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Teaching Yoga

The A-to-Z Guide to Yoga Cues

With so many teaching styles—not to mention so many variations on the same cues and ever-changing thinking on what’s safe and not—it can be tough to know which cues to listen to and which ones to ignore. Enter this guide: an incomplete roundup of the good, the bad, and the just plain funny.

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A: Adduct and abduct

You probably hear these words all 
the time, yet it can be tough to differentiate them from one another. Annie Carpenter, a senior yoga teacher and creator of SmartFLOW yoga, has a trick for remembering which is which: “When I hear adduction, I think of adding in,” she says. Adduction refers to movements in toward the midline of the body—for example, wrapping your arms in Garudasana (Eagle Pose). Meanwhile, abduction refers to movements away from the midline, such as lifting your arms parallel to the ground in Virabhadrasana II (Warrior Pose II).

B: Bring your biceps in line with your ears

You may hear this cue in Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing 
Dog Pose), and while there’s nothing inherently wrong with the cue, it can lead to misalignment if not properly explained, says Brooklynite Kathryn Budig, yoga teacher and author of the book Aim True. “Taking your biceps to your ears can cause you to drop your head too low and collapse in your upper back,” she says. “Instead, I prefer to say to my students, ‘Keep your ears in line with your arms.’”

C: Close your eyes

If the only time you shut your eyes in your yoga practice is during seated meditation or Savasana (Corpse Pose), you’re missing out. “Closing your eyes can help you to disconnect from visual stimulation and find more stillness,” says San Francisco–based yoga teacher Laura Burkhart. Senior yoga teacher Giselle Mari adds that closing your eyes in a balance pose, like Vrksasana (Tree Pose), challenges you to use your inner eye to find your center.

D: Draw your shoulders down your back

Alexandria Crow, yoga teacher and founder of Yoga Physics, is on a personal mission to put an end to this common cue. “When your arms go overhead, your shoulder joint itself goes up—that’s the natural movement,” says Crow. “Pulling your shoulders down while your arms are up is not only dysfunctional, it doesn’t fix the problem of people scrunching their shoulders up to their ears, which is the reason this cue took hold in the first place,” she explains. 

See also Alignment Cues Decoded: “Draw Your Shoulder Blades Down”

E: Hug your elbows to your sides in Chaturanga Dandasana (Four-Limbed Staff Pose)

This is one of the most vital cues during Chaturanga, says yoga teacher and Yoga Journal contributing editor Jason Crandell. “It’s essential to pull your elbows into your side ribs while keeping your forearms perpendicular to the floor,” he says. This creates greater stability in the joint where your upper arm bone and shoulder blade connect. Of course, it also requires upper-body strength, so Crandell encourages his students to drop their knees if necessary to offload some weight while maintaining the integrity of the pose. 


F: Flower your anus

Admit it: When you first heard this cue (or its cousin, “blossom your buttocks”) you either laughed or cringed. But what exactly does it mean? And why would anyone want to do it? While this cue’s origin is unclear, many teachers suggest it may be an awkward attempt at saying “widen the sit bones” or “relax the glutes.” “I’m like a 4-year-old when I hear this,” says Budig. It makes me laugh every time.”

G: Ground down

Sounds simple enough, yet Noah Mazé, founder of Yogamazé, says grounding down involves more than pressing your feet into the floor. “It’s important to activate your pelvis, hips, and gluteus muscles to create the proper push-down action that firmly grounds the feet,” Mazé says. To do this, try to spread your weight evenly between the inner and outer edges of your feet when standing in Tadasana (Mountain Pose), he says. Adds master instructor David Magone: “Allowing your body to settle into the ground allows your skeleton to hold some of your weight, so your muscles don’t have to work as hard.”

H: Square your hips

Despite decades of teachers telling their students to square their hips to the front of the room when twisting, Magone says hips don’t actually need to be squared. In fact, the motion creates torque, he says, which weakens the space between the hips and the torso—upping the odds of injury. Instead of trying to stay square, allow your pelvis to rotate in the same direction as your spine, which will allow for a much deeper spinal rotation and reduce the likelihood of lower-back pain.

See also How Yoga Teachers’ Cues Unintentionally Focus on the Negative

I: Inner rotation

In yoga, sometimes you have 
to draw in in order to move 
up. Carpenter says Urdhva 
Dhanurasana (Upward Bow Pose) is a good example: Practitioners often push their groins up because it makes them feel like they are getting higher, but this can cause the glutes to grip, forcing the sacrum up and putting pressure on the lumbar spine. “ For any backbend, you may have to engage your glutes to get off the floor, but then it’s helpful to turn your internal rotators on and let your glutes go. This allows you to soften your groins and lengthen your iliopsoas and lower back,” she says.

