It turns out that some yoga cues we often consider universally applicable may not be so universal after all. Even alignment cues designed to increase safety and stability can at times not only fail to accomplish that, but, for some students, can actually increase the risk of a pose.
“Safety has to supersede classic instructions,” says Bill Reif, a physical therapist with four decades of experience, a longtime yoga practitioner, and author of The Back Pain Secret: The Real Cause of Women’s Back Pain and How to Treat It. “For older practitioners, newer practitioners, or those who have underlying conditions including foot problems, osteoporosis, forward-head posture, balance issues, or knees that ‘knock’ or bow, certain common instructions could actually be unhelpful or even cause pain.”
If you are a teacher, you may want to consider carefully the cues below, making sure they achieve the intended response from your students; if you are a student, you’ll want to assess whether or not these cues have been working for you. If they aren’t winners, try some of the suggested alternatives.
1. “Track your knee toward your second or third toe.”
While tracking the knee toward the second or third toe is a great cue for many students, it may not work for those with bunions or rheumatoid arthritis. Sometimes, what Reif calls “toe drift”—the toes veering off-course, which is associated with these conditions—can be so significant that the toes are no longer meaningful directional markers. After I’ve given this classic cue in class, I’ve had students say to me good-humoredly, “You mean toward where my second toe used to be?”
For those whose toes have drifted, a better cue might be: “Point your knee toward the centerline of your foot,” or “Make sure your thighbone is parallel to the long side of the mat.”
2. “Press down with the base of your big toe.”
This is a great cue for many students, especially those who tend to supinate (roll weight toward the outside edges of their feet) and whose knees tend to bow. "But for students with arthritis or big toe pain, doing this too much might be painful, and those with bunions or plantar fasciitis, for example, might be doing this too much already,” Reif says.
Bunions often develop from too much pronation—that is, pressing down with the base of the big toes and the inner heels to the extent that the inner ankles drop inward and the inner arches flatten (the knees could even begin to veer inward as well). Purposefully rooting down with the big-toe mounds in yoga poses can exacerbate these tendencies.
Instead of focusing on the base of the big toe, these students should try to root points that tend to be less grounded—those at the outsides of the feet—before emphasizing a point that already bears too much weight.
Try this cue: “Press down with the outer edges of your feet and track your knees toward your second or third toes (or ‘the centerlines of your feet’ as suggested in #1). Root the bases of your big toes as much as you can while maintaining the lift of your arches and the tracking of your knees.” (Pressing your thighs apart isometrically, or trying to move your feet apart without actually moving them, may also temporarily lessen the tendency to pronate.) And if lessening the pressure in the base of the big toe by prioritizing weight-bearing in other points does not alleviate pain, skip the pose.
3. “Press down with the base of your index finger.”
Just as the base of the big toe is an important rooting point for the feet in standing poses, the base of the index finger is an important weight-bearing point in poses where hands bear weight, such as tabletop, plank, and downward facing dog. Yet just as bearing too much weight in the big toe mounds can lead to imbalances, pressing down vigorously or exclusively through the base of the index fingers can also be problematic—especially for those who have kyphosis and/or roll their shoulders inward so that the inner elbows face each other.
In poses like tabletop, focusing on the base of the index fingers as the first and foremost place to ground can encourage internal rotation of the upper arms, which may contribute to shoulder injuries in some students. For instance, says Reif, “The biceps tendon at the shoulder gets pinched in full internal rotation—resulting in biceps tendinitis if done too frequently…It’s more important to align the shoulders than to get the base of the index finger down.”
A better cue: “Root the outside edge of each hand, and aim your inner elbow toward the webbing between the index finger and thumb. Bring the base of your index finger down only as much as you can while keeping this external rotation.”
4. “Move your ears back in line with your shoulders.”
Yes, we want the ears to stack above the shoulders, so that the head doesn’t move forward and down, which can strain the neck. The trouble is, if students with chronic forward-head posture and/or thoracic kyphosis (a spine that has rounded forward) try this, they could end up in an uncomfortable position with the back of their neck scrunched and their chins lifted high.
