Power of Observation

When one steps back from the front line of teaching for a while, it is easy to see how “teacher talk” can dominate a class room; how the space and time taken up by this can figuratively cramp student’s style/practice.

Whilst always recording  a lesson aim as “allow time for self practice and exploration”, the temptation to control , to move the practice on may interfere with the teacher’s all-important jobs – observation and guidance rather than control.

The structural/mechanical model of yoga teaching in which the shape of every asana is paramount and teachers correct/move students into the “correct shape” can be very controlling and, as such, is very comforting for students I think.  To some extent, the responsibility is taken out of the hands of the student because teacher “knows best”.  A sensory approach to yoga practice is more demanding of the individual in that each student is encouraged to notice how the body moves in and out of everyday movements such as turning, getting up and down from the floor, sitting etc – with least strain upon the balance of the body.  These movements must include structural elements but the focus is to observe how these structural elements coalesce both mechanically and emotionally.

For example, Sprinters ( we can’t get away from Sprinters for long) strengthens patterns that enable us to walk, run, get up from the ground and back down again.  Structurally, it helps to strengthen the crouch and spring muscles of the legs and feet.  A steady front foot means that we are using muscles of the foot, ankle and knee in a biomechanically sound way.  The the fact that we lift the pelvis means that the core muscles are working as well as the quads.  The movement means that muscles are working with bones but the key is to notice, to observe when in this movement pattern, the body stiffens. If the foot does not remain steady then structures around the ankle and knee may be working overtime to steady the movement – to ground the pose.  If the upper body becomes tense then we are bringing extra elements into the movement that are not necessary.  We may be compensating in order to get to “finish line” and I do believe that most people in pain are compensating in some way.

The challenge (and it is a big challenge) in Sprinters is to observe existing structures (we have placed our feet forward and risen from the ground since we learned to walk) and to NOT use the muscles we don’t have to.  This requires patience and the time and space, on the part of both student and teacher to cultivate attention:

“….Cultivate your attentiveness as if it’s for the first time,  Stay with yourself.  Stay with the connections that are already there.  As soon as you set a goal – to achieve a pose- the attention is not the same anymore and we don’t feel…

”  Awakening The Spine” by Vanda Scaravelli

In 2006/7, Pete Blackaby was for me, a teacher who slowed everything down in the yoga room and allowed students to practice at their own pace. Pete emphasized the importance of listening to our nervous system in order to reduce discomfort. He was interested in how our bodies had evolved to function, specifically, how our anatomy was shaped to conserve energy. His interest in somatics – how the brain senses and moves the body – sits on the shoulders of Alexander, Feldenkreis, Stanley Keller, Mabel Todd, Damassion et al.  His use of the term “functional” was new to me in yoga teaching – movements based upon real-world situational biomechanics (Wikipedia).  I was intrigued by this since, at that time I was teaching a functional approach to language learning which differed from the structural grammar-based teaching that I had previously taught.

In 1972, the British linguist, D A Wilkin, promoted a communicative language syllabus in which students were taught how to communciate effectively through functions such as “making requests”; “asking permission”; “clarifying information” etc.  Focus was upon using language; the movement of language from one person to another – as a process of which the speaker would, of course, make errors but would, hopefully, begin to recognize how to reduce those errors. Like all new approaches, there are pros and cons.  The bulding block system of grammar-based language teaching provides a controlled structure for practice whilst the functional approach emphasizes intention and purpose from the outset.  As as teacher, I felt that this new approach helped student to reduce their inhibitions at a early stage- essentially, putting theory into practice and providing a good basis for future learning. Which is, I think what Pete Blackaby has tried to do.

I am now noticing more mention of function, attention, integration in the words and writings of teachers whom I would previously have categorized under the Structural Model. David Keil, for example, who teaches Astanga Yoga now emphasizes “function” and in his book, Functonal Anatomy, the underlying theme is integration:

….. How do the supposed “parts and pieces” of the body synchronize to support integrated movement? …….how do the various yoga postures interrelate from the perspective of functional anatomy?…

Look at these wonderful clips of Pete teaching Side Bends, Face Up Dog and Down Dog ; illustrating how to help students to sense the possibilities of movement through an integrated approach to yoga practice.  His teaching of Face Up Dog is particularly useful for those of us who do all our backbending at the back of the waist and then wonder why we are a bit achey after yoga.  One tries to help students sense whether they are overdoing the extension at the back of the waist (in which case the ribs flare).  Here Pete specifies the integrated extension of the spine by helping the  student to free up movement in the thoracic so that the rest of the spine can move in an aligned way that also opens the hip flexors.  The student becomes aware of the connection between the upper and lower spine. Pete encourages us to consider the question  “Does my pelvis understand what my head is doing?’  In this way the whole spine is involved and observed.

In a mechanistic model of teaching the “parts and pieces” are highlighted and thus pain/injury is highlighted, rather than movement.  A whole body approach works to keep the basic patterns of movement alive within the brainand to strengthen these patterns so that the possibility of movement is still possible. See the blog Parts versus the whole in yoga practice.

It’s the possibilities that keep us practising yoga.

On which subject, have to link Dina Asher Smith in some fashion following her win in the 200m event in Doha the other night.  Here’s a video of Dina introducing a biomechanical analysis of the sprint start. The featured athlete, Amy,  realizes that she has to extend her back leg in the sprint start in order to push out more effectively.  Her speed out of the blocks is enhanced by a horizontal drive forward that the front leg picks up.  Prior to this, she had been lifting herself into a more vertical stance.

Its the vertical stance that we try to “perfect” in sprinters and that is one of the reasons that we try to notice ourselves lifting the chin in attempt to drive forward.  This,  as well as the counter-productive tension created in the strong extensors in the neck.

Ah – the power of observation!









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