The language used during a yoga class is one of the most important aspects of teaching. This encompasses everything from intonation and volume to cadence and diction, right down to the very words you choose to express yourself. Certain forms of yoga require dedicated study by the practitioner; Ashtanga classes taught in Sanskrit, for one. To the yogi who dips her toes in many different waters, or the newer yogi just learning about how his body moves through space, language is big factor in whether or not they return to the class you’ve just taught.
Below are five words I’ve removed from my teaching vocabulary. I’ve never actually used the last two, but the first three were part of my arsenal for some time, until I realized how off-putting they could be. While I admit my classes do not fall into the vague ‘accessible to all’ category - it is a very physical practice - I have tried to create a vocabulary that is inviting and inclusive. For that reason, these words are no longer spoken aloud during the practice.
1. Students. There is a long history of studentship in the world. At one time or another, we are all students, whether enrolled in formal education or studying under someone further along a particular path. I simply cannot look out at the faces in my yoga classes and call the people assembled students. They’re people who have come out to play for an hour or 90 minutes. I’ve made numerous friends who first took my class; I met my wife after she partook in a teacher training program I co-founded. I don’t introduce any of these people as my ‘students’ when we’re hanging out. I know that context is relative, but there’s a strange dynamic that occurs when yoga teachers begin referring to everyone who takes their class as students, much like when musicians refer to their listeners exclusively as ‘fans.’ I recognize the traditional guru-student history in yoga, but few of us practice in this manner anymore. And please, please, don’t refer to your students - friends - in the class as ‘children.’ I’ve heard that one a few times, and it’s an outright disaster.
2. Advanced. This was common in my own vocabulary, mostly in regards to postural variations. I would offer one pose, followed by an ‘advanced’ version of it. Then I really started to listen when other teachers did the same thing, and realized how off-putting that was to newer students. It does one of two things: pushes someone to extremes in trying to accomplish something they’re not prepared for, or deters practitioners from even trying. One friend of mine always refers to variations as ‘level one,’ ‘level two,’ and so on, which is safer ground. I simply say ‘different’ variations of the pose, while still making it clear that it might not be for everyone. The term ‘advanced’ sets up the ego to jump to conclusions about what the human carrying it is really doing in that room in the first place.
3. Physics. Yoga teachers do not know anything about physics. Don’t invoke the term. Most physicists insist that even they don’t know anything about physics. So how, all of a sudden, is someone with 200 hours of movement training an expert on advanced mathematics and quantum mechanics? I’ve probably read a dozen books about physics simply trying to wrap my brain around the most basic concepts, and I’m still walking up from the basement. The idea that, as I’ve heard on a number of occasions, ‘physics proves what yoga teachers say' is rubbish. All you’re doing is trying to back up what you want to be true with a science that is conceptual to begin with. It’s dishonest and unnecessary. Stick to the Sutras and leave neutrinos out of the studio.
4. Oneness. Rolling off the last word, I begin this one with a question: What if everything you’ve thought was true was shown to be wrong? Would you be willing to adapt your theory to work with new research, or would stubbornness and disbelief take over? In a Scientific American article, ‘The (Elusive) Theory of Everything,’ physicists Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow discuss the possibility that there is not one string theory, but potentially five (which holdouts have dubbed M-theory in attempts to rectify the fact that a unified theory may no longer be possible). As they write, ‘it seems that the traditional expectation of a single theory of nature may be untenable and that to describe the universe we must employ different theories in different situations.’ Which is partly why I wrote not to invoke physics, unless you want all of your hopes of ‘oneness’ crushed. Yes, we all breath the same air (which creates the yoga-neutrino philosophy) and we all were born on the same planet, but too often I find that ‘oneness’ translates as ‘the oneness that I believe in.’ Which, of course, is prime for fundamentalism, but not necessarily understanding our existence.
5. Save the Planet. What you really mean is ‘save our existence.’ The planet is going to get by. In fact, we’re here because the planet did what it did in the first place. If it tires of us, it knows what to do. I am in no way implying that we should do whatever we want. I’m a committed vegetarian for social and ethical (as well as health) reasons. I’m also the Creative Director of the Tadasana Festival, and during our first event last weekend, we were able to divert 91% of our trash into recycling and out of landfill. Cleaning up after ourselves is top priority, and aligns with the yogic notion of saucha, or cleanliness (purity). But the idea that mu waves created during meditation help heal baby dolphins in Japan is what turns people away from yoga. How about: Help out one another. Be kind. Be compassionate. Be generous. Keep your ambitions real and your accomplishments will be valuable. Send them into the clouds and you’ll always be stuck in the rain.