6 Things I No Longer Practice or Teach (and Why)

As I’ve traveled further along my yoga journey, my practice and my teaching have evolved in countless ways. Many things that were once staples in my personal practice no longer even find their way onto my mat. And many things that I swore were worthless have become essential to my teaching.

Just as I’ve ditched my teenage reckless-driving habits, my Candy Crush addiction, and my coffee dependency, I no longer incorporate the following six cues into my practice or my classes:

1. “Maintain a Flat (or Straight) Back”

I understand the good intention here. Teachers often give this cue to inspire a strong and elongated neutral spine, which may help students to correct excessive rounding of the upper back or prevent unnecessary (or unintentional) lower back compression. However, I think “flat” or “straight” sends the wrong message.

Why I don't do/say this anymore

“Flat” and “straight” both mean without curvature. But because the spine actually has four natural curves (resembling an S shape), these cues can be misleading. When we attempt to remove this natural undulation in our yoga practice—and many practitioners do take these cues literally!—we are instilling bad spinal habits, neglecting muscles we should ideally be strengthening, and shortening muscles we should actually be lengthening in order to counter postural imbalances.

I needed to address unnatural rigidity in my own body after a childhood of ballet, which idealizes a rod-straight spine. My recommendation is to allow your spine to be natural; believe me, your back will thank you in the long run. After all, its curves are there for a very significant reason—to absorb shock, and to distribute stress throughout your spine!

What I do/say instead

Now, when I teach and practice, I encourage a lengthened spine rather than a straight one. In ardha uttanasana (half lift), for example, I cue students to lengthen the crown of the head and tailbone in opposite directions in order to find axial extension. This helps them to avoid lumbar compression and/or over-rounding the thoracic spine while still maintaining the integrity of the spine’s natural curves.

2. “Jump Back to Plank”

Despite the controversy around it, “Jump back to plank pose” is a cue heard ad infinitum in yoga classes as well as across many disciplines of physical fitness. I’ve heard this cue more times than I can count, and I used to practice it religiously, thinking that I was really toning my core (an assumption I made because my teachers always said that you needed a “very strong core” to be able to practice this transition safely!).

But the more I studied anatomy and physics (my father is a physicist, so I’ve been immersed in physics from a very young age), the more I realized that this overused transition could be inherently injurious when done over and over (as it typically is in yoga classes). Repeatedly jumping back into plank is problematic not just for those with joint injuries, a weak core, or brittle bones, but for everyone. Just as any repetitive movement can become injurious, I believe that repetition of this particular movement over extended periods of time can lead to problems in muscles, ligaments, tendons, cartilage, bursae, and/or joint capsules, and, when done with excessive force, could even lead to broken bones.

Not only does anatomy need to be considered when examining this dynamic movement, but so does the physics of the transition—including velocity, acceleration, force, and mass.

Why I don't do/say this anymore

Ideally, we want to avoid landing in bone-stacked positions when applying momentum to an action. This is because joints are ingeniously designed to absorb shock. They do this mainly through their cartilage (hard, thick connective tissue that, among other things, lines the articulation of bones), but also through their ability for movement. The theory is that the movement of joints “allows the mass of the body segments to be decelerated over a longer period of time and thus the impact and time to peak force are decreased.” So, when we move with speed and acceleration (such as in a jumpback), we want our joints to move to minimize the exerted force.

We would never land with straight legs when we jump. Instead, we bend the knees to absorb the impact and protect the joints. So why would we jump into a plank and land with straight elbows? Despite the fact that the palms are already planted when jumping back to plank (rather than lifted and lowered as in a standing jump in which we land on our feet), there is still significant force exerted across the body when landing, because of the distribution of the weight around the point of contact with the floor.

When jumping back to both plank and chaturanga, the initial point of contact with the floor is the palms. But in plank, your shoulders are stacked over your elbows and wrists, bringing the vast majority of your body weight behind your palms. Chaturanga shifts your weight forward so that your body weight is more or less evenly dispersed around your point of contact—both throughout the movement into this pose and, more importantly, when your feet land. This simple movement in a forward vector helps to protect your joints—by allowing for movement to increase the time over which the forces of impact are absorbed and by distributing your weight more evenly around your point of contact with the floor.  In this way, your toes (which make contact with the ground first in a jumpback) don’t bear the brunt of your body weight when they—for lack of a better term—hit the ground.

