Senior Yoga Medicine® teacher Rachel Land unpacks five common cues that can be easily misunderstood, and she offers short practices that can help you put your new insights into action.
In the Bhagavad Gita, yoga is defined as “skill in action.” While the text is referencing the lifelong pursuit of yoga as a way of life, a philosophy, we can apply this wisdom to asana practice as well. The cues teachers offer remind us to position our bodies mindfully during practice, and in so doing build the kind of focus and attention that we can use to act more skillfully in our lives off the mat.
Every activity has its own set of norms, including shortcuts in language, and yoga asana practice is no exception. But just because you’ve heard a verbal cue multiple times doesn’t necessarily mean you understand it, let alone how and when to apply it. In addition, there’s no such thing as a perfect cue. Cues are simply a shorthand way of trying to explain complex and nuanced actions. Even a helpful action can be applied inappropriately, or taken too far.
In this article I’m going to unpack the anatomy and intention behind common yoga cues, so that rather than assuming that you understand their meaning, or how to apply them automatically, you can instead use them as prompts for a more skillful engagement with your body.
1. Lift the arches of your feet.
Like the foundation of a building, our feet are crucial in standing and balancing poses. Our arches distribute our weight among the bones of the foot and aid propulsion by acting like springs to absorb and release shock when we move. Engaging our lower legs and feet to create or maintain our arches gives us a more active and stable base.
Our feet technically have three arches: one along the inner length of the foot (the medial longitudinal arch), one along the outer length of the foot (the lateral longitudinal arch), and the main weight-bearing one running from side to side (the transverse arch). There are a number of muscles responsible for activating these arches, (1) most of which are probably unfamiliar and therefore difficult to engage deliberately. If they aren’t in balance, we may tend to roll toward the outer edges of our feet, fall toward the inner edges of our feet, or lose the lift between the heels and balls of our feet, sometimes called flat feet or fallen arches.
None of these positions are inherently dangerous, but becoming more aware of our tendencies, and working to balance them out, can help our foot and lower leg muscles work more efficiently. However, more isn’t necessarily better: If we over-exaggerate the actions required to lift our arches we may grip or claw the mat, creating tension rather than stability. The underlying aim of the cue to lift the arches of the feet is to find the middle ground, the ability to share the load across the many small bones of our feet without over-activation.
So try it in mountain pose (tadasana). Stand with your feet hip width apart. Picture the base of each foot as a triangle with the balls of your big and little toes and your heels at the three corners. Shift your weight subtly between those points, leaning forward and back, side to side, until you feel your weight evenly balanced among them. Then imagine gently drawing them toward one another to create a sense of uplift between them. Rather than gripping with your toes, lightly spread them apart and press the pads of your toes into the floor. Notice whether this sense of alertness and activation changes how your legs, hips, and spine feel.
2. Micro-bend your knees (or elbows).
In standing poses, the weight we bear on our feet travels through our knees to our hips. When we bear weight on our hands, our body weight transfers through our elbows to our shoulders and torso. The cue to micro-bend aims to recruit muscles around the knees and elbows to help them transfer their body weight efficiently from one bone to another.
It becomes especially relevant when one limb is more heavily loaded than normal, for example the front leg in triangle pose (utthita trikonasana) or the bottom arm of side plank (vasisthasana). In these positions, the cue is often directed toward students whose joints have the capacity to extend beyond a 180-degree angle, or a straight line, into hyperextension, to prevent the ligaments on the lengthened side of the joint from being subjected to undue force. In reality, students who can naturally hyperextend their joints often do, so their ligaments may well have adapted to the load. Regardless, introducing a slight bend into the loaded joint can invite some interesting exploration into muscle co-activation or co-contraction.
Our quadriceps engage to extend our knee, or straighten our leg. The hamstrings and gastrocnemius work in opposition to flex your knee. When we engage both sides of the joint simultaneously by slightly bending our knee—co-contraction—we create compression around the joint, and therefore increased stiffness or stability. The same is true of the biceps and triceps working together around the elbow.
Again, the key is subtlety. If we bend the knee too much in triangle, we wind up in an extended side angle (utthita parsvakonasana), a different pose. If we bend our elbow too deeply inside the plank, while a great challenge for arm strength, it becomes more difficult to stabilize the shoulder joint.
So try it in triangle pose. Set up with your right leg forward and left leg back, legs straight, right heel intersecting your left heel or arch. Hinge into your right hip to bring your right hand to hover against the inside of your right thigh or calf and reach your left hand toward the ceiling. Initially let your right thigh muscles relax and notice whether your “straight” front leg creates a 180-degree line from hip to ankle, or whether it goes beyond 180 degrees and curves out behind the knee.
