How to Give Effective Cues in Restorative Yoga

Young attractive yogi woman practicing yoga, lying in Savasana or Corpse Pose a Restorative yoga practice, cues in Restorative Yoga Concept.

Article At A Glance

The way we frame our yoga cues matters to our students. Included are 4 types of yoga teaching cues with several tips and reminders for intelligent cueing in Restorative Yoga practice.

Have you ever had a massage, and the therapist’s touch is a bit off? It’s either too hard, too soft, hurts, or doesn’t feel like it’s doing anything. From the therapist’s perspective, they might be approaching it as they do for many other clients, but it’s just not having the same effect on you. 

Is there something wrong with you? Of course not! It’s just that your sense of what feels right is unique to you. 

Imagine if you were in that same treatment room and the therapist said, “You should be feeling your tight shoulder muscles relax right now.” If you didn’t feel that, you’d most likely say, “I actually don’t feel them relaxing at all! Is there something different you can try, or is there something different I should be doing?”

Yoga Cues: What We Say Matters

Yoga Cues in Restorative Yoga can be especially profound.

None of this conversation happens in yoga class, of course, because in class, the only one speaking is the teacher. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t plenty of conversation going on in your students’ heads! In fact, you know that when you’re taking someone’s class, you’re interpreting the cues you hear, you’re responding non-verbally to what you hear, and you might even be thinking, “That doesn’t apply to me at all!”

That’s why we have to watch what we say and how we say it because we don’t have the benefit of hearing from our students. We don’t know how they interpret what they’re hearing and can only rely on what we see in their bodies as they move on the mat. This is one of the reasons it’s helpful to walk around and hold off from practicing with the class. It allows you to see how your cues are landing on your students.

Because of all these considerations, the cues we use and how we format them are critical when it comes to how much our students will understand. Many teachers say they feel confused and overwhelmed when they walk into the room because their head is so full of information that they’re unsure how to share it. Other teachers say they’re tired of repeating the same thing from class to class. In contrast, others sheepishly admit they repeat cues they pick up on social media because it sounds interesting, but they don’t understand the anatomy behind the cue.

Young female yoga instructor teaching Head-to-Knee Forward Bend Pose also known as Janu Sirsasana Pose where yoga cues and alignment are important.

4 Types of Yoga Cues

While we’ll focus on sharing cues in restorative poses, let’s first start with the types of cues we can share. From there, we can focus on restorative poses specifically. The four types of cues I share with teachers when I’m working with them inside my program are as follows: Action, Alignment, Anatomy, and Feeling-based, or Somatic cues. Let’s briefly look at each one.

 Incorporating knowledge of anatomy is important for all poses and including in the cues in Restorative Yoga.

1. Action Yoga Cues

Are just like they sound: they tell the student exactly what you want them to do. These are words like “Step your foot forward,” “Hug your legs close,” or “Lift your back heel.” They’re the easiest for students to understand, don’t require any specialized knowledge of yoga, and can provide a really powerful experience for students of all levels because they are succinct and crystal clear.  

2. Alignment Yoga Cues

Speak more to the shape of the pose and require a bit more interpretation. Examples include “stack your knee over your heel” or “stack your hips over your heels.” 

3. Anatomy Yoga Cues

Speak to the anatomy of the pose. They might refer to the bone, the joint, the joint action, the muscle in action in the pose, or an action you want the student to take that’s grounded in anatomy. The idea is to share with the student something about the body, either to increase their understanding and/or to increase their comfort level, stability, or understanding of what to do in the posture. These yoga teaching cues should only be used if you can answer the “why” behind the cue; this means if someone were to ask you a question about this type of cue, you could explain the rationale for the anatomy you’re sharing.

4. Feeling-based Cues or Somatic Cues

Speak to bring awareness to the sensation the student may be having in the posture. They don’t “prescribe” what the student should be feeling but focus more on increasing the student’s awareness of the experience they’re having. Let’s go into this type of cue in a little more detail.

Avoid the “Shoulds” in Your Cues

Just as in the earlier experience of going into a massage treatment, and being told what you should be feeling, imagine you’re in a yoga class, and you’re being told what you should be feeling in a pose. Certain phrases evoke a sense of requirement, things like “You should” or “You must.” These are words we want to be aware of because we don’t want to tell our students what they should be feeling. Our students should have agency over their experiences and feelings in our classes, and our role can be as a guide to facilitate that journey.

