Cues to Retire: Yoga Teaching Skills, Strategies and Philosophy

Listen in or read my intro notes from a recent group yoga coaching session for yoga teachers where we explore cues and alignment ideas to consider retiring

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Cues to Retire – Intro Notes May 25, 2022

Today we are going to talk a bit about cues and alignment ideas that we might consider retiring or reframing.

I want to start by saying that I have said some wild things in my yoga classes. I will most certainly say more silly, incorrect, or inaccessible cues or alignments again – I’m a work in progress.

Why does it matter to reconsider these cues?  If we want to hold safe, inclusive, affirming spaces, if we want our classes to be trauma sensitive, welcoming to all, and provide evidence-based yoga, we can start by rethinking some of the cues that have been passed down to us by our teachers.

I remember being in the midst of a really enthusiastic time of learning where I was taking notes in every class I attended, writing down sequences I liked, cool pose versions, and cues that sounded so intriguing and sophisticated.  Some of those cues still work for me, but many have had to be retired because:

  • they weren’t landing with my students, or they weren’t useful
  • they were based on bio-medical-miracle claims
  • they perpetuated harmful ideas about body types, structures, abilities, risk, detoxing etc.
  • they didn’t represent who I am as a teacher and what kind of space I want to hold

Alignment Rules

Back in the days of alignment-oriented yoga, teachers were insisting on everyone’s bodies making the same shape.  We were pushing and pulling our students into these alignments, and with what result?

On the positive, alignment rules give us boundaries, give us something to work towards, and give us that very attractive idea of there being a ‘right’ way to do something.

On the negative, alignment rules insist on all bodies being designed the same, which we know they aren’t, all bodies being able to create the same shape, which we know they can’t, and furthering the idea that there is some global notion of ‘right alignment’

And, adding to this issue is that every lineage has their own idea of what is right alignment – they all insist they their yoga is the true lineage, their alignment is the true alignment.

Is any of that true?

In modern postural yoga, so many of our ideas about alignment come from just a few sources, one of which is BKS Iyengar, who, by all accounts did not have a great grasp of anatomy, physiology, or biomechanics, and (again, based on many reports) would often make things up on the spot.

The result of charismatic and influential teachers like Iyengar is that we have this global dogma around things like – twists will detox your organs, Shoulderstand will heal your thyroid, inversions increase your brain function, you should relax your glutes in backbends, Ujjayi breath heats your body, you have to ‘break your knees’ to get into Lotus, and just so much ‘you must do this posture in this way for this many breaths’.

Think about all the ways you’ve been taught a pose like Triangle – what’s the right alignment?

  • Hips square to the long edge of the mat but also hip-knee-2nd toe alignment.
  • Keep both sides of the waist long, but also it’s a side bend.
  • Long line from top hand through bottom hand, but also it’s a chest opener.
  • Back flat like you are up against a wall, but also it’s a spinal rotation pose.

None of those pairs of cues can be completed together.

Yoga Alignment, Safety Alignment

I think that one thing that has helped me in examining my own cues is to think about the difference between yoga alignment and safety alignment.  Some alignments are to do with general safety – keeping in mind that there’s not really any hard and fast rules about what is or isn’t safe – and some alignments are to do with yoga aesthetics – what we like to, or are used to seeing, in yoga.

Never let your knee go beyond your toe in lunges (try to walk up the stairs or get the pot at the back of that weird corner cupboard without it)

Correct Posture

What I’ve been learning is that the idea that ‘correct posture’ was this puffed chest, shoulders down, rigid stance – which may come from the sense that posture should look strong, unyielding, and militaristic – at the time of the rise of postural yoga in India from the 30’s, when Iyengar and Ashtanga were being developed, was a time of post-colonial reclamation of both country and body.  Movements used in bodybuilding and military calisthenics and other physical culture practices were then brought under the umbrella of yoga. Practiced with rigid alignment, in militaristic rows of students all moving and breathing together, with an overriding theme of strength and order.  These are some of the origins of our ideas of alignment, and how some of our cues came to be.

We’ll have to have another talk about the history of posture and how we got our idealized notion of good posture – which has roots in racism, agism, classism, and ableism.

What is Helpful?