J: Jumpback

What does it take to master the pickup-jumpback to Chaturanga Dandasana? Practicing Lolasana (Pendant Pose), says Crow, which trains key muscles for the movement: Stand on your shins, each hand on a block outside of each shin. Press your palms firmly into the blocks and straighten your elbows. Round your back, pull your navel toward your spine, and bring your thighs up to your chest. 


K: Kick up into handstand

It may be tempting, but don’t do this—especially if you’re in a crowded class: Kicking up into inversions can harm both your practice and those around you if you topple over. “When you kick into an inversion like Handstand, you’re using momentum rather than control, whereas you should be focusing on moving with precision,” says Crow. What’s more, kicking reinforces the notion that the final posture is more important than the steps it takes to get there. To build patience and precision when practicing Handstand, Crow recommends starting with your hands a few feet from the wall and walking your legs up the wall so your torso and legs make an L shape. When you’re ready, move away from the wall, and place your hands on the floor. Raise and extend one leg, then use your standing leg to lightly bounce (not kick) up. This will allow for more control and muscle engagement, enabling you to work up the strength to do Handstand in the middle of the room.

L: Lengthen the sides of your body

This cue creates spinal elongation—both while you practice and when you’re off the mat, says Crandell. To lengthen the sides of your body in poses where this can be challenging—such as in Utthita Parsvakonasana (Extended Side Angle Pose) and Vasisthasana (Side Plank Pose)—imagine you’re stretching from the tips of your toes to the crown of your head, which will lengthen your torso on either side, says Crandell.

M: Microbend the knee

Though this cue can be somewhat controversial (how micro is the bend, after all?), Amy Ippoliti, co-founder of 90 Monkeys, an online resource center for yoga teachers, suggests thinking of it this way: “You are trying to ever-so-slightly soften and bend your knee, and at the same time, putting some effort into straightening your leg,” she says. This cue is especially relevant for those who have a tendency to hyperextend (over-straighten) their knees, which can cause unnecessary wear and tear over time. “Creating these two opposing actions in your knee brings balanced strength to all the intricate muscles of your lower leg,” Ippoliti says. 

N: Neutral spine

Maintaining a “neutral spine”—or 
“the natural curves of the spine,” as many teachers describe it—is a cue that’s universally embraced. “It is important because it optimally distributes force among the intervertebral discs, which act as shock absorbers,” says Mazé. When your spine is out of its natural alignment, excessive force can become concentrated in one area, which can lead to injuries such as bulging or ruptured discs. However, keep in mind that in some poses (like forward and backward bends) you want the spine to come out of neutral in order to flex and extend. “In a balanced yoga practice, you are moving your spine in every direction,” says Mazé.

See also Alignment Cues Decoded: “Wrist Creases Parallel”

O: Open your heart

As countless power ballads have told us, the heart is a complex thing. Crow agrees, explaining that the cue “open your heart” carries multiple meanings in a yoga class. On a physical level, it can refer to opening your chest or lifting your sternum upward. However, it can also imply that students’ hearts are emotionally closed off—an implication that can be hurtful. The consensus? This cue doesn’t resonate with everyone. Use it (or follow it) only if it feels right to you.  

P: Pretend you’re between two panes of glass

Most teachers have stopped using this phrase when cueing Utthita Trikonasana (Extended Triangle Pose) in recent years. But if you still hear it, ignore it, says Ippoliti. “It prompts students to externally rotate both legs, which means the femur (thigh bone) heads will not be fully seated in the hip joints,” she says. “This can limit range of motion and flatten the lumbar curve.” Instead, when you come into the pose, move your thighs and butt back so your femurs sit into your hip joints, then draw 
your front buttock under to externally rotate your front leg and spin your chest up into the pose. According to Ippoliti, “this is the safest way to get 
the opening most practitioners seek in this pose.”

