Ten Alignment Cues Yoga Teachers Need to Stop Giving
While you don't need to be a full-fledged anatomy geek to be an excellent yoga teacher, when it comes to alignment, it´s important for us as teachers to know why we're saying what we're saying (as opposed to merely repeating an instruction because we've heard another teacher give it). It’s also crucial for us to remember that just because a particular instruction makes sense in our own bodies, it´s not necessarily going to be an ideal cue for all of our students. Thus, in the spirit of exploring and unpacking our “yoga-speak,” here are ten common alignment cues that we should all probably stop saying.
1. “Scoop (or tuck) your tailbone.”
I totally get the intention here—probably because I used to say this one all of the time! We see a student with excessive curvature of the lumbar spine (swayback), and we figure that a good tailbone scoop is just what she needs to lengthen the lower back. While for certain students this cue might actually be helpful, overall, this instruction is problematic. Here´s why: The word “scoop,” or “tuck,” tends to encourage students to draw the tailbone forward, flattening the lower back and bringing the pelvis into a posterior tilt (as opposed to the generally desired ¨neutral¨ pelvis). When the pelvis is in neutral, the top of the sacrum is actually tilted forward slightly, while scooping or tucking thrusts the pelvis forward and erases the natural curves of the pelvis and lower back. (The same goes for the cue to ¨press your pubic bone into the floor" during belly backbends.) Plus, there are a lot of people with swaybacks who have the excessive curvature happening at the upper part of their lower back (around the L-1/2 area), and in spite of their excessive lordosis, many of them even have pelvises that are severely tucked under. For these students especially, a cue to scoop or tuck the tailbone is extremely counterproductive!
So what can you say instead?
If you really want to encourage grounding in a particular pose, you can instruct students to take their inner thighs back (to balance the following work with the tailbone) and then to root their tailbones straight down, rather than forward or under. But lately I´ve been finding a lot of success working with the belly. First, ask students to draw their hip points in toward each other (engaging the deep transverse abdominals) and then to engage the muscles between the pubic bone and the navel—the lower part of the more superficial rectus abdominis. Together, these instructions create balanced action in the pelvis and help to counter excessive lordosis without pushing the pelvis forward.
2. “Pull your shoulders down away from your ears.”
If a student is shrugging his shoulders up to the high heavens, asking him to do the opposite—pull his shoulders down—seems like it would make sense. But here's the thing: When students pull their shoulders down, it tends to shorten the sides of the body and brings the heads of the humeri (arm bones) forward, both of which increase the risk of injury—yikes! This is especially important to remember during bridge pose, where pulling the shoulders down will flatten the back of the neck toward the floor, erasing the cervical curve and putting the neck at risk.
Here´s what you can say instead:
If you’re working with beginners, or just don’t want to spend a ton of time on shoulder alignment, a simple “soften the tops of your shoulders” works well. There’s a gentler implication here than “pull your shoulders down,” reminding students to soften their upper trapezius, as opposed to jamming the shoulders down. If you have more time for refinement, however, instruct students to lengthen the sides of their bodies, move the heads of the shoulders back, then work with the shoulder blades, focusing on broadening the upper shoulder blades and drawing the bottom tips of the shoulder blades in. These actions help to release tight neck and upper back muscles and to stabilize the shoulder blades onto the back.
I'm pretty claustrophobic, and when I´m getting my trikonasana on, envisioning myself trapped in a small, tight place doesn't exactly help with the whole "calming the nervous system” thing.
3. “Imagine you're stuck between two panes of glass” (in triangle).
When you think about it, doesn´t this actually sound kind of horrifying? I'm pretty claustrophobic, and when I´m getting my trikonasana on, envisioning myself trapped in a small, tight place doesn't exactly help with the whole ¨calming the nervous system” thing. Plus, from an anatomical perspective, you don't really want a ¨flat¨ triangle pose. When we try to snuggle up inside imaginary glass panes, we end up pushing the pelvis forward, creating the same basic misalignment as tucking the tailbone. Instead, focus on maintaining healthy curves in your spine (not flattening or erasing them!) and finding a balance between the internal and external rotation in your legs. In general, your back thigh will need a little internal rotation, and your front thigh will need a little more external rotation. Keeping the back thigh lifted (and drawing the front hip under) may size you out of the glass panes, but your hips will be a lot happier in the long run.
4. “If you can´t reach the floor, bring your hands onto your shin(s).”
It´s true that not all teachers have blocks available, and cuing hands to shins in ardha uttanasana (standing half forward bend) or hand to shin in triangle is a lot better than allowing students´ hands to dangle. But hand-to-shin contact won't stabilize the core in the same way that pressing into blocks or the floor will. Plus, aside from the cool core action you´ll be missing out on, pressing your hand into your shin can actually be destabilizing for the ankle joint and can also encourage knee-locking. If you have blocks available, teach students who can´t easily touch the floor to use them (and demo with them yourself—even if you don't actually need them).
5. ¨Bring your ears in line with your biceps¨ (in down dog).
