Translating Confusing Asana Cues

cues in yoga class
Photo by AYM Yoga School India

Admit it, we’ve all enjoyed a good laugh now and then at yogaspeak or puzzled over cues like  “Bend with a straight spine,” or “Let your butt bones blossom.” But when cues seem confusing or contradictory, an asana class can start to feel like a game of Simon Says. Why is it so hard for us to find a common language?

For one thing, it isn’t easy to distill complex anatomical concepts, let alone modify them for diverse groups of people while keeping a class flowing. Yoga teachers search to find cues that are accurate, clear, concise and relatively universal without being overly technical or goofy.

Some of us prefer instruction that’s anatomical and technical, while other students appreciate poetic flair. Do you respond to spa-like soothing or coach-y encouragement? Humor? Scolding? Whether you’re a teacher or a student, you hear and say things according to your own experiences, preferences and training. An Iyengar-trained teacher (or student) will focus on different concepts and language than a Bikram-style pracitioner.

Regardless of the yoga-style you’re practicing, context matters when it comes to cueing—though it doesn’t guarantee accurate translation. My teacher likes to tell about a time she offered her students step-by-step guidance lengthening the spine from the bottom to the top. “Finally, create space in your cervical region,” she told them. When she scanned the room, one woman was circling and wiggling her hips. “Oh!” the student said when she realized her classmates were subtly stretching their necks. “I was trying to create space in my cervix!”

It’s important to remember that all yoga instructors have a common purpose, and that is to act as a guide. When a teacher’s language sounds foreign to you, remember that her primary goal is to help you to become more familiar with the landscape of your own body. With respect to different yoga traditions, here’s a translation of some common class cues:

“Keep your spine straight.” Usually, this means to keep the spine neutral—preserving the natural lumbar, thoracic and cervical curvature, without rounding or over-arching the back.

“Lock your knees.” Translate this (please!) to mean firming up the muscles surrounding the knee joint, and not thrusting the joint backward to hyperextend. For most of us, “locking” the knee overextends the joint and—on the level of energetic anatomy—blocks the flow of prana.

“Extend your [fill in the blank].” The word “extend” is often used as a synonym for “lengthen” or “reach.” Anatomically speaking, extension refers to a motion that increases the angle between body parts (straightening the leg, for example), and is the opposite of “flexion,” which decreases the angle (as in bending the knee). It’s easy to grasp—unless you’re talking about raising (“extending) the arms overhead as in Utkatasana (Chair Pose), Virabhadrasana I (Warrior I) or other poses, as this is technically flexion of the shoulder.

“Tuck your pelvis.” Has there ever been a cue as confusing as this one? In most asana traditions, tucking the pelvis means taking the pubic bones forward, flattening the lumbar curve to allow greater hip extension or to protect the spine from over-arching. To an instructor trained this way, “tilting” or “tipping” the pelvis means the opposite (of “tucking”). Be careful when you’re told to “tuck your pelvis,” as some teaching traditions swap the term “tilt” for “tuck,” and many instructors see “tucking” as counterproductive in all but a few poses. Until a tilt/tuck moratorium is called, feel this one out for yourself or better yet, keep the lumbar spine neutral.

This leads me to an important question: Is it okay for students to ignore an instructor’s cue? If so, when? How have you handled similar situations?

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