Clear Instructional Cues in Yoga | Advanced Anatomy Not needed
Flexion, extension, contraction, and confusion? Does your mind get turned upside down when you think about these terms or try to use them? Read on in order to get clear on basic anatomical language related to cues in yoga.
As a yoga teacher I focus on providing cues in yoga classes that will land on my students. That is, I say things or do things that will have an immediate impact in their bodies. There is no need to use complex vocabulary that one might learn in an anatomy or kinesiology class. In fact, I avoid using these terms despite my own fluency in medical terminology. Most of my students would have no idea what I mean if I say "adduct your shoulders, extend your spine, and flex your hips". Instead, I say, "bring your arms down to your side, keep your spine straight, and take a forward fold."
Understanding complex anatomical terms is not necessary to be an amazing yoga teacher. A basic understanding of anatomical language does, however, enhance your ability to better understand human movement and anatomy as it applies to yoga. Many yoga resources utilise such terms. I want to simplify these terms and make them clear for you.
Flexion is the movement of joints towards the fetal position. Consider the position of a fetus in utero. All the joints are bent in order to create a compact position. The limbs (including the head) are drawn into the center of the body. Extension is the movement of joints away from the fetal position. As a fetus grows he or she may extend a leg. That is when mom starts to report the baby is kicking. If the limbs were constantly extended, mothers-to-be would probably have increased discomfort from the poking of little hands and feet. When you roll out your mat to practice, you will create various postures that include both flexion and extension of the various parts of your body. The chart below explains what flexion and extension look like in various joints. Stand on your mat. Focus on one part of you body at a time and allow yourself to feel flexion and extension at each of the listed joints. Notice that you move towards the fetal position with all of the flexion activities and away from the fetal position with the extension activities.
Shoulder flexion and extension tend to create the greatest amount of confusion. If you raise your arm over your head, it seems this is moving away from the fetal position. Now try this. Flex your elbow fully (bend your arm at your elbow as much as you can as if doing a bicep curl) and move your hand toward your mouth as you would expect to see in the position of a fetus. Notice that the top arm bone (humerus) is moving in the same direction as it does when you bring your arm over your head. This motion is flexion (A). With your arms by your side, reach your hand directly behind you. Notice the direction of the movement of the top arm bone (humerus). It is reaching back and is therefore extension. If you start with your arm over your head and bring it down in front of you, notice that the top of the arm bone is moving in the same direction as when you first reached your hand back behind you. This movement is extension (B).
Now that you understand that flexion is the action of movement at a joint, it is important to understand that muscles do not "flex". When prompted to "flex your muscles", you may bend your elbow to encourage your biceps to bulk up and make yourself look like Popeye. This action may be followed by words of praise and encouragement related to your strength. While you deserve the praise for your strength, you have been misguided. You did not just flex your muscles. Muscles do not flex. Muscles contract. Flexion describes the motion that occurs at joints. For example, elbow flexion is the movement that occurs when you bend your elbow. Muscles are responsible for movement of the bones at the joints. Muscles do this by contracting. That is, the muscles change length. A muscle most often attaches to two (or more) bones. When the muscles contracts, it shortens and pulls the two bones towards each other. Your biceps is attached to the top arm bone (humerus) and one of your forearm bones (the radius). When the biceps contracts and shortens, the forearm bone is brought up to the top arm bone and the elbow bends. This bending is called elbow flexion.
In the US, a baby is pushed in a "stroller", while it is a "pram" in Singapore, and perhaps a "buggy" in another country. Neither is right, neither is wrong, they are just different. I find this to be the case with many words used to describe movement of the human body. You may say "po-tay-toe" or "po-tah-toe" and as long as you and the person listening to you understand that you are speaking about a particular root vegetable, it does not really matter how you say it. This is true with your cues in yoga class too. It also means that just because you say it the way you understand to be accurate, does not mean that your students will understand what you are saying. My biggest advice regarding the use of cues in yoga class is to keep it simple. Most students understand what I want them to do when I say "bend your elbows"!
Trish Corley is a Baptiste certified yoga teacher and a licensed doctor of physical therapy.
Interested in learning more about teaching with powerful cues in yoga and a greater understanding of yoga anatomy? Trish leads several Baptiste inspired and anatomy related workshops and yoga teacher trainings. Check out our Teacher Trainings and Programs.