Students lying in Corpse Pose or Savasana pose. Cues in Restorative Yoga can be subtle even silent. Wellbeing and wellness concept

So let’s look at some of the Restorative Yoga cues that might prescribe a particular sensation and then look at alternative ways to present somatic-based cues. The word “somatic” means “of the body” or “relating to the body,” so this suggests that somatic-based cues are those that help our students shift their focus from what they’re thinking to what they’re feeling. 

Promoting Inquiry with Your Yoga Cues

Something you might hear when you go into a yoga class is “You should be feeling your hamstrings stretch,” perhaps in Downward Facing Dog Pose (Adho Mukha Svanasana). Now, of course, in Downward Facing Dog Pose, you could make a case that the hamstrings are lengthening because the legs are straight, and the role of the hamstrings is knee flexion. 

However, to then make the leap that the student is experiencing a sensation of stretching might be making an assumption. This is why it’s helpful not only to understand the anatomy but to use the anatomy as a guide when asking students a question about what they’re feeling. So, for instance, in Downward Facing Dog Pose, you could say something like, “Do you feel your hamstrings lengthening in this pose?” In this way, you’re simply acting as a facilitator and using your knowledge of anatomy to target the students’ focus on what they’re feeling in the area of the back of the thigh.

Re-Engage Your Yoga Students with Questions 

Teacher guides student in yoga class. Asking Questions is important for yoga students.

Let’s take a look at Half Pigeon Pose (Ardha Kapotasana). If you focus on the bent leg, where the hip is in flexion and external rotation, and the gluteus maximus on the posterior hip is lengthening, you could ask the students, “What do you notice about the right side compared to the left? Do you notice any sensation in the hip that’s on the floor? Do you notice any resistance on one side compared to another?” Notice that you’re simply acting as a guide in all of these yoga teaching cues. However, you may be drawing on your knowledge of anatomy to inform the types of questions you’re asking.

Another approach to use is to share a cue by framing it as a question. You’ll find you automatically get your student’s attention when you format cues in this way. Sharing cues as statements, while this can be helpful and effective, can sometimes get monotonous if that’s the only way you’re framing them. When you share cues as a question, it piques people’s interest; their ears perk up. This is a wonderful way to re-engage your students in being more present, and a perfect opportunity for this re-engagement of presence is when you’re toward the end of class and doing Restorative poses. So think of all of the approaches to somatic-based cues as inquiry questions; your role is as a facilitator to ask inquiry questions of the students to allow them to notice what they feel in their body.

Silence Can Be a Powerful Yoga Cue

Restorative yoga with a bolster. Group of three women in yoga studio, lying on bolster cushion, stretching and relaxing during restorative yoga, Restorative Yoga concept, healthy active lifestyle.

Sometimes the best way to help your students notice what’s happening is silence. That means you share a cue and then stop talking for the remainder of the time they’re holding the pose. This can be unnerving for teachers sometimes, as the silence can feel awkward and deafening. Part of being a confident teacher is knowing when to step back, resist the urge to talk and know when and when not to use cues in Restorative Yoga.

These approaches can be used for any pose; however, they’re designed specifically for Restorative poses. Decide which tip resonates with you most and try it in your next class. 

Karen Fabian

Yoga teacher, Author, and Founder of Bare Bones Yoga, Karen Fabian, has a background in rehabilitative medicine and healthcare. Her passion for anatomy and human movement is behind all she does, including her work with yoga teachers inside her program, The Yoga Anatomy Blueprint Learning Program. She also earned her Certified Personal Trainer certification in 2017 and Corrective Exercise certification in 2019 with the National Association of Sports Medicine to deepen her knowledge of human movement.

Her books include “Stretched: Build Your Yoga Business, Grow Your Teaching Techniques,” “Structure and Spirit,” e-books called “Key Aspects of Anatomy for Yoga Teachers,” and “Understanding the Why Behind the Cues.” She also has authored her own anatomy manual used in her online and live training.

Karen has her B.S. in Rehabilitation Counseling from Boston University and her Master’s in Health Care Administration from Simmons College. She is an Experienced Registered Yoga Teacher, a Yoga Alliance Continuing Education Provider, and was one of the first Certified Baptiste Yoga Teachers.

 She has been teaching since 2002 and lives in Boston. 


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