Perhaps the question I am most commonly asked by teachers-in-training is “How would you cue that?” The question always shocks me a bit because generally I would cue something the way I just cued it right before someone asked me the question.
Looking a little deeper, I often find the question of “How would you cue that?” a bit unsatisfying to answer. Any cue, no matter how accurate, precise and sincere is only as good as 1.) the student’s understanding of what it means, 2.) the student’s capacity to execute said cue in their body, 3.) the appropriateness of said cue to the individual who is going to execute it and 4.) the other instructions and insights that balance the action the cue refers to.
Take the hotly debated cue of “scoop your tailbone,” for instance. Since tailbones do not literally “scoop,” I need to know what that instruction actually means. Based on my Anusara yoga training, for me that cue means that I should initiate a series of actions from the top of my pelvis that draw the flesh of my buttocks down, move my tailbone forward slightly, lift my low belly up from the pubic bone to the navel and encourage a movement of my navel back toward my spine.
In a pose like tadasana, those actions would stop when the pelvis appeared like a box, level side to side, front to back, and bottom to top. In a pose like malasana (a deep rounded-shaped squat), those actions would continue until the pelvis posteriorly tilted and the lumbar spine flexed. In a pose like ardha uttanasana or a concave spine stage of a forward bend, those actions would be applied within an outer shape of an anteriorly-tilted pelvis and an extended lumbar spine.
Again, I have to know what the cue means. To further analyze my example, take note of how many things are implied in “Scoop your tailbone” and yet how few of those aspects are covered the cue.
Simply put, cues are not explanations. Cues often function like a sutra from a philosophical text where a short aphorism communicates a larger idea, context, and/or teaching and relies on a commentator, or teacher in this case, to explicate the subtleties and layers of implicit meaning. And even with the best translation, commentary, and explanation, the sutra will only come alive when it is practiced and integrated by the student. Same with cues.
Even if I know the intention behind the cue and what said cue is aimed at beyond the level of “This is the right way to do the pose,” or “This is what my teacher always says this so I say it," still the cue’s efficacy is limited by my capacity to implement it. As a practitioner, I need to know not only what to do, but how to do it. And then I need to chart the pathway to actually being able to do it. All of this work takes time.
For instance, I recently saw a video in which the teacher kept saying, “Find integrity in your core.” I thought to myself, “Well, that sounds good enough, but what does that actually mean? Does that mean I should lift up along my central channel? Does that mean I should activate my transverse abdominal muscles? Does that mean I should keep my side ribs back and keep my front ribs from flaring? Does it mean I should make sure I have a natural lumbar curve?” Your guess at this point is as good as mine.
And let’s guess that the instructor was after some kind of abdominal recruitment. “Use your core” doesn’t really tell me the same thing as a lesson about how to engage my transverse abdominal muscles with a laugh or a cough or sharp exhale and how to keep that firing in the sequence I practicing. What to do is easy enough: “Tone your low belly.” However , helping students know how to do it often requires an explanation, a demonstration, or some kind of lesson to bring the words to life. And even without a great lesson in low-belly recruitment, we are still more specific now than “find integrity in your core.”
(Of course, to be fair, for all I know this instructor may have explained it at another time to his students. And if you students do know how to do something then telling them what to do is often sufficient.)
Examples are endless.
And thirdly, even if I know what the cue means, I know how to implement the action and I have practiced long enough to be able to perform the action in my own body, the other challenge is that everyone has a slightly different body through which the cue with be executed, the pose will be performed.
Back to my “scoop your tailbone” example.
I personally have an anteriorly- tilted pelvis and a more-than-well-established lumbar curve. As a result, any pose that has a neutral pelvis requires tremendous work for me, but poses with posterior tilt and lumbar flexions are nearly impossible for me. I have even seen my lumbar spine flexed in an x-ray and it doesn’t move that much. I have to work A LOT to get the action of “scooping” to manifest in my shapes.
My husband, however, wakes up in the morning with a posteriorly-tilted pelvis,. His default posture needs more anterior tilt just to get to a neutral pelvis. He can still do some of those scooping actions to stabilize his low belly and bring awareness to a region, but those same actions need a whole lot less power in them for him than for me and rarely should he take them as far he could because he begins already past the point of neutral.
Even with this brief sketch of two different body-types, we see the problem and limitation with counting solely on cues to teach the yoga. We haven’t even talked about how one side of the pelvis might tip forward more than the other and how often one side is higher than the other. Even the most specific of cues is not specific enough to manage all the variations in the average public class.
And onward to my fourth point about the limitations of cues, almost all cues will create an imbalance if they are not practiced with certain actions before and after and if their effect is not being observed, felt, managed, and refined by the individual practitioner. As soon as I scoop my tailbone, for instance, the tops of my thighs come forward and my front body will tend to shorten. As soon as move the tops of my thighs back and lift my chest, my pelvis will tilt forward. If I rotate my legs without muscular engagement, my knees tend to move in less-than-beneficial ways. As soon as I lift up through my head, I tend to lose a sense of groundedness. And so on.
So, one thousand words later I can say simply that cues participate in a delicate balance and sophisticated set of relationships to one another, to the person practicing, and to the pose to which they are being applied.
Now, lest this entry be confused with an attack on cues, I want to state that I do not see a problem with the fact that even the best of cues are full of inherent limitations. I see the problem is with the unconscious expectations many students and teachers have that cues can take the place of explanations, demonstrations, study, dialogue, practice, and self-inquiry. Cues are necessary and insufficient and that reality can be a source of frustration or a source of relief and sanity, depending on your perspective.
Truth be told, we all have to start somewhere. And we often start with doing our best to follow instructions. We have to get in the game somehow and following a teacher’s cues is part of the price for entry. My point is that the once you are in the game, the work continues and in a sense, never ends. Longevity on the path requires developing a taste for this kind of ongoing self-examination. How we instruct poses through verbal cues is important- we are an oral tradition, after all. And I have plenty to say about increasing the efficacy of verbal cues, to be sure. But living the tension between necessary and insufficient is part of our task as students and teachers, so, well, forewarned is forearmed.
Keep the faith.
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