'Relax your glutes'.
'Tuck your tailbone'.
'Square your hips'.
'Roll your shoulder blades down your back'.
'Squeeze your elbows into your ribs'.
The shock waves of the #metoo movement are still being felt throughout the world and in the yoga community. Stories of sexual abuse by leading yoga teachers are the most shocking, but there are subtler changes happening as inappropriate structures continue to collapse, including how we practice yoga postures.
We must build these from the ground up, to be stronger.
This includes inappropriate cues for yoga postures.
This offers a great opportunity to uproot outworn cues and practices.
Are you beginning to feel like modern yoga is a bit like nutritional advice?
That's because nutritional advice and yoga practice is unique to each individual, and when an approach is systematized it suits only certain individuals.
When we find something that works for our bodies, or a diet that works for us, we may shout it from the rooftops and claim it to be the best one for everybody.
When I first trained as a yoga instructor, I was given certain cues to teach others. I no longer use all of them.
Yoga systems are taught, not for the benefit of the students, but for the benefit of the yoga school. It's easier to simply give a group the same instruction. Systems can be taught to individuals, of course, adapted to their specific needs.
We are seeing more and more competent yoga teachers use a system of yoga or sequence; tailoring it for individuals' needs.
However, there are certain cues that must to reexamined - some which just need to be dropped completely.
Here is a list of cues I no longer use:
'Relax your glutes'
This was the first cue I dropped when I stepped outside of the traditional norms and cues taught by most yoga schools.
I followed this instruction for years and, like anyone else who does this, developed a weak and important part of core strength: the glutes.
Yes, of course there is a tendency to rely too much on the glutes in certain yoga postures, which naturally externally rotates the thighs, but a balanced approach is not cuing this to find that balance.
Instead, a balanced approach would be to cue 'engage the glutes' while engaging other muscles such as the inner thighs, for example, to come to a neutral position in bridge pose.
'Tuck your tailbone'
Tucking the tailbone may suit some with hyperlordosis, but even then the cue can lead to poor movement mechanics, by overcompensating. Better to cue a movement for such an individual with something like, 'lengthen your tailbone'.
For those who are already posterior tilted, any 'tucking' will only lead to even more problems.
There are very few people with a neutral pelvis, i.e., a pelvis that is not naturally posterior or anterior tilted. I've noticed over the years that pitta (fire) type individuals (mesomorphs) are more likely to have a neutral pelvis.
However, this cue is just inappropriate for anyone, no matter what is going on with the pelvis.
'Square your hips'
It has now become obvious that this cue needs to be dropped, when we consider how the pelvis, hips and knees are affected by this instruction when turning the legs out.
Take any wide-legged posture, externally rotating the front foot, while the other leg is at, or close to, a 90 degree angle.
Squaring your hips to the long side of the mat is a typical cue. This doesn't work for any body because it places too much torque on the hips and pelvis.
A better cue would be to 'open your groins', without forcing the pelvis to square the hips, either to the front of the mat, as in warrior 1, or to the long side of the mat, as in warrior 2.
This change in cuing will impact a lot of yoga postures, including twists. Although the form of the posture may look the same from the outside, the difference it makes is huge.
This will be especially apparent to those with sacroiliac joint issues, but really to anyone that has practiced traditional yoga postures for any length of time.
'Roll your shoulder blades down your back'
This is another cue that could do with being ditched.
This is because of what it makes most people do when instructed this way. Most people are going to create more tension while trying to pull the shoulder blades down their back, especially when already holding a posture under tension.
A better cue is 'relax your neck and shoulders', before entering a posture by 'externally rotating your arms before you lift them'.
External rotation of the arms will naturally roll your shoulder blades down your back.
Which brings me to the last one of the list, but one of the first I ditched myself in my own practice...
'Squeeze your elbows into your ribs'
I dropped this one a long time ago, but a lot of yoga teachers still use it.
When instructing someone from plank to bent elbows, (chaturanga) the cue to 'squeeze your elbows to your ribs' needs to go.
When you do this, it naturally internally rotates your humerus, rolling your shoulders forward as you hold the posture.
What does that look and feel like? Rounded and tight shoulders!
Fix the shoulders first, just as you would when taking them over head as you externally rotate the arms, and let the elbows do what they want to do, which will not be squeezing them to your ribs.
A brighter light casts a darker shadow.
Abuse happens all too easily in a practice that often attracts vulnerable people -both as students and as teachers. When a teacher’s presence, or system, override your own sense of freedom in your own body, you lose something to suit the teacher's need to be in control.
You fall in line and do what you are told; what you think you should be doing, or what you are often literally pushed into.
I’m lucky I never experienced that many physical injuries in yoga classes over the years; just the usual knee problems, after being badly adjusted. But that's just the physical mistreatment and misalignment. It goes way beyond the physical.
Yoga can be a dogmatic movement system. As most of us are brought up to respect our elders and to navigate the often thin line between being disciplined by a parent, or being abused, we come to yoga classes not always sure of where that boundary lies.
Oh yes, there is freedom when a discipline is observed, but you may have to pay for it with your individual needs, in the moment. Just do the postures the way the teacher tells you to, despite what you know to be right for you.
Powerful practices naturally attract an abuse of such power. There are the sly remarks, the subtle put downs, the ‘ah you’ll get it next time’ type of thing that is all too common. I'm sure I unintentionally participated in this as a teacher too; passing on a tradition of abuse, masquerading as a spiritual discipline.
The bright lights of yoga hide some very dark corners indeed.
I am doing my bit in shining a light on those dark corners.
Beginners (modified) to Intermediate and Advanced
Equipment: yoga mat, two foam blocks and a belt
One set of 10-15 reps (depending on constitution) on each, except on squats = 3x10-15
Warm up 10 mins
Supine leg raises (with belt). Knees to chest. Cat and cow poses.
Standing: Neck stretches, head rolls, shoulders rolls, wrist rolls, spinal twists, hip rolls, knee and ankle rolls and spinal waves. Standing hip openers, rear lunges and knee raises, curtsy pose (calf raises) and side lunges. Tree Pose.
Main Phase 30 mins
Squats 3x10-15 into Squat Posture (with Block)
Chair pose onto balls of feet and into forward bend
lunges into warrior 1 & 2 into side-stretch & triangle - reverse postures + half Moon
into wide-legged forward bend
Sumo squats into side lunges into Sarpasana - deep side-lunges
Into calf raises (modified) into wide-legged forward bend
Romanian dead lifts into warrior 3 - dancer pose
Push ups and plank – core exercises – Leg /opposite arm extension -hip extension
half Sun salutations (modified) - peacock
Dips (table tops) into Vaisistasana into forward bends – janu sirsasana
Seated twist – marichayasana
Leg raises into boat pose into cobblers pose
Bicycles - side crunches
Supine twists – iron crosses with legs straight (knees bent) into side plank
Back extensions into up dog (cobra) and supermans
Back bends – (hip extensions) - pigeon (box pigeon)
Bow pose prep. into Camel – Bow – raising hips into little bridge - wheel
Cool Down 10 mins
Knees to chest – legs and arms raised (two blocks)- shoulderstand
Corpse pose or viparita karani (legs on the wall) with two blocks or bolster for hips