Way back in the way back when I started teaching yoga, we had no special mats, special pants, or universal cues.
Things have changed…
Yoga has evolved.
Whether you’re practicing asana in your undies in the kitchen or wearing the latest pants, whether you’ve got a high-end mat or an old towel matters not. Aside from the precariousness of extending your leg into a crock pot, these features of your practice are an expression of your personality and sometimes the logistics of where your home is uncarpeted.
When you migrate into the role of the teacher, it’s an incredible opportunity to listen to the words that come out of your mouth, as that is precisely what your students are doing. As someone who is paid to evaluate yoga teachers, I’m less concerned with repetition and verbal tics (these things filter out in time), and more concerned with cues you might be regurgitating that you’ve heard other teachers say – teachers you admire and adore – who may have heard it from their teachers in another context, and so on.
There are precious few cues that are appropriate for all bodies.
I have the great fortune of working with yoga teachers who cross pollinate their brains with other trainings, like massage, physical, and occupational therapy, and in conversations, I’m starting to hear the same things:
Modern yogis have back & hip pain, and not just those who have a previous injury or CrossFit on the side. Real pain, not soreness. Diagnosable, patterned problems requiring diagnostics and treatments. Yogis who are compliant, who listen intently, who do what they think is right, even if they have pain.
(which means: it isn’t right).
Now, I don’t believe that doing a pose “incorrectly” or “out of alignment” a few thousand times is likely to injure you. Possible, yes, but likely, no. But if you change how someone uses their body in daily life, this can have an impact.
And most of the time it is good! It relieves pain caused by poor posture or unwittingly carrying a forty pound bag on one shoulder. It can incite confidence and a spring in the step.
Occasionally, it causes more problems. The root of the rampant hip and back pain experienced by so many otherwise healthy yogis? Tucking their tailbones too far, too often, and on/off the mat.
It is not bad to have someone engage their core muscles and change their pelvic tilt for a certain pose or aim, for a good reason. But the rampant and broad, sweeping use of this cue is causing an army of yogis to have flat backs, straight spines, and no butts.
Spinal curves are important to balance our giant heads over our two legs. Core strength is essential as we walk and carry things. If we look at people without back pain, if we look at humans through history in a variety of environments, we find healthy spinal curves, not open hearts, flat backs, and tucked tails.
Open your spiritual heart, your heart chakra, but let there be a slightly kyphotic curve in your thoracic spine.
Engage and strengthen your core muscles, but let there be a lordotic curve in your lumbar spine.
Understand your tendency to tilt your pelvis anteriorly or posteriorly, and correct as needed, but don’t tuck your tail between your legs.
Worry less about “cueing” things other than basic directions into a pose, and think instead about teaching your students how to observe, move, and maintain authority over their own bodies.
Your words have power.
(use them for good)