The one yoga cue you could lay to rest and where to bury it
I know firsthand how terrifying it is to have a fellow teacher show up to your class and that’s why I always try to drop into a yoga studio anonymously. I take public yoga classes, not to judge or criticize the teacher, but to actually take a class for the love of the practice. When the teacher “knows who I am” that opportunity gets lost.
At the same time, I can’t ever fully abandon my role as an educator. I’m always developing my skill and furthering my own craft of teaching yoga teachers.
So, when I dropped into a class anonymously during my book writing days while living in San Francisco, I had a profound learning moment because of one single statement the teacher made.
Let me explain. We had an amazing 75-minute yoga class on a Sunday afternoon. We were in the final moments of class, in a supine twist, clearly on the way to a much-anticipated savasana.
After a few moments of welcomed silence, she suddenly uttered the words “unwind your fascia.”
I was completely taken out of the moment and started to wonder what exactly that meant. Did wound-up fascia hurt? Was it interfering with my practice? I also wondered if the average student knew what fascia was and if they now thought it needed unwinding and what they were doing in life to get it wound up.
I wondered how the experience would have been different had that statement simply been omitted. It became a teaching moment for me. Not to shame the teacher, but to get more specific about how I teach yoga teachers.
The class was lovely, by the way, and I would attend her class again any day. I am actually grateful for the learning opportunity that might have been derailed if she was nervous about me being in class.
Have you also noticed that unnecessary yoga cues are extremely common?
You, yourself, might be identifying a few of your own, just by reading this story. You’re not guilty of anything and it’s not a “bad” thing. You do it because you care.
You want to give your students the best experience, so your instincts tell you to give them more instruction. You may think it expresses your education, your trustworthiness, and your skill.
But what if you could portray those qualities by saying less? Is it more skillful to dictate every step your students take? Or is it to empower them to connect with, explore, and understand their own bodies.
Consider this: It’s not your job to make the pose perfect for every person. Your job is to help the person perfect the pose for them.
Give fewer yoga cues. Ask more questions.
- When you teach downward dog, do you always tell them exactly where to place their hands and feet (i.e. shoulder and hip-width apart)? If you were in my teacher training, I might suggest your cues lead them to discover how pushing through the hands corresponds to a reach through the legs. To support this discovery, I would use language that instills curiosity in this basic developmental pattern (e.g. as a child you push through the feet and reach through the head to learn to stand).
- When was the last time you said, “heel to arch alignment” in a standing pose like Warrior 2? I haven’t said it in over a decade, ever since I saw a student light up when I gave her the freedom to adjust her foot position. I knew she would take that lesson into all her future classes and life in general. If you were in my teacher training, we would dive deep into ground reaction forces (see page 19 in Chapter One of my book) in various foot positions.
- Next time you get the urge to say, “pull your navel to your spine,” say nothing. If you were in my teacher training, I would show you how this cue interferes with normal breathing mechanics and actually gets in the way of an uddiyana bandha practice.
To be clear, I’m not suggesting that alignment cues are inherently useless. In an environment, however, where you don’t know your students’ history well and you can’t get direct feedback, such as a group class, it’s possible that “proper form” or “correct alignment” cues might actually get in the students’ way.
Of course, beginners need to know some basics about the pose. Of course, you teach specifics about the pose to guide them along.
But what if the correcting part was replaced with curiosity? Could you instead engage your students with interesting experiences to notice? Are you able to see the connection between all of this and the sentiment from my last email about yoga not needing fixing or improving upon?
I’ll give a personal example. I was in a class once and what we were doing was tweaking my knee, so I slightly changed the rotation of my hip and added a small extra bend to my knee and it felt great. The teacher came over to correct me because I was doing it wrong. I told her it was bothering my knee. She asked me if I had knee problems. I said no, my knees are fine, but I didn’t want to develop knee problems (remember, pain is protective). After that she let me modify as I needed.
What I love about this experience is that we actually had a conversation. That doesn’t always happen in group classes, however. If you don’t have the opportunity to engage, it’s best to be curious about how someone is experiencing the pose instead of fixing it for them.
The first stage of our mission was getting acknowledging that nothing was missing from yoga in an effort to get people on the mat (have you shared your moment of transformation yet?). But we can’t just talk about how much we love yoga and expect things to change.
We also have to be better teachers. And being a better teacher sometimes means saying less.
Teacher training starts in June, but you can start the process now with one simple step. Think about one cue that you always say but are now wondering why you say it. Think about how your class will likely go on just fine if you remove that line from your repertoire. Resolve to just not say it anymore. Replace it with nothing.
I know it’s not easy to break habits. That’s why in my 300hr TT I really emphasize teaching more by saying less. It’s an advanced skill to acquire and it takes practice. My TT provides plenty of opportunities to work out exactly what you want to say so you can leave behind ambiguous statements and dubious claims. It doesn’t happen overnight but with the support from myself and the other teachers in the program your education, your trustworthiness, and your skill will be expressed.
The best part is that the process is organic in the collaborations and discussions I facilitate during the year. The transformation in your teaching happens through talking about yoga not “practice” teaching in front of your peers (which is terrifying – as we’ve already established in this email). I show you how to move away from a script and how to speak purposefully to your students about the poses. This is a skill I believe all the best teachers possess.
If you were in my 300hr yoga teacher training, I could check in and hold you accountable in our one-on-one calls. For now, you can enter the cue you’re sending to “The Cue Graveyard” here, and I’ll personally follow up with you in a week to see how it’s going.