Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth yoga, fitness, & nutrition courses, when you sign up for Outside+.
Reflecting on 40 years, we asked Alexandria Crow which alignment cues have passed their prime. She makes a strong case for retiring these five.
My teacher taught me one thing that I will always be grateful for above all else: He demanded that I have a reason for everything I say and do when teaching yoga—and the reason couldn’t be “because you said so.” Over the years this guideline forced me not only to dive deeply into the why behind every alignment cue, sequence, and decision but also to evolve, adapt, and grow as a teacher.
Why Alignment Cues Must Evolve
As the yoga population at large expands and students’ practices mature, I’ve discovered that alignment cues once devised for the many beginning yogis unused to the shapes of the postures are oftentimes still used by more experienced practitioners and taken far past their original intent—even leading to injuries they were originally meant to prevent. At the end of the day, there is no one-size-fits-all instruction or cue. Blindly trusting and regurgitating something learned in a teacher training, workshop, or class without really understanding the reasons behind it results in something similar to a game of telephone.
How to Revolutionize Your Teaching
Asana instruction ought to be given based on what’s happening in the moment in the students in the room, and it needs to not only be given based on anatomical principles but also on biomechanics and the principles of kinesiology, all of which take time to study and learn. It’s a tall request, but for me that challenge keeps me very interested in how asana functions in the population at large. I’ll be honest: Without an underlying interest in the body, there would be only so many times I could say “step your right foot forward, Warrior I.” I find the challenge invigorating. So with that said, here’s my list of five cues that need to be retired—or at least explored and adapted.
5 Outdated Yoga Asana Instructions
1. “Relax your trapezius” (aka “pull your shoulder blades down your back”) when your arms are overhead
This cue was meant for students who lift their arms overhead with them rotated in a way that causes their trapezius to elevate the shoulder blade instead of just upwardly rotating it. “Relaxing the trapezius” is actually impossible here since that muscle must engage to upwardly rotate the shoulder blade as the move arms overhead. Fully understanding how the arm, shoulder, and shoulder blade dance together is vital to teaching the actions of this joint well.
2. Do anything with the “tips of the shoulder blades.
This one makes the list, because many teachers ask students to “move the tips of the shoulder blades toward the front body” to encourage extension of the thoracic spine in everything from Upward Salute to Upward-Facing Dog Pose to Camel Pose. The problem? Most people don’t know where the tips of their shoulder blades are—even when they’re just standing in Tadasana. As the arm moves the shoulder blade moves as well, moving the tip of the shoulder blade to a number of different positions throughout a practice, which most students don’t realize. Giving instructions on what to do with the shoulder, arm, and spine are usually clearer ways to explain to students what’s being asked of them.
3. “Roll your inner thighs________” (back, down, in, etc.)
This cue is intended to keep students from externally rotating their legs in poses where they’re meant to be neutral (think Tadasana, Wheel Pose, and Seated Forward Bend). The problem is, most students who diligently follow this cue will at a certain point be able to overly internally rotate their hip while still keeping their pelvic and foot positioning neutral. This can create all kinds of issues in the pelvic, hip, and lumbar region in things like backbends and forward folds. Instead the student needs to be taught in a clearer way where the hip is neutral.
4. “Draw your tailbone to your heels.”
This instruction isn’t entirely bad. It is intended to neutralize a hyperextended lumbar spine in Tadasana, backbends, and inversions. But as I mention above, sometimes students follow an instruction without fully understanding it or which other parts of their body should be moving too. The problem, here, is sometimes a tight psoas, for example, may be causing the lumbar to hyperextend and if the practitioner is strong enough and follows this cue, they can end up posteriorly tilting the pelvis without the spine adjusting at all by hinging at their L5-S1 junction, instead of moving the entire lumbar spine to neutral. The risk? Herniated disk. I see it a lot these days and a lot of injuries are resulting from students’ and teachers’ lack of awareness about how they show up for class.
READ MORE Anatomy 101: Understanding Your Tailbone
5. Do anything with a “flat back.”
“Flat” is just not ever factually true or even what we’re going for—the natural curvature of the spine. There are four curves present in a neutral spine, think of it like an S with an extra tail at the bottom. Those curves are necessary for shock absorption, range of motion, etc. But this instruction is causing students to begin to reverse the natural curves of their spines, which can potentially lead to injury and mobility issues. Learning how the spine should be positioned in the various poses is imperative, especially in forward folds where it should absolutely not be flat, ever. Mechanically the lumbar spine is meant to flex in accordance with hip flexion after a certain degree. Extending the lumbar and thoracic in something like Paschimottanasana can cause massive SI issues, lumbar disk issues, overstretched, and injured hamstring attachments.
ABOUT ALEXANDRIA CROW
The practice of yoga has taught Alexandria Crow how to approach life with open eyes and a fearless attitude–a discovery she hopes to pass onto her students. She guides them step by step through creative sequences providing all of the components needed for individual success. By teaching not only alignment but also how to pay attention to what is going on in the body and mind in each moment, Alex teaches her students how to bring greater awareness to everything they do.