There’s a lot going on in a yoga class. The names and shapes of the poses, listening to the teacher’s instructions, and breathing in and out through your nose as you move through the poses—all the while staying present to what’s happening in your body. It’s a lot.
So it’s natural to feel a little lost at first. We all did at the start. I tell my beginning students that it’s enough to just be in the room—listening, watching, trying, and absorbing whatever they can. I tell them that with time (if they keep coming back), their level of understanding of the poses, the instructions, and their own bodies will grow. Not to stress too much about getting everything that happens in a class, and that whatever they absorb is exactly what they’re meant to receive in that particular practice.
That being said, we yoga teachers can often fall back into yoga jargon and forget to explain what we mean. Let’s explore three common and related directives that can be somewhat confusing at first.
“Hug your... ankles/shins/hands/forearms/you-name-it... in.”
“Hug in” is a popular directive among yoga teachers and across yoga styles, but it can be slightly confusing. And rightfully so. The word hug means to clasp tightly in the arms or to embrace. However, the teacher isn’t asking you to wrap your arms around your legs when she says to “hug your thighs in.” So what is she asking you to do?
Teachers often use “hug” as a verb to imply a light squeeze, firming, or muscle engagement, as in “hug your leg muscles to the bone.” We use “hug in” to denote a pulling in or drawing two things toward each other. For example, the instruction to “hug your shins in” (in any number of poses) means to resist your shins toward each other—creating an isometric engagement through your legs, but not actually bringing your feet or shins together.
What you’re actually hugging in toward is the midline of the body. Used in many common yoga directives, the midline is the center line or core line of your body. Standing in tadasana (mountain pose), with your feet hip distance apart, imagine a line down the center of your body that extends directly above the crown of your head to your tailbone, and from your tailbone down into the floor. Now, isometrically draw your feet, ankles, shins, and inner thighs toward the midline. In other words, hug your feet, ankles, shins, and inner thighs in.
As the poses change shape, the midline of your body stays the same. Imagine a line down the center of your mat (dividing it into right and left halves), with a second crosswise line bisecting the mat from front to back (with the two lines making a cross at the center of the mat). In downward facing dog pose, for example, your hands and feet are on either side of the center line that runs lengthwise. When the teacher asks you to hug your hands (shins, ankles, outer arms, etc.) in or toward the midline, you simply press your hands toward the long center line of your mat. In a pose like warrior II, on the other hand, pulling your legs toward one another (front to back, toward the crosswise line) would be considered hugging the midline.
When the teacher asks you to “scissor your legs toward each other” (in a high lunge, for example), she’s essentially asking you to hug in toward the midline. “Scissoring” (aside from cutting with an actual pair of scissors) means to move your legs back and forth in an action resembling scissors. The instruction to “scissor your legs” in asymmetrical poses such as lunge or warrior I variations implies that you strongly pull your front and back legs toward each other without moving your feet, creating an isometric scissoring action. As you draw or pull your limbs toward each other, you should feel your muscles engage. “Hug in,” “Hug the midline,” and “Scissor your legs,” are all ways of saying basically the same thing.
There’s good reason these instructions are offered regularly throughout class, as they help you to create more stability. Stability helps us feel safe and wobble-free in the poses. Once you’ve established a solid, stable foundation, you can begin to explore a little more freedom—such as lengthening and lifting the spine, extending out through the limbs, releasing unnecessary tension, and experiencing deeper openings in the body. Too much freedom, however, and you lose stability. Essentially there needs to be a balance between stability and freedom.
So next time you’re in class, listen for the words “hug,” “midline,” and “scissor.” And see if you can feel yourself edging toward the stability and freedom they’re offering.