Yoga Pose Cues: help for yoga teachers

There’s no catchy name to this post (or any fancy pictures) because I want all yoga teachers on the struggle bus with me to easily find this article!

Quickie background – I finished my 4 week intensive 200 hour yoga teacher training last year November. While I thought the program was a great start to my teaching experience, the practice is in the pudding… wait, what? The proof is in how many hours you put toward practicing teaching, or actually teaching. As my dad would say, you practice like you play. Finding others to practice with, or practice on, has proven difficult in my new tiny town of 260, which I moved to in the middle of winter. I decided to start making YouTube videos to quench my thirst for sharing yoga and to keep up on my teaching skills. Aaand to make talking to myself more productive and not so crazy sounding.

Ever listened or watched a video of yourself, or of yourself teaching anything?!? It’s horrifying and satisfying all at once. I usually have thoughts somewhere between, “I only messed up left and right twice”, and , “should I delete that section where I totally forgot where I was going, and then said that out loud?”. Cues are my worst enemy. I did a little interwebs search and I found a lot of great resources, but not all listed in one blog post.

Yoga teacher training at The Yoga Mat. Anatomy focused.

My Tips (borrowed from many a great teachers):

  1. Breath, Pose, Cue. This is a very natural order and the cleanest way to state what you want students to do. “Inhale, cow, lift the sit bones, low back arch, drop the belly, chest forward and open, gaze straight ahead or upward,” for example. Movement always follows and flows with a continuous, elongated inhale or exhale. If a student knows a pose by its common English name or by its Sanskrit name then they can set themselves up in the asana immediately, providing an example for others to follow. Remaining students can follow your directions to get into poses, and the cues also offer the chance to correct form. (*The Yoga Mat Teacher Training)
  2. Cue Ground Up. List your cues in the order of the body in relation to the floor and work up. It’s better to build a foundation and keep the weight bearing body parts protected. For example, Mountain or Tadasana, start with the feet, knees, then thighs, and continue up through the hips, ribs, chest and shoulders/arms/hands, finally describing the crown or head, and then gaze. Exceptions? Down Dog, Adho Mukha Svanasana, has feet and hands on the ground. In this case, and with most shoulder bearing poses (like side plank) it’s a good idea to start with the hands, arms, and shoulders because from there the hips, knees, and feet can be modified to increase or decrease the weight load. Side Note: The shoulder is a ball and socket joint (one of two, the hips being the other), and has the highest range of motion making it highly susceptible to injury. Best to start there to protect it the best you can when giving cues. (*Credit: The Yoga Mat Teacher Training)
  3. Hands Tied Behind your Back. Not literally of course, unless you’re into that sort of thing. Try giving cues to someone without modeling any of the movement. If your cues are on spot the yogi will be able to accurately place themselves in a pose. With this level of practice the person moving can give you feedback immediately, so be open to suggestions and ideas. When you feel ready, this would be a good time to work on your analogies as well. Be creative to help people move their body accordingly. You might want to try a few cues with flourish, especially if you are presenting a theme in your class. Having  trouble describing a specific movement? Make a list of all the ways you could describe it. “Lift the sternum, raise the chest, shine the heart…” (*Credit: Paisley Anne Yoga)
  4. The Best Practitioners Make the Best Teachers. Those that have a strong personal practice tend to be stronger teachers. When you lead yourself you become even more aware of the body, how it functions, and what makes a movement or transition feel natural. You develop body awareness and stoke the fire of creativity. While practicing talk yourself through the poses. Not necessarily every single one, but have a small goal in mind. Perhaps work on a specific transition you want to make fluid, or a common sequence you use sound seamless. You don’t have to try every practice either, just give it a go sometimes, or work from suggestions given by others that take your classes. (*Credit: Paisley Anne Yoga)
  5. Mirroring and Left/Right. I don’t mirror because it’s hard for me, and makes me even more susceptible to left and right cue errors. I personally believe that mirroring is a choice for the instructor. Some strictly do it, some rarely do it, and then there are the magicians who can switch back and forth seamlessly without cause any confusion for their students.  Try asking your students to move (left foot top of mat), and then look at their bodies to mirror (opposite leg, step your right foot forward). Remember, a mirror movement will always move the opposite side of your body, left or right, and will result in you looking the same as your students, as if they were looking into the mirror too. I am infamous for mixing up left and right when giving cues. If you forget which side, left or right, you need to cue next try saying, “move the other foot/hand”, or “move the front/back foot/hand”. For example, the students are in a high lunge (ashta chandrasana) and the next asana is plank (phalakasana). Ask them to plant the hands and step the front foot back to plank. If you’ve already done one side of a stretch (a twist to the left) then you can simply ask them to switch to the other side (a twist to the right). I’m also infamous for being the only student in the class moving in the opposite direction. As a teacher I always leave any student like this and suggest to the whole class that if they are opposite, don’t worry we will be doing the other side. (Credit: Bit of Betsy)
  6. Less is More, and Variety is the Spice of Life. Two clichés that stand true. When saying Breath, Pose, Cue you don’t have to say all three every time for every single movement. As your students develop they might not need all these words flying at them, assaulting their senses. It may even detract from the experience. Silence can be golden (yeah, I clichéd again). For example, you might be in a place with a class, so on their flow game, that you can simply say, “vinyasa, yogi’s choice, meet us in down dog.” Or, you might want to challenge a group of students to explore their knowledge and instincts by giving them an option to do a final Sun Salutation A on their own after a series of them together. Times of quiet are great opportunities to remind students about their breath, to engage that fundamental part of their practice. Then you stop talking and let them do the work. Every pose has several cues that can be offered. For repetitive poses, like half way lift (ardha uttanasana), mix up the cues and say the cues in different ways. For example, one round say something about the chest, in the next round cue the back, and you can probably come up with more than one way to say each.

