they rise slightly through the hips and radiate a little more profoundly through their fingertips helps them connect to a feeling of lightness, sustainability, and proper alignment in the pose.
One of my favorite ways to teach alignment is through touch. Providing hands-on assists can be very insightful for a student who may not have strong proprioceptive awareness. For students who don't prefer the hands-on experience, clear, concise, and simple verbal cueing is key.
6. Get creative with props
I'm also a huge advocate of props -- not just the standard strap, block, and blanket, but also furniture, couches, and walls. For example, you can take variations of Triangle Pose to the wall or floor, or place a block under the front foot to activate front hip flexion.