This is a super-common down-dog cue (and one I used to give all the time, before seeing firsthand why it was problematic). To understand why this instruction isn´t universally applicable, try this: Extend your arms up overhead. If your shoulders are pretty open, you will likely be able to bring your upper arms alongside, or even behind, your ears. If that’s the case, bring your arms a little more forward so that they’re in front of your ears. Now, without moving your arms, bring your ears in line with your biceps. See what happens? You just moved your head out of alignment! Same deal in down dog. For a student with tight shoulders, “ears in line with biceps” isn’t the best instruction. Instead, focus on teaching good shoulder alignment and keeping the head in line with the spine.
6. “Lift your tailbone” (in down dog and forward bends).
This is a cue that’s less than ideal for several reasons: It can be destabilizing for the sacroiliac joints, may give students a general sense of feeling uprooted or ungrounded in a pose, and can be especially problematic for your more flexible students and/or those working with hamstring injuries. Similarly, ¨lift your sit bones¨ is generally not my favorite cue for a mixed-level class, either, though it´s fine for a student with super-tight hamstrings. Once a student’s legs are strong in the pose (as in toned and active on all sides), I tend to prefer the instruction, “move your thighs back” (which is a little less uprooting), followed by a cue to “root down through the tailbone” or to “root from the sit bones down through the heels,” which will help to ground the pose and stretch the backs of the legs.
7. “Flex your front foot” (in eka pada rajakapotasana, or one-legged king pigeon).
This cue is problematic unless your front shin is 100% parallel to the front of the mat. If you've ever taken a ballet class, you might be familiar with the term sickled foot. Basically, sickling is when the big toe points inward, and the weight/pressure shifts to the pinky toe side of the foot. Not only is this not aesthetically pleasing, it puts the ankle and knee joints at greater risk of injury. In pigeon, if your shin isn’t parallel, but your front foot is flexed, odds are that you’re sickling. What to do/teach instead? Point the foot, but flex the toes back (some people call this “flointing,” a flex/point hybrid of sorts) to bring the foot into a more neutral position.
8. “Stack your shoulder over your wrist” (in vasishthasana, or side plank).
As yoga teachers, we often look at whether or not a student´s joints are stacked (knee over ankle, shoulder over wrist, etc.) to determine how well they´re aligned in a particular asana. So why is shoulder-over-wrist alignment less than ideal in side plank? Some of the most common misalignments in this pose include collapsing into the shoulder joint and sagging in the hips, but if you set up the pose so that the bottom wrist is a little bit in front of the shoulder, it´s a lot easier to push up away from the floor—it allows you to lift your hips up higher and makes it harder to collapse into the shoulder. You might find it easier to get the ¨wrist-in-front-of-shoulder" set up if you come into the pose from down dog (as opposed to plank pose) and—bonus!—your hips are already lifted in down dog, so this setup helps to keep the hip-sagging at bay, too.
9. “Square your hips to the front of the room.”
This cue is mainly an issue in poses like virabhadrasana I (warrior I) and parsvottanasana (pyramid pose), when the back foot is planted on the floor at a 45-degree angle and the general orientation of the pose is toward the short edge of the mat. Here´s why this is problematic: When the back foot is fixed in this position, if you pull your hips forward in an attempt to square them, you end up torquing the knee—ouch! Instead, stabilize your back leg, make sure your back knee is lined up with the second and third toe, and ground down through your back heel. Then, keep your back leg exactly as it is, and use your belly to bring your torso more forward. Wrap the back-leg side of the belly toward the front-leg side. (And honestly, if the hips aren't perfectly squared to the front of the room, it´s okay, really! When it comes down to it, it’s way more important to keep the knees healthy than it is to have your pelvis totally square.)
Here´s why this is problematic: When the back foot is fixed in this position, if you pull your hips forward in an attempt to square them, you end up torquing the knee—ouch!
10. “Listen to your body.”
Okay, this one isn't technically an alignment cue, but next to ¨remember to breathe,” it might just be the most oft-repeated phrase in all of Western yogadom, and I think it needs addressing. My friend, yoga teacher, and therapist, Beth Spindler, brought this up during a recent conversation, pointing out that “an uneducated body says some silly stuff” and that “honor your body” is probably a better choice of words. And you know what? I think she’s totally right. I mean, I like to think my body is a fairly well-educated body, but even so, half the time it would much rather be eating peanut butter cups than refining my down dog. Sometimes honoring your body means doing things you’d really rather not. Plus, this instruction can seem especially vague or frustrating to newer students and/or those that really want a little more guidance or instruction. Teach your students to listen to their bodies, instead of telling them to.
Kat Heagberg is the editor of Yoga International and has been teaching yoga since 2005. She loves to write about ways to make challenging poses more accessible, the power of language in yoga culture, and to offer encouragement and advice to new yoga teachers. Though she initially trained in alignment-based styles of yoga (which continue to inform her practice and teaching), Kat likes teaching vinyasa flow best of all. Read her work and take her classes here on Yoga International!