"Regardless of whether your right knee hyperextends or not, engage your right quadriceps by lifting your kneecap toward your hip crease. Notice how that action creates muscle engagement on the top of the joint, but doesn’t necessarily change the shape of your leg. Finally, put an almost invisible bend in your right knee and imagine dragging your right heel a fraction closer to your left arch. Feel the underside of the knee joint engage and notice whether that changes the sensation in your right knee or hip, or your experience of the pose generally. Repeat on your left side to gauge the experience there too.
3. Lengthen your sacrum.
To understand this cue, it helps to start by defining pelvic tilt. In anterior pelvic tilt the top of the pelvis tips forward, toward the front of the thighs, tending to also deepen the lumbar (lower back) curve. Posterior pelvic tilt occurs when the top of the pelvis tips toward the back of the thighs, tending to decrease the lumbar curve. If the pelvis were a bowl filled with water, anterior tilt would spill the water over the front of the body, and posterior tilt would spill it over the back of the body. So the cue to lengthen the sacrum—or some variant of it, such as “Lift your lower belly,” “Curl your pubic bone toward your low ribs,” or even “Tuck your tail”—moves the pelvis toward posterior pelvic tilt.
The cue is offered in two main scenarios: during backbends like bridge pose (setubandhasana) and locust pose (shalabhasana), and in neutral-spine standing poses like mountain pose and warrior II (virabhadrasana II). Of course, its usefulness in either case will depend on the starting position of our pelvis, but in backbends many of us will find it helpful regardless of our postural tendencies. Moving toward posterior pelvic tilt in backbends can lengthen the hip flexors, facilitate activation of the lower abdominals and glutes, and decrease the extension required by the low back.
In neutral-spine standing poses, however, if our pelvis is already in a neutral position, or we have a tendency toward posterior tilt, the cue can take us away from neutral toward an overly flat back and clenched glutes. So in this instance it’s not just about subtlety—it’s also a matter of applicability: For some students it balances postural tendencies and for others it exacerbates them.
Try it first in bridge pose. Set up on your back with your knees bent and feet on the floor, feet and knees about hip width apart. Without thinking too much about your pelvic position, press into your feet to lift your hips into bridge pose and notice what you feel in the fronts of your hips and in your low back. Then, without changing the position of your feet or knees, deliberately lengthen your sacrum toward the back of your knees, or draw your pubic bone toward your navel, using a slight posterior pelvic tilt to create a little more length over the front of your hips. Notice if that changes the sensations in your hip flexors or low back, then lower to the floor.
Now try in warrior II. Set up with your right leg forward and left leg back, right knee bent and left leg straight, right heel intersecting your left heel or arch. Turn your torso toward the long edge of your mat, lift your arms to shoulder height, and position your shoulders over your hips. Keep your hips a little higher than you would normally, leaving a little wiggle room within your full range of motion so you can experiment with your pelvic position.
To begin with, encourage your pelvis to tip forward, toward the long edge of your mat so that your low back arches more deeply. Keep tilting your pelvis forward until you reach the end of your range. Then return to your starting position and, from there, encourage your pelvis to tip backward, decreasing your lumbar curve and lifting your lower abdomen toward your navel. Keep tilting your pelvis backward until you can’t move any farther. In each case, notice how far that adjustment takes you from your starting place, as well as what sensations arise. Then repeat each movement a few times, decreasing your range of motion to explore more subtle nuances in each direction. Repeat the practice on your left side to see if your experience varies.
Some of us will benefit from the cue to lengthen our sacrum, feeling more core and glute support, while others will feel most balanced in the starting position, and still others will feel better with a slight anterior pelvic tilt.
4. Knit your front ribs.
There are a lot of parallels between the previous verbal cue, which related to the lumbar spine by referencing the pelvis, and this one, which relates to the lumbar by referencing the rib cage, in particular the bottom front ribs. You may have heard less poetic versions, including the suggestion to “draw your low ribs in and down” or to imagine an X-shape of engagement between your low ribs and the opposite frontal hip points, or even “inflate your kidneys,” working from the back of the body.
The aim of this cue is to encourage the upper rectus abdominis muscles to contract to counter rib flare, in which the low front ribs lift away from the abdomen. Like the previous cue, it is commonly offered in both neutral-spine poses and in backbends, especially when the arms are overhead, as they are in puppy or heart-melting pose (anahatasana).
Let’s look at neutral-spine poses first, where the usefulness of this cue depends on our starting position. Just as some of us have a postural tendency toward anterior pelvic tilt, we may also have a tendency to flare our low ribs. This is when the cue can help us create a more neutral posture, encouraging light abdominal engagement and reducing lumbar extension. If, however, we don’t tend to flare our ribs, the cue could trigger excessive abdominal engagement and make it more difficult for the low ribs to move to allow for full, free breathing.
