Teaching movement is not like teaching physics, art history, philosophy, mechanics or psychology, even though the practice of exercise may include some or all of these elements.
The first step in teaching movement is to be able to do a headstand, pushup, pull up, lunge, squat, twist, forward fold or some other dynamic yourself. That means I have to figure out all this in my own body. I have to master the movement, engage my own muscles and learn how to do this with form excellent enough that I can withstand the thousands and thousands of repetitions I will do while teaching other people.
When you teach movement for a living, you learn excellent form very quickly because if you have your body even slightly out of place you will end up injuring yourself.
The second step in teaching movement is having the ability to teach other people how to access the wisdom of their own bodies. This means teaching people how to connect their mind to their body and their body to their mind, how to access muscles and aspects of themselves that they may have been ignoring for decades.
Since most people have very little connection to their physical selves, this can be quite an accomplishment and may even take years of teaching.
For years as a yoga teacher, I heard about the concept of wrapping my shoulders.
What does this mean? Quite literally it means rolling the outside edge of the arms in, catching the bubble of energy inside the arm pit, engaging the anterior serratus at the side body and extending the arms over head in order to extend the spine.
Are you lost yet?
If you are lost, don’t worry, you’re just normal.
If I say to you, “Put your right foot 12 inches in front of your left foot,” you could probably follow me easily. But what normal person who has not already studied anatomy understands what the anterior serratus is? Who has ever felt an actual energy bubble in their arm pit? And once you start rotating your arms, who can be quite sure which is the outside edge? It can all be kind of confusing.
After injuring my right shoulder over a year ago I began to rethink the way I was using my shoulders.
Here is the rub: As a yoga practitioner, whether you are a teacher or someone who simply attends a few yoga classes every week, if you don’t wrap your shoulders you are simply just hanging in your joints.
If you hang in your joints year after year, decade after decade, sooner or later you can create problems for yourself.
I personally was just an accident waiting to happen.
Even though I had heard tell about wrapping my shoulders, it wasn’t until I ripped my shoulder tendons and ligaments that I started taking this a lot more seriously. Ouch. When you can’t walk your dog on a leash, have trouble lifting your purse or have to give up pushups (OK, I am hearing you, that part you would be happy to leave out anyway), you start paying a lot more attention.
Now that I have learned how to wrap my own shoulders, I have become like a reformed smoker.
I learned step one of teaching movement – how to do it myself – but try as I might, I have seen just how difficult it has been for me to get this concept across to my own yoga students.
It’s a lot easier to just hang in your joints when you are practicing down dog, or just to throw your arms over your head in your standing poses and hope by God you are getting away with fooling your teacher that you are actually doing the pose correctly.
At the end of the day, good form in exercise is like good manners in life. It has a point. There is a good reason behind it.
When you use good form, not only are you unlikely to injure yourself either on the first or 800th or 20,000th repetition, you are more likely to allow the energy to flow properly in your body, to become strong, flexible and stable, to feel better and look better and enjoy your practice for years on end.
This morning as I was doing my personal practice, I figured out how to use yoga eggs to teach people how to wrap their shoulders.
You can find out all about yoga eggs by visiting www.threeminuteegg.com. Yoga eggs were developed by my colleague Jason Scholder as a tool to help heal his own back. Since building a company, Jason has discovered many uses for the eggs and has been to India to the Iyengar home office to spread the word. I emailed him my photos this morning of what I had discovered about wrapping the shoulders. “Love it,” he replied.
Step One. Hold a yoga egg in your hand. Your three middle fingers will go on the curved side of the egg. Your thumb and little finger will go on either side holding the flat part. Hold a yoga egg in both hands.
Step Two. Bring both arms over your head. The curved part of the yoga eggs will be facing forward.
Step Three. Wrap your shoulders. Roll the outside edge of your arm in. The flat part of the yoga eggs will now be facing forward. Voila! You have done it! You can look up at the yoga eggs in your hands and feel how your shoulders have been correctly wrapped. You will feel the anterior serratus (even if you don’t know what that is!) at your side body engaging. Now glide your arms over your head and extend your spine. Now you look like a pro.
Once you have learned how to wrap your shoulders in standing poses like virabhadrasana 1 (warrior 1), wrap your shoulders in adho mukha svanasana (down dog). It’s even more important to wrap your shoulders in down dog. That way you will develop strength and not wear out your shoulder joint.
Photograph: Me in virabhadrasana 1 (warrior 1) using yoga eggs to wrap my shoulders. That fluffy thing at my feet is my dog Belle.