Keeping Yoga Language Simple

The other day I was teaching a yoga class and a voice went off in my head: "Be quiet and watch." I realized that I was so busy speaking that I wasn't watching to see if what I was saying to the class was even having an effect. I also realized I was saying way too much.

When we teach a yoga class, we have so much information to choose from when thinking about how to present each pose. There’s the English name, the Sanskrit name, the alignment, the spiritual focus, reminders to breathe, counting (if you do that kind of thing), the primary action of the pose and then perhaps a metaphor to draw a connection between the pose and something else. You might even be inspired to tell a short story or speak freely with class while they’re holding a pose. With all of these options, you can see why that without a filter or at least a sense of what’s going to be most effective, you can easily overwhelm your class with instruction and information.

That was my experience the other day. I got caught up in what I was saying and forgot one of the key components of yoga teaching: speak and then look at the class. Do the students understand your instruction? Are they moving in a general direction that matches what you’re suggesting? If not, what can you do differently?

Teaching is in part a combination of what we say and how we say it. There are, of course, other dimensions of teaching but the language component is a significant tool available to us. So how can we make the most of what we say? Here are just a few ideas:

Short and sweet: Think of the essential thing you’d like to describe and stick with that. Sometimes I find myself off on a tangent thought and although I see it through, I doubt it has little effect. I like to think about the primary action of the pose and be sure I communicate that. Something like, “lengthen your spine” for Downward Dog or “lunge deeply” for Warrior One might be an example.

Say what you mean: As much as I like to think that a forward fold is like a waterfall or Triangle pose is like the sun with its rays burning brightly, I’m not sure how these metaphors sit with students or even how effective they are. (and yes, I’ve said both of these things in the past) I may connect with these visuals in my own practice but in the 10 or so seconds I have to communicate the “how-to’s” with students, it might be more helpful to stick with something more direct, clear and instructional.  

Less is more: I’ve found in the classes where I’ve stuck to a method of 2 or 3 pieces of verbal instruction per pose, that gives me time to watch and gives the students time to make it happen. It also creates natural quiet space in between poses.

Speak it like you’d build it: Just as you would instruct alignment starting with the foundation of a pose and working your way up the body, I like trying to present my verbal cues in that direction too. If I speak to their feet, then arms, then go back down the body to the knees, it can get confusing (unless you notice the same physical cue would be helpful for a large portion of the room; then by all means, say it).

Use descriptions that help them connect, not disconnect: I once had a teacher that eloquently described the story of Hanuman, the Hindu god, and I found it interesting as well as inspiring fodder while we were diving into the pose. When I tried to re-create that moment later in one of my classes, I couldn’t capture the essentials and the moment was lost. Rather than pick a story to build connection, perhaps try words that in their nature, evoke a natural sense of connection. Things like “broaden” or “expand;” “soften” or “express.” These words can help students move beyond the mechanics of the alignment to a deeper exploration of the pose and as long as used sparingly, can add some depth to the experience for students.

Ultimately, what you say to your students is indeed only one piece of their whole experience. What you say, coupled with how you say it and how you present yourself to the class combine to provide them with one aspect of their experience. As always, being yourself and being as present as possible go a long way towards building connection with your class.


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