Yoga Safety Cues? Really?

Matthew Taylor, Thu, 06 Sep, 2018

Ever Hear Any Of These?
“Find your own expression of this posture”

“Find a resting position that feels good to you”

“Know that wherever you are in your practice is perfect”

“Listen to your body.”

“Don’t eat yellow snow.”

“Let your breath be your guide.”

Ironically, only one of these cues—the one about snow -- has direct value in keeping the student healthy and safe. Since verbal cues as teaching tools are important in yoga injury prevention, here are some we need to think about:

• How should yoga teachers and therapists use verbal cues?
• Can a cue actually increase injury risk?
• Who decides the value of a cue?
• Who started the common cues and why?

Before we dive in, let’s set some context for the discussion.

A Bit Of Background

The topic of yoga safety and injury prevention is relatively recent. In 2004 I wrote an early peer-reviewed article on yoga safety. (Full text here.) Later, in 2007, in the first Symposium on Yoga Therapy and Research ( there were two plenary talks on the topic: one by Dr. Loren Fishman and one by me.

Yoga therapists have since created a definition, a scope of practice, standards for schools and credentialing for members. During this period, I have been one of the expert witnesses in yoga injury cases. Those experiences have given me a unique perspective regarding industry standards and the opportunity to assist in the construction of legal arguments with counsel around applied ahimsâ (non-harming yama), and reasonable measures to prevent yoga injuries.

So with that as context, let’s begin this important discussion about the use and value of verbal cues as ahimsâ using the above examples.

Cues to Toss Out:

“Find your own expression of this posture” If the student could find their own expression of a posture, what’s your role as a “teacher” or “therapist”?

“Find a resting position that feels good to you” Really? Unfortunately “Feels good” is not the same as safe or optimal for injury prevention. What are the components of a safe resting position beyond a subjective guess? If the student can find the resting position that feels good on their own, what value do you bring to class?

“Know that wherever you are in your practice is perfect” Wrong. Students get themselves in all manner of risky, inappropriate demands on musculoskeletal structures, and attempt movements beyond their motor skill level because of instructions, ego, or ignorance.

“Listen to your body.” What does that mean? Avoid all discomfort? Do only what feels good? The body gives audible feedback the student should be able to hear? Totally meaningless.

“Let your breath be your guide.” Just because someone continues breathing does not mean what they are doing is safe or with minimal risk. Holding the breath can be a sign, but requires much more inquiry from both student and teacher.

It is time for us as a community to ask the questions I posed earlier.

Steps You Can Take to Improve Cues

Here are some ideas for ways to improve your use of cues:

• Identify the ones you use most often through the filter of explanations above and modify your use accordingly.
• Get involved. Presently the Yoga Alliance is going through an extensive process of updating teacher responsibilities and scopes of service to students.
• When you attend workshops where bogus cues are offered, politely request discussion about the safety value of the cue during a break.
• Keep a diary of cues you find effective as a student, as well as those you use where you note observing effective responses from the students.
• Gather more knowledge through sites such as this one and mine.

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