As yoga teachers, there’s always a possibility that our students will misunderstand and/or feel confused by what we’re intending to communicate. Given this, one of the most supportive things we can do is develop a healthy feedback loop to assess whether what we are expressing is being understood the way we mean it and put into practice.
If you are a teacher, you probably already know that different schools of yoga express contrasting viewpoints on the nature of reality. Some are dualistic, suggesting that there is a physical dimension as well as a non-physical, or energetic, dimension of self. The aim of dualistic practices is to gradually transcend the physical and find equanimity with the “true” self. The focus of dualistic practices is on subtler forms of yoga, like meditation and pranayama, rather than strength and flexibility. Non-dual philosophies, on the other hand, suggest that the world we view as physical is made up of energy, or prana, that can therefore both influence, and be influenced by, our physical practices.
I share this to suggest that one’s belief surrounding the nature of reality can inform the way in which they approach a yoga practice and its goals. For the purposes of this article, I will assume that if you are interested in the movement-based practices of hatha yoga, which have their roots in non-dualism, that you also consider energy as an aspect of our physical world, and self. My aim in this article is not to join the conversation on the true nature of reality, but rather to explore our language choices and to see how we can better implement and convey our instructions.
When I'm instructing yoga practices that encourage reflection, or direct the flow of consciousness, or enhance awareness, I will often use language of a more reflexive or energetic nature (i.e., “Notice the sensation of gripping in your hips and yield into gravity with each exhalation” and “Radiate from your heart out through your fingertips and into the space around you”).
When it comes to teaching asana and developing greater kinesthetic capacity and understanding, I usually opt for more direct action-based instructions (i.e., “Spread your fingers and press them into the mat”). A difficulty in this approach, however, is that action typically implies movement, and many yoga poses, once we have moved into them, are held.
So how does one teach action without movement, and convey it clearly?
You have probably heard your teachers use the word “isometric” or preface an instruction with the adverb “isometrically.” Understanding this word is key to learning how to bring greater levels of engagement, and even awareness, to our practice. Isometric means “equal measurement,” and refers to a muscle contraction in which the length of the muscle does not change. As you sit still and read these words, many of your muscles are contracting isometrically, in that they are not lengthening or shortening, but staying at one length. To isometrically engage a muscle, however, means to create the action that would otherwise move your joint and shorten the muscle, but in such a way that the muscle doesn’t shorten.
This occurs because the resistance that opposes the intended action is equal to the force of the action—while your muscles engage, your body is held in a static position. There are many ways to assist a student in creating and identifying an isometric action. The resistance could come from closed-chain contact (with the mat, with the wall, with a prop, with another body part), or more complexly, from internal counteractions when the chain is open (meaning your body part is not in contact with anything).
My usual strategy is to use closed-chain feedback, with an action-based instruction, coupled with “as if” to quantify it. For example, to train isometric engagement of the pectoral muscles (which create shoulder adduction), I may instruct a student this way: “Hold a block between your hands and reach your arms forward. Straighten your elbows, draw your shoulder blades toward your spine, and squeeze the block between your hands as if you were trying to crush it” (the block is closing the chain). This as if statement causes a close-to-maximum effort in the contraction, which can aid in increasing strength and awareness around the pecs.
I could then offer the reflexive instruction to “Feel your chest muscles engage.” As the skill progresses, I may take the block out of the equation, but maintain the instruction with the addition of the adverb isometrically: “As if you were holding a block, isometrically squeeze your hands toward each other and crush the block. Feel your chest muscles engage.” This encourages internal counter actions. In time, as this ability becomes more practiced and familiar, I may simplify the instruction to, “Isometrically engage your chest muscles,” and the student would understand, no matter the context. But this would require an ample amount of background information (the kind I just shared) for the student to know just how to do that.
Confusion can often come when we use terms interchangeably. For some, doing something energetically can mean the same thing as doing it physically (matter is made from energy after all). For others, doing something energetically means that they are to do it only on the level of energy or prana. This may resonate with certain students based on their background and contextualization of energy, but can leave room for confusion due to the varied and unsubstantiated ways each of us perceives what energy is and discerns its movements. My experience is that most teachers who offer the cue to energetically engage are expressing the felt experience of what happens when we engage isometrically.
As a teacher, I am interested in allowing space for my student to experience their body, its physiological responses, and the resulting feelings or quality of being that is produced through making different choices in their movements, thoughts, and breath. I am also committed to establishing clear methods of communication so that what I say can be understood and implemented. While there is never a one-size-fits-all model that will work for every student and in every context, choosing my words carefully and having multiple methods for describing an action not only adds dimension to my teaching, but ensures I can teach what it is I mean to teach in varied ways that can address and reach more people.
If you are a student looking to make greater sense of your teacher’s instructions, consider these methods of approaching your physical/energetic body, and feel empowered to ask questions, explore options, and notice their effects. Some of my greatest moments of growth as a teacher have come from my students requesting more information or clarity around what I mean to happen when I instruct certain actions. It has encouraged me to understand my own choices more deeply and find increasingly more precise ways to convey them.
Furthermore, if you’d like to see examples in action of how I teach and establish isometric instructions, my “6-Day Isometric Strength Program” explores these principles of engagement, and if you want to implement innovative isometric drills into your class sequencing, my “Smart and Creative Sequencing for Yoga Nerds” course explores this approach in greater depth.
Both the practice and teaching of yoga provide so many opportunities for us to seek clarity by paying attention with greater discernment. May we never run out of questions, and become increasingly more skillful in finding answers. Stay curious and committed, and you may discover ever deeper levels of profound embodiment through your yoga.
Photography: Andrea Killam