In yoga, we tend to rely a lot on two ways of offering instruction: verbal cues (aka talking) and visual cues (aka demoing). I remember leading entire sessions in teacher trainings on these subjects, and for a long time they were the bread and butter of my own teaching.
But as I’ve grown as a teacher of movement, it’s become clear in my experience that, despite their prevalence in the yoga community, these types of cues have some pretty glaring limitations, which I’ll note below. Because of these limitations, I’ve come around to incorporating a third type of cue in my teaching: tactical cueing.
The Shortcomings of Verbal and Visual Cues
Now, if you’ve been teaching or practicing yoga for any amount of time, you’ll know how important it is to be able to speak in a way that’s clear and understandable to the class—in terms of volume, enunciation, specificity, and accuracy. Speaking about movement is an art in and of itself, yet while you can have an excellent script (or improv) for your class, you might still not be reaching everyone clearly. That’s because very few people excel at learning through auditory modalities alone. Most learners need more input than just hearing it.
So if you want students to learn something, in general, showing and telling them is better than just telling them.
But visual cueing also has limitations. When we as teachers are demoing, we can’t also see what’s going on with our class—whether we need to give students more attention, or whether they’re comprehending what we are saying/showing at all.
Not to mention, struggling to see how your cues land with students is made extra difficult when teaching on Zoom. We can never totally know what’s going on inside someone else’s body, but when students are shrunken down to tiny bodies (or parts of bodies, depending on how they’ve angled their camera) inside tiny rectangles on our computer screen—rectangles that are also chock full of other distractions like the students’ surroundings of the room they are in and maybe also children and pets running willy nilly—it’s nearly impossible to know anything about their experience. Then multiply that by how many students are in your class.
Or, maybe it’s hard to see because the student’s camera is off, entirely.
Teachers, it’s a lot to see—or not to see. Am I right?
The Case for Tactile Cueing
Enter tactile cueing, which has become one of my favorite ways to help students find alignment and movement patterns from the inside-in, rather than from the outside-in, as is the case when trying to follow the words or demonstrations from a teacher.
Now, when I say tactile cueing, I don’t mean hands-on adjustments. Those aren’t so useful right now—because they aren’t so possible right now. I’ve also personally never been big on giving hands on adjustments.
When I say tactile cueing, I mean when the student finds alignment through self-administered touch that helps them feel where and how to move their body. There are many advantages to this way of teaching, for the student and the teacher.
1—Tactile cues usually involve props, whether it’s a block or belt or your own hand against your body. Props offer a touchpoint to guide awareness of the movement by the student through themselves, which reinforces their sense of agency while orienting them in their body. It also offers opportunities for external cueing, which research suggests is a superior way to cue for skill acquisition.
2—Touch is a powerful way to teach movement because it enhances proprioception. Proprioception is our ability to feel and know where our body is in space while moving or in stillness. One reason tactile cueing enhances proprioception is that skin—the part of our body that we touch with our hand or a prop—is incredibly sensory rich. In fact, our skin is one of our primary organs of proprioception.
Our props—therapy balls, blocks, blankets, the wall, the floor, our skin—all touch us with different qualities. Blocks are small, angular, and hard. Blankets are loose, soft, and malleable. Bolsters are thick, heavy, and dense. This variety of unique inputs informs our awareness, as well.
3—Each prop can be used in countless ways, even beyond the traditional arrangements in yoga for sitting, lying, or placing a hand on. Tapping into this well of creative possibility is so beneficial for you as a teacher, but also for your students’ muscles—the ones that help them move and the ones that help them learn.
One Prop, Many Possibilities
Over the course of pandemic, I created an eight class series One Prop, Many Possibilities, for my Virtual Studio. In each class, I spotlight this strategy of proprioceptive cueing, all with just one prop.
Below are some clips from my class called “You and a Bolster,” where we use the input of the bolster to prepare for the peak pose of camel, Ustrasana.
Bolstered by our bolster—a weight to lift, a soft pillow to hug and wrestle, an object to swing through space—we receive all the new input, have new experiences, and move in new ways. At the end, we even lie down on it!
PS: No bolster? No problem. Roll up your yoga mat and then wrap a blanket of desired texture around that (secure it with tape or a belt).