When I practice yoga, I try my best to be attentive, mindful, and at ease. However, more often than not, I get sidetracked: My brain flies to my schedule for the rest of the day, or a conversation I had that I’m not happy about, or an e-mail I forgot to answer. Before I know it, I’m doing a pose half-heartedly (and often, incorrectly), and not getting the full benefit of the practice—or fully enjoying the precious time I’ve allotted for myself to practice and disconnect.
That’s where the best yoga teachers come in: It’s as if they know, just by a certain posture or shift, that the tiniest adjustment can help both bring a student back into the room, and into a stronger, more powerful yoga practice.
Looking to glean some on-point cues for your own practice—or teaching? Here are the most helpful, impactful cues a yoga teacher has ever given me.
1. “Relax your facial muscles when you’re in Savasana.”
Sometimes, once I lie down in Savasana (Corpse Pose), I immediately start thinking about what I’m going to do when I’m out of the studio: What’s the next task on my to-do list? How soon can I get a shower and get to the grocery store? When a yoga teacher gently reminds the class to relax their facial muscles once we settle into Savasana, I realize I am often clenching my jaw or tightening my face in worry. Forcing me to pay attention to this causes my mind to relax, too, and helps me get the full benefit of this ultimately relaxing, most important pose.
See also The Subtle Struggle of Savasana
2. “Spread your arms and sway during Tree Pose.”
I used to think Tree Pose was a time for me to stand as rigidly as possible and try to look like a yogi should look: in control. But when one of my yoga teachers mentioned that tree pose is really about channeling a tree, suddenly the pose felt entirely different. Think about it this way: Trees are so strong because they are imperfect, and they let their branches go this way and that so that they can move with the wind. Once I raised my arms up and let them sway, I felt so much more powerful and alive in the pose.
See also 3 Ways to Safely Modify Tree Pose
3. “Keep your knee bent during Humble Warrior and Reverse Warrior.”
Sometimes, I find myself going through the motions during class, and when that happens, it can be tempting to just flow through the postures without a keen awareness of alignment cues. This happens a lot for me when moving from Warrior I into Humble Warrior, or from Warrior II to Reverse Warrior. Then, a yoga teacher pointed out that many of us weren’t keeping our knees bent toward a 90-degree angle in these postures, and instead, we were moving around without staying true to the integrity of these poses. It was a small, but powerful reminder that even when you start to flow, it’s incredibly important to stay focused.
4. “Activate your fingers in Child’s Pose.”
Child’s Pose is a resting pose—one I often come back to when the practice becomes difficult, or I simply need a break. But sometimes, it’s good to receive a reminder that Child’s Pose can be active, too, with only a minor adjustment. When a yoga teacher told me to stretch my arms out longer on my mat and “activate” my fingers by coming up on my fingertips, I was able to achieve a deep opening in my shoulders and upper back. It felt divine, and reminded me that even rest is meaningful and important, and should be intentional—not just a time to zone out and let my mind wander. What a nice reminder that the rest I take outside the yoga studio should be intentional too, and these days, rather than simply vegging out on the couch playing on my phone, I find myself doing more rejuvenating things, like reading, sleeping, playing guitar, or meditating.
5. “Smile during Happy Baby.”
This cue might seem silly, but it’s one of the most transformative cues I’ve ever heard. Happy Baby is an inherently goofy-feeling pose. (I dare you not to feel a little silly with your legs splayed, rolling around on your mat like an infant.) Yet in this so-serious world, it can be tempting to forget that it’s OK to be lighthearted—especially when practicing poses that are intended to be such. When a teacher told me to smile, I couldn’t help but feel a warmth and happiness radiate through me—and it made the pose so much better.
See also A Yoga Sequence for Deep Hip Opening
6. “Use your finger strength during Handstand.”
For the longest time, I struggled with Handstand (and still do!), but when I took a class devoted to inversions, I learned something I had never really known: My fingers have a lot of power when it comes to gripping the floor. Learning to find support and strength in the muscles in my fingers while I use my core and feet to kick up into Handstand feels like a revelation. After all, my fingers are one part of my body I never thought about in terms of strength. Now, when I use them to grip the floor, they help carry me into a pose I’d always wanted to get into.
7. “You can do anything for 10 seconds.”
I heard this cue when holding Warrior III, and not only did it help me quiet the mental chatter that threatened to lure me out of that pose way sooner than I needed to, but it’s helped me when practicing many other challenging poses since then. Some days, I feel off-balance and discouraged. But then I remember that I can do anything for 10 seconds—or at least give it my best shot—and I find I can usually stay longer. And more often than not, it turns out that what was preventing me from getting into or holding a posture was never physical and was always mental. I try to apply this as often as possible in as many situations as possible, and usually, whatever I’m aiming to do is much easier to accomplish than I’ve built it up to be in my head.