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Yoga Cues Yoga Teachers May Want to Rethink

A yoga teacher helps her yoga student by giving her helpful yoga cues.

Finding your voice as a yoga teacher is a struggle no matter how long you have been teaching.

If you are just starting your teacher journey you may find that you stumble over your words, or are unsure of what to say, or most likely you just sound a lot like the teacher that taught you.

However, on the other side of teaching, if you have been teaching for years you may find that you are running out of fresh ideas for cues, or have been relying on the same language and descriptions for your classes for a while.

Regardless of how long you have been teaching, using authentic words and cues in your teaching can be a struggle, and it is important that we give thought to the ones we use in class. 

Cues are the way we describe yoga poses and articulate how a student should experience yoga in their body.

A great cue can bring a student to a deeper understanding of a pose, help them find their expression of the pose, and honor their body's unique anatomy but a bad cue can leave students scratching their head or worst case, being downright offended.

Language has so much power and it is essential that we are finding our voices as yoga teachers and being thoughtful with the words we use in class.

Here are a few common yoga cues you may want to rethink, and a couple of tips for creating new ones.

Yoga Cues You Might Want to Reconsider 

Square Your hips 

This is a really common cue, and I want to say first off it isn’t bad. However, it can be confusing. 

For many students the idea of squaring off the hips doesn't mean much, and finding a way to articulate how to bring the pelvis to a neutral position without using square hips can be extremely helpful.

Think about what you actually want your students to do to their hips and pelvis instead of just “square” them.

Do you want your students to bring one hip forward?

Level the hips out?

Take a small step forward so both sides of the pelvis are running parallel to each other?

Get creative here, and describe what you actually want your students to do in their body besides “square” their hips. 

Try this instead:

  • Imagine you have flight lights on your hips. Turn both lights towards the top of the mat
  • Adjust your stance until both side of your pelvis are running parallel to each other
  • Gently guide your back hip forward until yours hips are aligned and neutral- like when you are standing in mountain pose

Bring Your Biceps in Line With Your Ears

For many people, the idea of bringing biceps and ears in alignment isn’t possible.

It requires a lot of shoulder mobility that may not be possible, or only possible by forcing the shoulders into a position that is unsafe or uncomfortable for their body.

Bringing the biceps in line with the ears will often activate the traps and force the shoulder blades up, causing unnecessary tension on the neck and shoulders.

Encourage your students to focus on the part of the body that needs to soften, or create space instead of bringing the ears and biceps towards one another.

For example, instead of telling your students to raise their arms up inline with their ears, tell your students to extend their fingertips towards the sky, and draw the shoulder blade down the back until they find a comfortable length in the arms. 

Try this instead:

  • Allow your arms to to extend up until you feel the shoulder blades begin to rise, then you know you have found your full extension
  • Extend your arms towards the sky, and guide your shoulders down your back and create space between the ears and shoulders
  • As you reach overhead, imagine you are holding a beach ball. Hold it firmly enough to not drop it, but don’t pop it. 

Pull Your Navel in or Belly to Spine

Similarly to square your hips, pull your navel to your spine doesn't fully explain what you want your students to do.

What we are doing here is encouraging our students to engage all levels of the core and create strength and stability in the trunk, not just suck their stomachs in.

Encourage students to engage with the muscles of the core and explore strength.

Try this instead:

  • Knit the ribs together to activate the core
  • Zip your abs together to activate strength in your core
  • Stabilize your core by drawing your navel and obliques together at the midpoint of the body
A yogi instructs her class with helpful, thoughtful cues.

If This Doesn't Work For You, Try…

We never want our students to feel pressure to move to a more challenging expression of the pose if they aren’t ready or comfortable.

Instead of saying things like “if you can’t reach the floor, get a block for an easier option or modification” try having all your students start with a block, and then say “if you’re body is asking for more length in the hamstrings set the block to the side and see if that feels right.” 

Cueing from the bottom up (most accessible option to more challenging option), and layering on more difficult options is a way of giving people permission to start with the modification, and then opt in or out or a different variation instead of starting with the full expression.

Try this instead:

  • Ask your body what would feel good here, and then honor that
  • Props are useful tools for your body, not a way of “cheating” 
  • Find your expression of the pose, not comparing to what you see around you

Push, Pull, Drive, Squeeze

Swap forceful words like push and pull with words like guide, encourage, melt and draw.

For example, instead of push your heals down towards the mat in downdog, tell your students to feel their heels naturally melt down towards the earth.

We never want our students to feel like they are pushing, forcing, or having to put an unreasonable amount of pressure on their bodies to reach an expression of a pose.

Try this instead:

  • Swap push with guide or soften
  • Swap pull with lengthen or engage
  • Swap drive with melt or ground

Remember, all of these cues and suggestions are merely that. Suggestions.

You know your students best, and you know what resonates with them and how to help your students find their edge while they explore in class.

The most important thing is that you are using language that encourages students to explore, be safe, and cultivate an inclusive and loving environment for your students

Kelly Smith
Kelly is the founder of Yoga For You, and the host of the Mindful in Minutes podcast. She is an E-RYT 500, YACEP, and a location independent yoga and meditation teacher. She spends her days traveling globally offering trainings in restorative yoga, meditation, yoga nidra, writing blogs for beYogi, and recording meditations from her closet.