8 Things I Mis-Learned in Yoga School

May 11, 2017    BY Amber Burke

I am far from a dissatisfied customer. Yoga teacher training was an enriching experience for me. The alignment-focused trainings I attended gave me more priceless information than I can tally, and they laid the foundation on which both my yoga practice and my teaching practice have been built.

But there were a few areas where I was surprised (and somewhat dismayed) to realize that I’d been steered wrong in teacher training. If I’d received the correct information, perhaps I could have been more helpful or even prevented some of my students’ injuries (as well as my own). Certainly I would have been more comfortable teaching and giving adjustments.

I realize that yoga trainings (even through the same school) can vary dramatically, depending on who is leading them. I expect that the content of the trainings I took has changed in the decade since my graduation. And certainly some portion of what I “mislearned” arose from my own misinterpretation of what was being said. I was fairly new to yoga then, and if I were attending the same training now, I might be able to ask the questions that would have led to the clarifications, corrections, and exceptions I’m sharing below.

Here are eight myths I learned in yoga school, many of which I continued to believe for years after teacher training.

1. The best way to protect the back in neutral-spine poses like plank, as well as in backbends like bridge, is by tucking the tailbone and flattening the back.
In order to keep our backs safe in poses like mountain, chair, tabletop, and plank (and when approaching backbends like camel and bridge), we yoga-teachers-in-training were told either to tuck our tailbones or to spin the “pelvic wheel” (in such a way as to move the pelvis toward a posterior tilt), or we were given hands-on adjustments that moved our pelvises posteriorly and flattened our lower backs. However, in this article, physical therapist Bill Reif, author of The Back Pain Secret: The Real Cause of Women's Back Pain and How to Treat It, makes clear that directives like “Tuck the tailbone,” “Posteriorly tilt the pelvis,” “Flatten the back,” and their ilk are “not beneficial to the function of the spine”—and in fact make it harder to engage some of the core muscles that support the spine in neutral-spine poses and backbends. When you tuck the tailbone, “you activate the gluteal muscles, hamstrings, and hip rotators instead, and the multifidus and transverse abdominal muscles [spine stabilizing muscles] can’t activate,” says Reif. Reeducated by Reif, I now believe that a slight anterior (forward) tilt of the pelvis and a gentle curve in the lower back are optimal—not only in neutral-spine poses, but also when preparing for backbends.

These days, I work hard to maintain an anterior pelvic tilt in neutral spine poses and backbends. I also support this shape with exhales, during which I visualize, as Reif recommends, tightening a drawstring around my waist. I encourage this alignment in my students, some of whom have been resistant to relinquishing the “tucks” that so many of us once learned were virtuous.

2. In a forward fold, keep an anterior (forward) pelvic tilt and don’t let the lower back round.
This is a cue I may have simply misconstrued. If we see staff pose as a “forward fold,” for instance, then this instruction is absolutely correct. In staff, ideally, we are able to keep an anterior pelvic tilt and a slight curve in our lower backs. Before moving deeper into a fold, it’s important to be able to create these elements of a neutral spine with ease.

But I was under the mistaken impression that this cue also applied when going further into forward folds. In fact, as we move deeper into our folds, the pelvis must be allowed to move from its neutral position—i.e., a slight anterior tilt—into posterior tilt (and the lower back allowed to round), or we risk damaging the cartilage of the hips (something Reif explains in greater detail in "Which Way Should You Tilt Your Pelvis in Backbends and Forward Folds?"). The exact angle between spine and thighbones at which that shift must happen varies from practitioner to practitioner, especially when the knees are bent—but when the legs are straight it’s in the neighborhood of 90 degrees. In other words, somewhere between dandasana (staff pose) and paschimottanasana (seated forward bend), between ardha uttanasana (half standing forward bend) and uttanasana (standing forward bend), we must relinquish our anterior pelvic tilts, allowing our pelvises to move posteriorly and our spines to round.

Some more flexible bodies can create an anterior tilt in staff pose (and even exaggerate it), and they’re disinclined to give it up as they move into forward folds. However, some people who are stuck in a chronic posterior tilt with a rounded lower back have a hard time conjuring an anterior tilt of the pelvis when seated upright in staff pose, which puts their lower backs at risk if they fold more deeply. Now, instead of emphasizing deep forward folds—which are risky for these very different groups for very different reasons—I place more focus on neutral spine poses, like staff, in which all students can benefit from curving the lower back in gently while tightening an imaginary drawstring around the waist with each exhale.

3. Rolling up to standing is a safe and gentle way to come up from a forward fold.
Rolling up to standing was a ubiquitous movement in classes throughout my teacher training. In fact, this movement—in which the weight of the arms and torso hang passively from a rounded lower back—can be tantamount to loaded lumbar flexion, a dangerous movement for the intervertebral discs of the lower spine. In the course of writing this article, physical therapist Jonina Turzi explained to me that if a student has the refined core strength to be able to lift each vertebra individually—and can do this while keeping her sacrum in nutation (tipped forward), a position in which it is able to transmit the weight of the upper body into the legs—she may be rolling up safely. But just try rolling up one vertebra at a time, as Turzi suggests, with your hips a couple of inches from a wall (without letting your hips actually touch the wall, and while keeping your heels grounded and your legs straight), and you’ll get a sense of how challenging it is to master this movement.

