“Flex your foot to protect your knee,” the teacher said. I was in pigeon pose, in a class of about 60 people. I’d been a yoga teacher for only a year and was just starting to notice some of the idiosyncrasies of yoga cueing. The teacher was making the rounds. I made eye contact and she came over.
“Why?” I whispered to her. “Why flex the foot?”
“Because it protects your knee,” she said.
“Yes, but why?” I asked, genuinely perplexed. “None of the muscles that flex your foot cross your knee, so how does this really help? I mean, the gastrocnemius, but how does that really stabilize anything?”
She looked stymied for a moment. “You know, I’m not sure,” she said slowly. “But I think you should flex it to be on the safe side.”
I nodded and said, “Okay, thanks.” I smiled at her. I didn’t want to create a fuss in the middle of class, but I was still truly confused. Why were we always told to flex the foot?
Sometimes yoga teachers say weird stuff that just doesn’t seem to make sense.
Cueing yoga postures can be tricky because asana is complex and every practitioner (and pose) is different. Over time, teachers begin to use convenient shorthand. While the shorthand cue can be helpful, it might not be really accurate. For example, “Place two fists between your feet to find your hip’s distance.” Two fists is not the same as hip distance, but the cue gets the student into the vicinity. The problem arises when these cues become canonized as facts, or “yoga rules”—when they are actually just helpful guides.
Cueing yoga postures can be tricky because asana is complex and every practitioner (and pose) is different. Over time, teachers begin to use convenient shorthand. While the shorthand cue can be helpful, it might not really be accurate.
Here are five yoga rules that you can break.
1. Flex your foot in pigeon to protect your knee. While a healthy activation through the foot and ankle is useful for maintaining stability and awareness through the leg, flexing the foot doesn’t always protect the knee. In fact, flexing the foot can sometimes be problematic. When the shin is at a 90-degree angle (for example, in thread the needle or fire log pose), flexing the foot is useful because it creates awareness through the lower leg and prevents the ankle from sickling. Sickling occurs when the lateral arch of the foot is not supported. The foot inverts, and the outer ankle collapses outwardly (which is what would happen, for example, if you were standing and lifted your inner foot off the floor). However, if the shin is at less than a 90-degree angle, flexing the foot may cause the shin to twist at the knee. Twisting a bent knee is not a great idea, as it can lead to injury. When the angle of the knee is less than 90 degrees in pigeon pose, you generally want to keep the foot pointed or flointed (where the foot itself is pointed, but the toes are flexed back toward the shin).
Moral of the story: The knee is happiest—and most well protected—when the shin and thigh are aligned. While you want your foot and ankle to remain active, don’t feel obligated to flex the foot to make that happen. Instead, choose to point, floint, or flex, based on whatever position will keep your knee happy.
2. Square your hips to the side of your mat in warrior II. Each hip socket is different, and very few hip sockets actually permit a full squaring of the hips in this pose. In warrior II, the goal is to take the femur (thighbone) of the front leg into its full range of external rotation. The range will be different for each person. To find your own range, position your feet for warrior II, and then bend your front knee over your front ankle. Keep your pelvis from tipping forward (which can cause compression in the lower back) or dipping side to side. Keeping your front knee aligned over the ankle, turn your pelvis toward the side of your mat. If you square your hips beyond your personal range (i.e., try to make them “perfectly square”), you will probably roll your front knee in and compress your lower back.
3. Always engage your pelvic floor. During yoga, we often hear the cue to “engage ” or “lift your pelvic floor.” In response, we may try to practice a strong Kegel-like engagement to continually lift the pelvic diaphragm. An engaged pelvic floor is good, as it helps support the internal organs and is a synergist with the transverse abdominis, which is the deepest abdominal layer. However, a chronically tight pelvic floor is just as dysfunctional as a weak pelvic floor. To be truly functional, your pelvic floor should be able to relax just as much as it can engage. Also, mula bandha has a range of engagement—it’s not just “on” or “off.” Some poses require more internal support, some require less. For a happy pelvis, make time to practice deliberately relaxing and expanding your pelvic floor. Also, explore a range of engagement, rather than just “full throttle.”
4. Draw your shoulder blades together. In our computer-loving society, we all tend to get a bit hunchbacked. Strengthening the muscles between the shoulder blades is therapeutic because it helps counteract daily habits and opens the chest. However, when the arms are overhead, the shoulder blades must protract (widen) and upwardly rotate so that the arms can lift. Drawing the shoulder blades together in this position is counterproductive to this functional movement. When the arms are overhead, allow your shoulder blades to spread apart in order to find your best range of motion.
5. Make your elbows bend to 90 degrees in . How many times have we heard that the elbows should be 90 degrees in chaturanga? While such a steep bend for the elbow does stack the bones prettily, it can also overtax the wrists and move the center of gravity forward. When I asked my teacher about this cue, she said that the 90-degree angle “opens the wrists for more advanced arm balancing poses.” While this may be true, it’s hardly helpful if the consequence of the position is to first compromise the shoulders and lower back. During the plank to chaturanga transition, try reducing the amount that you are shifting forward on your toes. This adjustment will reduce the angle of your elbows and may make it easier to support your body weight. Rather than aim for a 90-degree angle, focus on keeping your collarbones spread wide (to protect your rotator cuffs), your inner hands rooted, and your core engaged (to protect your lower back). Reducing the elbow angle in chaturanga will also relieve practitioners who don’t have the flexibility in their wrists to achieve a 90-degree angle there.
Most importantly, remember that your teacher is your guide, but your body is the boss. If a pose doesn’t feel right, give yourself permission to modify and adjust. The cuing of poses has changed substantially over the last 30 years as we’ve learned more about the impact of practice on the body, and no doubt it will continue to change. Meanwhile, rather than treat your yoga teacher’s cues as rules, consider them to be a good starting point for personal exploration.