Four Unhelpful Cues in an Asana Class

While some of the cues below may be appropriate for specific individuals, when you have a class of varying abilities it is better to make allowances for those who are not designed like a rubber band.

“Square your hips to long side of mat”

We hear this in Warrior 2 pose (Virabhasana II). The problem is that most people cannot and will not ever be able to do this. What prevents it is tightness in the inner thigh muscles. So if we square off, the tightness of these muscles will also pull the front knee inwards. This is not a good thing as it puts uneven pressure into the ankle/knee/hip joints causing, over the long term, an overstretching of the soft tissues and/or erosion of the joints.

“Imagine you are between 2 plates of glass”

This instruction comes up frequently in Warrior 2 and also Extended Triangle Pose (Utthita Trikonasana) and Extended Side Angle Pose (Utthita Parsvakonasana).  Other than the knocking in of the knee, there is no other problem with this instruction for Warrior 2, but we should know that for the majority of us whose hips don’t come parallel to the long side of the mat, if we try and square our shoulders to the side then we are creating a twist in the spine. Twisted spines are great except when you begin to bend them! For some – no problem…. for others with vulnerable backs (80% of the population) to bend to the side while rotating the spine is a lot to ask of those muscles that are needed to support the spine and can lead to potential strains and general discomfort. At the very least, when we bend with a twist we are simply recruiting more muscles than we need to in order to accomplish the side bending movement. My advice is if you want to add a twist to your triangles and extended side angles, do it when you are fully in the pose and make sure the spine is not rounding. Keep a ‘Mountain Back’ i.e. just like it is when you are in Mountain Pose (Tadasana).

Sometimes teachers will bring the students to the wall and get them to flatten hips and shoulders to the wall and then bend into a Triangle. Horrible, horrible, horrible! This will potentially cause us to force the movement and create strain either in the sacro-iliac (SI) joint or lower back.

“Tuck your tail bone and feel your spine lengthening”

My theory is that this instruction was introduced for the yogis with lumbar lordosis or a tendency to having a swayed lower back. If we are thrusting the top of the hips forward into a sway back and making uncomfortable compression in the lower back, tucking the tail bone will feel like we are accomplishing support and correct alignment. However, if we investigate to see what a tail bone tuck actually does we will understand that this movement creates a tightening of the rectus abdominus muscle. This muscle is the famous ‘six-pack’ muscle which flexes the torso forward, which is how we achieve the feeling of correcting the curve in the lower back. While for some this instruction might be appropriate, for those of us who do not have lumbar lordosis this instruction is going to bring unnecessary tension to the front of the torso.

As far as using it to lengthen the spine, it doesn’t. You can see for yourself in the following action. Sit on the floor with your back to a wall, place one hand on top of your head, now tuck your tail bone under, did you grow taller or shorter? Most of us will have considerably shortened. It doesn’t lengthen the spine it flattens it and compresses the front body.

“Tuck your tail bone to support your lower back”

This instruction comes up most often in back arching poses to safe guard over arching of the lumbar spine. However according to yoga therapist, Monica Gauci, the tucking of the tail bone in back arches causes compression around the heart centre and the flattening of the lumbar curve in a back arch. The opposite of what we want to achieve. According to well known yoga teacher, Doug Keller, a neutral spine is the most supportive position of the hips at all times. He says, in back bending poses if you tuck the tail bone you may be more at risk of pinching the tissues within the SI joints, forcing the SI joints into misalignment, or otherwise straining or jamming your low back.

So as yoga practitioners, if we want to be practicing asanas into our old age, the best plan is to carefully investigate the repercussions of the cues we are using as we move into poses, while holding them and when returning out of them. It is helpful to keep up to date with the current research of respected teachers and anatomists but most importantly our information should come from carefully observing any little twinges of discomfort which may be present both when we are on or off the mat.

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Bird Rescue

Not so long ago as I walked up from the waterfront back towards my home I spied a small bird in the grass on the verge of the footpath. It wasn’t a canary, but the yellow on its chest certainly was, as they say in the interior decorating world, canary yellow. It was an attractive little thing with a moss green back, a white throat, black head and bib and that bright yellow chest and belly.

I slowly edged closer for a better look and was surprised it didn’t fly off. In fact it seemed almost tame, so that I wondered if someone had lost a pet, but on further observation I decided something was not right, it seemed a bit shaky and uncoordinated. Perhaps it had a broken wing? If I left it there it would be prey to passing cats and dogs, and while such things are inevitable in nature, being red in tooth and claw, I couldn’t just walk by and let it happen.

So I took my scarf (the morning’s still were chilly at that time) in both hands and slowly brought the scarf closer to the bird, which sat, seemingly calm, until I had gathered it up in my hands, and I carried it home cradled against my chest.   Twice on the 15 min walk home it gave a half-hearted protesting wiggle and peck, but the rest of the time stayed still, and allowed me to stroke its head and look into its little eye as it snuggled in the scarf, and I felt that protective and nurturing feeling that small, cute bodies engender in the female psyche, talking to it as one does to a young child.

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