When I prep classes, I often think about my verbal cues - the things that I say in class to help my yogis and yoginis find a pose. Lately, I’ve shifted my focus from what a pose will look like (what I’m calling “form” in this article) to the muscles or areas of your body that are working in a pose. There are many reasons why.
Poses will look different for everyone based on their unique body. In his wonderful book, Your Body, Your Yoga, Bernie Clark discusses the massive amount of anatomical variation among human beings. The range of motion I have in my hips is going to be much different than the range of motion in yours. It is unlikely that I will ever have my front shin parallel to the front of the mat in Eka Pada Rajakapotasana (Half-pigeon pose), but that does not mean that my pigeon is “wrong.”
When yogis focus too much on how a pose should look, they are not only likely to frustrate themselves (maybe even give up on yoga entirely), they may also hurt themselves. I often see people pick form over function in Trikonasana (Triangle pose). In triangle pose, people often use inappropriate form to reach the floor because they think that’s the way the pose is supposed to look. However, it’s more important to have your back flat, as if you’re against a wall - even if that means your bottom hand stays on your thigh.
If you reach for the floor when you don’t have the space in your body to do so, you’ll likely start to curve your torso forward, which means either a) you’re not getting much out of the pose because you’re not properly engaging the target muscles, and/or b) you’re hurting your back because you’re twisting it at an odd angle.
In Trikonasana pose, the areas that you’re targeting are your side body, core, and adductor (inner thigh) muscles. In Eka Pada Rajakapotasana, it’s the hips and IT band (the long muscle that goes from your knee to your low back). In both of these postures, if you feel work in these areas, you’re doing the poses correctly. It doesn’t matter if you look like you just came out of the pages of Yoga Journal.
On a final note, even cueing target muscles can be problematic due to that lovely human anatomical variation. You may not always feel the target muscle working, even if you’re doing the pose correctly. In Utkatasana (Chair pose), I rarely feel my glutes engage, but my quadriceps are on fire. However, my pelvis is tilted forward, I’m as low as I can go, and I’m engaging the other target muscles, such as my Achilles, feet, and shoulders.
As a teacher, this is why I try to offer cues for form, target muscles, and other tricks I’ve learned in my own practice. If you’re ever confused about whether or not you’re doing a pose “right,” know that you probably are, but also feel free to ask your teacher after class.