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When Verbal Cues Go Wrong

Updated: Mar 5

Hi everyone! I had a discussion with a student not too long ago about verbal cues that I feel might be valuable to share. This particular student was practicing chaturanga with his elbows squeezed into the body so much that his arms (the pillars) were very crooked, which caused a lot of form and safety issues. He had uneven weight distribution throughout his hands, which compromised his wrist, closing in the space around his neck and creating a lot of unnecessarily tension. This misalignment not only caused a kinetic traffic jam but it also made the position heavy and harder to hold. When we discussed what he was going for with that action he said he was running with the cue to squeeze the elbows in. By the way, this can be a really great cue in this pose depending on the circumstances. I believe that this was an appropriate cue for him at one time and it no longer serves him.  

Running our practice off of old cues can be dangerous and narrow. This is something we all do for many different reasons, myself included. Sometimes we get a really helpful cue and we apply it for years, and years, and years, even though we’ve outgrown the cue. When we get carried away, one of the things that can happen is that we end up past "neutral" and over-correct in the other direction. This will more than likely have negative consequences. We change, and our changing practice reflects that. When we don’t change our approach to the practice it is not uncommon to experience pain and/or stagnation. This is a form of grasping (parigraha). We are holding onto something, usually unknowingly, that might not serve us anymore. Without change the practice will become narrow with no opportunity for exploration. Exploration is how the practice evolves. It’s where we experience our true selves on a deeper level. 

For those of you who enjoy practicing in a group setting or to videos I caution that one cue doesn’t fit all. In fact, sometimes it doesn’t fit most. I’ve been in group classes where I heard cues like “rotate your thighs inward” handed out that applied to literally NO ONE. I got the impression that it was a cue that benefited the instructor so they, with the best of intentions, shared it. But unfortunately it was to the wrong audience. I’ve also heard cues that are flat out dangerous such as “relax your glutes in bridge pose”. What!?! Please engage your glutes when you arch backwards!! Maybe not 100% engagement of all the glutes, possibly only 20% depending on the person (more on this below). Running through our practice off of old cues, or broad cues in a group or video setting, can be very problematic.


In closing, I’d like to leave you with a few cues and biologically incorrect statements that I’ve heard over the years that I find cringe-worthy.

 1. Inversions bathe your brain in fresh blood.

Nope, we have built in mechanisms to regulate blood flow. If your brain is bathed in blood, call an ambulance. There are a lot of benefits to inverting but this is not one of them. This would be a medical emergency and doesn’t happen by inverting.

2. Twisting wrings toxins into the abdominal cavity.

Nope, this would be another medical emergency. Twisting does wring the organs out but in a way that won’t kill you. It ushers the material along to the next step in the process.

 3. Tuck the tailbone under in chair pose. 

The low back has an arch. It has one in utkatasana as well. Unless you are correcting an anterior tilt we don’t want to tuck the tailbone under in this pose. Even if we are correcting an anterior tilt we’re working the pelvis to neutral not a posterior tilt. Keep the natural curve in the low back.

4. Bring your back foot parallel to the back of the mat. 

This won’t apply to someone with tight inner thighs. A parallel position of the back foot will compromise the position of the front leg. The entire foundation will be compromised because the adductor muscles will be playing tug of war with the pelvis (with the back leg side of the pelvis winning). The upper half of this asana will be just as compromised. Turn the back foot in enough to free the front leg into alignment and work from there.

5. Rotate your thighs inward. 

This can be a really great cue for the right person. But for the wrong person it can cause pronation of the foot, knee pain and a whole host of other problems along this kinetic chain. A lot of people have knees that point more inward. Especially once the feet are turned straight forward on a person who walks with their feet turned out to the sides. This type of anatomy usually needs the cue to rotate the thighs outward to bring the legs to neutral.

6. And as mentioned above- Relax your glutes in bridge pose.

Not unless you want to hurt your low back either immediately or over time. Glutes are big, supportive muscles. You need them active to safely execute any pose where the spine is in an extension. There are 3 gluteal muscles plus many other supportive muscles. Saying relax your glutes is a very broad cue in my opinion. And if we were to relax all of them we wouldn't have the support to safely extend the spine. That all being said there are plenty of reasons to relax various gluteal muscles for various reasons depending on the anatomical situation of the person. Sometimes people who experience low back pain need to relax gluteus maximus because it's a big muscle that when engaged can close of space between the pelvis and spine. It can also cause the legs to externally rotate, (as does medius and minimus). This can cause a traffic jam in the low back. BUT it's also a big muscle that facilitates spinal extension. So when it comes to hearing gluteal cues, it tends to be more complicated than just simply "relax your glutes".

There is one cue that applies to everyone all the time and that cue is to breathe.

Keep breathing, yogi’s!


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