The most powerful adjustments are often the most subtle. Learn to use breath awareness, kind words, and a gentle touch.
As I close my eyes, I fold forward, extend through my spine, deepen my breath, pause…relax…and suddenly, an assistant pushes me in the back, forcing my body into “picture-perfect” alignment. Being manhandled like that feels the same as someone dumping a bucket of icy water on me while I sleep. My chest tightens, my shoulders tense, and my eyes fly open. As I brace, anxious that another push may force me beyond my limits, I struggle to once again turn my attention inward.
Not all physical adjustments yank me out of introspection, however. Have you ever noticed that an intuitive teacher, applying the slightest pressure, can completely shift your experience in a pose? It seems as though some teachers have the innate ability to see exactly what adjustment you need. This kinesthetic sensitivity guides them as they help you follow their instruction without breaking your concentration.
Have you ever noticed that an intuitive teacher, applying the slightest pressure, can completely shift your experience in a pose?
Shari Friedrichsen, a 35-year veteran, developed her intuitive teaching style after years of self-study. Now she mentors yoga teachers seeking to sharpen their own intuition, advising them to start with their personal practice. “Before you can truly see what your students need, you have to notice your own challenges and ‘imperfections’ first,” she says, “and then be kind about what you discover.”
Friedrichsen encourages teachers to be honest about their body’s needs and limitations and emphasizes kindness, because self-criticism undermines perspective. “If you can’t embrace what you don’t like about yourself,” she says, “then you’ll judge or ignore your students.”
The idea of self-acceptance encompasses more than just the physical body; Friedrichsen points out that you have to embrace your emotional state as well. Oftentimes unwanted feelings can well up in your practice and manifest in your body. Tense shoulders, for instance, might result from habitual contraction brought on by stress. Or you might notice feeling frustrated when you practice a particularly challenging pose. As a yoga teacher, you’re probably already aware of your body’s patterns—but how exactly do you use your emotional experiences to help students improve their asana? According to Friedrichsen, developing awareness of your breath is the key.
Your breath, she says, reveals clues about your emotional and physical states. Do you hold your breath when you feel discomfort? Or do you sigh deeply when you feel sad? The quality of your breathing is inextricably linked to your body and mind, but “until you’re honest with yourself,” Friedrichsen warns, “you’ll miss these subtle cues.”
Your breath not only serves as a barometer, it also works as a powerful healer by giving you access to prana (your life force or energy). The next time you strike a pose, pay attention to your breath and notice how it moves through your body. You’ll recognize its presence by the sense of ease and vitality you feel. And then notice where you’re not breathing. Your breath catches in these prana-starved places when it runs up against discomfort or instability in your body. Friedrichsen refers to this as finding the edge of your breath. But instead of forcing your breath beyond the edge, simply observe what happens without judgment. Does the breath feel blocked or diffuse? “Habitual muscle contraction blocks the breath, and untoned muscles fail to contain it,” says Friedrichsen, “so you have to develop both flexibility and strength in your muscle tissues.” Ask yourself why you’re not breathing into a particular spot and observe whatever feelings or memories arise. Finally, gently breathe into that space with loving kindness as you invite healing.
The next time you strike a pose, pay attention to your breath and notice how it moves through your body.
Once you lovingly hone awareness of your breath and its power to heal by recognizing how your body and breath respond, you’ll begin to teach from a newfound well of compassion. According to Friedrichsen, “As your understanding grows, you’ll start to truly see your students, too.” You’ll no longer seek cues from the gross body alone, but from a more integrated form that’s wrapped in prana. When you teach from the experience of your own breath, you’ll notice that your students relax when you ask them to deepen theirs—and that they’ll often discover for themselves how to adjust their postures. Sometimes words will suffice, but your light touch might also help them find their best alignment as they tailor the posture to suit their needs. “It’s the difference,” Friedrichsen says, “between allowing a flower to bloom when it’s ready and prying open the bud.”
Show Up for Yourself First
Practice this exercise to develop breath awareness and healing in your yoga practice.
- To establish good diaphragmatic breathing, start in makarasana (crocodile pose) by lying on your stomach and letting your forehead rest on your stacked arms. Spread your feet more than hip distance apart. As you breathe through your nose, feel your abdomen press into the floor and notice how the sides of your rib cage expand and contract with each respiration. After several rounds, observe your breath as it enters your nose on the inhalation and then moves through your whole body. Feel your breath move back up through the body and out the nose as you exhale. Continue practicing for about 5 to 7 minutes.
- Sit in baddha konasana (butterfly pose) for about 3 minutes. While you sit, breathe through your whole body, noticing where you sense the breath and exploring the places where you don’t. Does the breath seem to get stuck at a certain point or fail to reach part of the body? You’ve found the edge of your breath. Observe that place in your body while you hold the pose. Without judgment, ask yourself what you experience. Is it tension? Is it unconsciousness? Does it seem as though the spot is charged with an emotional response? Do memories surface?
How to See Prana
- Find a partner, preferably a fellow yoga teacher, to help you fine-tune your ability to observe someone else’s breath and build some confidence in your intuition.
- Ask your partner to sit in sukhasana (easy pose) while you sit behind her, facing her back.
- For the next minute or two, observe how her breath animates her body. Notice how the sides of her rib cage flare out with each inhalation. You might see the shoulders subtly rise and fall as the chest expands and contracts. Look for small movements in the clothing on her back.
- Then soften your gaze by viewing her entire back from her head down to her hips and look for places where you don’t see her breath. You may notice places where the energy seems to get stuck or where there is no breath at all.
- Gently rest your hands on her back in the places that seem to need her attention, and then ask her to breathe into your touch. Leave your hands on her back for about 5 rounds of her respiration. You may find that she adjusts her alignment.
- Slowly pull your hands away and observe how she breathes for several more rounds, noting whether her alignment has changed or if she has more breath awareness than she did before.
- Compare your observations with your partner’s experience.
- Try the same exercise in other postures, like trikonasana (triangle pose).