Just to keep myself humble, every few weeks I try rolling up while standing close to a wall. Now, in my classes, we faithfully “hinge” our way up to standing.

4. Move your shoulder blades down your back when your arms are up.
To be fair, I do remember one teacher trainer saying, “Actually, when the arms lift overhead, though the ball of the shoulder moves down in its socket, the shoulder blades move up.” It’s possible that another trainer put an even finer point on shoulder blade movement, and explained that when the arms lift, while inner corners of the shoulder blades do indeed move down, the outside borders of the scapulae move up. But for some reason, my fellow teachers and I ignored this statement and continued to say “Lift your arms and move your shoulder blades down your back” in our teaching practicums, largely unchecked, with the noble intention of keeping the backs of our students’ necks long. For my part, I thought that as long as some part of the shoulder joint did move down, this instruction came close enough to the truth! But as Turzi explains here, the shoulder blades must be allowed to elevate and upwardly rotate when the upper arms lift higher than the shoulders. When not allowed to do this, the scapulohumeral rhythm is disrupted, the shoulder joint gets pinched, and the front ribs must either thrust forward or the arms widen into a “V” shape.

Allowing my shoulder blades to scoot up my back has been therapeutic for my left shoulder, which was often prone to minor injury (in part because of the enthusiasm with which I’d been shoving my shoulder blades down my back for years). Now I encourage my students to shrug their shoulder blades up their backs when their arms lift—and if that action crunches their neck, I enjoin them to lift up more through the crown of the head, while keeping the chin slightly tucked.

5. Don’t touch your shin in triangle pose.
We teachers-in-training learned the value of preventing hyperextension of the knees, which causes wear and tear on those ligaments and erodes their stability over time. We were taught never to allow a student to place her bottom hand on her front shin in triangle pose, lest she press the top of her shin toward the floor (causing her to further hyperextend her knee). Instead, we were told, she should place her bottom hand on a block behind her front ankle. I practiced and taught triangle this way for years, until I noticed that while the bottom-hand-on-block technique may not be worsening anyone’s hyperextension, it also wasn’t preventing it (plus I kept running out of blocks!).

Now I practice triangle with the front hand resting lightly on my shin (just below the knees), while pressing the top of the shinbone against my hand. For those of us who tend to hyperextend, having something to press into seems to be helpful in countering that tendency. (And keeping the hand light has the bonus of encouraging core activation.)

6. Square your hips.
We trainees were correctly enjoined not to square the hips in warrior II, triangle, and half moon—poses in which zealous hip-squaring will probably just cause the front knee to veer inward, while impinging upon space in the SI joint. However, squaring the hips was given as a common cue in poses like warrior I and crescent. One of the many things I learned from Turzi (and shared in this article) is that when our legs are doing different things, the two sides of the pelvis should also be doing two different things—which means they aren’t quite “squared” toward the front of the room, or even level from side to side.

It’s important to encourage this differentiation between the two halves of the pelvis in order to ensure the health of the SI joint and lower abdominal organs, and to engage the muscles that stabilize the pelvis and lower back. In any pose where one leg is forward, the side of the pelvis that belongs to the front leg is in a position roughly like “cat” (more of a posterior tilt), and the side belonging to the back leg is in a position roughly like “cow” (more of an anterior tilt). The side of the pelvis that belongs to the front or top leg is higher and further forward than the side of the pelvis that belongs to the back or bottom leg. (This means that when the legs are doing different things, the two sides of the waist are not equally long—nor, if we are seated or lying down, are the two sides of the pelvis equally heavy. The side of the pelvis that belongs to the top, front, or lifted leg is lighter on the floor, and closer to the shoulder, than the other side of the pelvis is.)

Now when I teach a pose like crescent with the right leg forward, instead of saying “Square the hips toward the front of the room,” I say “Square the chest toward the front of the room.” I then add that the right side of the pelvis, as it moves into a slight posterior tilt, is higher (i.e., closer to the shoulders) and further forward, while the left side of the pelvis is lower and further back in a slight anterior tilt. It’s been surprisingly easy to cajole students into moving the two halves of the pelvis independently, since this subtle work pays off right away in obvious core engagement.

7. Don’t demonstrate!
Although it was generally considered fine for a teacher to demonstrate set-ups for complicated poses, my trainers were unanimously opposed to the teacher demonstrating while practicing with the class. They expressed a number of reasons for this:

1. Demonstrating can make it hard for a teacher to watch her students (let alone adjust them).

2. Focusing on the presentation of the pose rather than her inner experience can make it challenging for a teacher to take care of herself.