This is also the reason why a jump forward from down dog to uttanasana (standing forward bend) is not inherently dangerous. Your body weight is more or less evenly dispersed around your point of contact with the floor, since the feet and the hands are essentially in the same place in uttanasana and, therefore, not unevenly stressing one half of the body.

What I do/say instead

Jumping back safely with velocity, acceleration, and the weight of your own body requires some give at the joints in order to absorb the shock of the impact. So now I always practice and teach landing in chaturanga dandasana (four-limbed staff pose), in which elbows are bent to help equalize and distribute the force throughout the body.

If jumping to chaturanga isn’t an option, a simple step back to plank is a perfect alternative.

3. “Square Your Hips When You Twist”

In Ashtanga classes, I was always told to imagine balancing a teacup on my pelvis while rotating my spine in revolved standing postures. This hip “squaring” action went against everything my body naturally wanted to do, but I followed the instructions like a good student. Then, when I met my current teacher, who suffered from sacroiliac joint pain for over 30 years, I learned that being a good student didn’t mean always following instructions; it meant asking the right questions. The only thing that relieved my teacher’s SI joint pain was unsquaring her hips during twisting asanas. So I began to explore this concept.

Why I don't do/say this anymore

The sacroiliac (SI) joints are where the sacrum (the triangular-shaped bone comprising the five fused sacral vertebrae) and the ilium (one of three fused bones of the pelvis, the largest and most superior bone) articulate on either side of the spine. While it was once thought that these mirrored joints were immobile, we now know that they do move (albeit very minimally!)—although different research shows different results about the extent of movement available at these joints. 1

The SI joints are complicated because they are categorized as two different types of joints. The fronts are diarthrodial, or synovial (a type which typically allows for full range of motion), and the backs are syndesmosis fibrous (which allow for hardly any movement and are held together by ligaments). 2

 To add to the complexity, despite being synovial joints, they really do not allow for much mobility at all, except during pregnancy and childbirth. 1

As partially limited-mobility synovial joints and partially syndesmosis joints, the SI joints are stabilized and supported by strong ligaments. Ligaments have limited elasticity and very limited blood supply, so once they are stretched far beyond their natural range of motion, they struggle to return to their original state. They can take a long time to heal, and in some severe cases, surgery may be the only option for repair.

Despite the fact that we are often encouraged to twist from the navel up—since the thoracic and cervical vertebrae allow for the greatest range of rotation—I don’t think it’s actually possible to completely isolate the thoracic spine during a twist without bringing some of that rotation throughout the entire spine (including the lumbar vertebrae and sacrum).

When we fix two points surrounding—and supported by!—these ligaments (i.e., the hips, or more specifically, the ilia) and rotate the spine (including the sacrum) away from these fixed points (as in a twist), we are forcing the sacrum and ilia in opposite directions. And once we max out our range of motion within our limited-mobility SI joints, we begin stretching the ligaments that stabilize these joints. While it may not feel painful to do this, it can lead to SI joint instability over time.

What I do/say instead

Now when I practice twists, I allow my hips to rotate with my spine so that the sacrum and pelvis move together; as a teacher, I encourage my students to do the same. This allows the SI joints (which are not really meant for mobility) and their ligaments to remain unaffected by the twist.

4. “Ground Your Sit Bones in Seated Forward Folds”

This is another prevalent cue in the yoga world—one that I never even thought to question because it seemed to transcend lineage and style. But once I learned about the complexity of the SI joints, I knew I couldn’t continue to regurgitate it blindly.

Why I don't do/say this anymore

Just as in twists, it is best to move the pelvis and the sacrum together in forward folds to avoid unnecessary strain on the SI joints and their supporting connective tissues.

“Grounding” your sit bones into the floor as you fold over your legs can stretch the ligaments that support your SI joints; if overstretched, these ligaments can lose their stability over time. 

What I do/say instead

Instead, I tell my students to allow their sit bones to lift as much as is comfortable for them (just as I tell them to allow their hips to rotate as they like in twists).

