Many teachers of my era believed that all yoga postures were beneficial for everyone. We never considered the possibility that some poses and cues might not be appropriate for some people.
For me, a young yoga teacher focused on alignment, it was all about shape and structure, and “building poses from the ground up.” I was often more concerned about how a pose looked than with how useful a pose or cue might be for an individual student. In fact, as long as a pose looked “right,” I assumed it had to be of benefit for the practitioner. When I began offering teacher trainings, I taught those budding teachers to approach asana with that same mindset—I did not hold any reservations about using the very same prompts I had heard from my teachers to teach them.
I was often more concerned about how a pose looked than with how useful a pose or cue might be for an individual student.
I realize now that in some cases, I may have inadvertently taught people to hurt others. I’d like to rectify some karma here by offering my heartfelt apology, along with some new and much sounder insights.
Over the past ten years my practice and teaching have moved further and further away from big, impressive, dancer-like poses, and more toward a focus on biomechanics and subtle body awareness.
When watching one of my yoga videos online, people sometimes comment: “Where’s the yoga?” or “This is core work! Isn’t that Pilates?” or “That felt good and was fun, but it’s not how I was taught to practice yoga.”
What I wish I could say to them (and at times I do, risking a Facebook argument in the process!) is that the intent of yoga is to free us from bodily attachments and to help us become more effective at organizing our energy.
This may scare some people who are practicing and teaching what they think is “the one true yoga,” or who think that being able to assume perfect geometric shapes with the body is the measure of an accomplished yogi.
Human bodies vary enormously, and the more I work with individuals in yoga therapy sessions, the more apparent this becomes. Not everyone can parallel their feet, level their shoulders, find the muscles of their pelvic floor, engage their hamstrings while they relax their quadriceps, or even lie comfortably in savasana. The dissimilarities between individuals must inform how yoga teachers adjust their cues in order for students to “get it” and stay safe. Based on this realization, here are some cues I just don’t use anymore.
1. “Tuck the tail.”
In Iyengar trainings I was often instructed to “draw in” or “tuck” the tail in standing postures, and I regularly repeated this cue back to my students. I understand now that the intention may have been to address an excessive anterior (forward) pelvic tilt and to encourage a light contraction of the pelvic floor. It might make sense energetically—to communicate root lock, or mula bandha—but people can and do misinterpret the cue.
As a yoga therapist, I’ve seen pelvises so drastically overtucked that sciatica or other nerve pain developed from either piriformis syndrome or disc damage (because muscular tightness can compress the sciatic nerve that often runs under or through the piriformis muscle).
The gripping of the piriformis also prevents our “shock absorbers” (the hip flexors and gluteals) from working optimally. This can take a jarring toll on the spine and pelvis: Because minimizing the lumbar curve has a bracing, stiffening effect that makes the muscles of the lumbar spine perform less effectively, it can affect the discs of the lower and mid back when we’re standing and walking.
My friend, Rolfer, bodyworker, and author Noah Karrasch will often say: “We need to happily wag our tails,” rather than “gird our loins.” The stiffness and gripping is killing our spines.
I love Judith Hanson Lasater’s suggestion, which is to imagine carrying a pot on your head and letting your body support it the way women in traditional societies do: The hips relax and the spine forms more of a J-curve than an S-curve. There is no gripping or tucking of the tailbone, and the lower spine feels more connected and fluid.
Nowadays, I say “Tuck your tailbone” only in a lunge, when I am familiarizing students with the action and sensation of stretching the psoas and sartorius. In that position, I’ve found that the oppositional pull of pelvic undertow has reduced lower back pain for some by simultaneously offering both a stretch and a contraction to those muscles.
2. “Square the hips.”
Okay, since when is any part of the human anatomy square? Our bodies have no truly straight lines, vertically or horizontally.
This cue may not be a big issue in poses in which both legs are parallel (staff pose, upward facing dog), but it may cause confusion, frustration and possibly harm in asymmetrical poses such as warrior I and II, one-legged king pigeon, or pyramid—in which one leg is behind the other and the two halves of the pelvis are naturally going to be in slightly different positions.
I now realize that when I used to try to strongly enforce the “squaring of the hips” in asymmetrical poses, I may have caused or contributed to damage of the labrum—the sheath around the hip socket (acetabulum). The likelihood of this was greater in those who were super-flexible or had already overstretched that sheath.
“Square the hips” is a cue that can still be offered at times, but with the intention of seeking an approximation, rather than a photo-perfect rendition. Otherwise, it’s probably best to just avoid it and use clearer language, like “Draw your front hip back.” To gently draw the front hip back and the back hip forward in parsvottanasana (pyramid pose) in order to elongate the spine can result in a more fluid angling of the pelvis—it does not have to feel rigid at all.
3. “Relax the glutes.”
Well, I’m not even sure about the origination of this cue. It was especially common in the ’70s and ’80s, and we didn’t question the source—we just taught what we’d learned. For those of us who were extremely flexible, having the gluteals “soft” was a way to go into more extreme backbends. But from a biomechanical perspective, not engaging the glutes in a backbend is a strange idea.
It’s interesting to see just how much lift you can (or cannot) achieve without engaging the gluteus maximus and medius in an unsupported cobra. Smaller muscles, like the quadratus lumborum and erector spinae, have to do the lifting—and when done with intention and focus, this can be of therapeutic value.
But in poses like camel, bow, and upward bow pose, please at least moderately engage those glutes and the adductors to help equally distribute the arc of the spine!
I now encourage appropriate engagement of the gluteal muscles in backbends. They support axial extension (in fact, try it right now—lightly engage your glutes, and feel the boost to your back).
Activating the glutes can also prevent compression of the anterior (front) lumbar spine, particularly if you have tight hip flexors. Activating the glutes in this way tilts the top of the pelvis and sacrum backward and stretches the hip flexors by extending the hip joint.
Think about it: Why would we choose not to utilize some of the strongest members of our support team? I understand the need for other muscles to be engaged as well (not just the glutes), and I understand that the cue to “Relax your glutes” is given to encourage students not to clench (which can feel like compression in the lower back, and can limit their range of flexibility in a backbend). But that doesn’t mean we should disengage the glutes in backbends entirely—in part because those who are super-flexible actually need to somewhat limit their backbending mobility.
When the glutes are not engaged, smaller muscles are forced to support the pose, and the spine and facet joints may not get the support they need to stay stable and aligned in a healthy way.
The muscular engagement helps prevent repetitive strain and wear on joints, and, truth be told, end range is not the goal. From this therapist’s perspective, a sustainable lifetime of ease of mobility seems more rewarding for an individual practicing within yogic discipline.
Moving Toward More Refined Communication
It’s not my intention to tell teachers that it’s wrong to use these cues. I simply hope to encourage all teachers to examine how such cues may be received. Just because our own teachers said something in teacher training doesn’t mean we should blindly accept it as truth and pass it on as gospel.
I’ve come to understand that looking deeply at individual physiology, making our classes an honest conversation (rather than a performance of superior skill), receiving criticism, and honing our classroom language is what helps the yoga instructor develop into a yoga teacher.