Essential Skills for Students of Yoga by Dustin McCallister

With this series, I’ll attempt to introduce concepts that I think are fundamental for serious students of alignment-based yoga. I hope that these ideas help you deepen your class experiences!

Moving Without Seeing

Proprioception, your sense of your own body in space, is generally improved as students advance in their study of yoga. Eventually, proprioception is a necessary skill for movements in advanced postures (how will you grab your foot when you can’t see it? You’ll have to feel it). As your sense of your own body in space is improved, you can expand that skill to map out the space around you as well.

Like any skill, one of the best ways to develop is to challenge it. A few fun exercises to try with your eyes closed:

Use your non-dominant-hand’s 4th finger to touch your nose
Touch one thumb to the other hand’s pinky behind your back
Pinch your left earlobe with your right thumb and forefinger

You may surprise yourself with how adept you are at those movements. We have a more-robust sense of our hands in space than our other extremities.

In your yoga classes, you can develop and refine your proprioception first just by adding awareness, and then removing visual cues. For example, when you stand in tadasana (mountain pose), start paying absurdly close attention to making your feet even: line up your big toes or your heels (even consider using the edge of your mat for the straight line!), match the turn of your feet so they are perfectly even, etc. Take that same awareness into prasarita padottanasana (wide-legged intense stretch pose): line up your feet, match the turn, etc. After some time of making these adjustments using your eyes, attempt placing your feet without looking at them, then double check by looking. By doing so, you’ll start noticing how it feels to be even, what your tendencies are and how to adjust them, and you’ll start to spread your mind and awareness through your body.

Once you have a good map of your body in space, try moving that awareness into a map of the space and things around you in relation to your body. You could try entering utthita trikonasana (extended triangle pose) using a block under your lower hand without looking at the block as you place your hand. A much more challenging version of the same exercise would be entering ardha chandrasana (half moon pose) from tadasana, using a block under the lower hand, and again placing your hand on the pre-placed block without looking at it (of course, that would require a well-placed block).

With attentive work, you might find some fun results from a more-refined sense of self in space and map of the space around you. When I am disciplined in my own yoga practice, I find myself less likely to trip, less likely to run into things, and less likely to knock things over. And, when I DO knock things over, I sometimes make what feel like ninja-level saves and then feel like a superstar. And yoga skills or not, who doesn’t want to feel ninja-level adept once in a while?

by Dustin McCallister

Dustin McCallister Yoga

Think Like a Yoga Teacher by Dustin McCallister

Have you ever wondered why you do things a certain way in class? In a good yoga class, everything you do should have clear thinking and a practical rationale behind it. The more you can learn think in that same way, the more informed your home practice can be! I hope these little tidbits help you to think like a yoga teacher.

Why strap there?

For poses using a strap as a support (where the flexibility for the full pose is demanding), putting the strap in different places on your foot can result in a different experience.

When I teach supta padangusthasana (reclined big toe pose), for example, I usually have people put the strap around the ball of the foot–that placement gives a nice opportunity for feedback on calf engagement since you can actively push the ball of your foot into the strap. Since that pose can strain the knee joint by hyperextending the knee, I like to ensure active calves for support: gastrocnemius, the big, two-headed, most-superficial calf muscle flexes the knee (as well as the ankle) and can therefore help to prevent hyperextension when engaged.

Give it a try! Practice the pose with the strap placed differently on your foot and observe the differences.

by Dustin McCallister

Essential Skills for Students of Yoga by Dustin McCallister

With this series, I’ll attempt to introduce concepts that I think are fundamental for serious students of alignment-based yoga. I hope that these ideas help you deepen your class experiences!

Sequence Analysis

Have you ever been in a class and performed a difficult pose and felt ready for it and comfortable? Or, much less fun, performed a difficult pose and somehow felt that you were completely unprepared?

In a good class, the teacher will have carefully planned what poses and movements you practice and put them into a specific order. Each pose will influence your body’s openness, readiness for muscular engagement, skill with subtle movements, and energetics.

There are also lots of different ways to practice each pose. Learn to pay attention to which movements your teacher emphasizes and how they relate to the arc of the class as a whole.

Think about urdhva dhanurasana, upward bow pose, sometimes called “wheel.” A vigorous and challenging pose, urdhva dhanurasana requires flexibility and openness in students’ shoulders, backs, and hip flexors. At the same time, students must have prepared their shoulders and legs to lift and support the weight of their bodies and their backs to engage to support the extension of the spine. Students must be ready to make specific, subtle movements throughout their bodies to most-safely access and maintain the shape. Lastly, students must be energetically prepared for the effort and bravery required to stretch open while backwards and upside down!

There are lots of different ways to successfully sequence a class that leads up to urdhva dhanurasana, so let’s just look at a preparatory sequence (not necessarily a whole class) as a way to think about how movements can build on each other.

