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During yoga teacher training, Yoga Journal associate editor Elizabeth Marglin realizes how hard it is to find words that are true to her own experience, accurate, and useful for others.
During our 200-hour Yoga Pod Boulder seva teacher training, I am getting an immersion, among other things, in cueing—how you use words to get people inside their bodies. Maybe because I’m a writer, I love a good cue. It’s the same part of me that loves a good metaphor, the climax of a poem, an evocative quote.
In terms of my cueing lineage, I’ve been fortunate. I moved to Boulder in 2000 in part because of the allure of Richard Freeman’s Yoga Workshop. Studying with Richard and his band of excellent teachers, I soon found myself amazed at how precise language could elicit precise movements; how effulgent cues could trigger a corresponding effulgence deep inside the body. I swan-dove, blossomed my buttocks, became a banker, and luxuriated in language that was as poetic as it was postural.
But loving other people’s cues is vastly different from reaching deep inside—maybe somewhere near the soft palate—and finding cues of my own to relay to students. How do I articulate what is happening inside the body during an asana? During our teacher training, I’ve kept coming up against how hard it is to find words that are true to my own experience, accurate, and useful for others.
The Best Yoga Cues from Our YTT
In the spirit of investigative reporting, I started by listening attentively to the cues that my teachers were using and writing them down. Here is a sampling of some of my favorite cues from the teachers at the Yoga Pod:
Rob Loud: In the midst of Goddess Pose: “How is your inner dialogue going?”
Kate Mulheron: “Dip into what’s most vulnerable and sensitive as you practice—and practice from there.”
Nancy-Kate Rau: “Move toward the sensation instead of away from it.”
Gina Caputo: “Don’t get too dramatic about the pose. Trick your nervous system by backing off and being subtle. Find a way to suffer with grace.”
Amy Harris: “Explore letting go of preferences in your practice and instead focus on pinpointing the sensation in your body.”
Stephanie Schwartz: “Acknowledge the tightness in your body. Ask what feels good to open in your body in order to be most accessible to the pose.”
Jeanie Manchester: “Inhale and fill your inner body with breath all the way to the crown. Keeping that buoyancy inside allows your physical body to rest on that inner light.”
Nafisa Ramos: “Design a sustainable platform of the pose that works for your body.”
Matt Kapinus, in a cactus-armed backbend: “Let something fall away from your chest. Imagine what’s it’s like to live with an open heart.” And when lying on the back: “Feel the kindness of your hands on your chest and belly.”
Attending to how my teachers were using cues made the class come alive in new ways. Before the Yoga Pod teacher training, I used to pick and choose the juicy nuggets I would tune in for. But now I was along for the whole ride, listening for every nuance like a horse with pricked ears.
The Nuances of Yoga Cues
A few weeks into the TT, we started to analyze the different kind of cues: placement cues (start from the ground up), alignment cues (more refined than basic placement), and energetic cues (how energy moves metaphorically through the body). We talked about active voice versus passive voice, and how to project, establish a cadence, and parse out an optimal number of cues per pose (three was the max). We also had many a lively discussion on which cues feel outdated or just plain wrong, with the major contenders being “Square the hips” and “Tuck the tailbone.”
I realized my bias was for energetic cues, such as “Feel the crown of your head blooming like a 10,000-petaled lotus,” “Imagine nostrils all over your body,” or one of my absolute faves, “What if you took the kind of breath that acknowledged your life had turned out perfectly?”
So I have to admit, the perfunctory “knees over ankles” cue didn’t really do it for me—I was all about the aspirational. But what I’ve realized during this teacher training is that you can’t really get the energetic bump if the alignment is wrong. The mechanics need attending to.
Still, when the anatomy segment of the training began, taught by massage therapist and anatomy savant Sephra Albert, I was dubious. I could feel myself choking, that sense of pervasive inadequacy creeping into my brain. At first I could barely remember any of my bones, and I couldn’t tell you the difference between a ligament and a tendon, or between adduction and abduction. But Sephra’s passion for anatomy made it an alluring doorway to embodiment. I kept thinking about what would be the kind of cues that would work for someone like Sephra. She represents the toughest kind of student you could have—the student who knows way more about the body than you do.
The Making of a Good Cue
First I asked Sephra about her cue peeves. “It really bugs me when teachers misname a muscle,” she says. “If you don’t know the technical name, stick to a more general, common name. Talk about the body in a way that makes it more accessible—not less.”
For Sephra, a spot-on cue is one that speaks to the anatomy and how the joints move in relationship. “I want to know how we experience in our bodies the support of our bones when they are stacked in a way that feels like they take less effort. I get excited when teachers talk about the head of the humerus and how it moves in the shoulder joint,” she told us. “So often we don’t really feel deeply what’s happening in the joint. The more we understand our joints, the less prone to injury we are, and the more effective we become as we move through our daily activities.”
I love how Sephra makes the joints compelling, the bones magnanimous. The challenge for me, as I hesitantly approach taking the seat of the teacher, is blending the tangible movements of our bodies with the opposite: the intangible, indefinable, but undeniable stillness waiting for us within. It’s that sustained release of the mind finally going quiet—after chit (or true awareness) happens—and the asana afterglow kicks in.
It’s become clearer to me what makes for a good yoga teacher. I need to learn how to love the doorway of the body without losing sight of what’s beyond. And I need to find my way into what yoga teacher Jason Bowman refers to as proprioceptive empathy—“To relate to students within one’s own body.” Or, as Matt says, “To hold the space for people’s humanness.”