As yoga teachers, you probably spend countless hours curating and planning classes that fit your individual teaching style and the needs of your students. But how often do you find yourself repeating instructions that are verbatim from your own teachers? In doing so, have you reflected upon whether these cues are really helping your students get the most out of their practice? If your primary goal is to offer instructions that are concise and easy to follow, do your cues actually make sense? We polled some experts to advise us on commonly used (and misused) phrases that teachers should avoid and replacement cues that may better serve our students.
1. “Pull your shoulders away from your ears.”
This cue is often used when your arms are overhead, such as in Warrior poses, Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog), or extended Balasana (Child’s Pose). But the truth is that strongly drawing the shoulder blades downward (scapular depression), “actually puts the shoulders in an unnatural, weakened position,” says Ariele Foster, DPT and founder of Yoga Anatomy Academy.
Biomechanically, the scapula needs to be able to glide upward and outward when the shoulder joint is moving into flexion or abduction. Allowing the shoulder blades to move with the arm “is a natural part of the arms rising up and reaching,” continues Foster, who suggests you picture a rock climber for a mental image of this. Drawing our shoulder blades downward actually moves against the anatomical nature of the body and may cause issues within the joint.
Rachel Krentzman, a physical and yoga therapist, and director of Wisdom-Body Yoga Therapy in Israel agrees. “While it is correct to relax the upper trapezius so that the shoulders are not lifted up in tension, it could be equally as damaging to pull the shoulders down aggressively when the arms are overhead as it compresses the shoulder joint.”
Krentzman also believes that using the instruction of “pulling the shoulders away from the ears while weight bearing, as in Downward-Facing Dog,” may be even more detrimental due to the increased load on the shoulder joints. This cue can lead to compression of the tendons within the shoulder complex. Over time, this compression may cause pain and reduced range of motion due to impingement in the joint.
The use of this phrase likely started from a genuine concern that people tend to subconsciously tighten the muscles around their necks. But the generalized application that yoga teachers have placed on this cue is excessive and often mis-used, cautions Foster. Instead, Krentzman recommends “emphasizing lengthening the sides of the waist, so the lift comes from the trunk and then to soften the neck muscles, allowing the skin around the neck to melt down the back body.” This encourages the shoulder blades and shoulder to move as one unit, and avoids separating the actions of the shoulder and scapula so there is less compression within the already sensitive shoulder joint.
2. “Tuck your tailbone.”
This phrase has probably been used by every yoga teacher at some point in their teaching career. Unfortunately, this cue may actually be the source of some low back issues and even potential pelvic floor problems, warned Claire Mark, co-founder of Chill Anywhere in Chicago and senior teacher trainer.
The spine has three major curves: the cervical (neck), thoracic (mid-back), and lumbar (lower). The spine needs these curves to help absorb shock, defy the force of gravity, and protect your spine from injury. “Tucking the tailbone,” prompts an attempted straightening of the lumbar spine’s natural lordotic curve, which has cascading effects that travel up the spine. It can cause muscular tension throughout the back and hips due to the joints’ kinetic links, thereby leading to back pain and reduced mobility.
Mark prefers “gently lift the lower belly in and up.” This cue helps to “strengthen the lower belly muscles, thus protecting the low back, which is the intention of the original instruction,” Mark advises. This change in language may also help students with exaggerated lumbar curves to find a gentler place of equanimity for their spine.
3. “If you need to rest, take Child’s Pose.”
Guilty! Early in my teaching career, I said this way too much. Why? Because I am naturally flexible, or at least I was in my 20s. It was hard for me to understand how this wasn’t restful for most other people. But Jennifer Chang DPT, C-IAYT, and founder of the Movement Mechanic Yoga and PT advises differently. As she points out, “This cue can be frustrating for many students. Child’s Pose requires full flexibility/joint mobility in the spine, hips, and knees (in the kneeling position), ankles (end range of pointing the foot), and shoulders (if the arms are overhead).” These end-range joint actions actually make the pose more difficult than it appears and not always accessible or restful.
It’s likely this cue started innocently enough to encourage students to stay in their practice without giving up when tired or overwhelmed by more physically challenging poses. But the unfortunate truth is that this makes Child’s Pose a sort of catch-all, default cue without actually instructing it appropriately or providing helpful adaptations.
To help counter this, Chang recommends offering more comfortable variations of Child’s Pose to make it accessible to more people. Some options include: placing blankets under the knees and letting the feet hang off the edge to give room for the ankle; or widening the space between the knees, placing stacked blocks for support under the forehead, and bending the elbows to rest the forearms on the mat.
There are plenty of alternatives to Child’s Pose that Chang recommends, such as Reclined Apanasana, Sukhasana (Easy Pose), Eka Pada Apanasana (Single Knee to Chest Pose), or Supported Bridge with a block under the pelvis. All of these poses, she suggests “can be just as restful and perhaps more accommodating than Child’s Pose and relatively self-guided when needing to rest within a practice.”
4. “If you can’t do the ‘full expression’ of the pose then find a modification.”
A great follow-up to the misinformed cue on Child’s Pose is advice from Jivana Heyman, C-IAYT, author of the books Accessible Yoga and Yoga Revolution. “What may seem like a welcoming statement is actually grounded in a misunderstanding about yoga based on our implicit bias and cultural norms,” says Heyman. “We tend to teach some idealized ‘full expression’ of a pose and then tell students who can’t do that version to find something else to do.” This type of instruction suggests that diverse body sizes and shapes, aging, or lack of muscle flexibility somehow make us unworthy of or unwelcome in a yoga practice.
Heyman recommends teaching multiple variations of a pose at the same time, thus assigning them equal value, and countering the idea that one thing is better than the other. Heyman’s advice offers insight not only into our practice of cueing, but in our implicit biases, both while teaching yoga and interacting with the world. Much of the way we teach is supported by “parallel cultural beliefs and cultural norms,” he suggests, and the inherent (and often unconscious) belief that some bodies (and ways of practicing) are superior to others. This is an important reminder for all of us, no matter who is in our student demographic.
Heyman recommends keeping your mind on “accessible cueing”, with the goal of making each practice “available to all our students—to anyone interested in joining a yoga practice.” We can, instead, teach the fullness of the practice, and call upon Heyman’s guidance that “asana is just one limb of an ancient practice rooted in equity and accessibility.”
5. “Imagine you’re balancing a cup of coffee on your low back.”
When cueing twists, such as Parivrtta Trikonasana (Revolved Triangle) and Parivrtta Parsvakonasana (Revolved Side Angle), teachers have historically recommended trying to keep your lower back “even” or “parallel to the ground.” The idea behind this particular cue is to keep the pelvis neutral, so as to prevent SI joint shearing, however, the opposite is true. Nowadays, “it’s better to let the proverbial coffee cup slide off the lower back,” recommends Quinn Kearney, co-owner and teacher training director of yogaview in Chicago.
Kearney admits that he taught all twists like this for years. “I used to hold up a towel and secure the bottom of it while twisting the top to demonstrate how a firm and stable base is essential to create the twisting action.” While there is some utility to this demonstration, “the pelvis and spine work better when they move together,” he says. “With twists, it’s less injurious and more effective to allow the pelvis to move slightly in the direction one is twisting in.”
Kearney has been training teachers for decades and reminds us that “yoga is a constantly evolving art and science, and it always has been.” He believes that as more and more people start their yoga journeys, it is increasingly important for teachers to remain open to questioning and changing approaches that prove to be less than optimal. “This approach keeps the practice fresh, interesting, and challenging, and it allows us to question our preconceived ideas and beliefs.”
And if nothing else, isn’t that yoga?