Guide to a few yoga instructions

If you’ve ever attended a yoga class I’m sure you’ve heard instructions like “tuck your tail bone”, “square your hips” and “pull your shoulders down away from your ears”. Before you had a chance to figure out what they were supposed to mean the class was already onto another pose.

Article by Lena Kalchenko

As a teacher I strongly believe that we should question ourselves about different instructions and alignments. How functional are they? Why do we give them? Is it something we heard, learned? Do they work in our bodies? And even if they do, is it really correct to think that one-size-fits-all cues are the best way to teach?

Teaching yoga is challenging. People come from very different backgrounds, often have never done any physical exercise before nor heard instructions about “what to do with our body parts”. Yoga is about people and it needs to be adapted to the needs of the individual. So if you’re thinking about starting yoga (a perfect day to start is International Yoga Day – click here to learn more) or you’ve taken classes before but you’re confused about how to do the asanas here is a little guide that explains a few of the commonly used yoga instructions that I revised and reconsidered:

“Tuck your tailbone”

This is an instruction often given to help lengthen the lower back when students have lordosis – an excessive curvature of the lumbar spine. This cue will help to return the lower back to its natural curvature which will relieve pain in that region related to lumber compression, as well as help to lengthen the hip flexors (a group of muscles towards the front of the hips) and tone sagging abs. However, if you already naturally tuck your pelvis under (more of a flat back) then this instruction doesn’t make too much sense for you.

So when your hear this instruction think about the following:

Draw your lower belly up slightly. This stabilizes your core and lengthens the lower back. Also bring attention to your feet. That’s your base of support. You can think of it as 3 points in each foot (the heels, the base of the little toes, the base of the big toes). Spread the weight of your body evenly between these 6 points. That in turn may require bending your knees a little. This will help to maintain a natural lumber curve.

“Square your hips” 

This instruction is commonly used in Warrior 1, Pyramid pose, and one-legged King Pegion. First of all, in these poses one leg is forward and the other one is back so essentially they are doing something different and the hips cannot really be fully squared. Why should they be anyway? Is any part of the human anatomy square? Are there truly straight lines in our bodies? The answer to these questions is no. So please, give your hips a break. 

You can potentially damage your knees or the lower back region by forcing the hips to face forward perfectly.

Instead I suggest drawing the front hip (the side where the leg is forward) gently back and the back hip (the side where the leg is back) forward. Another useful way to “square the hips” is turning your sternum (chest bone located in the central part of the chest) so it faces forward. This way the hips do not have to be forced into position.

“Pull your shoulders down away from the ears”

While some people do need to be reminded about bringing their shoulders down when performing poses where the arms rise above the head, the shoulders are supposed to move and lift too – that is just biomechanics. So by instructing them to “pull the shoulders away from the ears” we are asking the opposite of what the body naturally needs to do. See how it feels to have your shoulders up or down and choose the position where you don’t feel tension in your neck and shoulders. 

The message of yoga is not about how it looks but how it feels. Comfort and ease during asana practice comes first but remember something that feels difficult is very different from something that feels not right for you. If you feel that a pose puts unnecessary pressure on a body part or if it hurts then modify accordingly. Work on your body awareness and don’t follow instructions blindly.   

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