Jana MontgomeryRobyn CapobiancoTeachYogaYoga Anatomy

Anatomy 101: Are Muscular Engagement Cues Doing More Harm Than Good?

Bridge Pose

Is “Engage your hamstrings” really the best cue for Bridge Pose? It’s up for debate.

When I practice yoga in a public class, I love the combination of a good flow and longer holds. The opportunity to explore the movement of my breath and body while experiencing stillness helps me leave class feeling great.

In a recent vinyasa flow class, the instructor called out Virabhadrasana II (Warrior Pose II) and said we were going to hold the pose. I was excitedly about to drop into my breath for the hold when the teacher then called out, “Now, contract the muscles of your back and outer hips, and engage the muscles of your inner thighs.” As if that weren’t enough to attempt at once, she added, “Then, turn on your triceps.” I was boggled. How was I supposed to contract my outer hips and engage my inner thighs and turn on my triceps? I have a PhD in neuromechanics, and I couldn’t figure it out. As a result, that inner peace I was going for turned into utter confusion, and rather than being in the pose, my inner teacher piped up (albeit silently) as I constructed cues that would better help all of us students in the room accomplish the actions our teacher was requesting.

Sadly, muscular cues like “contract,” “turn on,” or “relax” are becoming increasingly common in yoga class. But do students—even advanced practitioners—really know how to engage these muscles? When you’re told to “engage your hamstrings” in Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Bridge Pose), for example, are you really engaging your hamstrings to the best of your ability? Or would you be able to more efficiently engage your hamstrings if the teacher told you to “isometrically drag your heels back toward your butt”? And more importantly, do cues to engage specific muscles achieve their intended goals of helping us find better alignment and ultimately feel more embodied? Scientific evidence points to no.

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