-Virasana (hero pose) to open: begins to open thighs
-Urdhva baddhanguliasana (upward bound finger pose) in virasana: prepares wrists for weight bearing, begins to engage and open shoulders
-Parsva virasana (side hero pose): continues to build shoulder engagement, twist begins to warm spine for deeper movement
-Adhomukha svanasana (downward-facing dog pose): begins to work legs, adds weight bearing to shoulders, opens shoulders, emphasizes the same external rotation of arms required for urdhva dhanurasana
-Utthita parsvakonasana (extended side angle pose): works legs, warms back muscles, stretches side body, works external rotation of upper arm
-Virabhadrasana I (warrior I pose): works legs, opens hip flexors, full shape continues arm overhead movements with external rotation
-Parivrtta trikonasana (revolved triangle pose): works legs, engages core muscles, prepares spine, challenges balance
-Adhomukha vrksasana (downward-facing tree pose [handstand]): continues with weight bearing in shoulders, arms, and wrists; opens shoulders with external rotation, prepares students to confront the fear of being upside down
-Salabhasana (locust pose): warms muscles of the back to support spinal extension (backbending)
-Bhujangasana (cobra pose): deepens the backbend, preparing the spine for further movement
-Urdhvamukha svanasana (upward-facing dog pose): continues to deepen the backbend work
-Urdhva dhanurasana (upward bow pose)

Most classes would then include work to help unwind the spine and calm down the driving energy necessary to perform urdhva dhanurasana.

To gain skill in understanding class sequences, try to memorize each class as you move through it. If you have a yoga buddy you attend class with, take a moment after class to talk through the sequence in order, adding in which movements you focused on in each pose. It can also be useful to ask your teacher why you perform certain movements, either during class or after, depending on the class culture.

Understanding the the ways movements fit together and how the order of movements affects your body is essential for developing a home practice. Once you begin to link poses and their effects, you can build your own sequences at home, tailored exactly to your body, capabilities, and needs.

Essential Skills for Students of Yoga by Dustin McCallister

With this series, I’ll attempt to introduce concepts that I think are fundamental for serious students of alignment-based yoga. I hope that these ideas help you deepen your class experiences!

Focused Watching

In many alignment classes, teachers will gather the class periodically to demonstrate movements. Usually those demonstrations include some spoken directions as well as the physical demonstration. These moments are particularly useful for visual learners, but even if you have a good understanding of the movements without seeing them, demonstrations can be a chance to reinforce or refine.

If the teacher is demonstrating the movements as an introduction, they will usually narrate the important movements as they are performed. Attend to the movements indicated: look for exaggerated movements, gesture to body parts, and especially to repetition. In a timed class, teachers won’t take the time to repeat unless it’s important!

If the demonstration is a clarification (the teacher is showing movements you have already done, rather than showing the movements for the first time), then this is a moment to refine your understanding of the verbal cues already used. As the teacher prepares the demonstration, visualize the movements implied by the language you have already heard, even going as far as picturing the teacher performing them before having done so. Then compare what you see to what you expected. If it matched, great. If not, why not? Does what you see make sense with what you heard? What is different: direction, placement, intensity, something else? If it does not make sense, ask a question after the demonstration is done. Chances are, other students had the same experience of some part of the movement not making sense, and better to get clarity rather than continue with a partial understanding.

Newer students should focus their attention on the movements being narrated–the double down of spoken instruction and demonstrated movement is a great chance to solidify understanding. More advanced students can learn to watch those movements and observe other movements shown, but not discussed, by the teacher. In a slow enough demonstration, the teacher will show many details beyond what they narrate. Intermediate and advanced students might be able to have their questions about details answered just by watching a demonstration.

Dustin McCallister Yoga Parsvottanasana

Why Alignment? by Dustin McCallister

I believe in the utility of alignment-based yoga for all students. As a physical practice, focusing on specifics of alignment allows students to learn essential biomechanical relationships of their bodies, provides a framework for more safely cultivating flexibility (while maintaining and emphasizing joint stability), and develops skill in muscular engagement that trains fundamental full-body strength.

Beginning students benefit from the slower pace of classes, which affords the time to understand postures’ basic shapes and relationships. More advanced students are able to add further refinement to movements and build on fundamental capabilities to access more challenging postures and build a toolkit to moderate physical, psychological, and spiritual challenges.

A practice with longer holds with careful alignment offers the chance to retrain problematic habits. Students with injuries can rebuild strength in areas necessary for rehabilitation and in some cases work on developing coordinated engagement to accomplish kinesiological workarounds (with an appropriately-informed teacher, or in conjunction with physical therapy).

Students interested in participating in faster-paced flow classes typically benefit from studying alignment either before beginning or concurrently with vinyasa classes. Careful study of alignment will provide a framework for accessing the postures, even quickly as in a flow class, more safely, and can clarify a student’s limits before they are challenged.

As a spiritual practice, at a basic level, emphasizing alignment is a type of mindfulness. We endeavor to spread our awareness into the entirety of our bodies, accessing the intelligence of the body, moderating the energetic body, and using attention to minutiae to cultivate present-moment awareness.

In the Bay Area, we are lucky to have access to a plethora of superb alignment teachers. The yoga taught in the lineage of B.K.S. Iyengar (“Iyengar yoga”) is entirely alignment-based, so students are able to take any class labeled “Iyengar” with confidence in the teacher’s training and style of teaching. The Iyengar Yoga Institute of San Francisco and Adeline Yoga in Berkeley are excellent options. There are excellent teachers who teach alignment-based classes outside of the Iyengar lineage as well; look for classes labeled “hatha” or, even better, “hatha align.” There is more variability in these classes, but studios and gyms often use “hatha” to contrast with “vinyasa.”

Dustin McCallister Yoga Alignment