During many yoga classes I have attended, the teacher would continually tell us to “open your heart” and “bring your shoulders back and down.” In Pilates reformer classes, the cue was to “place your shoulders in your back pockets,” or just the stern command:  “SHOULDERS DOWN!” Wanting to be a good student, I did this… over and over again until my shoulder blades were so retracted (drawn together) and depressed (drawn down) that I thought I was destined for an “A” in the class. Full disclosure: Yes, I am a habitual overachiever.

This cue was continually offered up because most of the students in the class had overdeveloped upper traps that kept their shoulder blades perpetually elevated (up near their ears) and protracted (separated). The problem was that the teacher could have repeated this cue until the cows came home, and her students still would have been unable to execute scapular retraction and depression.  This is because without some blend of myofascial release and an embodied understanding of basic skeletal anatomy and directions of movement, it just wasn’t gonna happen.

To complicate matters, not all of the students were in this postural situation. In walks hyper mobile me, loosey goosey with instability in every joint (which, by the way, made me look really pretty in those yoga poses) with the ability to place my bones in virtually any position she requested.  I kept listening to the instructor’s cues like a good girl until the medial border of my shoulder blades were French kissing like Marlon and Maria in the Last Tango in Paris.

Finally, I started taking private Pilates sessions. My shoulders were hurting and I couldn’t do the Vasistasana“Wild Thing” anymore (the horror!). I needed some one-on-one guidance from a teacher who taught teachers. She showed me the skeleton and the curved shape of the scapula, spine of the scapula, and ribcage.  She explained how to test to see if your scapula were in a neutral position, and taught me exercises that strengthened the local stabilizers of my shoulder joint. I quickly learned how all this “opening of my heart” (while important to do when caring for a young child) was not serving my anatomical body, or my yoga and Pilates practice. I also discovered that all of this scapular retraction was interrelated to the anterior displacement of my ribcage (rib popping) and to my anterior pelvic tilt (happy tail). They all seemed to go together like a high school clique and I was beginning to look a lot like my childhood hero Nadia Comaneci (which is not a good thing unless you want to be an Olympic gymnast).

Fast forward several years later, I discovered Yoga Tune Up®, and that directions of movement and myofascial release techniques can be taught DURING the group class, not just kept as a secret to be revealed in private sessions. This allows students to embody their tissues first and understand basic human movement before moving on to more complicated exercises or postures. Wow! Imagine it: you are taught how to release your upper traps with the Yoga Tune Up® therapy balls. Then you physically move your shoulders through protraction, retraction, elevation, and depression while learning what the terms mean and how they feel in your body. Later on in class, when you get a cue to protract or retract, you actually know how to do it and what it means.  VOILA! You now have mad skills that will help you to live better in your body every day. Luckily, you don’t have to imagine it. It happens all the time in Yoga Tune Up® classes, workshops, and teacher trainings.

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Trina Altman

Trina Altman E-RYT 500, is an Integrated Yoga Tune Up® teacher trainer, STOTT PILATES® certified instructor, and a graduate of YOGAspirit Studio's 500-Hour Yoga Therapy Program. While at Brown University, Trina took a Kripalu yoga class which ignited her passion for the practice. She teaches weekly Yoga Tune Up® and Pilates Tune Up™ classes throughout Los Angeles, and trains yoga teachers in anatomy and in Yoga Tune Up® across the country. She is an Rx Series teacher trainer for Equinox, is on the faculty of Kripalu, one of the nation's premiere yoga institutions, and is a regular presenter at yoga and fitness conferences such as ECA, Yoga Alliance, SYTAR and many others. Trina's teaching fosters body cognition and self-discovery, firmly grounded in anatomical awareness. She builds bridges between the mystical and the pragmatic, and specializes in helping others to access their body’s tissues and their heart’s purpose.

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Jenna

Using universal language is so important as instructors and learners alike so that the proper movement is achieved and we are stretching and strengthening the intended muscles.

Tessa Watson

Great article, I felt much the same after my first YTU class. Learning to be embodied and being able to understand what that feels like in my own body is helping me to lead people to find what it feel like in their own body. It is brilliant when students have that realization.

Tiffany

So many teachers parrot what they learned from their teachers without actually knowing what they are teaching. Your initial experience is a prime example. There’s so much more value in understanding what you are teaching and to actually teach students so they can be empowered with knowledge and understanding how to move in their body. It makes the experience much more interesting.

Isabelle Cote

You are so right Trina ! In yoga class, I learned what the terms mean protract and retract, what it look on skeleton and where it is (thanks to balls !). And now, I can feel what it is in my body.

VOILÀ ! Vraiment ! I have some butterflies in my stomach when I read your article ! For understanding so much more about my body. And feel each day better and better ! Merci !!