If you have stuck around the Yoga scene long enough, you’d most likely have heard some of these, if not all, amusing things Yoga teachers say in class.
- Flower your buttock/ Let your anus blossom
- Shine your collarbones/ Put a smile on your collarbones
- Melt your heart/ Melt from your heart
- Make the back of your thigh smiles
- Imagine your thigh bones are like rainbows, spiraling outwards.
- Puff out your kidneys
……. and many more. Honestly, I too use some of these expression in my teaching. My personal favorites are “smile your collarbones wide”, and “puff out your kidneys”. These expressions are meant to be metaphors of how-to of Asana practice. So, what is metaphor? Here’s some definitions from the Web.
- A figure of speech in which a word or phrase is applied to an object or action to which it is not literally applicable.
- A thing regarded as representative or symbolic of something else, esp. something abstract.
In Metaphor We Live By, authors George Lakoff and Mark Johnson explain that metaphor is a fundamental mechanism of mind, one that allows us to use what we know about our physical and social experience to provide understanding of countless other subjects. So, why do Yoga teachers use it? Not everyone is familiar with the universal language of movement and anatomy. Some people can’t even tell you where their pelvises are! This is when metaphors come in handy. Instead of pulling out an anatomy chart and educate your students on human anatomy and physiology – which I think might be a good idea but I digress – we can use metaphor to help our students understand abstract concepts, create a sense of familiarity, trigger emotions, draw attention and motivate action. How does metaphor do it? Metaphor put abstract concepts into concrete terms
Metaphors are a great tool to help students understand abstract or unfamiliar concept. By linking abstract information to a concrete concept, it becomes easier for people to understand the information. For example, Ujjayi breath. Instead of taking our students through a lengthy anatomical discussion of the working of glottis muscles or vocal cord, we can tell them to
- breath like Darth Vader
- imagine they are fogging mirror using the nose instead of the mouth
- create a sound like that of the ocean
Metaphor creates a sense of familiarity
We love to recognize things. Whenever we can’t recognize something, our brain tries its best to make sense of whatever we’re looking at by finding familiar patterns. When we use metaphor, we can help our students better accept and understand the unfamiliar. For example, do this following movement – flex your spine. “What does that mean?” Precisely. What about stretch your back like a cat would when it’s yawning (or angry or frightened). Unless you haven’t seen a cat before, otherwise an image of a cat will pop up in your head, and you instinctively know what to do.
Metaphor can trigger emotions
You can use metaphors to trigger emotions. Emotions can make practice more effective, pleasurable and memorable. For example, guided relaxation. A fellow teacher shared with me her disdain for using the word “relax” because it reminds her of the boring announcement made by airplane pilot “sit back, relax and enjoy the flight”. Instead of relying on the word “relax” to deliver the message – relax, more relax, deeper relaxation, relaxing even more and more and more…… – we can help our students create a sense of relaxation by picturing a relaxing place, scene or image.
- Imagine you are on a beach vacation
- Your mind can float away, like clouds in the sky
Metaphor draws attention of the students
Things we recognize draw our attention, just like when we recognize familiar faces in a big crowd of unfamiliar people. Metaphor can be used to draw student’s attention to a body part, or specific movement. For example,
- Your hands and fingers are spreading wide like starfish
- Stand tall and still like a mountain
Metaphor motivates students into action
Another interesting aspect of metaphors is that they can influence people’s actions. By translating interactions that we know from the real world to the practice, we can also transfer our knowledge to the Yoga mat. This way, metaphors can be very engaging and actionable because we intuitively know what to do. For example,
- Engage your front foot with a gas-pedal action
- Point your toes like a ballerina
- Reach your arms up like you are reaching for the star
You can easily see how skillful use of metaphors can enrich our teaching and practice, while infusing learning with creativity and fun. The greatest benefit of using metaphors is they simplify. The downside, however, is that a strong metaphor can create a false sense of understanding or create more confusion. Personally, I was deeply troubled by “flower your buttock/ blossom your anus”. Flower? What flower? Where is the flower? There’s a flower on my butt? Don’t even get me started on “blossoming the anus” – the sound and image conjured up in my mind are undesirable, to say the least. It also left me questioning the teacher’s intentions
- What do they mean?
- What exactly do they want me to do?
Obviously, not all metaphors are created equal, and there’s no one-size-fit-all. It is also possible that metaphors distort our thinking in hidden ways by drawing attention disproportionately to what fits and obscuring what doesn’t get highlighted in the metaphor. For example, the gas pedal action of front foot in, say, Utthita Trikonasana or Extended Triangle pose, is intended to engage the muscles at back of leg, hence preventing hyper-extension in the knee. Without understanding the implication meant for the action called for, using gas-pedal as a metaphor, students might get too hooked up on getting the foot “right” while the desirable outcome might be more easily achieved by telling them to keep a slight bent in the knee. As Einstein noted, “we should make things as simple as possible, but not simpler.” So, how do we make good metaphors?
- Be sensitive to what metaphors and mental imagery your students use.
- Use other people’s metaphors and analogies but don’t get framed. Be creative and adapt accordingly.
- Recognize the highlight that the metaphor is addressing, while figuring out what it hides or distorts (such as the case with gas-pedal action)
- Once you understand the pros and cons of various metaphors, select one that best represent your own understanding and embodiment.
- If no single metaphor can do justice to the crux of matter, try to think in multiple metaphors and integrate their complementary suggestions.
What do you think? What are some of the Asana and movement metaphors that you have heard and found to be very useful? What about metaphors you don’t get and want to understand better?