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Using Yoga Poses to Learn Your Body

Learning a yoga pose as the sum of its parts

If we already know a yoga pose, we can work towards moving the parts of the body into the desired relationship by feeling our body and controlling it. Rather than moving into it automatically, we can focus on feeling our body as we move into the pose. We can then adjust the pose as we do it.

But what if we don't know a yoga pose? Or, what if we can't feel our body and/or aren't very good at controlling it?

A Non-Traditional Methodology for Teaching Yoga Poses and Conscious Proprioception

We can learn a yoga pose as the sum of it's parts. We can learn to feel the parts of the pose as we do them. We can thus learn a yoga pose, and learn to feel and control our body at the same time.

Then the yoga pose can be a means of improving conscious proprioception and control.

But not the way they are traditionally taught.

The ability to feel your body can be thought of as proprioception. This can happen automatically, subconsciously, behind the scenes. It can also happen with you being aware of it happening.

These could be differentiated as unconscious or subconscious proprioception and conscious proprioception.

In general, unless otherwise stated, I'll tend to refer to conscious proprioception simply as proprioception.

As an example, say we are trying to learn the yoga pose warrior 1 (while learning to feel our body at the same time).

Here's a quick look at the shape of the pose as a whole.

Warrior 1

Basic Definition of Warrior 1:
Front shin vertical, thigh level, back leg straight, back foot turned out, both feet flat on the ground, torso upright, hands up over the head, elbows straight, hands touching.

This definition leaves some room for interpretation and can also be adjusted. Think of it as a starting point for learning the body. And since the goal is learning the body, as opposed to trying to force it into a shape that it isn't capable (yet) of doing, we can adjust this definition.

Basic Exercises for Learning the necessary Conscious Proprioception for Warrior 1

Rather than trying to teach all of the elements of this pose all at once I often like to focus on isolation exercises that teach the necessary elements of body awareness and control.
I'll go over the exact details of the exercises later on in this article but for now, one possible way to train the necessary elements of warrior 1 is to use the following exercises:

I like to start with spinal awareness first since the ribcage can then be used as a reference for moving and feeling the shoulder blades. These in turn form the foundation for movements of the arms.

If these have been learned while sitting (or kneeling) the next step would be to do the same exercises with the legs in the warrior 1 position. The focus can be keeping the pelvis and front knee stationary while repeatedly reaching the ribs, shoulder blades and arms upwards and then relaxing them downwards.

On some days I might start with proprioception exercises for the feet and ankles while in a variation of mountain pose with feet separated and knees slightly bent. ,

For the base of the pose, it may be enough to teach some foot awareness exercises for foot and ankle stability, some simple knee exercises so that it is easier to feel when the knee is straight or bent and how it is positioned relative to the foot.
Pelvic awareness has at least been touched upon already during the spinal backbending exercises.

You can skip ahead to those exercises here or read first about some principles and mechanisms for conscious proprioception and control.

learning the spine

The next step in working towards warrior 1 is the arm lift.

Lifting the Arms

For the arm lift I'll teach shoulder blade awareness first, generally spreading and then relaxing the shoulder blades.
This can be done with the ribcage expanded, then once they can consciously perceive and control shoulder blade protraction (or the feeling associated with protracted shoulder blades) then I have then sequence the two actions, first lift the ribs then spread the shoulder blades.

This can be followed by a lifting of the arms forwards and up while keeping the shoulder blades protracted.

Note the importances of knowing what we are trying to do.
The actual technique for teaching shoulder and arm awareness doesn't matter if we know that the goal is to get students to be able to feel the movements of their shoulder blade relative to their ribcage, and to get them used to feeling their elbows and fingers and ribs and pelvis.
Knowing what we are trying to do we can devise simple exercises to get students to feel the relevant part of the body.
What is important is slow and smooth movement with a focus on the part that is moving (or with a focus on where ever there is a change in sensation as the body moves.)

Once a basic movement has been grasped, then get them doing the same movement slowly and smoothly while focusing their awarness on the part that is moving.

Another exercise that I use for conscious proprioception is to have students lift one arm. This can be done while sitting or standing.
I'll have them lift the shoulder moving it upwards, towards the ear (upwards but not inwards), then feel the elbow and straighten and then feel the fingers and straighten them, then feel the ribs and lift those away from the pelvis.
For people who have difficulty I'll hold on to their hand and gently pull up then gently relax.