Q: Activate your quadratus lumborum

Gary Kraftsow, founder and director of the American Viniyoga Institute, says the quadratus lumborum (QL)—which connects the spine to the pelvis—doesn’t get the attention it deserves. When your back muscles are weak, the QL picks up the slack, which can cause it to contract excessively and become fatigued. 
To activate and strengthen this muscle, Kraftsow recommends practicing a variation of Janu Sirsasana (Head-
of-the-Knee Pose): With your left 
leg extended straight and your right leg folded in, twist your shoulders to the right and lower your left shoulder to your left knee, then take your right arm up and over toward your left foot. Hold for 5–10 deep breaths, then switch sides. Hello, QL.

forward fold handstand

R: Release

In the quest for perfect yoga poses, we often sharpen our focus on performing the pose, rather than releasing or dropping into it. However, Tias Little, founder of Prajna Yoga in Santa Fe, New Mexico, says reminding students to release helps them deeply relax the body. “Because people tend to carry stress in the 
jaw, mouth, and other areas of the face, I like to use 
cues around releasing cranial structures, like ‘Drop into Savasana of the tongue,’” says Little. 

S: Subtle body

The phrase “subtle body” is often used to describe the idea of weaving together yoga wisdom and physiological function. It helps people open to a state of inquiry and discovery, shifting focus from an outward performance of a pose to an inward exploration, says Little. “It’s all about observing sensation in the body: the movement of the fascia and pulsation of blood moving through the veins,” he says. “That kind of attunement in each pose is what makes yoga a moving meditation.”

T: Tuck your tailbone

Here’s a cue many teachers are steering clear of these days, because a majority of students overtuck, says Budig. “Tucking your tailbone can create more length in your spine—but when you take this action too far, you flatten the natural curve in your low back,” she says. Instead, she tells her students to “release the tailbone as you simultaneously draw your lower belly up”—dual actions that prevent practitioners from overdoing it on 
the tuck.

See also Yoga Anatomy: Prevent Low Back Pain in Twists

U: Use your props

If Mari had her way, every student would be issued a standard blanket, block, and strap upon walking into a yoga studio. “Sometimes a block is exactly what you need,” she says, noting that cues that call for props are not just for beginners—they can also help experienced students discover a pose in a different way. Budig agrees, adding that “props 
can help yogis learn 
what it feels like to have power and strength in a pose as opposed to collapsing in it.” 

V: Visualization

Cues that prompt you to visualize help you 
to connect to the 
pulsatory rhythms of a pose, known as the nadis, instead of simply trying to get the mechanics of it right. “Visualization directs people to the sensory experience,” says Little. “Imagery helps me perceive my body as an energetic field, where the elements of wind, rivers, fire, and moonlight are expressed, rather than simply as a collection of muscles, bones, and flesh.”

W: Go to the the wall

Walls are often an overlooked asset for deepening your practice—and they can be especially great for beginners, says Carpenter. For example, Carpenter likes to teach what she calls Puppy Dog Pose to new practitioners as an alternative to Downward-Facing Dog Pose because it requires less upper-body strength than holding the pose on the floor. To try it, start with your hands on the wall at hip-bone height, then walk your hands up and step your feet back into a Down Dog variation with your hands pushing into the wall.

See also 8 Ways (Besides Handstand) to Use a Wall in Your Yoga Practice

X: X-Ray Vision

X-rays help us see things more clearly—a key concept in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, and one that yoga teachers who veer into the philosophical teachings of this ancient practice might explain. “Patanjali points out that in viewing the world, we tend not to see reality clearly, but instead we’re deluded by the error of false perception,” says David Life, co-founder of Jivamukti Yoga. “This confusion about the true relationship between the act of seeing, the object seen, and the identity of the Seer, is the root cause of suffering.” The cure? Using a kind of x-ray vision comprised of viveka (discrimination between “real view” and “unreal, apparent view”) and vairagya (detachment from a mistaken identification).


Y: Focus on you

Yogis are often urged not to compare themselves to others in the room—a tall order both on the mat and off. Yet Kraftsow says one way to embody this important cue is to remember that true yoga is not about doing a series of poses but rather learning more about yourself. “You use each posture as a tool to understand what’s going on in your body,” he says. “Asana is a means to come to a deeper understanding of self.”

Z: Zip up through the midline

Engaging your midline is key to turning on your all-important core muscles, which do everything from promoting better balance to helping you feel more grounded and connected to yourself. This zip-up cue makes it easier by signaling you to tap into the energy that resides in your sushumna nadi—the hub that runs along your spine, around which the entire energetic system is organized, says Magone. He likes to use this cue when teaching backbends: “Pulling the abdominals gently inward and upward in a backbend increases your range of motion because it creates a deeper stretch in the rectus abdominis muscles.”

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