Increasing Body Awareness: Assessing Core Stability and Flexibility of Yoga Student

Chrys Kub is an ERYT-500 yoga teacher and also a physical therapist with more than 20 years of clinical experience in neurological and orthopedic rehabilitation. She runs a private yoga therapy practice in Charlotte, NC, and offers yoga workshops nationally. In this interview with YogaUOnline, she shares details of a new assessment tool she has developed to enable yoga teachers determine specific limitations of strength mobility in students.  See details here of her online YogaU course on Asana Practice Screen for Yoga Teachers.

YogaUOnline: Chrys, you have developed what you call an Asana Practice Screen for Core Stability and Flexibility. Could you tell us exactly what an Asana Practice Screen is?

Chrys Kub: The screening is an assessment tool for yoga teachers or yoga therapists to help yoga students progress faster in their hatha yoga practice. From the Yoga Sutras, we know that the first principle of practicing yoga is that yoga poses must be steady and comfortable.

The screening tool is also useful to improve awareness of their body and the specific limitations or places that they need to pay attention to. And ultimately, it will allow them to surrender to what’s present in their body at that moment.

On a more concrete level, the objectives of the screening are to assess the general core stability and flexibility of a person’s body. From there, we can provide yoga students with recommendations for pose modifications and variations to accommodate any musculoskeletal limitations they may have, and also the use of appropriate props.  The screening tools also enables yoga teachers to determine which specific yoga asanas will best address the limitations in flexibility or core strength for that person.

Finally, the screening tools enables teachers to give the student a take-home chart of the recommendation from the assessment, so they can incorporate them easily into their home practice. So it’s a great tool for the yoga therapist or the yoga teacher to see if they can discover any issues, which will help the student practice more mindfully and with more awareness.

YogaUOnline: How did you come up with that idea?

Chrys Kub: Well, I went to the SYTAR conference of the International Association of Yoga Therapists in 2009 , and I realized that there wasn’t really a tool out there for yoga teachers to quickly assess these areas of a student, so that they could give them some feedback about their yoga practice. I thought it would be useful to have a screening where you could look at these areas without having to spend a lot of time or a lot of resources for the client. So I combined different physical therapy assessments approaches with specific yoga postures to create the screening.

YogaUOnline: Does a yoga teacher need to have extensive knowledge of anatomy to use the assessment tool?

Chrys Kub: Not at all. I made it intentionally accessible for most people. You do need to learn how to do the screening, but it’s based on yoga postures. There is one task in there that we do for the hips that’s more of a physical therapy assessment, but it’s a really important one that I want to include, because of the extreme ranges of motion many yoga postures require on the hips, such as Lotus Pose or Virasana. But with the exception of that one test, which is purely a PT test, the rest are based on yoga asanas. So any yoga teacher would be familiar with the asanas, and all you need to learn is what to look for in the asana as a screening test.

YogaUOnline: Which components of flexibility do you feel that it is particularly important to look at?

Chrys Kub: The screening tool assesses the flexibility of the major joints, i.e. shoulders, hips, wrists, and ankles. These are the joints, which are impacted when we practice yoga.

We often forget that most of the original yoga postures were developed by persons of Eastern descent. This is a population, which tends to have more joint and muscle flexibly and a smaller bone structure. So some yoga poses are asking us to move into extreme ranges of motion, which may not be accessible by the structural makeup of people from a Western culture.

So we specifically look at the flexibility of the hamstrings for forward folds, the hamstrings and the hip adductors for lunges, as well as hip internal and external rotation and how it’s impacted by structural limitations. In the upper body, we look at flexibility of shoulder flexion for yoga postures with arms overhead. Shoulder impingement is a common complaint in yoga students.

We also look at the wrist and ankle flexibility, because there are many poses which require extremes of flexibility, which are not normal for the general population. For example, most yoga poses which require weight-bearing through the hands, from simple poses like Table Top to arm balances like Crow pose, require at least ninety degrees of wrist extension. And the average range of motion of wrist extension in the general population is only seventy to eighty degrees.

So we want students to be aware of it if they have a limitation in this area, so they don’t force the wrist into extension. That way, they can use a prop to help their wrist be not so extended. And then over time, we can give them specific asanas to help improve that flexibility so when they do practice yoga they don’t end up with injuries.

