What makes a good yoga class (and is it similar to a good movie)?

David-Lynch-Directing-david-lynch-11155352-1360-896You know how sometimes you go to a yoga class and leave feeling more centered, energized and whole? And other times you leave feeling more fragmented and discombobulated?  Why is that? Certainly, everybody’s response to any given class is highly individual.  But are there certain universal principles that make a class great? Let’s take a look.

Good yoga class in many ways seems to be similar to a good movie.  If I asked you what makes a good movie, what would you say? It’s probably some version of the following:

  1. A thought provoking story that touches on universal themes and concerns
  2. A skilled director with a vision who is able to bring it to life via
  • Presentation of the plot that keeps the audience engaged
  • Ability to connect with the audience
  • Acting that serves to convey the story
  • Cinematography and Music that wrap it all together

How is a yoga class similar?

UNIVERSAL THEMES AND CONCERNS. By it’s very nature yoga addresses the fundamental questions that we all face about health, awareness and life well-lived.  Whether you are interested in physical benefits, mental stability or connection to something greater then yourself, you can find it here, regardless of your age, skin color or zip code.

Yoga teacher is like a skilled film director that makes that experience possible.

First of all, any director must have a VISION. He needs to ask himself: What is the main idea of the film? Is it relevant to my audience? What choices do I need to make to manifest my vision? And it needs to lead to a resolution of some kind. In the same way, a yoga teacher needs to have a vision. We call it an INTENTION. Without an Intention you are stumbling in the dark, being pulled from one idea to the next and end up with everything but a kitchen sink and no clear focus. What are you trying to accomplish? Is it relevant to your students? What poses/practices do you need to choose to manifest your vision in the best possible way? If at the end of the class your students cannot articulate clearly what this class was about, then either your intention wasn’t clear or your choice of tools wasn’t optimal.

AUDIENCE ENGAGEMENT. While a good yoga class doesn’t need to have a pace of a thriller, it does need to keep your students’ attention.  Left to our own devices most of us would drift off into daydreaming or our to-do lists. There are many ways of keeping your students engaged. Just like in movies, you can introduce unexpected plot twists, interesting developments, usual things presented in an unusual way or good old humor. Engaged is different from entertained though. In a yoga class we want the students to be eager to join the ride, curious about what comes next – not laughing their heads off (unless that is your intention :)) ErinStudentTriagle

ABILITY TO CONNECT. If you cannot identify with any characters in a movie and it doesn’t touch you in any way, you are likely to forget it quickly. As a yoga teacher, you need to show your students that they matter – by listening to them, taking their requests, remembering their names and some important facts of their lives. It’s essential to pay attention to them before, during and after the class. I took a class once where the teacher entered without greeting, set up her mat to face the mirror with her back to her students and lead the entire class like that, doing her poses and talking to what felt like herself in the mirror. Personally, I felt abandoned as a student. After all, yoga is about connection by definition, so it needs to be present in every class.

ACTING is about bringing the essence of the character to life. And best directors are the ones who allow the actors, as the characters, to find their way through each scene. Interestingly, the “character” that we are trying to unearth in a yoga class is our own real self, underneath the clutter of how we present ourselves to the world. Getting in touch with that unchanging, unconditional True Self that is the source of our wisdom and personal power is the ultimate goal of yoga.  If we manage to get a glimpse of it in a yoga class, we feel more clear, stable, and peaceful.

CINEMATOGRAPHY AND MUSIC tie it all together. They help create a certain mood, atmosphere that has to support the development of the plot, not to overpower it.  In a yoga class you might choose to set up your space to make it more conducive to your vision: dimming the lights, turning up the heat, etc. Using music can be an effective tool in a yoga class, but it can also be very distracting.  If you choose to play music you have to make sure that it doesn’t conflict with the pace of movement, your instructions or students’ awareness of their breath. Imagine if the director chose Enya for a suspenseful moment in the plot – wouldn’t that be a bit disorienting?

When all those things come together, some sort of magic happens and we end up with a wonderful, moving and engaging film. Was it a happy accident? Probably not. Some things probably did fall into place, but it is the masterful orchestration by the director that made it possible. And the best movies are designed to pull you into the story without being aware of the director’s “invisible hand”.

It’s the same with the best yoga classes. It might seem that things “just happened”, but it’s the “invisible hand” of the yoga teacher that guided you through the process and brought you to some logical conclusion. It doesn’t mean of course, that at the end of the class all your issues are resolved, but hopefully you arrive at a place where you are a bit more aware, a bit more centered, a bit more whole. And it’s our responsibility as yoga teachers to continuously fine-tune our “directorial” skills to make the practices more effective for our students.

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Are we addicted to the Pigeon pose (and other “hip openers”)?

William Broad had done it again.  He sounded an alarm last year about the potential risks of the yoga practice and caused some heated discussions in the yoga community. This time he turns his attention to an issue that many yoga practitioners have hard time understanding: is it a problem to be too flexible?

