Do you teach in settings where higher-ups frown upon, perhaps even prohibit, physical cueing? Do you sometimes struggle to find alternate ways to help your students achieve safe and optimally beneficial postures? Such cases will be increasingly common in settings like hospitals, mental health care institutions, memory care units, jails, and substance abuse rehabilitation sites. In these settings, physical cueing may very well trigger students who have experienced trauma, or be misunderstood by those in compromised mental states.
On the one hand, there are those pressures from administrators. On the other, if the goals of physical cueing can be achieved in other ways, why risk triggering students? Read on for suggestions for those alternatives. No doubt, many of you readers are likely familiar with at least some of the following. But, for us yoga instructors, I firmly believe that refreshers and alternate perspectives never hurt! Please contribute any comments, concerns, questions, or additional ideas below. Thank you, all the best, and Namaste!
1) Guide students to physically cue themselves. This can allow you to physically cues
students without laying hands on them. Better yet, it can be an extremely effective teaching tool, because there are multiple types of sensory input involved - tactile, kinesthetic/somatic, auditory, et cetera. An example of this type of cueing is to have students place one thumb in the hip crease of the forward leg of asymmetrical standing postures (such as Lunges and Warriors). Then have them feel that thumb draw the hip crease back in space, if necessary (and it most often is).
Another variation of this cue that I like to use is with bound twists, standing or seated. Emphasize to students that with hands having contact at or just above the hips, they can sense if they’re overrating in the hips, or having it start primarily in the low back and belly. Another self-physical cue that I like to use is to have students deeply inhale with hands at heart center (Anjali Mudra) and feel the sides of their thumbs help lift up the sternum. Notice how much breath you can truly take in, I say to them. See if you might be able to find that deeper inhale at any point, and closer to all the time, I add.
2) Have props be your hands. We all know that props can be wonderfully helpful for
bringing the floor to our bodies in asana practice, in active and restorative postures. They can also be very useful physical cueing tools! For instance, in a core strength sequence, or even standing in Tadasana, a block (at the skinniest width) in between the upper thighs can guide students to truly engage the inner thighs. That's helpful for building inner thigh strength - but it also contributes to stable and safe alignment of the inner leg line, the knees, the pelvis, and low-back (all those anatomical areas being connected, of course!).
Another classic example of this type of cueing is a strap around the upper arms (just above the elbows) in Dolphin Plank, Dolphin, Sphinx, preparations for Scorpion Postures and the full posture itself. Props are also helpful for deepening and properly aligning Seated Forward Fold (Paschimottanasana). For less mobile students, a strap can help connect the feet and hands to ground the posture and encourage deeper folding (short of aggressively pulling oneself in by the strap, of course). For students who can easily touch their toes (without over-rounding through the spine), putting a block on the other side of their feet and having them hold it can encourage further folding and grounding.
3) Use specific and clear anatomical cues. While verbal cueing is a whole other “ballgame” of cueing, certain types of verbal cues can work just like physical cues - by bringing awareness to a certain body part to then initiate a particular action. These must be concise, ultra clear, and specify particular body parts in order to be those types of verbal cues. For instance, in order to have a student bring knees closer together in Bridge Pose (as it's a common tendency for them to splay wider than the hips, which destabilizes the posture and strains the knee joints), I like to put the backs of my hands inside his/her inner knees and say “Please push into me here, just a little”. If I’m at a site that disallows physical cueing, I’d instead say: “Please draw your knees slightly closer together by engaging your inner thighs”.
The relatively short cue tells the student what to move where, and how to move it. Another example of this type of cue is to ask students to “bend a half-inch deeper in the front knee” in a Lunge or Warrior Pose: what, where, and how is right there. Physical cue versions of this type would be light touch right at the back of the knee, or (my personal favorite, because it gives students more agency and allows for more learning, I think) placing a hand at the point in space to where you’d like to see a student bend his/her knee and asking him/her to “bend into my hand here”. All these can most likely get the job done (pending students’ efforts towards their own practices), so they’re all effective yet different ways of achieving the same goals.