Often, I feel the cues I was taught in yoga teacher training don’t relate to what we feel in our bodies when we’re practicing yoga. It’s as if we’re learning from two different textbooks: the old-school cues that don’t always make sense for everyone versus what we know about how the body actually works.

In recent years, we’ve heard yoga teachers say, “Not every approach or pose works for every body,” which is fine, but all that doesn’t address the problem.

I’ve spent a lot of time obsessively thinking that there has to be a better answer. At some point, I came to understand that all the cues that teachers use are about bones. But what we’re doing in yoga, sensationally, relates to muscles. So why are we cuing bones? Why not try to alter the cues to muscles, which are what we’re experiencing in each pose? Why not focus instead on what a student feels?

Rather than cuing a 90-degree bend in the front knee, we could cue students to “keep bending your front knee until you feel like you want to disengage your back knee.” That often creates the same version of the pose—or something even harder—and it gives students a frame of reference. So then the student understands, “Oh, I don’t need to create a shape, I just need to re-create a sensation.”

The actual shapes don’t matter. They really don’t. Managing a sensation as well as an ego, that’s where the benefit of yoga comes in. The physical side of yoga is only beneficial if you take all of what you learn off the mat and into your life. Ultimately, the emotional intelligence we derive from our practice is what is going to help us.

On teaching—and reaching—all students

It’s almost impossible to separate our ego or self-worth in the face of yoga. Some people simply can’t make certain shapes, and the story they create in their heads is often, “I’m not going to be any good.” Teachers need to have some sense of when students are reaching their limits and know how to guide them compassionately from there. At that point, you don’t need yoga cues. That’s when you start speaking to the heart space, and minds shift, and you see cognitive reframes. It seems complicated. It’s not.

When I think back to what it was like to be a newer student, the times that I walked away thinking, “That was a great class,” it was always because someone was talking to me from the perspective of a real person. As in, “You’re probably feeling this right now.” And yeah, I was, but I hadn’t been thinking about what I was sensing because I was too busy thinking about the cues and creating a particular shape. Using muscle-engagement cues is a good start to redirecting students’ awareness.

As teachers, we have to understand that what makes any experience more memorable is not how much we know. It’s about whether we make the class or workshop or video as interactive an experience as possible. A lot of the teachers I really looked up to when I was a new teacher were inspiring for reasons that had nothing to do with their actual teaching. It was the experience—the communication, reliability, and ease. Even if they were talking to a studio packed with 50 people, it felt like they were talking to me.

That’s something subtle, but it’s how I try to teach in-person and online. I want to genuinely communicate with each person. The way I am in my in-person workshops and videos is the way I am when I’m hanging out with friends. Before I began to teach yoga, I taught organic chemistry to non-majors, and I learned that if no one said anything, I needed to try to get them to talk. When I teach yoga, we don’t just discuss the tricky pose that someone has been trying to do for Instagram. I’ll ask, “Hey, what injuries are you dealing with?” If I can get a response from someone who shares, “I’m struggling with that” or “That’s me,” then the rest of the class starts to interact, and it becomes more inclusive. The same thing happens with my Instagram videos. People will comment, ask questions, and share, “Hey, I’m having a hard time with whatever, can you do a video on this?”

Anatomy, self-awareness, and arm balances

When I started to practice yoga, I was just there for the workout. I would take classes with a tantric Bhakti Kundalini woman who happened to do handstands all the time. I also learned from a super-structured alignment guy who was doing handstands all the time. They created this environment of, “Let’s just learn.” That set the tone for my teaching.

I try to meld my science-based knowledge with the yoga practice in a way that works for everyone. I originally studied to become a doctor, which led me to focus on anatomy and physiology in yoga. I’m consistently trying to get creative with it! I always want to know how I can explain something a little differently so that it can be better understood. It’s an approach that acknowledges the student must feel safe and strong rather than be in perfect alignment or able to achieve a pose. It’s not about the shape. It’s about how to work with our foundation. It’s a space of self-exploration. How do you manage the self-talk when you experience that discomfort?

In order for that awareness and understanding to happen, you have to place yourself in challenging situations. It’s like learning a language—the more you practice, the more proficient you’re going to be. When you can have courage in the face of fear, you’re learning more than just yoga.

I’m super excited that I can teach something that I know is actually helpful, regardless of body type or height—which really don’t matter. Yoga is so much more than the pose. It’s finding courage to try. Any kind of change isn’t going to happen until you see an alternate possibility that looks better than your current situation.

See also: Learn how to prepare your body and your mind for Eka Pada Koundinyasana

About our contributor

Hiro Landazuri is the founder of Body Smart Yoga. He empowers others with the necessary tools to grow into their ideal selves. He regularly teaches in-person and online workshops and shares teaching videos on Instagram.