So, maybe it is because I was an English major in college, or maybe because my German mother always took pride in being very fluent in English and has been correcting my grammar since I started speaking, but I really think that the words you use when teaching a Yoga class matter a lot.
In teacher training, you are taught how to lead people into and out of poses. You are taught many words like “allow”, “let go”, and “melt” and how to use your voice in a soothing way to set the background for students to have a completely relaxing and mystical experience. Even passed down through the generations of Yoga teachers are phrases like “gently open your eyes” and “release into the pose” and even the typical directions like “come to a flat back” or “knees chest chin” to get down to the floor. Have you ever really listened to those words and directions? Have you ever really thought about what exactly you are trying to convey to your students? Most of these words and phrases come out of your mouth from habits well ingrained from years of Yoga classes and from a notion that Yoga teachers are supposed to be mellow and accommodating.
The thing is…when I am taking a class that has so many of these cliché and blanket words I start to get twitchy. Certain expressions leave me feeling like Yoga is kind of a big joke and Yoga teachers really don’t know what they are doing because they are merely regurgitating the stuff they learned in training and from other teachers. Other expressions like “starting to” or “begin to” followed by a lot of “ing” words, called gerunds make me feel like class is one big run on sentence and there are no boundaries. I know the intention of the teacher is to be kind and offer students a place to “listen to their body” but perhaps to much of that is not a good thing. These are some examples of what I am talking about specifically and possible solutions to making what you say more powerful and effective.
Using the word “gently” or “carefully” or any of that ilk: When you speak, and you hear yourself speak, ask “how does one close one’s eyes gently?” Or ask “why do I want them to be gentle in this case?” And finally, listen for those kinds of words and notice if you say them over and over. The more you use a word, particularly when it isn’t really appropriate, the students will tune you out, and the words will lose their value. You will find you don’t need to say “gently” very often at all.
“Drop,” “sink,” “melt,” “soften:” Again, these are words I hear a lot, and I question what the teacher is really trying to say. I assume that when someone says “drop your back knee down to the floor” their intention is to get the students to put their knee on the floor. But think about it…when one drops something, what sound does it make when it hits the floor? And do you want your students’ knees to make that sound when they “hit” the floor? Probably not. Ouch! My knee caps are tingling just thinking about it. So what is it you are trying to say? I think you want them to put their back knee down and it’s okay to just say that. Or, if you want more intention in the action you could say “set or place you back knee to the floor” and end up in the same position with fewer bruised knees. The same goes for “sink, melt and soften.” We, as Yoga teachers, want students to become more aware of their bodies and so should use words that require action toward a destination rather than a passive movement.
“Begin to straighten your arms overhead…” and then I always want to say “and then what?” For some reason, Yoga teachers are cursed with this one. I say it too, and I have no idea where is comes from, but it makes no sense. I don’t want you to start something and not finish it…or if I ask you to start something I tell you where and how to finish. I know the desire is to give modifications to those who can’t fully bring their arms overhead, but I say give the actual modifications and skip the “if you can” kind of language. So, I would say instead of start to “bring your arms over head or stop at the place your elbows start to bend.” That is a clear direction. It gets students thinking about whether their arms are straight and thinking about what is preventing them from making them straight. That knowledge is powerful for your student’s growth and body awareness.
“Ing” words: This one is hard to explain, because it is really a grammar thing, but it kills me to go to a class when every verb is turned into a gerund and not used as a gerund. I am also very guilty of doing this, but because I am such a crazy person about this, I manage to fix my sentences before I leave people on the hook. And that is just what gerunds do unless you finish the thought. Gerunds leave people hanging waiting for what comes next. It is very subtle, but it is real. It is also a passive way of giving directions, which can leave people feeling a little uneasy. Here’s the example of using “ing” verbs to talk students into down dog from child pose: “Coming up to your and hands and knees. Tucking the toes under. Moving your hips back toward the back of the room. Lifting your knees. Coming to downward facing dog.” My document program is giving me the green squiggles under those sentences because they are, in fact, fragments, and leave people feeling incomplete; like something is missing. Here’s the solution: “Tuck you toes under. Move your hips back toward the back of the room. Lift your knees and come to downward facing dog.” You are welcome to link actions together with gerunds because that is their purpose. For example “Keeping you’re the curve in your low back, tuck the tailbone down toward the floor to lengthen the spine.” No squiggly lines under that sentence.
Phew! I feel like I am being so nitpicky, but if you want to be a good teacher and teach awesome classes, you have to nitpick yourself. These things matter when you want people to leave your class feeling relaxed and centered instead of a little anxious and incomplete with bruised knee caps! I suggest you audio record yourself teaching once in a while to really hear your language habits. You might be good enough to hear yourself while you teach, and be able to correct on the fly. When you are new(ish) to teaching I know your struggle is just to get the words out that make the students get from one pose to the next without damaging them! I’ve been there. This takes time. And getting feedback from another teacher and/or recording your classes will bring you much closer to developing a great skill with words.