In some yoga traditions, the teacher practices alongside the students, physically demonstrating postures.
The way that our 26/2 hot yoga series is taught, the teacher primarily leads class with precise verbal instruction, closely observing the entire room in order to offer corrections and encouragement that guide each student into the best possible alignment. I really appreciate the benefits of this style of teaching, and as a teacher I am fascinated by the process of “reading” bodies and trying to understand what needs to shift to make a posture even more powerful and healing for a particular student.
But I must confess, sometimes when I’m teaching, I watch a room full of students raise their arms over their heads sideways and interlock their ten fingers to begin the Half Moon warmup, and I have to quell an urge to jump down off the podium and join in. Right and left, right and left.
That Half Moon warmup feels so good, doesn’t it?
(Don’t worry, if you’re still mostly focused on how your arms feel like lead and your spine is just barely creaking side to side, that will improve, and soon you’ll feel the pleasure of this initial movement!)
Half Moon is the only posture in class in which your spine moves in lateral (side to side) flexion. It prepares your spine for the first and subsequent back bends and forward bends that we’ll do throughout class.
This month, teachers will highlight the many important alignment details of this posture. As you give Half Moon extra attention, here are five questions you can ask yourself during class.
Can I see my throat in the front mirror?
Answering yes to this question means that two important things are happening.
- Your eyes are where they belong, focused on you in the front mirror. The mirror is extremely helpful in this posture, as you work on your alignment.
- Your spine is straight. There is no forward bend in this posture, and no backward bend either. The only motion in your spine is lateral, to the side. If your chin is tucked, your neck is forward bending. If you can see your throat, your cervical spine is long and straight. (Make sure not to look up, as that would initiate a backward bend. Throat is visible, chin parallel to the floor.)
Am I using my hips with strength and intensity?
Remember, when we talk about your hips in class, we are often talking about the group of three muscles that make up the buttocks, the gluteus minimus, gluteus maximus, and gluteus medius. You need to actively push your hips to the side, using your strength. Squeezing your hip muscles tight will help you maintain your alignment.
If you draw a straight line up from Robin’s inner heels in the picture of her in Half Moon Pose, you’ll be able to see how far she has shifted her hips off to the left, creating a half moon shape all over the left side of her body. She is ensuring that her lumbar spine is participating in the lateral flexion, and she’ll be happy that she began to loosen this area of her back up when she moves into the upcoming backbend and forward bend.
Am I still breathing?
This is so important. Half Moon is a challenging posture, right at the beginning of class. Raising your arms above your head raises your heart rate right away, and many under-used muscles are recruited as you maintain and deepen the side bend. It’s very normal to respond to all this effort by holding your breath, but please don’t. Your muscles need oxygen, and your mind needs the calm that comes with slow, steady breaths. The spot where you begin to struggle to breathe calmly is the edge to play with. If a teacher says, “Push!” in this posture, it doesn’t mean that you force. It means that you work your personal edge, no more and no less.
Is that correction for me?
In this posture, you are trying to bend your body (spine) to the side, with no body parts “sticking out” forward or backward. When we’re teaching this posture, we give the most common corrections people need. Because beginning yogis tend to bring their arms and chest forward and down as the bend to the side, you will likely hear us say, “Arms, upper body back.” Because there is a tendency to bring weight into the toes and let the buttocks drift back, you might hear us saying, “Hips forward, body weight in the heels.”
This is helpful advice. But here’s the thing: If you body is already aligned as nicely as Robin’s is in this picture, pushing your hips forward and pulling your arms back is going to pull your body out of line and into a back bend. We’ll get to the backbend soon enough, but not yet.
The same is true for the cues we give to push one hip forward, one shoulder forward. You have the be the ultimate judge of whether that correction is for you. If you’ve done a careful job maintaining your hip alignment on the way down, pushing one hip forward is counterproductive.
Listen carefully, look carefully, and make the adjustments that fit your posture today.
It can take time to be able to “read” your own reflection in the mirror, so remember that you can always ask us to take a look at your posture after class if you’re not sure about your alignment.
Can I find something in this posture that feels good?
Every once in a while, I’m in a class where Half Moon is held for an exceptionally long time, and I’m reminded of how much I used to struggle in this posture. Just keeping my arms up all the way through the backbend took a lot out of me, and it took many classes to develop the core strength I needed to hold myself in alignment.
But from the very beginning, I loved how it felt in my shoulders to raise my arms up over my head, to re-straighten my elbows when they began to bend, and I focused on that. With consistent practice, my arm and core strength increased and my spine became more flexible, and now I also enjoy the stretch down the side of my body, the space I can feel in my spine, and other joys of this posture.
It might take time, but try your best to like even a small piece of Half Moon. Pretty soon you’ll fall madly in love with the whole darn posture!
–Ellen Olson-Brown, The Hot Yoga Factory Chelmsford