Yoga instructors love coming up with creative ways to explain what your body is supposed to do as you go through a series of poses. The language can be evocative and poetic, or whimsical or funny. And sometimes — especially for a beginner — it can be downright confusing. Here’s what it all actually means.
“Breathe into your ___” (back, hips, etc)
Yoga is, according to many practitioners, all about your breath. You hold each pose for a certain number of breaths, or you breathe as you move into or out of a posture. Sometimes an instructor will tell you to “breathe into your back” or “breathe into your hips.” Your breath only goes as far as your lungs, so what do they really mean?
If they name a body part that’s in your torso, they’re usually referring to some part of the act of breathing. We actually have a lot of different ways of making space for our lungs. One is to expand the ribcage outward in all directions. Another is to allow our chest or shoulders to rise. Yet another is to keep the chest still but allow our lungs to fill the ribcage area and squish our organs down into the belly. (You can do these all at once, or focus on one area more than the others.)
So breathing into your belly means breathing in a way that your belly moves. Breathing into your back can refer to expanding the ribs outward.
What about other body parts, like the hips? This is usually said when you are in a pose, and you’re going to stay there for a few breaths. Your body moves subtly as you breathe, so this is an opportunity to see if there’s any way you can get a little more stretch or movement in the body part the teacher names. If you can’t feel your “breath” going there, try to visualise a swoosh of energy, or focus a little more on the sensations emanating from that body part.
“Stand up one vertebra at a time”
Your vertebrae are the little bones in your spine. Each one forms a protective ring around your spinal cord, connects to your various back muscles, and supports the weight of your body, among other jobs.
If you’re bent over, for example in a forward fold, you might be asked to stand up “one vertebra at a time.” (To be pedantic, one of these bones is a vertebra, and the plural is vertebrae. You’ll hear “vertebrae by vertebrae” sometimes, but that’s grammatically incorrect. Just saying.)
What they actually mean is to tuck your pelvis so that it’s more or less upright (since you are done leaning forward) and then to keep your back rounded as you return to a standing position. This can be a gentler way of standing up than simply hinging upright from the hips, although there’s plenty of room for yogis to debate which is the “better” way to move.
“Hop, step, or float to the top of your mat”
The top of your mat means the front of your mat. Hopping and stepping probably make sense. But how do you “float” from a plank position to standing?
The float is actually a specific way of moving that is fairly advanced. It’s like a low-key handstand, where you put your weight into your hands so that you can pick up your feet and place them into a different position. Here is a video that shows progressions toward learning how to float.
“Let your anus blossom”
They don’t usually talk about your butthole much in beginner classes, but if you do enough yoga you’ll eventually hear a cue about “flowering your anus” or “sending your sunflower to the sky.” This can be a hint to relax your butt muscles — like, stop clenching your cheeks — or in some cases they want you to do what one redditor described as a “reverse kegel,” actually relaxing the sphincter itself. In any case, Yoga Journal confirms that it is completely normal to giggle like a child when your instructor talks about your butthole.
“Activate your toes”
To “activate” a body part is to contract the muscles in and around that body part. If you’re activating your toes, you might be spreading or clenching them, or even trying to do both at once. Sneak a peek at the instructor to get an idea of what they want you to do, and do your best to tense the muscles of the body part they are naming.
“Let your muscles fall from your bones”
Don’t take this one literally. Your muscles are attached to your bones, but letting them “fall off” means to relax those muscles. On the other hand, “pulling your muscles into your bones” means to flex them. Or, to use a word we just learned, activate.
“Root into the floor”
This means to use your balance as well as the muscles of your feet to make sure you have a stable, strong connection to the floor. You’ll tense the muscles of your feet, maybe spreading your toes, maybe activating your lower leg muscles to be sure that you’re holding your feet in place rather than letting them just sort of chill underneath you.
If you hear about the “corners” of your feet, think about wearing a pair of old-school quad roller skates. You have four wheels; if you leaned too far to the front or back, you’d fall. If you leaned too far to the right or left, you would find yourself skating on a curve. Try to distribute your weight evenly over those four “corners,” or think of your foot as a tripod (big toe, little toe, heel) and aim to put equal weight onto all three parts.
“Fold yourself like a Japanese ham sandwich”
You may hear this phrase if you go to hot yoga. It’s from a script written by problematic (to say the least) guru Bikram Choudhury, who wrote of hands-to-feet pose: “Touch your stomach on the thighs, chest on the knees, face on the legs below the knees. From the side you should look like a Japanese ham sandwich, no gap anywhere.” Practitioners of hot yoga will sometimes debate why he picked a Japanese ham sandwich instead of, say, peanut butter and jelly. I don’t have an answer for that.
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