February 27, 2014

5 cues yoga teachers give (that are sometimes missed) ~ Jenn Pilotti

Jenn Pilotti

5 cues yoga teachers give (and why you should care)

During the first five years of my yoga path, I was fortunate to study with a few senior Ashtanga yoga teachers.

They shared certain characteristics: they were all passionate, and shared an uncanny genius when it comes to adjustments. During workshops, they all expressed concern about the same physical aspects of the practice, though how it was conveyed depended on the teacher. I spent these five years trying to figure out how they knew what they knew when it came to anatomy and physiology, and where I could get the same information. As a movement professional, it was obvious all of these diverse individuals were on to something; I just couldn’t quite figure out what it was.

Another six years has passed. This has given me more experience, a master’s in human movement, and hundreds of hours studying unusual movement philosophies that align nicely with what those senior teachers taught me.

If you can start to understand the anatomy of what the teacher is asking, it makes it easier to apply (instead of tuning out when said cue is being given). Yoga is a wonderful movement discipline because it allows the body to move with multiple things contracting, opening, and stabilizing in any given asana (pose). However, this also makes it challenging to know where to focus, especially when there are several cues being thrown at you at once. The more internally stable one can become, the more external freedom the body allows. Start with the deepest layers first, and eventually the superficial expression of the pose will come.

Below are five cues yoga teachers frequently give, what they mean, and why they are important.

  1. Breathe. This, of course, is the crux of most yoga practices. This does not mean breathe with your shoulders moving up on each inhale, or with the chest lifting and fully expanding each inhale. Conversely, a diaphragm breath is more than just the belly rising and falling. The breath should be full, spacious. It should provide a sense of stability all of the way down to the pelvis. When you inhale to rise up, you should like you are “riding the wave of your breath,” quite literally. The breath sends you up with little effort. Breathing in this way can’t be achieved unless…
  2. Hug your ribs in/pretend like there are suspenders pulling your ribs towards your pelvis, pull your ribs down in front, or any other cue you have heard regarding the ribs. For the diaphragm to work properly and provide you with the stabilization you need in your bandhas, your ribs cannot be flaring out. Or up. Or sit in this open manner that makes it look like you are an open canister. I always tell my students that this allows energy to leak out and makes things much less efficient (and as one that is inherently lazy, I love efficiency). Rib cage position is intricately related to pelvis position and if your teacher tells you to…
  3. Drop your tailbone down/tuck your pelvis (technically, two different things, but they are often interpreted the same way) and you do this without addressing rib cage position, you are going to end up cranking on your low back in an uncomfortable manner. In fact, if you focus on getting your ribs down when your teacher makes a reference to your pelvis (this is most easily done by exhaling, feel your ribs drop, and keeping them there on your inhale) you will start to find a more full breath and an increased stability/core awareness. This core awareness will be assisted with
  4. Spiral your thighs inward/internally rotate your femurs or any number of other cues that essentially amount to engaging the ischiocondylar adductors. Interestingly, many of us (myself included) have weak adductors. The ability to engage our groin muscles allows us to stabilize our pelvis and, in my experience, allows for better cueing of the transverse abdominis (uddiyana bandha) when extra stability is needed. However, there needs to be a co-contraction with the external rotators of the hip, which leads us to…
  5. Stabilize your front knee in warrior one or two/don’t let your knee to travel in/keep your knee pressing out towards your pinkie toe. This is all designed to keep the knee safe; the position of the knee is dictated by the muscles in the hip. You will find a gentle activation of the lateral hip when you are properly stabilizing the knee, but (and this part is tricky), you still need to engage the groin area to stabilize the pelvis and maintain proper rib cage/pelvic alignment.

While anatomy might seem intimidating, a general understanding of how your body works will make it much easier to do what is being asked you in your yoga practice, especially as you progress towards more difficult asanas.

Some great books for those looking to understand how the muscles work together are “Anatomy Trains,” by Thomas Meyers, any of Ray Long’s books on the anatomy of asana, and Eric Franklin’s book, “Dynamic Alignment through Imagery.”

It is worthwhile to note that in the absence of disease, anatomy and physiology are remarkably consistent. If you want sustainability in your yoga practice, a little bit of knowledge can go a long way.


Love elephant and want to go steady?

Sign up for our (curated) daily and weekly newsletters!

Editor: Waylon

Photo: author

Leave a Thoughtful Comment

Read 0 comments and reply

Top Contributors Latest

Jenn Pilotti