How Yoga practice has enhanced my teaching of exercise

I'm a Physiotherapist that teaches Pilates and prefers to practice Yoga.  I have not taken the formal 200 hour yoga training programs but have been practicing for 4 years. This is not a long time in fact to learn about movement but it has shown me that overtime we all change and merge towards new trends. What I have currently experienced is the shift away from high-intensity workouts (which some yoga studios were trending towards) and the emphasis on foundations of movement and student-education. 

I wanted to take a moment to reflect on how Yoga practice has changed my teaching style. Each class I take teaches me about my body and how language translates into movement in the body. This blog explores some of the key aspects of my teaching that have changed over time and beliefs I aim to share with my students. 

Our bodies change daily and therefore practice will always feel different.

Every time I practice my body tells me a different story. There are so many variables at play impacting how we feel; sleep, hydration, fatigue, and physical health. As a student it is empowering to understand how alive we are and how change is continuous. Sometimes it feels like we are moving forwards and other times backwards but the point is we are moving. As a teacher I try to remind my students of this continual change. In biological terms (from my recent biology studies) we call this phenomenon 'maintaining dysequilibrium'. It explains the theory that the environment around us is always changing and for us to stay balanced, we always need to adapt to that change, from our hydration levels to cell pH and ATP stores. We are always finding the balance in a never-balanced world. So go with it and accept that it will always be different and that is ok. 

Breathing is the key to moving better.

Breath. The key to life itself. Without breath we cease to exist. 

Breathing through movement is one of the cornerstone signs that you are in control of your body. If you can't breathe, you can't move, that is my philosophy. Simple and easy to consistently follow. 

Planking and push ups are accompanied with serratus anterior.

Get to the top of the plank and return there after doing a push up. Too often I see people trying to draw their shoulder blades together in a plank position and this takes you out of normal thoracic kyphosis and can make your head drop as well. If you want to get better at planking, push ups and your chaturanga, you need to hold the top of the plank well and push yourself away from the floor. Engaging serratus anterior is a great way to improve your core control, allow for easy breathing through movement and develop upper body strength. It keeps you out of your wrists and elbows and works the muscles in your trunk more. 

Each muscle has a rotational component and combining movement with rotation gives you more knowledge about how you move through range.

When you are learning about exercise and rehabilitation it is easy (and often more simple) to learn about exercises that target specific muscles. Bridges are for hamstrings and glutes. Squats for quads. Calf raises are for calves etc... What yoga has enforced for me is that muscles are not uni-planar and life is not uni-directional. Combining rotation into poses like a lunge or a side balance teaches me about how well my body takes on variability of movement and adapts to control different planes of movement. If you are finding exercises too simple or if progress is stalling, maybe its time to bring in rotational control?

Having stronger hamstrings is better than longer hamstrings.

As you might see from these photos flexibility is not my forte. I always feel like I could benefit from stretching my calves and hamstrings but that doesn't mean everyone I teach needs the same. I do however feel that hamstring strength and control is a goal most people can work towards. Due to their attachment on the pelvis and inherit control over hip, knee and pelvic position, the hamstrings are a key player in trunk and lumbopelvic movement. 

Shoes off is the way to go.

This one might seem simple but believe me, many people still practice Pilates or Yoga with shoes on. The foot is the vital in providing stability on the surface we stand on and providing proprioceptive feedback about our positioning in space. So, unless it is specifically needed for a condition, shoes are off and foot articulation and control is brought back into the routine. One of the hardest poses I know for balance and control is tree pose with arms above head (growing your branches), looking up (disturbing visual input and cervical afferent input) and then closing the eyes. 

Slow and steady.

Often it is too easy to move to the end of the pose without going through the sticky middle. For example take a simple spinal roll down or forward flexion. The focus is articulation of the spine but it is easy to just fold from the hips and rush down without gaining any articulation. Slow it down, take one movement with each section of the breathe and challenge yourself to go through the entire range of the pose with intention and concentration. Yoga is hard, physically and mentally. It takes so much focus to train movement patterns well, but, it has taught me so much about my body, areas I can continually improve on and areas that are my strengths. 

We need to continue to practice to make change more permanent.

There is an old saying "practice makes perfect" which I've come to appreciate and understand more. But, its not about being perfect. I actually don't believe there is a perfect. I know that everyone is different and uniquely made so striving for one ideal body shape or function seems unachievable. I do think that we have to practice frequently to make change and habit become more permanent. I know this from experience and how my body feels when I take breaks from practice. I also believe that each day is going to be different and is a new opportunity to learn, grown and change. So instead of practice makes perfect, I know think, practice makes change more permanent.

And lastly, for me Yoga is a place where I can be myself, wear what ever crazy leggings I want and just enjoy the practice of personal progress and discovery. You can practice Yoga anyway and it will always teach you something. The hardest part is turning up and being present. 

Sian