Yoga Practice Tips: 4 Images to Enliven Your Classes

In my relatively few years as yoga teacher, I have found it extremely helpful to use verbal cueing that creates images for students—in their minds and then hopefully in their physical experience.

Unlike more general guidelines (such as breathing deeply and let go of muscular holdings), many of these cues apply to specific yoga asanas. All individual asanas are unique and complex variations of physical contributions from several body parts, so various images can guide students in optimally executing various postures, and through that obtaining their fullest advantage. With overall practices consistently drawing upon such images for diverse postures, the result can be even more of what we know yoga practice can offer – significant benefits for body, mind, and soul. Read on for examples of these favorite image cues for specific asanas.

Breathing with “balloon bellies”  in Easy Pose (or Lotus, Hero’s Pose, or another desired restive seated posture)

Yoga, of course, is characterized by the focus on deep, full breathing. Deep breathing is essential for the highest quality of practice (and for life, really).  Imagining that our stomachs (or “bellies”) are like “balloons” can be an effective image for obtaining that type of full breath. This language especially appeals to children, but it can also make some adults give a youthful smile. Through it we can guide students, or ourselves, to imagine the balloon blowing up as we inhale and deflating as we exhale.

On one level, this image helps us to unconsciously key into the natural elasticity of our lungs and related muscles (such as the intercostals and diaphragm), which largely allows for the variable and adaptive nature of breath itself. On another level, it can lead us to fill up the entire breath space, and not just the lower or upper chest (an unfortunate tendency that leads many individuals to breath somewhat shallowly). That whole-space-filling effect can occur with this image because a balloon mostly does not blow up in one area or another (for the most part, with the exception of that tricky beginning part of blowing them up!). It fully and evenly expands outward as one blows into it. Doing the same into our breath spaces can be more possible with this image.

“Starfish” hands in Cat/Cow

When coming to hands-and-knees for Cat/Cow Posture, I guide students to imagine that their hands are like “starfish,” with each finger as one of a starfish’s many arms—that is, separate from each other. Most individuals are familiar with the image of a starfish. If one is teaching children, discussing animals can additionally engage them, as many children are fascinated with any type of animal. That wide placement of fingers is additionally beneficial—and even important—for a few reasons. First, it helps guide students to proper overall placement in the posture (such as shoulders over wrists and hips over knees), that which is least likely to result in injury and will most effectively engage the necessarily working muscles. Second, wide hand placement gives a firmer base of support in the upper body. Moreover, establishing this type of base will be even more important in more physically engaging and demanding postures that utilize that same upper-body base, such as Downward Dog and Three-Legged Dog. 

“Pushing open a heavy door” with Plank Pose

In Plank Posture, one could suggest that students imagine that they are “pushing open a very big door, so spread your hands as much as you can and push through both the palms and fingers.” This will lead students to the best hand placements and uses of their own strengths for the posture. Considering safety, it will also likely help students avoid injuring their wrists by preventing them from placing all of their weight there—as many students dangerously tend to do—rather than evenly distributing the weight as necessary. The image is simple and one most students likely understand through personal experience. That familiarity allows them to receive it in ways that will help them to achieve those aforementioned effects.

Showing that “lion” spirit in Lion’s Posture!

In Lion’s Posture (Simhasana), one conventionally sticks out the tongue and lets out an “aaaaaahh” sound (as if a doctor is looking at one’s throat). That action can beautifully stretch and release muscles of the face, tongue, and throat, those which we modern individuals often find full of tension. It is quite possible, however, to just “go through the motions” in this action, and therein miss much of its potential benefit. I therefore guide my students to truly imagine their “lion” fierceness as they roar.

I believe that we can all use healthy outlets for aggression, and this posture can be one of them. Instructors can provide great modeling for this; students will be less likely to feel “silly” or “stupid” acting like an animal if they see their instructors (and perhaps fellow students) confidently “roaring” like lions with their tongues extended. Those limiting feelings of embarrassment are not typically a concern when teaching children, however.  As I mentioned, many of them are fascinated with all things animal. In fact, engaging their animal interests through this posture can help to recenter a rowdy bunch of youngsters back to the tasks of the yoga class at hand. With any group of students, part of that lion “fierceness” that they key into here can be a tall, straight spine. That spinal placement has immense advantages in and of itself, including more space for breath and enhanced feelings of self-confidence. 

More Yoga Practice Tips from YogaUOnline

Study with YogaUOnline and Annie Carpenter, Yoga Teacher Tips for Intelligent Sequencing.

Kathryn Boland is a CYT 500 and R-DMT (Registered Dance/Movement Therapist). She is originally from Rhode Island, attended The George Washington University (Washington, DC) for an undergraduate degree in Dance (where she first encountered yoga), and Lesley University for an MA in Clinical Mental Health Counseling, Expressive Therapies: Dance/Movement Therapy. She has taught yoga to diverse populations in varied locations. As a dancer, she has always loved to keep moving and flowing in practicing more active Vinyasa-style forms. Her interests have recently evolved to include Yin and therapeutic yoga, and aligning those forms with Laban Movement Analysis to serve the needs of various groups (such as Alzheimer’s Disease patients, children diagnosed with ADHD, PTSD-afflicted veterans – all of which are demographically expanding). She believes in finding the opportunity within every adversity, and doing all that she can to help others live with a bit more breath and flow!

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