Sites/Books/Apps/and Blog Posts:

  1. Ekhart Yoga – Free and subscription videos and programs. Beginner student guide. Blog articles on a large variety of topics. More Yoga section for pose, workshop, level, and style descriptions as well as a dictionary. Why I like this site? The Yoga poses can be sorted A-Z by English or Sanskrit. Step by step details with a variety of language, beginner tips, benefits, variations, complementary poses, what to watch out for, and a link to any videos that use this pose so you can try!
  2. Yoga Natyam – A website dedicated to offering yoga classes for free and for members ($19/mo), with a variety of styles, lengths, teachers, levels, and areas of focus on the body. What’s relevant to you as a teacher? Under the Yoga 101 tab section you can find resources listed as Pose By Pose (sorted by standing, mid-level poses, reclined), Breath by Breath ( 5 common breath/pranayama practices), Deepen your Practice (8 limbs, 4 paths, mudras, bandhas, chakras, mantras, and classes by style), and Articles. While the information is brief, I think it’s a good summary of key aspects of yoga. The most valuable section is Pose by Pose. Each asana has a long list of points of alignment, which can serve to help you drum up more cue ideas. Some of the cues add a touch of flourishing language, if that happens to be an area of difficulty for you.
  3. Yoga Teacher Central– A fantastic resource specifically for instructors. While there are some free items (sequencing and class plans, research and inspiration from articles/books/videos/etc, and adjustments) , most of the sites deep content is for paying members only. More specifically, there is an extensive list of poses/asanas cross referenced by categories (upper body, core, lower back, more), but the details of the poses are not free. Also not free is the index of poses by English and Sanskrit sort, as well as additional categories of asanas.They offer 2, 6, and 12 month packages, with additional pricing breaks for payment in full versus monthly. I offer this site here because some of the free options are very informative, and can be a good jumping off point for further internet searches.
  4. Books – While I have not flipped through these books in person, a quick Amazon search resulted in a short list of highly purchased choices.Your Body Your Yoga: Learn alignment cues that are skillful, safe, and best suited to you, by Bernie Clark. Yoga’s Touch: hands on adjustments, alignments, and verbal cues, by Martia Bennett Rachman. Ground to Grow: Alignments cues for yoga students and teachers, by Janie Montague and Mike Luckock. Last, not a book, but an Amazon search of yoga flash cards for sequencing, Sanskrit, cues, and more.
  5. – Two apps: Pocket Yoga offers the ability to select a practice by duration or level, the environmental setting through sounds, and a comprehensive dictionary; Pocket Yoga Practice Builder offers the ability to build, edit, and share practices, including musical choices. The pose dictionary is also available online and for free, with sort options for category (i.e. standing or seated), sub-category (seated twist or standing twist), and levels of difficulty (beginner, intermediate, expert). While the sorting options are more plentiful, the names of some of the poses in common english are unfamiliar to me (i.e. box, instead of table top). The pose page breaks down the Sanskrit meaning, lists the category and difficulty (as well as less or more challenging variations with illustrations), with a detailed description of movement and benefits. Details are lengthy and in complete sentences, which is not always how you state them in class (axe the filler words when possible). Down side? If you want all the features on your mobile or laptop device you have to pay. Pocket Yoga is $2.99 (iPhone/Pad and Google Play for Android) and $4.99 (Mac), while Pocket Yoga Practice Builder is $9.99 (apple only).
  6. Quizlet – Another app for mobile devices, and totally free. There are in-app upgrades, but I could not find information about the extra features you get for $19.99 with Quizlet Plus. With the free app or online version you can create your own flashcards, or use a set already made by someone else. It includes audio, images, and vocabulary to create your own cards, copy cards (so you can edit them), share, print, and combine. The learning component includes shuffling through the cards one by one, a fill in the blank answer section, spelling quiz, test section, and timed matching game. To modify each learning section there are several options: sort by all or starred cards as well as by definition, term, or both. And finally, the test section can be modified with the same sort options, and additionally question types: written, matching, multiple choice, true/false. There are already a ton of card sets out there, so you won’t have to start from scratch. You can search almost any yoga topic (I tried mudra, chakra, anatomy, cues, pranayama, just to name a few).
  7. A Few Articles – Sometimes you just need a solid blog post to get those creative juices flowing. Try one of these… Elysium Yoga: Instructor Cue Ideas, will help you get a bit flowery with your words, which can sometimes fire up the third eye or other chakras in your students. The famous Yoga Journal. Inside YJ’s YTT: Desperately Seeking the Best Yoga Cues with a list of favorite and fancy cues, as well as talk about nuances (small differences) in stating and how you state placement cues, alignment cues, and energetic cues. It closes with The Making of a Good Cue. Yoga Journal also has a pose finder and guide, sorted by type (i.e. core, hips, restorative, twists…), benefits, for you (i.e. athletes, kids, men, moms…), anatomy, and English A to Z. Yoga International offers a list of don’ts with their article Ten Alignment Cues Yoga Teachers Need to Stop Giving (including better choices for those not so great ones).

Most importantly, be genuine. People know when you are trying your best, and appreciate the effort. Remember to be open to suggestions and constructive criticism (and don’t be afraid to ask for some). Have fun exploring these resources and your yoga teaching experience.

Stay Adventurous,

Valarie Tes

3 thoughts on “Yoga Pose Cues: help for yoga teachers

  1. Hi, Valerie:
    am using your guide while 1/3 of the way through my 200 training. I really appreciate the simplicity, makes the ideas so much more accessible. Wanted to say thank you & I may return to your site.


  2. I really like the picture with the skeleton, where did you get the skeleton, I would like to get them. I think it would help teaching my young students about skeletons during yoga poses…


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