When Instructions Collide

Shoulders up or down?  Tuck or don’t tuck?  Feet together or apart?  Knees bent?  Fingers apart or together?  You will hear different instructions from different teachers.  Which instruction is correct and specifically what are you supposed to do?  

Yoga is relatively new in the west. The first yoga studio was opened by Indra Devi in Los Angeles in 1947.  Later arrived the major branches and styles of yoga that we know today, including Sivananda, Baptiste, Bikram, Ashtanga, Iyengar, Viniyoga, plus many more. If you were to look at each of these practices, the poses and instructions would be basically the same but yet different. As yoga got modern- and Western-ized things changed.  Liberties were taken by the collection of newly minted yoga teachers. Poses were added, choreography became popular and heat, mirrors and music were added.  The practice was customized the wants of the teacher and fast growing student base. If you go to a yoga class today it might be close to the traditionally teachings or not at all. Also, there has been a rethinking of some poses as they translate from Indian bodies to Western bodies. The knowledge of anatomy and kinesiology are being integrated into the practice.

With these varying styles came different cues, emphasis and instruction.. Teachers that come from different lineages offer different perspectives on what is “correct”. The length of stance in triangle pose or downward dog varies. The Ashtangis want the fingers closed, the Anusara folks want the fingers open and expressive and Iyengar teachers want them closed and active. It can be confusing.  

What should a student do with contradictory cues?  I have two suggestions.  One, when you’re in a class, respect the tradition/style and instruction being offered. Of course, is anything is painful or obviously not good for you, modify, modify.  Two, if you want to avoid confusion, stick with one style/lineage/teacher which will allow consistency.  No more cafeteria yoga. As my teacher, Larry Shutz, said, “Many teachers make a confused student”.  This can be true.

Here are some of those contradictory instructions that I hear in classes and my take on them.  

Shoulder up or down:  I have been taught and believe that the shoulder blades rise as the arms go overhead. Asking a student to keep his shoulders down and raise the arms goes against the natural movement of taking your arms overhead.  You have or will hear teachers making adjustment and verbally telling students to drop the shoulders. Explore both ways and see what works best for you.   

Tucking:  When backbending, flattening the lower back by tucking is in opposition to what you’re asking the body to do.  However, internationally respected yoga teacher and back specialist, Larry Payne, reminded me last week that blanket instruction do not work for everyone. Those with lower back issues where extension is contraindicated, they should tuck.  

Feet together or feet apart?  Stability is greatest with the feet apart, usually the width of your helps, which is not as wide as you think.  So, if you’re looking for stability in a pose, that’s going to be the best stance. This goes for standing poses, like Warrior 1 and 2. A heel-to-heel stance is going to give you more stability than heel-to-arch. Body proportion and leg shape (bow or knock kneed) make a difference.

Twists: For many people it will be healthier for the lower back to allow that entire pelvis to follow the twist. This is especially indicated for those with any sacrum or “SI” issues.  For example, if you’re twisting to the right from chair pose, allow your left knee to slide forward.  In a seated twist to the right, like ardha matsyendrasana, it’s okay and encouraged to let  the left hip slide forward.

Yoga is not one-size-fits-all. It originated as one-on-one, teacher-to-student meeting. Instructions were individual.  However, today with the large class sizes the teacher does his/her best accommodate the bulk of the students.  Be kind, do your best to understand and accept the teachings, and modify to keep yourself safe. Perhaps you find that one practice/teacher that fits you best and you’ll avoid the confusion.