3. When a teacher demonstrates difficult poses with ease, it can stoke ambition in students and encourage them to push past their limits.

Although the demonstrations we aspiring yoga teachers offered in our teaching practicums were often simply to remind ourselves of what to say (and in what order), some of our trainers viewed seasoned teachers who regularly demonstrated as being either too lazy to find the words needed to guide students in a pose, or as show-offs. I remember one trainer musing, “I always think demonstrating is selfish, like a teacher is trying to get her own yoga practice in.” In the years following that experience, as it slowly became easier for me to teach without demonstrating, I’ve thought of those teachers who were so opposed to demonstrating. In retrospect, I see that they had all been teaching at the same place for more than a decade (and hence were training others in that studio’s own methodology). They were accustomed to working with fairly experienced students (many of whom took their class regularly), or at least with other classes at the same studio in which the teachers all used similar language. For many of them, the emphasis was on practicing common poses well. But what about those of us who often move around from state to state or studio to studio, and tend to work with beginners, who pride ourselves on stringing together surprising sequences or inventing new poses?

I do think it is important for us teachers to keep our eyes on our students, to stay tuned to our own sensations, and to avoid showcasing our flexibility when demonstrating. However, I’m convinced that there are plenty of circumstances (at least with the first few seconds of each pose), when demonstration is invaluable for clarity and expediency. Had I brought up such exceptions in my teacher training, I have no doubt that the trainers would have said “Of course there are times when demonstrating makes sense!” But I did not raise the issue, and for years I continued to feel needlessly guilty about demonstrating. Now I demonstrate a good many poses each class without feeling that I should apologize for it.

8. Give only directional adjustments.
In yoga teacher training, hands-on adjustments were advocated as a means of connecting with students (who had given permission to be touched)—so long as the adjustment encouraged a clear and actionable movement in a particular direction (for instance, making clear with a sweep of the hand that a student is meant to firm a hip in, or track a knee toward the middle of her foot, or lengthen her spine).

Adjustments that did not instruct a clear movement in a particular direction were frowned upon as confusing and, well, creepy. I know that, as a student, I have been confused when a teacher put her hand between my shoulder blades in plank and I did not know if I was meant to lift up or lower down in the spot she was touching. And I do understand that you don’t want to touch a student’s back while she’s in warrior I and just keep your hand there for no purpose. But instead of saying “Don’t give a nondirectional adjustment,” I’d say “Don’t give a purposeless adjustment”—and point out that an adjustment can be both purposeful and nondirectional, especially when it is given in savasana or any restorative yoga pose.

For years, I diligently gave active, directional adjustments, gently pushing and pulling, even in restful poses—pressing students’ shoulders down in savasana, scooping up students’ heads and tugging on them to lengthen their necks, widening the heels of their hands with my thumbs. Then I had the chance to work with Turzi on a craniosacral restorative workshop which eventually led to this article, in which she explains how to use the lightest of touches for the purpose of encouraging relaxation. To give a modified craniosacral adjustment, a teacher can softly rest her hands on two mirroring places on her student’s body—then wait, listen, and allow any subtle movement to happen, without imposing movement in any direction. A formal craniosacral session with a therapist certified in that modality often lasts an hour or so, is tailored for the individual, and focuses on healing. However, light touches held for just a few minutes have the potential to be deeply soothing, while the very gentleness of these touches makes them safe for laypeople to administer.

Light touches inspired by craniosacral therapy are far and away my favorite adjustments to both give and receive in restorative poses, where their gentleness matches the restful tone of practice and facilitates relaxation.

On my last day of yoga school, when I hugged my favorite teacher-trainer goodbye, he said, “Remember, yoga’s never what you think it is.” He may have added, “It’s more.” This cryptic statement struck me as important, and I’ve turned it over in my mind many times since then. I now take it to mean that yoga is not static; we’ll never be finished with it. It continues to change as our understanding of it grows, and we should allow these changes to happen—without any expectation of arriving at an “end.”

On my last day of yoga school, when I hugged my favorite teacher-trainer goodbye, he said, “Remember, yoga’s never what you think it is.” He may have added, “It’s more.”

And so, in another few years, I hope to notice that my understanding of yoga has undergone even more revisions—and that my experience of it has changed yet again, providing me with yet another list of lessons learned and unlearned.

And, as I expect that many of us have had similar experiences, perhaps we can learn from each other. So, if there is anything you’ve had to unlearn since your training, would you be willing to share it below? I’ll be watching for it.

Amber Burke
Amber Burke lives in Coyote, New Mexico, and teaches alignment-based and restorative yoga at Body in Santa Fe. In her classes, she aspires to a precision of language and detail that will not only create sustainable poses but also guide students inward, toward an ever-deepening self-awareness. She is a graduate of Yale, the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars MFA Program, and two yoga teacher trainings through Yogaworks in Los Angeles, and has been registered with the Yoga Alliance at the 500-hour... Read more>>