Things like ‘shoulders down’, and aesthetic ideal of proud, strong posture, that can be useful if your shoulders are riding around your ears, but inconsistent with our body’s needs particularly in shoulder flexion, where our scapula need to raise and rotate to allow our shoulders to come into flexion.  Holding our shoulders down is not great for our shoulders or our breathing. Try it. Take your arm overhead and just let your scapula do what it likes.  Then, ‘slide your shoulder blades into your back pockets’ as the common cue goes and take your arm overhead.  What’s the difference?

If yoga is a method for self-realization, how can I learn about myself if I don’t inquire about what my body needs, what alignment works for me, what intensity or version of a pose my body needs today.

Yoga as an imposition on the body is one way of practicing – we do learn from these types of challenges, from boundaries and control.  But, if yoga is to truly be a practice of self-knowledge, at some point we, and our students, need to have an invitational space to get to know ourselves, to not just talk at the body, but listen as well.

  • Who are the cues for? The students.
  • Are your cues landing? If not, change cues.
  • When your audience changes, your cues might have to change. When I moved to Australia from Canada I had to stop cuing ‘point your shoulders and hips like headlights – because Australian’s are far too funny to handle that.
  • When students tell you a cue is triggering or not helpful, find a different cue. I remember a student telling me a cue wasn’t working for her, and I kind of defended my cue because I liked it. Well, my cuing isn’t for me, it’s for my students. If my cues aren’t working for my students, I need to find a new cue.

How can our cues be adapted to meet all students?

  • X, Y, Z corrections
  • Invitational cuing
  • Offering alignment ideas, letting students explore
  • Speaking to the difference between yoga alignment and safety alignment

Here are some cues and ideas I’ve been retiring, or using the XYZ system instead:

  • Shoulders down (if your shoulders are up around your ears, let them soften back to neutral)
  • Don’t let your knee travel beyond your toes (if your knees are sensitive here, bring some weight back into your heel)
  • Tuck your tailbone (if your bottom tends to poke out, or there is tension in your lower back, try activating your glutes and finding less curve in your lower back
  • Relax your glutes in backbends
  • Triangle pose between 2 panes of glass – these days I’ve been exploring talking about the hips being ‘relatively’ square to the long edge of the mat and prioritizing the hip-knee-2nd toe alignment rather than the hips being perfectly square.
  • Breathe into your… (like toes) instead I like to use now imagine breathing into your toes. I have had students tell me that’s the kind of cue that makes them switch off – they brains start running with – well you can’t breathe into your toes that’s silly; yoga is silly.

Cues I recommend retiring

  • Anything to do with cleansing, purifying, detoxing
  • Your sweat is your fat crying
  • Pain is weakness leaving your body
  • Burning off holiday meals
  • This pose does this (bio-medical-miracle). No one pose has curative properties for internal organs, healing, mental health, etc.  The idea that a pose is good for depression or anxiety, or even back pain, is reductive and not at all based in any evidence.
  • Cues that overstate injury risk (nocebo effect) We can provide safety guidance without frightening students with scary sounding risks. ‘If you do this pose this way, you’ll injure your…’
  • Too much hollowing the belly, abdominal engagement – explore allowing your body to use the abdominal engagement it needs in the moment rather than insisting on 100% core engagement all the time. Can your abs and pelvic floor be too active?  Yes!
  • Insistence on anything, but especially breathwork or breathing in a particular way (Ujjayi)

Cues and Ideas to Increase:

  • Invitational cuing – how do you choose to practice this pose, how does it feel in your body
  • Value all forms of a movement – letting go of ideas that there is ‘the full expression of the pose’ and speak to versions, variations, bus stops
  • If you want more – challenge, ease, strengthening, balance, stretch etc.
  • Inquiry-based theming, sequencing, alignment. What feels better for you – here are a few options
  • XYZ- if your X is Y, try Z. If your shoulders are rising around your ears, try softening them back to neutral.
  • Why is this the alignment? Educate,
  • Space – offer essential cues and then give students space to explore. Especially in styles like Vinyasa Flow you can end up feeling like you’ve been shouting at your students the whole class.  Find space, let students have an experience in a pose before our voices march them on to the next thing.

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