Ten Great Cues…with Unintended Consequences

January 2, 2017    BY Amber Burke

There are a number of cues that we as yoga teachers may have decided to avoid giving our students. Perhaps we’ve discovered that they’re too vague or confusing, that they encourage students to push beyond their limits, or that the movements they direct are anatomically undesirable or impossible. (In this article, Yoga International’s editor, Kat Heagberg, offers examples of cues she no longer uses. I suspect such a list will differ for each of us, and will evolve based on our teaching methodology and our students’ responses.)

But there are many undeniably great cues that we should use frequently, while remaining aware that these cues may have limits to their applications or may cause unintended negative consequences in some bodies. Even the best cues might not suffice on their own, or in every situation, to produce the actions or alignment we’re after. Sometimes students might not be able to do what we ask without sacrificing alignment or stability in another part of their body, or they may simply misinterpret our cues.

If we see students attempting to create a desirable action or a desirable aspect of alignment, either in an undesirable way or in a pose where it’s not wholly appropriate, we don’t need to throw out the cue. That is not what I propose by offering the list below of great cues and their unintended consequences. Rather, as we notice the side effects of these cues, or we begin to anticipate our students’ responses, we might simply offer a bit more explanation or take a little more time setting things up.

Here are ten great cues to offer your students, while always remaining aware of their unintended effects.

1. Maintain an elongated neutral spine.  
Yes!!! Since our chair-seated culture has moved so many of our spines into “C” shapes, with our pelvises tilted posteriorly (backward), the lower back flattened or rounded, and the head and shoulders moving forward, one of the most vital things we can do as yoga teachers is to counter this kyphosis by instructing an elongated neutral spine (also known as axial extension)—a spinal shape in which the back of your head and the top of your tailbone are in the same line and lengthening away from each other, the lower back curving in slightly. (See my article “Keep the Doctor Away” for more on this and other medicinal alignment tips from Dr. Jonina Turzi.)

This instruction works beautifully anytime the spine is in its mountain pose shape—from plank pose to downward facing dog to staff pose. But even this great cue has a limit: If you stress an elongated neutral spine when students go into a forward fold (a standing forward fold like uttanasana, or a seated forward fold like paschimottanasana, for example), it may cause some students to retain an anterior pelvic tilt past the point at which that tilt stops being desirable. If your legs are straight, when the angle of your thighbones and your spine decreases to less than 90 degrees (this is a generalization, as the angle differs from one body to another, largely depending on the range of motion of the hip joints), the pelvis must move into a posterior tilt, the tailbone tuck under, and the lower back round slightly in order for the hips to be properly positioned in their sockets. If a student in a forward fold tries to create an anterior tilt, kerplunk go the tops of the femurs (thighbones) against the front of the acetabula (sockets)—and this undesirable movement can tear away at the hip cartilage and labrum (lining of the hip socket).

PROPOSAL: Omit mention of an elongated neutral spine, a curve in the lower back, or the tailbone lengthening when students are in forward folds, since these are poses which require a posterior pelvic tilt. Instead, have students send their weight into whatever serves as the foundation of the pose, then reach through the crown of the head.

2. Curve your lower back in gently/tip your tailbone back/stick your butt back until your lower back curves in.
Yes! When the spine is in a healthy elongated neutral shape as described above, the lower back is slightly concave, the lowest lumbar vertebrae moving in and up—this is your lumbar curve. It’s worth encouraging students to keep this curve in all neutral-spine poses like mountain pose and chair pose, and even in backbends like camel pose and bridge (though not in forward folds, for the reasons stated in #1 above). The pelvis that encourages this lumbar curve is at a slight anterior tilt with the sacrum nutated (tipped forward).

However, a student who has long been separated from his lumbar curve might create it by letting the belly hang forward passively—and tipping the pelvis so far forward that he moves his lowest lumbar vertebrae in and down instead of in and up—and consequently feels strain in his lower back. The solution for students who feel compression in the lower back when they curve it in is not to uncurve the lower back by posteriorly tilting the pelvis/tucking the tailbone (exactly what we’re trying to undo!), but to instead support the lumbar curve from the inside.

PROPOSAL: If you notice students pouring their bellies forward when you give this cue, or if students tell you that their lower backs feel tender when they curve them in, instruct them to draw the lower belly in and up as they exhale. In this way,  the curve is being supported by the lift of their deepest abdominal muscles.

3. Draw your lower belly in lightly as you exhale.
Yes, please! The diaphragm lifts on the exhalation, and the belly (and indeed the whole waist!) draw in. Consciously emphasizing what happens naturally on the exhalation will foster the core engagement that buttresses the curve in the lower back described above. But in neutral-spine poses like mountain pose, chair pose, or tabletop, just as “curve the lower back in” may not work without some instruction for the belly, “draw the belly in as you exhale” may not work without some instruction for the back and the pelvis. If students are told only to draw the belly in, there is a high probability that they will effect this by posteriorly tilting the pelvis and flattening the lower back. It would be far better for them to connect to their core strength without resorting to rounding the back—to be strong, while staying tall.