YogaUOnline: So when people shake their hands when they come out of Downward Dog or particularly Plank Pose, it’s not just because they don’t have sufficient strength in their wrists. It’s often because they don’t have the flexibility?

Chrys Kub: Yes, it could definitely be because they’re getting compression in the wrists and that is causing the discomfort.

YogaUOnline: Obviously, assessing flexibility is important, since it affects alignment in so many yoga postures. But you’re also focusing on assessing core stability. Tell us why you feel it’s important to screen for core stability?

Chrys Kub: Core stability is the foundation for most yoga poses. Without stability and correct alignment of the spine, the rest of the pose can easily fall out of alignment and into dysfunctional movement, and repetitive dysfunctional movements in turn can create injury and pain.

So in the assessment, we’re looking for what we call weak links in the stability of spinal alignment. We look at the spinal alignment and how stable the spine is in terms of maintaining the alignment with compression, which gives an idea of how stable the spine is. We also look at the stability of the shoulder girdle, and whether students can maintain their shoulders on their back for postures like arm balances, or Chaturanga Dandasana.

So for example, the first two tests are specifically looking at spinal alignment stability and shoulder girdle stability. So for example, in Ustrasana, or Camel Pose, does the person typically fall into excessive lumbar extension when they open up their heart, or is he or she able to maintain integrity along the spine when doing spinal extension?

It’s very common that when someone has a pattern of misalignment in one yoga posture, that person will have the same pattern it in every pose. So you’ll see this pattern of malalignment in every posture that person does. So if you can focus your attention on that area and help to bring awareness of the pattern, they’re able to translate it into all their postures. It will create a foundation for what they need to do in every pose that they practice.

YogaUOnline: People beginning yoga can obviously benefit greatly from understanding more about their body, and where their imbalances and strengths are. Can this be of value for experienced yoga practitioners, as well?

Chrys Kub: Yes, it works great for both. For example, one very experienced yoga student came to me because of issues with shoulder pain. Through this screening, we discovered that she lacked core stability in her postures, while at the same time, many of her joints were hyperflexible. She was not aware that this hyperflexibility might be causing dysfunctional movement. So once we discussed the benefits of muscle engagement in her personal practice, she was able to create a practice for herself which built strength and stability to support her hyperflexibility and prevent her from falling into her weak links.

YogaUOnline: So for yoga teachers, this is basically a way to help students make progress faster and structure a yoga practice that works more systematically on students’ particular weaknesses?

Chrys Kub: Absolutely. Once a yoga student learns more about their own body, he or she can go to any practice and do the same general class as everyone else, but in each pose, they become more aware of what they need to do to address their issues and limitations, and the areas where they need to grow. So it really helps to individualize the practice from one’s own perspective.

YogaUOnline: Last but not least, you have a course on Yoga U where you go into the specific details of your asana practice screen. Could you tell us about that, and what people will learn in that course?

Chrys Kub: Basically, the course will teach you how to administer the asana practice screen. So if you’re a yoga teacher or yoga therapist, you can use it as a tool to help improve your students’ awareness in their practice. It’s meant to be quick and easy.

After you learn how to do it, you definitely have to practice doing the assessment. You’ll want to practice on your spouse and friends and get really good and efficient at it. Once you have it down, it shouldn’t take more than ten minutes to do the screening.

Along with the educational part, we also have a video practice, which shows you an actual screening being done and what to look for, as well as some of the common dysfunctions you might encounter when you’re doing the assessment.

We’ll also go over the specific yoga postures and actions that you can recommend to a student or incorporate in your classes to help people overcome their specific issues. For each area, where you’re finding dysfunctions or things that you want to address, you will have specific modifications you can incorporate, such as using a block or strap for a certain pose or a shorter stance, and so on. You will also learn how to give recommendations for specific foundational poses the student can practice to help improve an area of concern over time.

YogaUOnline: It sounds like a wonderful tool not just for yoga teachers, but also for yoga practitioners to progess more systematically in their practice and really target the limitations that are holding them back.

Chrys Kub: That’s what I made it for. It’s just to help give people something that’s not too overwhelming for their first venture into the structural anatomy of the body and their muscle imbalances. It will help over time as they practice to create a more well-balanced practice for their body.

For more information on Chrys Kub’s course on YogaUOnline, see here:
Asana Practice Screen for Yoga Teachers – How to Assess Student Strengths and Limitations


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