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Teaching Yoga

A-to-Z Guide to Yoga Cues

An exploration and explanation of the good, the bad, the confusing, and the just plain hilarious.

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You experience dozens, if not hundreds, of yoga cues each time you take a class. Some are so instantly recognizable and understandable that you follow them almost without thinking. But occasionally a cue comes along that makes you pause and want to ask a bewildered, “What?!”

The following list addresses both types of yoga cues. You’ll find insights from experienced teachers on familiar cues that you might want to explore with greater awareness. Other expert explanations demystify some of the more confusing and esoteric cues. And still others debunk well-intentioned but potentially injurious cues that don’t belong in your yoga practice. And there are a couple of cues that we included simply for your amusement.

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 and legs in Garudasana (Eagle Pose). Meanwhile, abduction refers to movements away from the midline, such as taking your arms out to the side in Virabhadrasana II (Warrior Pose II) and positioning your knees away from one another in that same pose.

A man in blue shorts and a top practices Downward-Facing Dog with his knees bent. He is on a wood-plank floor with a white wall behind him
(Photo: Andrew Clark)

B: Bring your biceps in line with your ears

You may have heard this yoga cue in several poses, including Utkatasana (Chair Pose) and Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose). While there’s nothing inherently wrong with the cue, it can lead to misalignment if not properly explained, says  Kathryn Budig, yoga teacher and author of Aim True. This is especially true in Down Dog, in which you’re supporting your body weight with your upper body. “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, such as Vrksasana (Tree Pose), challenges you to use your inner senses 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. When you hear this cue, notice if you’re experiencing that scrunched posture in your neck and shoulders, but otherwise don’t worry about it.

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

Woman performing Four Limbed Staff Pose
(Photo: Andrew Clark; Clothing: Calia)

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

This is one of the most vital yoga cues for 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.

You’ll also hear this pose in Bakasana (Crow or Crane Pose), in which it similarly provides stability and the desired engagement during the arm balance.

F: Flower your anus

Admit it: When you first heard this cue (or its cousin, “blossom your buttocks”) you laughed or cringed or perhaps both. 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.” But it doesn’t always have that effect on students. “I’m like a 4-year-old when I hear this,” says Budig. “It makes me laugh every time.” Which may, in fact, help us relax those glutes!

G: Ground down

“Ground down” sounds simple enough. But 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 in Tadasana (Mountain Pose), he says.

But it’s not all about activating. “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,” explains yoga teacher David Magone. As usual, it draws on that balance of effort and ease.

Woman in Revolved Triangle Pose variation with a block
(Photo: Andrew Clark; Clothing: Calia)

H: Square your hips

Despite decades of teachers cautioning their students to square their hips to the front of the room in twisting poses such as Revolved Side Angle, Revolved Triangle, and Chair Twist, Magone says your 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 and ups your 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 to move up.” This is sometimes cued as “rotating your inner thighs” toward either the floor or the ceailing. Carpenter says Urdhva Dhanurasana (Upward Bow Pose) is a good example: Practitioners often push their inner thighs up because it makes them feel like they are lifting higher. But this can cause the glutes to grip, which in turn forces the sacrum to lift and puts 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

A jumpback is when you literally jump back from Standing Forward Bend at the front of the mat into Chaturanga Dandasana. It’s common in Ashtanga yoga as well as some vinyasa approaches to yoga. What does it take to master the jumpback? Practicing Lolasana (Pendant Pose), says Crow, which trains key muscles for the movement: Kneel on the mat with each hand on a block placed 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 toward your chest.

K: Kick up into handstand

It may be tempting, but don’t kick up into any inversion.“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 feeling strong and steady, 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.

It’s especially important that you not kick up if you’re in a crowded class as you can harm others if you topple over.

(Photo: Andrew Clark)

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 Trikonasana (Triangle Pose), 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 both sides, says Crandell.

M: Microbend your knee

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.

O: Open your heart

As countless 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 broadening through 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, adjust your thighs and butt so your femurs sit into your hip joints, then draw the buttock of your front leg under to externally rotate your front leg as you turn your chest away from that leg. According to Ippoliti, “this is the safest way to get the opening most practitioners seek in this pose.”

Woman in Head-to-Knee Pose
(Photo: Andrew Clark; Clothing: Calia)

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.

That doesn’t mean most students understand how to activate the QL on demand. To engage 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.

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.”

It can also refer to the less physical and more energetic aspects of your being and how you’re holding yoursef in each moment. Consider it an invitation to notice your balance of effort and ease—physically and otherwise—in each pose.

T: Tuck your tailbone

Most teachers no longer use this cue because a majority of students tend to 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.

A woman with dark hair and shiny, dark orange tights and top, bends into Pyramid Pose. She places her handds on cork blocks in front of her.
(Photo: Andrew Clark. Clothing: Calia )

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 how you engage in a pose help you 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.”

Woman in Warrior III variation with foot against wall
(Photo: Andrew Clark; Clothing: Calia)

W: Go to the the wall

Walls are often an overlooked asset for deepening your practice by helping you practice engagement. It can be especially great for beginners, says Carpenter. Pressing into the wall helps you practice the engagement you eventually want to find without that external support.

The wall also acts as a prop in more restorative styles of yoga, including everyone’s beloved Legs Up the Wall Pose. and can help you find a deeper stretch in Yin Yoga postures.

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. This can be easier said than done, in the studio and in life and off.  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 about yourself. “You use each posture as a tool to understand what’s going on in your body,” he says. This includes not just the physiological but also the psychological and energetic experience of a pose.  “Asana is a means to come to a deeper understanding of self.” Explore your engagement with the pose and notice where you might be resisting the pose in your body as well as your mind.

Z: Zip up through the midline

Engaging your midline is key to turning on your all-important core muscles, which promoting better balance to helping you feel more grounded and connected to yourself. The cue to “zip up” 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.”

This article has been updated. Originally published June 13, 2017.

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