PROPOSAL: First, have the student tip his tailbone back until his lower back curves in gently. Then encourage him to draw his belly in on his exhalations only as much as he can without losing the slight forward tip of his pelvis and his lumbar curve. (This even applies to more vigorous core-strengtheners like leg lifts and crunches, in which the head and shoulders lift a few centimeters off the floor. These movements will be more challenging and rewarding if students keep a slight anterior pelvic tilt and a gentle curve in their lower backs!)  

4. Stack your ears over your shoulders.
Or better yet—since there is a good chance your shoulders aren’t where they ought to be—move the back of your head back to the same line as the top of your tailbone. And yes! In neutral-spine poses from mountain pose to staff pose, we should by all means encourage students to move away from forward-head posture and align the back of the head with the tailbone! This cue helps to establish the top of the elongated neutral spine, just as the anterior pelvic tilt/lumbar curve gives us the bottom of that healthy spinal shape. But students who have lost some range of motion in the neck, or who are simply not used to moving with the neck long, may create this action by tipping the chin up and creasing and shortening the back of the neck.

PROPOSAL: If you see a student interpreting your cue this way, have him drop his chin slightly, lengthen the back of his neck comfortably, and then keep that length as he draws his head back. He should bring his head back only as far as he comfortably can, while keeping the back of his neck long and smooth. (In poses where the student is lying down and cranking his chin up toward the ceiling, and is unable to draw his chin in and lengthen the back of his neck, place a blanket under his head.)

5. Sit straight up/stack your head and shoulders over your pelvis.
Absolutely! If we can sit straight in an upright seated pose, we should!!! But the trouble is that some students will be able to do this only by sacrificing their lumbar curves, and the importance of the lumbar curve trumps the importance of verticality! Although poses like staff pose or Marichi’s pose are traditionally practiced with the spine vertical, there is nothing wrong or dangerous with tilting back. (By contrast, twisting with the lower back rounded is one of the riskiest movements for your intervertebral discs!) The inclination to move the back of the head and the top of the tailbone into one line is correct, but that axis does not have to be vertical—it can tip diagonally. So in staff pose, for instance, students are welcome to lean back—aiming to bring the back of the head and the top of the tailbone to an imaginary yardstick back-slanted behind them—and press down with their hands in order to curve the lower back in. (Along with leaning back when seated in order to maintain the lumbar curve, sitting on blankets is another option. Blankets also increase the angle between the thighbones and the spine, and make it easier to curve in the lower back. One caveat: Lifting the pelvis onto blankets may cause the knees to hyperextend as well as disadvantage the arms—the hands might not be able to press into the ground to help lengthen the spine.)  

PROPOSAL: Encourage students who are flattening or rounding the lumbar spine in an upright seated pose to lean as far back as they need to in order to keep the lower back gently curving in, and invite them to press down with their hands in order to further lengthen the spine and lift the chest.

6.  Move your front ribs in.
Well, yes, okay. Constantly jutting the lower ribs forward can impinge on the spaciousness of the spine. But what happens above and below the ribs when we tell our students to do this in neutral-spine poses like mountain or chair, or in a lunge?

I have never once given this cue by itself without students doing one of two things: tucking the tailbone under, or moving the shoulders forward. But both tipping your tailbone back slightly (until the lower back curves in gently) and keeping the shoulders up and back, with shoulder blades against your back, are more important than drawing the front ribs in. That is to say, the problems that can come from chronically tucking the tailbone (an action that flattens or rounds the lower back, potentially leading to lumbar disc problems and sciatic pain), and bringing the shoulders too far forward (which encourages forward-head posture and its corollary cervical disc problems, and is unstable for the shoulders) have more dire consequences than just jutting the front ribs forward (which creates compression where the lumbar spine meets the thoracic spine).  

Because of ligamental support, intervertebral discs are more likely to herniate when pressed backward and to the side, which means that moving through yoga class and through your daily life in a slight backbend (which pushes these discs forward) is less likely to result in such damage than moving with a flattened or rounded spine (which pushes these discs back, into a position where they are extremely vulnerable—particularly when twisted). While moving the front ribs in is a good eventual goal, for students just beginning to discover that the lower back can and should curve in slightly, jutting the front ribs forward might be an important first step in processing this cue—an exaggerated version of what they will later be able to do with more subtlety.

PROPOSAL: Create the fixed points first. Have students place their shoulders up and back, press the shoulder blades against their backs, and tip their tailbones back slightly until their lower backs curve in. Without losing those, can they exhale thoroughly to invite the front ribs to move in? Or have your students focus on length: As they move the backs of their heads and bottom tips of their tailbones away from each other, perhaps they’ll find the room they need to bring the front ribs in without tucking their tailbones or moving their shoulders forward.

7. Root down with the four corners of your feet.
It’s great to root down in standing poses with all four corners of your feet—the bases of the big and little toes, and the inner and outer heels! Hurrah! We should all do this as much as possible.