These movements might start of rough and abrupt. But once the basic movement is understood, then the focus can shift to doing the movements slowly and smoothly.

While sitting or standing I'll then have students lift both hands, slowly reaching up, then slowly and slightly relaxing, and then repeating the action.

In a class setting I may teach the base of warrior 1 first, the legs, then do all of the above proprioception exercises while they hold the leg position.

So now, what about the legs?

Setting up the Foundation

For the legs, I'll have students stand with one leg forwards.
The first action can be to square the hips to the front. Since this is an action often repeated I probably wouldn't drill it. But if I see a regular student doing the movement abruptly I'd ask them to do it slowly.

The next step is to bend the front knee while keeping the back knee straight and the back foot flat on the floor.
This can then require a further separation of the feet so that the shin is vertical while the thigh approaches the horizontal position.

Sometimes I might have students bend the knee first and then square the hips.
Then I suggest moving the back foot so that the foot, knee and hip are all in a comfortable position.

Rather than restricting them to a prescribed foot position I'll have them move the back foot inwards or outwards, rotate it outwards or inwards and during those actions they should be able to feel the position that is most comfortable or least uncomfortable.

One simple exercise I might have students doing prior to setting up for warrior 1 is to rock back and forwards on the feet while paying attention to the feelings in the feet.
General instructions might include rocking forwards till the toes naturally press down then rocking back till the toes relax. Then I'll ask them to hold the forward position and note the general feeling in the feet compared to the weight shifted back position.
The general consensus is that the foot feels more active when weight is forwards.

Again, if the movement is done slowly and smoothly it can be easier to consciously perceive the gradual changes in foot tension. However, just changing positions may be enough for them to detect the difference and as a result not only perceive the difference between and active and relaxed foot, but then be able to press the front of the foot down to activate the foot.

They can use this action in warrior 1 as way of stabilizing the feet.

Integration: Putting all the Elements of Warrior 1 Together

Adding the upper body actions, the instructions might include unbending the front knee slightly and then bending it again just to become more knee aware.
Then the instructions could be to keep the knee still and the pelvis at the same height while the ribs and arms are lifted and then lowered so that as the arm are lifted the upper body including the arms lengthen upwards and then lower down while the pelvis remains relatively fixed.

Depending on the level of experience, this can be the end of warrior 1, or they can hold the final position with hands either separated or together.

Then, for more advanced students the focus can be on making smaller movements within the pose, a gradual lengthening and then a gradual softening, so that the pose, and the body, have the appearance of breathing.

Equally important in this is the work of the mind. During the lengthening the phase the mind can be focused on the idea of lengthening upwards. Then during the relaxing phase the mind can be focused on sinking downwards And at the end of each phase both the body and the mind can smoothly change direction like the ebb and flow of waves coming ashore.

Questions and Answers

Do the isolation exercises need to be performed every time prior to warrior 1?

No. Ideally, once you've got the hang of feeling the relevant parts you can get on with feeling your body and controlling it.

To make it easier to feel your whole body, what I sometimes teach as an intermediate step is the body scan. This can be done in any order that makes sense to you, but generally it involves focusing on a body part, say the feet, for a breath, then moving your awareness to the next body part, say the knees, after a full breath cycle. Or, inhale and feel the feet, exhale. Inhale feel the knees. Exhale. Inhale feel the hips and pelvis, exhale etc.

Another approach is to feel the entire body and notice any areas of excess tension or slackness. Focus on those areas and add or subtract tension as required them zoom out to feeling the whole body again.

Where Next?

After enough practice you may then find that you want to refine your awareness. And so then you might go back to the spinal backbending exercise and choose to focus on feeling the individual vertebrae. Or you might choose to focus on the shoulders and focus on different muscles of the shoulder area.

For poses that are totally different from what has been practiced or experienced before the same general methodology can be used, break the pose down into basic actions, work on conscious proprioception for isolated elements then gradually integrate so that the whole body can be felt and controlled in the full pose (or some modified version of the full pose.)

The nice thing about conscious proprioception is that the awareness and conscious proprioception practiced in one exercise can be carried into other similiar exercises.

Also, it doesn't matter what a students level of strength or flexibility is, they can still learn to feel their body.
And one of the reasons that I focus on conscious proprioception is that it can then make it easier to improve flexibility and strength.

Published: 2017 03 20
Updated: 2021 01 31
Clearly defined poses, exercises and stretches for improving stability, body awareness and flexibility.
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