This way, instead of stretching the ligaments supporting their SI joints (which we definitely do not want to destabilize), they’ll be stretching the muscle groups the forward fold is meant to target.

However, nothing is ever as simple as it seems, and this simple fix can create a problem of its own. By allowing the sit bones to move with the fold, practitioners run the risk of overstretching their hamstring origin attachments (which for all three hamstrings are coincidentally located at the sit bones). So, to counter this, work to create an eccentric stretch within the belly (center) of your hamstrings. (An eccentric stretch is one in which the muscle is engaged while it simultaneously lengthens.)

Here’s how to take the pressure off of your hamstring attachments by creating an eccentric stretch: When lengthening your spine to prepare for the fold, actively contract your hamstrings by ever so slightly drawing your sit bones toward your knees—you will feel your hamstrings tone; maintain this engagement as you lengthen your hamstrings, and fold forward without “glueing” your sit bones to the floor. 3

This simultaneous contraction and lengthening protects the attachment points of your hamstrings, and the free movement of your sit bones will prevent the ligaments surrounding your SI joints from being overstretched or strained.

5. “Flow Through Another Vinyasa”

Although I’m a vinyasa girl at heart, I no longer practice or teach endless vinyasas in a single class. (In this instance, I’m referring to the flow through plank, chaturanga, up dog, and down dog as a vinyasa.)

Why I don't do/say this anymore

Overworking the same muscle groups time and time again can lead to repetitive-stress injuries. Beyond that, yoga is about balance. When we continuously work the same poses without incorporating an equal number of appropriate counterposes, we lose balance. We overwork and overstretch specific muscle groups, and we underwork and understretch others.

Overworking the same muscle groups time and time again can lead to repetitive-stress injuries. Beyond that, yoga is about balance.

Chaturanga is an excellent pose for building strength and segueing into many other postures, but working the arms and chest too many times within the same practice can do more harm than good. The same rings true for overpracticing up dog.

What I do/say instead

While these poses are excellent to incorporate into a practice, they are no longer de rigueur in my flows. I think there are smarter, healthier, and less repetitive ways to build strength and endurance than doing a million vinyasas in one class (even if it is a “vinyasa” class). Sometimes that means I’ll practice surya namaskars but skip the vinyasas, and sometimes—more often than not—that means I’ll skip the sun salutations altogether and find more creative ways to warm up and move my body. I don’t mind a vinyasa here and there. But as a former Ashtangi, I no longer feel that 60 chaturangas followed by up dogs in one practice are benefiting my body in the long term.

6. “Drop Your [Fill in the Blank]” (“Drop your knee.” “Drop your shoulders.” “Drop your outer hip.”)

It is a truly rare experience for me to take a yoga class in which the teacher does not tell me to “drop” a body part (e.g., my knees, shoulders, or hips). But nowadays, something about this word just seems “un-yogic” to me.

Why I don't do/say this anymore

“Dropping” any body part sounds careless and aggressive to my ear. The skillful use of language is something that was ingrained into my teaching during my first training. Yoga is a mindful practice in which, ideally, we are delicate and conscious with our bodies.

What I do/say instead

When I’m teaching, I try to use words that best describe the actions I am trying to convey. Rather than “drop,” I prefer to use verbs like “lower,” “soften,” or “release,” which are gentler and imply more awareness.

Over the years, I’ve practiced many different styles of yoga with different instructors from many different lineages. I’ve been lucky to learn from amazing teachers and I’ve also been lucky to learn from teachers with whom I completely disagreed. They have all taught me invaluable lessons about how I want to practice and teach, and they have all been instrumental in my development as a practitioner and as a teacher.

I hope that you can benefit from these lessons as much as I have.

Sources

1. Forst, S. L., Wheeler, M. T., Fortin, J. D., & Vilensky, J. A. (2006). The Sacroiliac Joint

2. Asher, A. Reviewed by Hughes, G. (2017, May 8). Sacroiliac Joint Type and Classification

3. Keller, D. (2013, June 4). Healing (or Preventing) Hamstring Injuries

Related Topics

Leah Sugerman

Leah Sugerman

Leah Sugerman is a yoga teacher, writer, and passionate world traveler. An eternally grateful student, she teaches a fusion of the styles she has studied with a strong emphasis on finding the balance... Read more>>  

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