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Yoga Cues I No Longer Use In My Class

My Yoga Journey

I fell in love with yoga 14 years ago while going through chiropractic school in Portland, Oregon. I was looking for an outlet for my built up stress and long hours of sitting and studying. My yoga practice started with the amazing Lisa Mae Osborn at the Bhaktishop. Her attention to alignment instilled good practices from the beginning. She infused the physical practice with playing the harmonium–filling the room with bhakti, or devotional love for a higher being or the divine.

When I moved to New York City in 2007, I looked for a yoga community with the same qualities. I landed at Jivamukti in Union Square, walking from the West Village over to their studio for a flowing practice with an Ashtanga base. But similar to many yoga studios, there was not enough attention to form, especially in classes with over twenty students. I started to have shoulder and hip pain, but the practice philosophy was, “well, you need to do more yoga.” My shoulders started to click and my upper traps were tight and bound up. One hip was jammed while the other was super mobile, making me walk almost in circles.

A year later, looking for more alignment, my soul sister and dear friend pointed me towards Anusara Yoga. The alignment principles of this yoga practice were a guided blueprint of how to align the body which felt good on the mat, but then started to feel rigid and dogmatic.

Then I Went to Rehab

In the meantime, I studied strength training, rehabilitation, and neurodevelopmental kinesiology principles from  industry leaders like the Prague School, Strong First, and Postural Restoration Institute. Names like Stu Mcgill, Gray Cook, Craig Liebenson, and Pavel Kolar were my go-tos on how to move and rehabilitate the body. Now my yoga practice and how I teach has completely transformed right down to how I breathe. I have reigned in the hypermobility in my shoulders and hips with core stability and diaphragmatic breathing. As a result, there are things I don’t do–or teach–anymore.

Here are 4 yoga cues I don’t use any more:

  1. In Tadasana, “Side body long,” “lengthening your waistline, from the top of your hips to your shoulder blades, then soften the shoulders down and back.”

Why: When we stand, we want our diaphragm to be parallel to our pelvic floor (see image). When we give these cues, the majority of the population will flare their ribs to find this lengthening, jam their low back, and create hypertonicity in their lumbar erectors. More importantly, a calm parasympathetic diaphragmatic breath will expand our abdomen 360 degrees on the inhale. When we flare our lower ribs with these cues, it makes us chest breath more and kicks us into a sympathetic fight or flight state. You know these yogis, big barrel chest and shoulder blades are winging off the back. No amount of shoulder retraction will get these shoulder blade tips to get back down to the ribs. These shoulders need a “push move” and a belly breath.

Yoga Cues


  1. In plank, “melt your heart” or “soften that space right between the shoulder blades,” or “soften your chest down to the floor.”

Why: Ever see a baby plank at around six to seven months? Their shoulder blades are flat on their back in a protracted position, they have a barrel belly, and their chin is retracted. Serratus Anterior is starting to work as a fixed point for the scapula. “Soften between the shoulder blades” creates shoulder instability and a very difficult position in plank to find core stability. Over time this will start to chew up the shoulder joints, AC joints, where the collar bone meets the shoulder joint, and create stress on the anterior shoulder ligaments. Ever feel tightness and true trigger points (when pressed on, the hypertonic muscle follows a pain referral pattern and will twitch when pressure is held on the muscle) in your posterior rotator cuff muscles? Tried to release the triggers points with a lacrosse, tennis, or melt method ball but the tightness comes back? Try creating shoulder stability through a push move and a centrated neck, your rotator cuff trigger points will melt away in minutes. Or just do it like Baby Elvis below, not like the girl in pink.

Yoga Cues

  1. In a forward fold like Uttanasana, “Inner thighs back and wide.”

Why: While this has great intention with the balanced action with wrapping the outer hips back, it is incredibly difficult for the body to do this with the lumbar spine in deep flexion. Ultimately what happens is an over stretching of the medial hamstrings, adductor magnus, and gracilis. Ask a yoga practitioner that can lay their hands flat on the floor in a forward fold, knees straight to go for a run. They will be limping and be hurting the next day usually with low back and SI joint pain. Why? Probably because they have overstretched, neurologically weak hamstrings. Those very muscles that hold us up against gravity and propel us through the world are often over stretched in yoga.  When we can’t engage those hammies, something else has to kick in to propel us through the world.

Yoga Cues

What’s a healthy length? With knees straight, hips shift back to counter balance the forward flexion of the spine, and fingertips touch toes or an inch above the toes. Take note, the hips are not stacked right over the heels. If you can reach the toes without a posterior shift in weight, that is an overstretched hamstring. How do we rehab those poor hammies? Check out here.

No one wants a flat pancake butt

  1. In bridge, “soften the tension in the glutes, let them hang like two mangoes swinging in the breeze.”

Why: Ok, I have never let those last words leave my lips, but I have heard dozens of teachers use that analogy. Hello! This is why there is a phenomenon called “yoga butt.” No one wants a flat pancake butt. Bridge is meant to help with gluteus maximus activation, the largest, strongest muscle in the body should be activated here. Gluteus Maximus helps with hip extension and propulsion especially when we are going uphill or five-story walk ups. If we don’t engage our glutes here, they are jamming our facet joints in the low back and the SI joints. Ouch! Wrap the outer hips, squeeze the glutes, tuck the tail bone a hair–your low back will thank you!

Yoga Cues

If you are feeling out of sync with your yoga practice, maybe you need a realignment like I did. Ask yourself what your body is telling you and then listen! Talk to your yoga teacher, or find a new one. Come in to see us for an assessment and some yoga therapy. Your yoga practice should be a source of joy and healing, not pain.

Best in health,

Dr. Emily Kiberd