A yoga instructor places their hands on a student's lower back and shoulders to help them in a forward fold pose.

REGENERATION – Dreamscapes

Tweak These Common Yoga Cues and Wake Up Your Practice

By Jennifer Galardi

You’d be hard-pressed to swing a stick and not hit a yoga studio these days. Yoga has become as ubiquitous in the health and wellness space as lattes and kombucha. The popularity of this ancient practice has more than doubled in the past 10 years, and about 1 in 3 Americans have tried yoga at least once.

This is great news, as studies have shown that a regular yoga practice can lead to better health both physically and mentally. However, yoga has also led to injury for some, including myself. I was so dead set on getting into certain postures that I risked the safety of my joints and my overall vitality. I was approaching yoga from the Western “do and achieve” philosophy rather than observing what was present in my body and receiving the lessons my practice offered me. Over the years, my practice has evolved so that I am not only as strong as I can possibly be, but I also can delve into the greater depths of practice beyond the mat.

Now I lift weights, resistance train and practice Pilates to keep my body strong enough to practice yoga. Merging all disciplines into my asana teachings allows me to become more attuned to my own body and experience postures safely and fully. My experience empowers my teaching, and I do my best to share a more integrated practice with my students. In a cultural moment when we are bombarded by images on social media of bodies jammed into yoga postures in beautiful places, it is my hope that students will integrate proper biomechanics into their own practice, be less concerned with the aesthetic of a given posture and explore more subtle body wisdom on their mats.

Doing yoga—but not for exercise

A person facing away from the viewer with an exposed back touches their left shoulder with their right hand.

As I gained more body knowledge, my practice became more stable and comfortable for me physically. However, what moved my practice forward more than anything was a deeper understanding of breath, the physiology of the breath and how it affected my mind. In most of the Western world, yoga has become synonymous with asana (literally translated means to take seat), yet the physical postures of yoga make up a small percentage of practices that encompass the entire philosophy known as yoga.

Historically, yoga was a discipline to target the mind and a systematic approach to living with more clarity, ease, freedom and fulfillment. The body—along with the breath—was used as a gateway to put the practitioner in touch with the more subtle aspects of self: energy, mind and ultimately soul.

It’s critical to introduce this greater concept of yoga, not to dismiss asana as a beneficial practice but to emphasize that yoga is not a body game—it’s a mind game. Those who created the system of yoga were not body masters—they were mind masters. The great yogi’s end goal was not six-pack abs and a cute butt. It was to prepare the body to sit comfortably for the bigger mental challenge of meditation.

Asana is one part of an overall system of health and well-being—not simply a specialized workout. We experience this as we become more devoted and consistent with our practice. When we show up on our mats day in and day out, the full benefits of yoga begin to flower.

Cues to modify

A row of yoga students in cobra pose smiling and laughing

Many alignment cues commonly heard in asana classes were passed down as legacy from the ancient yogis. They work for many but not for everyone. Luckily, there are simple ways to modify a pose for optimal alignment, which is also ideal for our joints. Here are a few cues and modifications you can explore to make your next practice more comfortable.

  1. “Place your hands by your chest and hug your elbows into your side” in Bhujangasana (Cobra) Pose. This cue can place unnecessary strain on your shoulder capsule and lower back. It’s difficult for many students to do Cobra and keep their shoulders away from their ears.The purpose of Cobra is to strengthen your upper back and midback, create more space in your chest and stimulate pran vayu (the energy located in your heart center). Try moving your hands a little in front of your chest and out to the side, and open your elbows a bit to help you gain access to more freedom in your front body.
  1. “Squeeze your shoulder blades onto your back” in Adho Mukha Svansana (Down Dog). This cue deactivates the supportive muscles of the pose such as the serratus anterior, which stabilizes the scapula. Depressing your shoulder blades together places undue weight on your shoulder joints and wrists and can cause repetitive stress injury, since Down Dog (I believe) is one of the most overused postures in asana.It takes awareness and practice to perform Down Dog with strength and stability and not “dump” into your shoulders. Protract your shoulder blades a bit to assist with external rotation in your shoulder joints and widen the space across your back. Keep in mind that Down Dog is an extension posture, not a backbend.
  1. “Lock your knees.” This directive, most often heard in Bikram classes, is never acceptable. Locking your knees disengages your leg muscles and causes enormous strain on your knee joints. It also tends to throw the spine into lordosis, or an excessive curve of the lower back, which can lead to pain and discomfort.Instead, soften or even bend your knees, engage your leg muscles and imagine “lifting” your kneecaps in poses such as Tadasana (Mountain Pose), Parsvakanasana (Pyramid Pose) and Uttanasana (Standard Forward Bend).
  1. “Move your shin to parallel to the front of the mat and flex your foot” in Eka Pada Rajakapotasana (One-Legged Pigeon Pose). Next to locking the knees, this may be my least favorite cue. This shape is accessible and comfortable for a very limited number of practitioners, and forcing your foot away from your groin can put your knee at risk.

Instead, move your foot a little closer into your body and allow your ankle to relax, but pull your toes back to activate your foot and help square your hips.

A person practices downward facing dog

Ultimately, yoga is a personal practice. As you gain more experience on your yoga journey and learn what works best for you and your body, you will develop the ability to personalize your practice with appropriate adjustments whether in a class or in a private practice at home.

As a teacher, I recommend you do your research, study the postures and come to understand your anatomy. Listen to your body as you practice, particularly if you practice with injuries. Find an experienced teacher that inspires you and resonates with your needs. Be open and willing to learn and explore the full scope of yoga, not just the physical practices, so ultimately, you can hear and listen to the best teacher of all—yourself.


Video credit: cinemalist, Stocksy
Photo credit: cinemalist, Stocksy; JTSorrell, Getty IMages; fizkes, Getty Images; cinemalist, Stocksy


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Jennifer Galardi

Jennifer Galardi has helped thousands of people on their path to radiant health and purposeful living by bringing together her knowledge and experience across multiple disciplines including dance, fitness, yoga, meditation and nutrition. The nationally recognized star of more than a dozen best-selling dance, fitness and yoga titles, Jennifer has collaborated and contributed to celebrity dance and fitness titles for Kim Kardashian, Carmen Electra, Julianne Hough and talent from the hit show “So You Think You Can Dance.” Major brands including Microsoft XBOX, Nautilus, Body Bar, and Coca-Cola, have called upon Jennifer’s knowledge to create programming and represent them in the healthy living category. You can also find her workouts and tips in popular magazines such as SELF, Shape, Fitness, Women’s Day, Cooking Light, Parents and online. Jennifer continues her studies of yoga, Tantra and Ayurveda under the Sri Vidya lineage. With thousands of teaching hours, she is committed to sharing the wisdom of ancient traditions adapted for modern times.