Reif agrees that this cue won’t work for everyone…at least not right away. “Reversal of kyphosis, then reversal of the forward shoulders, should precede attempts to reduce a forward-head posture,” he says. Until poses and movements to address kyphosis (like gentle backbends, shoulder rolls, and drawing the shoulder blades together) have been successfully implemented, the ears are not going to be able to line up with the shoulders without causing compression at the back of the neck.
In the meantime, after working to lengthen the spine and taking the shoulders back, a better cue might be: “Lengthen the back of your neck as if a cord is lifting you up by the crown of your head, and move your head only as far back as you can while keeping the back of your neck this long.”
5. “Come to heel-to-heel alignment.”
Although commonly taught, lining up your heels in standing poses that have you facing the front of the yoga mat (like warrior I and pyramid) can be unstable for anyone with balance issues. In addition, for those whose knees “knock” slightly (an alignment more precisely known as a “high Q angle,” which is linked to hip, knee, and foot problems), a narrower base may exaggerate leg and foot misalignments: If your knees veer inward, a narrow stance can cause them to veer inward more.
When facing the front of the yoga mat, widening your stance from left to right often enhances stability. “Maintenance of safe balance, and encouraging healthy knee-tracking, is more important than the traditional alignment here,” Reif says.
For those who are balance-challenged or whose knees “knock” inward, a better cue in forward-facing standing poses might be: “Keep your feet about hip-distance apart from right to left.”
6. “Come to heel-to-arch alignment.”
In poses facing the long side of the mat (like warrior II and triangle), the heel of the front foot is traditionally in line with the arch of the back foot. But this stance can make it difficult to track the front knee optimally (especially if your knees tend to drift inward).
Widening your stance by moving the back foot closer to the long edge of the mat you are facing may not only make balance easier, but it may also make it easier to align your front knee. Reif explains: “When the back foot is allowed to move forward, the pelvis can then turn more toward the front leg, which will assist with knee-tracking, making it easier to point the front knee toward the middle of the front foot.”
Until knee-tracking and balance can be maintained in the traditional alignment, a better cue might be: “Bring your back foot as close to the long side of the mat in front of you as is necessary to allow you to track your front knee toward the center of your front foot.”
7. “Bend your front knee to 90 degrees.”
The point of this cue may be to strengthen the quadriceps by placing a large demand on them. Reif explains how the angles affect muscular effort: “When the leg is straighter, the required quad effort is minimal. But as the angle of the knee bend gets closer to 90 degrees, the quads have to work harder, in the same way that a higher chaturanga, when elbows are just beginning to bend, is easier than a chaturanga in which your elbows are bent more and your torso is closer to the mat.”
However, the quadriceps of some yogis may simply not be strong enough to bend the knee that deeply. And to get to the 90-degree bend, students have to take their feet quite far apart, which can compromise stability for yogis challenged by balance.
Moreover, some students make an alignment sacrifice to attain the coveted right-angle bend. For instance, to get their front knee to bend to 90 degrees in warrior II or extended side angle, a student might allow their back knee to roll inward; they might also have a harder time pressing down evenly through the inside and outside of their back foot (it, too, may roll inward, overpronating).
Reif assures us that there is nothing wrong with having the legs two or three feet apart in these poses (instead of three or four feet apart), creating a more obtuse angle in the front knee, as long as the knee doesn’t move in front of the heel (which he says can cause knee strain). So try this cue: “Take a wide enough stance so that when you bend your front knee to your maximum, it is stacked directly over your front heel.”
8. “Roll up to standing.”
Rolling up to stand is often regarded as a gentle way to rise from a forward fold to a standing position. The “roll-up,” as it’s often fondly called, is less-than-fondly regarded by many yoga teachers and movement experts, who point out that rolling up to standing is in fact loaded lumbar flexion, a risky movement for the intervertebral discs and sacroiliac (SI) joints. Reif clarifies: “While in a flexed [rounded] position, the lower spine and SI joints are asked to bear the weight of the torso, arms, and head…more weight than they are equipped to bear.”
