4 things yoga teachers say—and what they really mean

by | Feb 22, 2024 | Featured blog post, Yoga & exercise

Growing up in a household of competitive athletes, movement has always been a part of my life. My mother spent most of her life teaching PE and adaptive PE, my father stayed active as a referee long after retiring from his sport, and I was doing somersaults before I could read. Gymnastics and ballroom dancing have been my sports my entire life, so it’s not surprising that like so many others before me, I too got my yoga teacher credentials.

I appreciate the effort that goes into finding the right words to describe a movement to help make it effective, accessible and safe. There are times though when such efforts can backfire. For example, when the research behind the instruction is taken out of context and inaccurately disseminated from teacher to teacher, the movement itself is misinterpreted by the trainer, or when the description is incorrectly understood by the student. Let’s take a look at some of the common ones in yoga classes—and what they really mean.

Keep your knees behind your toes

It’s a common cue you hear in chair, squat and lunge; often followed by “to protect your knees”. Is that really so?

Your natural range of motion goes beyond your toes so why restrict this movement on purpose? If you don’t have enough range for your knees to reach past your toes, look into your limitations around ankle mobility.

It’s true that your knees traveling past your toes in a squat puts pressure on your knees. However, keeping them behind your toes actually loads your hips and lower back even more. While this study showed a 22% decrease in load on the knees when limiting the range of motion to the toes, it reported a staggering 1070% increase in hip stress. Your knees can handle more load than your hips. Therefore, your knees going over the toes have a lesser effect on your joints than repeatedly putting all the load on your hips.

The real message here is about not letting your knees fall inward to help minimize ACL injuries. Keep them in line with your toes—as in facing in the direction of your toes.

Cartwheel your hands down

This is a common cue when yoga teachers instruct students to transition from a standing pose to vinyasa. A proper cartwheel suggests that you place your hands on the floor one at a time while shifting weight to perform the movement in an inverted position. You’re also traveling sideways in a cartwheel.

I’m not sure where this cue came from but you’re not actually cartwheeling your hands down. You’re just bringing both hands to the mat to face the front as you step back to plank.

Microbend your elbows

I find this cue to be confusing for students. It’s also a cue that yoga teachers often misinterpret as well. Look around the room when you hear or say this cue, and you’ll see a large portion of students holding plank with a considerable bend in their elbows. This puts more pressure on their wrists and breaks the integrity of the pose.

To make this pose most effective and safe, you’ll want to build the pose from your fingertips all the way up to the top of your back in one long, straight line—without feeling any extra load on your wrists, elbows or shoulders.

So, the message here is really about creating integration, alignment and even weight distribution where your arms are straight, but not hyperextended. Biomechanically, it makes most sense to align your joints with your muscles as best as you can to build the strongest and safest pose possible.

Activate your ujjai breath

Ujjai (or victorious) breath is a heating breath. Yoga classes that encourage this type of breathing are often heated and more vigorous, like vinyasa or power. At the beginning of class, teachers will often invite you to use ujjai breath during class—until cooldown. That’s often 60, 75 or even 90 minutes.

Let’s break it down. You’re using a heating breath in a heated room while the exercise itself is heating to your body for an hour or more. Put this on repeat and you’re on your way to accumulate too much heat in your body. Excess heat can lead to imbalances and when left unaddressed over a longer period of time, it can open the door to disease or make existing conditions worse.

Before I started my ayurveda journey, I used to take vigorous heated classes multiple times a week. For years. Intuitively, I knew they were not right for me but didn’t have the insight into the “why?”. All I could see was that my eczema was getting worse with frequent, painful and long-lasting flair-ups.

The ayurvedic rule of thumb is to use ujjai breath purposefully. Pranayama is the fourth limb of yoga, right after asana. It’s usually performed on its own to help achieve desired outcomes. And while ujjai breathing can be used with certain poses, it’s not meant to be practiced continuously over the course of a 60-minute class.

It also has contraindications, such as imbalanced blood pressure, heart conditions, pregnancy, constipation, fever, acidity, trauma, anxiety, and other conditions resulting from excess heat (pitta) in the body. Ujjai – and any other pranayama – should be practiced under careful guidance.

Let’s wrap it up

Your turn. What things do you often hear in a yoga class that you wish you knew what they really meant? Or, if you’re a teacher, what do you often say in a class that you wish you had more time to explain in a group class? Leave a comment below.

Image by Elina Fairytale, Pexels

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