The situation is a little different in backbends, or spinal extension, where the lumbar spine is far more mobile than the thoracic spine (the mid/upper back). This is a natural expression of the shape and function of the vertebrae in these sections of the spine, but when we try to deepen a backbend, the tendency for many of us is to exploit lumbar range of motion rather than capitalizing on the smaller extension capacity of the thoracic.
This tendency is even more evident in backbends with overhead arms, like puppy or wheel pose (urdhva dhanurasana), where commonly tight muscles like the latissimus dorsi, triceps, and levator scapulae can limit our capacity to upwardly rotate our scapula and fully flex our arms. To create our deepest version of backbends like these, we often end up asking even more of the lumbar spine. The same way that “lengthening the sacrum” spreads backbends between the lumbar and the pelvis, the cue to “knit the low ribs” can help us share the pose between our lumbar and thoracic spines and our shoulders—maximizing the benefits to each.
Let’s experiment first in a neutral spine, either in kneeling or thunderbolt pose (vajrasana), or standing in tadasana if you prefer. Aim to keep your head and pelvis still as you lift your low front ribs up away from your pubic bone until you reach the end of your range. Then return to your starting position and, from there, draw your low ribs toward each other, and toward the front of your pelvis, until they can’t compress any more. Notice how far each adjustment takes you from your starting place, as well as what sensations arise there.
Repeat both positions but reduce your range of movement a little each time, exploring more nuance in your alignment. Some of us will feel more balanced between front and back body when we gently draw the ribs in and down, while others will feel best in their starting position, and still others will benefit from letting the ribs expand slightly.
Now try it in puppy pose. From all fours, lean your hips an inch or two behind your knees. Walk your hands toward the front of your mat and release your head and chest toward the floor. Take a breath or two here, noticing what you feel across your chest and side ribs, and in your low back. Then gently draw your low front ribs toward each other and down toward your pubic bone. Take a breath or two there, noticing whether the emphasis of the pose has shifted in any way.
5. Inner shoulders down.
A common verbal cue is to “Move your shoulders away from your ears” or “Rest your shoulders on your back ribs.” This cue aims to counter a common postural pattern of shoulder elevation, potentially created by chronic tension or desk work, by reducing engagement in the upper trapezius on the sides of the neck. However, this downward movement of the shoulders is counterproductive when our arms are overhead, and “Draw your inner shoulders down” is intended to replace it in this position.
To understand why, some familiarity with shoulder anatomy and function is required. At the outer corner of each shoulder blade is the glenoid fossa, the small shallow socket that connects it to the upper arm bone, or humerus. Normally the glenoid fossa sits roughly horizontally, and lifting the arms without also moving the scapulae leaves very little space between the humerus and the acromion, the bony outcrop above the glenoid fossa on the top rim of the scapulae.
In many people, that lack of space between humerus and acromion will either pinch the soft tissues between them or limit the overhead movement of the arms; this is what can happen when we try to keep or move the shoulder blades down the back with arms overhead. However, if we allow the scapulae to move into upward rotation, we can avoid that limitation. In upward rotation, the inner, or medial, borders of the scapulae (those closest to the spine) rotate down toward the back of the waist, while the outer, or lateral, borders (those closest to the side ribs) rotate up toward the pinky fingers. This movement tilts the glenoid fossa and acromion up toward the ceiling, maintaining clearance between them.
So the verbal cue to “Draw your inner shoulder blades down” or to “Allow your outer shoulder blades to lift toward your pinky fingers” aims to encourage upward rotation, facilitating ease in overhead arm movement while still keeping the neck muscles soft.
Try it in upward salute (urdhva hastasana). Stand in tadasana. Shrug your shoulder blades down your back and keep them anchored to your back ribs as you sweep your arms out wide and overhead. Notice your range of motion, and the sensations in your shoulders and neck, then release your arms. This time visualize the shape of your scapulae, and as you sweep your arms out and up, allow their outer borders to glide around your side ribs as their inner borders descend toward the back of your waist. Observe whether that changes your range of motion, or the sensations generated in your shoulders and neck.
Now that you’ve explored the anatomy and intention behind these common yoga cues, you can take that awareness into your practice. Instead of assuming you understand them, or applying them as a matter of course, use these and other verbal cues as a chance to cultivate “skill in action.” Engage more intentionally with your body during practice on your mat, and see if it becomes easier to do the same in your life off your mat.
1. Medial longitudinal arch: Flexor hallucis longus, flexor digitorum longus, abductor hallucis, flexor digitorum brevis, tibialis posterior. Lateral longitudinal arch: fibularis longus, abductor digiti minimi, lateral half of flexor digitorum brevis, fibularis brevis, fibularis tertius. Transverse arch: fibularis longus, tibialis posterior.