For those students who naturally move in their healthiest possible alignment, with spines long and knees tracking toward their middle toes, this is probably all we need to say. For some students, finding those four corners and pressing down with them may be a means of improving alignment elsewhere. But there are students who will inevitably achieve the rootedness of one or more of these corners through some unwitting sacrifice of alignment elsewhere. For instance, a student might easily bear weight through the bases of her big toes because her knees are dropping inward toward each other. Or a student might have no problem rooting down with the balls of the feet because she is hunched forward. Another student might easily connect her heels to the earth because she is hyperextending her knees.

PROPOSAL: Before doing the work of rooting through the feet, align the spine and track the legs. First, have your students move the back of the head and the tail toward the same line and away from each other and aim their knees toward their middle toes while keeping the knees slightly “soft” (i.e., not hyperextended). Then have them root down through the four corners of their feet. (In poses where the feet aren’t on the floor, like staff pose, students can still lengthen the spine, track the knees with the middle toes, and then reach through the four corners of the feet as if pressing them into a wall.)

8. Make both sitting bones (or sides of the pelvis) equally heavy.
This is an outstanding cue for encouraging even weight distribution in any seated or lying down position where both legs are doing the same thing—from boat pose to stretch of the west to legs up the wall. This cue has its limits, however. When the legs are doing different things and the two sides of the pelvis are not allowed to move distinctly (which makes one heavier than the other, among other effects), students miss a valuable opportunity to strengthen their cores and may put their SI joints at risk.

In general, if one of your legs is in front of or lifted higher than the other, that side of the pelvis should be lighter on the ground and/or closer to your rib cage, in a slight posterior (backward) tilt, while the side of the pelvis that belongs to the leg that is further back or further down should be allowed to retain a slight anterior (forward) tilt, making it heavier on the ground and/or further away from your rib cage. To feel this: Lying down on your back, place your hands on your frontal hip bones, and lift your right leg slightly. The right side of your pelvis will ideally have lifted up along with the right leg, and will have moved closer to your rib cage (into a slight posterior tilt), while the left side of your pelvis will ideally be heavy on the ground and further away from your rib cage (retaining a slight anterior tilt).

Similarly,  in easy seat, the side of the pelvis that belongs to the leg crossed in front should be allowed to be lighter as it moves into a slight posterior tilt; in a seated twist like Marichi’s pose, the side of the pelvis that belongs to the bent knee toward which you are twisting is the lighter side; in eye of the needle, the side of the pelvis that belongs to the leg closest to your chest should be lighter. (Making a healthy differentiation between the two halves of the pelvis has repercussions for the idea of “hip-squaring” as well.)

PROPOSAL: In seated or lying down positions in which one leg is higher than or in front of the other, encourage the forward-leg side of the pelvis to lighten (moving into a slight posterior tilt), while encouraging the back-leg side of the pelvis to be heavier (retaining a slight anterior tilt).

9. Press the tops of your thighs back.
Do! Yes! Please take the tops of your thighs back. This excellent cue is a sister of such cues as “Move your pelvis into a slight anterior tilt,” “Tip your tailbone back slightly,” “Stick your butt back,” and “Flare your sitting bones”—all of which aim to create the circumstances that promote an anterior pelvic tilt, sacral nutation, and a lumbar curve. It is applicable in a wide range of neutral-spine poses and backbends, from chair pose to camel, and is especially valuable when combined with drawing the lower belly in and up on the exhalation. But nearly every time I instruct a student to do this in a pose where the legs are straight (from mountain pose to pyramid to triangle), the first thing that happens is that she hyperextends her knees.

PROPOSAL: If this is the tendency you observe, before instructing thighs back, have students press their shins forward until they have weight in the balls of their feet. (In mountain pose, you’d like their shins to be vertical, rather than slanting backward, a crease at the fronts of their ankles.) Have them keep their shins there, and imagine pressing them against resistance, while they press the tops of the thighs back.

10. Move your shoulders up, back, and press your shoulder blades against your back.
Yes! Since most of our shoulders are too far forward and down, this is a valuable cue that works across a wide range of poses to move the shoulders to a place that allows for the most interior spaciousness, and where they are most evenly supported by their stabilizing musculature. This applies when the arms are down and when they’re lifted—in fact, it is especially important that when your elbows come above shoulder height, you allow the shoulder blades to move up your back. But some students may feel their necks scrunching up as an unintended consequence of this cue. If that’s the case, have them realign and re-lengthen their spines, finding length by lifting the head more rather than by lowering the shoulders.  

PROPOSAL: If your students’ necks are unhappy after they’ve moved their shoulders up, back, and pressed their shoulder blades against their backs, then have them move the backs of their heads and the tops of the tailbones to the same imaginary yardstick behind them, and then lengthen these two points away from each other. In other words, go back to #1!

It is entirely possible that your experiences with these cues are different than mine, or that you’ve found different solutions to curb the same tendencies. The larger point to be offered along with this preliminary list is that there is no cue that could not in some way be misconstrued. And no cue that is not dependent on other cues, and on healthy alignment and movements at other sites in the body.

While I continue to look for the cues that can be scattered with abandon and will yield healthy alignment under any conditions, I’m beginning to slowly accept that all of our cues depend on both preparation and tending. Sometimes, before we sow the seeds of our best cues, we might need to prepare the soil; sometimes, rather than just hoping for rain, it makes sense to bring in our watering cans.

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>>

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