In his latest article Women’s Flexibility is a Liability Broad explores the injuries that stem from being too flexible, especially when it comes to the hips:  “Women’s hips showed particular vulnerability. By nature, their pelvic regions support an unusually wide range of joint play that can increase not only their proficiency in yoga but, it turned out, their health risks. The investigators found that extreme leg motions could cause the hip bones to repeatedly strike each other, leading over time to damaged cartilage, inflammation, pain and crippling arthritis.”  What are those “extreme leg motions” that he is talking about? Well, we all know that in yoga there are many. But one type that stands out to me the most is so-called “hip openers”.

Self Expression 3Every yoga class I’ve gone to recently seems to focus on either “heart opening” or “hip opening” moves. “Heart opening” I understand – in our sedentary hunched-over lives the upper backs get weak, chests get tight (literally and symbolically), so breathing deep and focusing on the backbends can be very useful. You still have to do it mindfully, of course.

Now “hip opening” is a different story. When we talk about hip opening we usually refer to external hip rotation, pigeon pose and the like. Many students have a love-hate relationship with this pose; it’s the kind that “hurts good”. And after few breaths there, it can facilitate a welcomed release. The question is: how important is that particular pose to the health of your hips?

PiriformisHammockThe main purpose of the pigeon pose is to stretch your piriformis muscle and other external hip rotators.  Doug Keller in his article Primer on the Piriformis gives this beautiful analogy: “The piriformis muscles are two fans of ropes that blend into a fascial hammock that hangs between the two trees [your legs]. The sacrum sits and rocks in the hammock, adjusting itself as the trees sway and move. This fascial hammock is the piriformis’s secret to regulating movement and stability in the sacroiliac (SI) joints.”

Needless to say, this is a quite delicate relationship and can be easily thrown out of balance if the piriformis gets too tight or too loose.  You can end up with sciatica, SI pain and other discomforts and imbalances. Why does the piriformis get too tight? Often from underuse (we sit A LOT and in funny positions) or overuse (Ex: too much running). Why does it get too loose? It happens if sacral ligaments are hypermobile, either from birth and/or from OVERSTRETCHING.  If the ligaments are too loose, it makes it much harder for the piriformis to stabilize the SI joints.

So what do we end up with then? Either a piriformis that’s locked in a shortened, contracted state or in a lengthened weakened state. Either way, stretching it is the last thing you would want to do!  As we’ve already covered in an earlier blog post [A smart way to relieve muscle tension], trying to stretch a locked-short muscle is like trying to pry open a clenched fist – it won’t give much and then will snap right back into place. Trying to stretch a locked-long muscle is like pulling on a leather belt, how far will that get you? It is already stretched out and you can actually cause more damage by pulling it further.

What’s the solution then? Contract it! The only way to produce a lasting change is to contract your rotators, to make them work. Contracting the muscle increases circulation to the area, brings nourishment and develops muscle tone and strength. You contract the piriformis by turning your leg outward against gravity. And remember that piriformis doesn’t just rotate the hip, it also abducts the hip when the hip is flexed. So your hip strengthening routine needs to include the abducting moves.

Our insistence on constantly stretching the hips is a reflection of a bigger issue – too much stretching and not enough strengthening.  We place much more emphasis on flexibility at the expense of stability. Yet it is balance that we strive for. The ligaments that are too loose cannot hold the structure together, which means that somebody else has to step up to the plate and your muscles will do it. But the primary job of your muscles is to MOVE the body, so they end up doing double duty and that’s a lot of work, especially as we get older.

If we are really interested in keeping our hips healthy, extreme external rotation is not the answer. I am not saying that you should stop doing Pigeon altogether. I am saying that a balanced hip practice needs to include both strengthening and stretching poses for the full range of motion in your hip: flexion, extension, adduction, abduction and rotation. And none of them need to be extreme. After all, for most of us the goal is not to audition for Cirque du Soleil, but to live a full life free of pain, doing things that we enjoy. Yoga practice should support us in that quest, not to hinder it.

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This is an example of a balanced hip strengthening practice. This practice is simple, but fairly strong, so make sure that your hips are ready for the challenge. Let us know if it works for you!OrangeUnderscore656x20

Olga KabelOlga Kabel has been practicing yoga since 2000. She studied with Gary Kraftsow and American Viniyoga Institute to become an AVI-certified Yoga Teacher and Yoga Therapist. Olga teaches Viniyoga, which places great emphasis on the needs and personal preferences of each student. Olga strongly believes in the healing power of this ancient discipline on every level: physical, psychological, and spiritual. She strives to make yoga practices accessible to students of any age, physical level and medical history. Olga specializes in helping her students relieve muscle aches and pains, stimulate the function of all body systems, manage stress and anxiety, and develop mental focus.