Although a limited number of people can perform this movement safely, maintaining core engagement throughout, Reif points out that “Newer yogis often present with significant lumbar extensor weakness, since those muscles are rarely strengthened through other types of exercise, and some practitioners may have a weak core or some degree of bone loss, SI problems, or back problems. For them, roll-ups are an unnecessary risk.”
He notes that letting the arms and hands dangle in uttanasana (standing forward bend) is also loaded lumbar flexion. Placing hands on thighs, a chair seat, or blocks while coming to a half forward fold—that is, into ardha uttanasana rather than uttanasana—is often a better idea, especially for many people with bone loss. (For a sequence specific to osteoporosis, check out this article.)
For a gentle and safe way to cue the rise to standing, teachers can try: “Keep your spine long and walk your hands up your thighs to come to an upright position.” Reif points out that using your hands can take some load off the low-back extensors. Once yogis have built adequate strength and feel no strain in the lower back, they could try exiting their forward folds via a “reverse swan dive”—circling their arms up and keeping their spines long as they ascend to upward-reaching mountain pose.
9. “Come as far into the forward fold as you can tolerate.”
Many yoga teachers encourage students to go into folds as far as possible, seeking as much of a stretching sensation as they can while still breathing deeply and easily. But for students with osteoporosis or disc problems, the potential benefit to the hamstrings of going deeper into a forward fold like uttanasana or paschimottanasana (western stretch) is typically outweighed by the risks that come with rounding the spine. For many of these practitioners, deep forward folding is a “don’t,” Reif says. “They often place strain on the lumbar spine during flexion, when they should be getting most of the forward fold movement from their hip joints.
“Working to create and hold a neutral spine instead of moving into spinal flexion is a good idea for those with osteoporosis and many of those with disc problems,” Reif affirms. “These students should aim to forward fold from their hip joints and stop before their waist or lower back starts to round.”
Rather than encouraging these students to max out the stretch sensation in a fold, it might be better to have them bring their awareness to more nuanced sensations while maintaining a neutral spine. A cue that respects the needs of these students might be: “Keeping your spine long as you sit in staff pose, try to straighten your legs more, reaching through your heels and keeping the backs of your heels grounded. Breathe here, and notice the subtle sensations you feel.”
If students for whom deep forward folds are contraindicated are craving a greater hamstring stretch, lying supine and lifting one leg toward the chest with a strap around the foot in supta padangusthasana (reclining hand to big toe pose) will allow the hamstrings to release without rounding the back.
10. “Come on: You can hold the pose for one more breath!”
While I admit I have personally found this cue helpful to my general practice wherewithal, shouldn’t students be the judge of how long they hold a pose? Couldn’t a gung-ho cue like this one lead to trouble if it’s seen as trumping a student’s perception that they’ve had enough?
Reif advocates gradually increasing the number of breaths for holding a pose, but he stresses that those increases should not override internal signals. “Yogis should never stay in a pose if they are feeling tingling, numbness, or are on the verge of losing their balance,” he says.
A better cue might be a question: “Can you hold this pose for one or two more breaths without strain? If you can’t, feel free to come out of the pose, or at least back out of it part of the way [e.g., straightening your bent leg in warrior II, or rising part of the way from a forward fold] until you arrive at a version of the pose that is more sustainable."
A cue is “good” only insofar as it serves our practice. Because every cue will not work for every student in every circumstance, teachers may want to emphasize that their directives are, in many cases, suggestions rather than commands. This will empower students to make the adjustments they need to make in order for a pose to feel comfortable. Students can help themselves by continually cross-referencing the cues they hear with the internal sensations they feel, following only those directives that lead to actions that cause no pain and that feel both possible and valuable for them.