Disclaimer: I am not a doctor. The advice I give in my blog posts should in no way take the place of a doctor's expert opinion. I am a yoga and movement educator that loves studying the human body. Take everything I say with a grain of salt and form your own conclusions from your personal experience. Thank you!- Lauren
There are common phrases used in the yoga teaching community that are often learned in teacher trainings or overheard in classes. It could be filler words like, “let go,” “breathe,” or generic cuing that asks different bodies to do the same thing. Communicating in this way makes it easy to flip on the autopilot switch, eventually losing the connection to each student in the room.
The comfort of repetition is hard to slip out of (I am guilty of this) but the responsibility of instructing people to move their bodies in a safe way should be the motivation to change the message you are sending. Ask yourself, “Why am I teaching this pose? How will my student’s benefit from the cues I give? Why are some cues and poses right or some not so right for certain bodies?” Studying the human body in relationship to yoga is the first step in discovering new ways to deliver a safe, unique, and powerful class.
Slide shoulder blades down your back! This cue is used a lot in yoga when the shoulders are in full flexion. For example, poses such as urdhva hastasana (upward salute), warrior 1, high or low lunge, tree, and chair pose.
The scapula (shoulder blade) moves through abduction (protraction), adduction (retraction), elevation, depression, posterior and anterior tilting, and upward rotation. When the arms are raised in full flexion of the shoulder, the scapula moves in upward rotation, tilts posteriorly at its end range, and externally rotates. Asking the shoulder blades to slide down the back (or jamming shoulders down) once shoulders are in full flexion can cause stress to the levator scapula, upper trapezius and interrupts the natural movement of the shoulder area.
Tuck your tailbone! Overused in postures such as warrior 2, high lunge, and chair pose.
Most people carry their bodies in misalignment due to everyday activities and habits. It could be a sway back, (excessive lordosis in the lumbar area) or they have a posterior tilt of the pelvis that can lead to hips pushing forward past their waistline. Asking people to tuck their tailbone who are already doing so naturally is only overemphasizing their postural habits and misalignment.
The pelvis is most healthy when it is neutral to the floor, with the pubic bone and coccyx in equal distance to the ground. When the pelvis is asked to tuck or posteriorly tilt, the low back muscles are overstretched and the lumbar spine is pulled flat. The muscles of the body have to overcompensate for this constant misalignment.
The psoas, for example, is a deep core muscle that stabilizes the spine, affecting posture and overall well-being. It originates at the 12th thoracic vertebrae towards the lumbar spine and through the pelvis, connecting to the lesser trochanter of the femur bone. For some people, consistently tucking the tailbone can shorten the psoas muscles in the front of the body, compromising the lower back and eventually causing hip and back pain overtime.
Square hips to the wall in warrior 2! Sometimes people newer to the practice confuse warrior 1 and warrior 2. This cue is used sometimes to give them an understanding of where their body should be in space. However, one of the issues when repeating, “square hips to the wall in warrior 2,” is what’s happening in the front hip. When a student is asked to maintain the alignment of the front knee and move the pelvis square to the wall, the front femur and hip bones start to compress. Forcing this alignment can overstretch and break down the soft tissue, ligaments, and tendons in that front hip, eventually causing bone on bone contact. Avoid using too much pelvis talk in warrior 2 to maintain the safety of the students in class.
Draw your shin parallel in half pigeon! The hip joint is only capable of a certain amount of external rotation. In half pigeon, the front hip is in flexion and the femur bone is in external rotation. Once the hip has hit its end range, the knee takes over for that rotation and starts to twist on its own. Unfortunately, the knee joint is only made to flex and extend and any forced rotation in the knee can create damage over time. Adding the weight of the upper body sitting or laying on this joint puts more pressure on the knee as well. When the instructor asks you to draw your shin parallel to the front of the mat, this can overstretch or eventually tear the lateral collateral ligament of the knee. Some practitioners can do this posture easily, while other’s push to make it happen. Keep in mind the abilities of ALL students in the room when giving cues in class.
Spread fingers really wide/energy through fingertips! This is common in down dog, plank postures, arm balances and any posture with hands up in the air. Overstretching and exaggerating movements in the body can cause stress over time. The same goes for the hands as they are directly connected to the shoulders. It is important to spread the fingers evenly in postures if the hands are crunched together. However, once the hands are spread and the student hears, “Spread your fingers WIDE,” they think, “WIDER,” and the natural placement of the hands becomes misaligned. Watch how far the pinky spreads in comparison to the other fingers, especially when putting weight on the hands. When the pinky is abducted out to the side it puts the fingers in an unnatural placement that could ultimately lead to wrist, elbow, and shoulder pain.
Listen to your body. This is the yoga teacher’s anthem on repeat. Think of creative ways to ask your students to go within without sounding like a broken record.
A yoga instructor’s words have a lasting impact on the student’s who hear them. Discovering new ways of cuing or using descriptive action words while instructing students will keep the material fresh. These cues aren’t the worst thing in the world to say, it’s just another way of looking at what you’re saying and why you’re saying it. When a yoga teacher is informed with new information, the class will feel inspired and motivated in their practice.
Resource: Trail Guide to the Body, Revised 5th Edition by Andrew Biel