Ever been in a yoga class with an instructor whose cues left you feeling more confused about what to do with your body? You are not alone.
Some of the jargon that comes with years of yoga practice can be confusing and mysterious, but once decoded, can be really helpful! Visualizing and mentally processing your body’s alignment in a pose or a flow before you begin can help you avoid injury and allows you to get the most out of your practice.
So in this piece, let’s go over some common yoga alignment cues and phrases that may have left you saying, “Do what now?!”.
1. Hip-Width Apart
When an instructor tells you have some part of your body ‘hip-width apart’, they are referring to the distance between your two hipbones. Take your hands and put them at your hips, and feel with your fingers for your two big hip bones that should jut out from your pelvis—either directly forward or maybe a little out to the side, depending on what kind of pelvis you have (yes, there are several different kinds!).
These two big bones are the hips to which your instructor is referring. Often the instruction is to have your feet hip-width apart—to do this, place the heel of each foot directly under each of these two big hipbones.
2. Square Your Hips
Here, again, your instructor is referring to the two big hipbones you can feel with your hands. To have them square means they are in the same plane, both horizontally and vertically.
To put it another way, you don’t want one hip to be higher, lower, in front of, or behind the other. A great way to visualize this is to look at the front of your mat, which is a straight line. Are your hips parallel to the top of your mat? Are they even with each other in height? Then your hips are square!
3. Stack your Spine
Stacking your spine is very similar to straightening it, but it does help to think of it as stacking. Visualize stacking one vertebra on top of the other, all the way from your tailbone to the very base of your skull, with a little bit of space in between each one as a cushion.
Your spine may not be perfectly straight at the end of this process, as it has natural curvature throughout which should be preserved, but stacking your spine helps you keep a nice flat back in poses where you need one and also engages your core.
4. Spiral Your Inner Thighs
This one confused me for ages, you’re not alone. Picture your thighs as two big cylinders, attached at their tops to your hip joints. To follow this cue, turn your thighs inward, starting at the hip joint.
Picture the cylinders rotating toward one another. You should feel like this is pulling the meat of your inner thighs back, away from each other. As odd as it seems, once you follow this cue, it alters your posture in standing poses and in Downward Facing Dog, making you more engaged and supported through your pelvis and lower back.
5. Rotate Your Shoulder Joints
This is the same idea as the previous cue, but in a different joint. To truly engage your shoulders, especially in poses such as Downward Dog, picture your biceps as the cylinders this time. Rotate them inward toward your body.
You can watch this happen in your elbow creases—as you rotate your upper arms inward, the inside creases of your elbows should turn further inward to face each other as well. This affects your whole shoulder joint, and helps you pull the tops of your shoulders back, down, and away from your ears.
Engaging your whole shoulder joint in this way also takes a little bit of pressure off your wrists and helps you flatten and lengthen your back, improving your form in poses where your arms are above your head.
6. Tilt Your Pelvis
This is one of the cues that I have found most helpful to feeling comfortable in poses that require flexibility in the hamstrings and lower back.
Coming back to our two big hipbones, picture your tailbone as sitting directly between those two bones, but set a little further back. This gives you a mental picture of the triangle of your pelvis. This is useful if you’re in Staff pose, for example.
To get deeper into the pose, instead of bending and rounding from the lower back, picture your whole pelvis tilting forward, decreasing the angle between the lines of your belly and your legs. Tilting your pelvis as a whole in this way gives you deeper access to many poses.
7. Engage Your Core
When engaging the abdomen, many people tend to puff their belly outward, but to really engage the core, you actually want to feel as if you’re pulling your bellybutton back, toward your spine.
You have two long abdominal muscles that run from your breastbone down to your groin, so picture pulling these taut, flattening your belly. To truly engage your whole core, you’ll need to engage your back as well.
For example: in Plank pose, focus on flattening your belly and pulling your belly button back toward your spine, but also flatten and straighten your lower back—this employs the entire band of abdominal muscles that encircles your lower belly and back.
Hopefully these tips will help you be able to decipher your instructor’s cues, prevent injury, and get more out of your practice!
Image credit: Cetin Cetintas