Your words mean a lot…

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.

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?

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.

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.

Do your practice

This morning I taught two brave women who decided a torrential downpour would not stop them from coming to class. This is a chair yoga class designed for people who have balance issues or who have trouble getting up and down easily from the floor.

Today, I walked into the room and both women were lying on the floor with their legs on the chair peacefully waiting the start of class. I took this as a cue to the way they were feeling and proceeded to teach the entire class of poses on their backs. Not until the last few poses did they have to get upright.

I love being able to respond to the needs of my students. I might have a plan, and I always have a destination in mind as I teach my classes, but sometimes all that must go in order to offer people what they really need.

But how does one get fluid enough to be able to go from a well laid plan to a spontaneous of often deeply inspired practice?

The trick is knowing how yoga works. How does yoga act in the body and how to poses relate to each other in their effects on the body? These are questions I ask myself every time I teach. Of course, now, after so many years of teaching, this process happens quickly. I'm not even sure I can trace this line of questioning, but I know it is always there. I know because I can tell you exactly what I was thinking when I made the pose choices. I know because when I tap into a place of knowledge and wisdom that comes from my own practice and my own experience with life and my body I won't make bad choices.

Teaching yoga is an art. Some of you are teaching regularly and some haven't gotten their feet wet, but no matter how much you do or don't teach, it is from your own self observation that you will develop that level of fluidity and skill that allows you to teach anytime, anywhere and to anyone. Going to classes are great. You can learn a lot from other teachers, but the real wisdom and magic comes from the time you spend on your own mat in your own life creating and flowing from your own intuition.

Even if it 5 minutes of movement and 5 minutes of meditation...do your practice!

Engaging the Core

I gotta' admit, every time I hear this phrase I feel a little like screaming. First, because this expression is used way too much and second, it is used without any explanation of what your core is and how to engage it. That leaves a bunch of people sucking in their gut or hardening their abdominal muscles without really doing it with awareness. This causes back pain, tight muscles (in a bad way), restricted breathing and therefore, overtime, fatigue.

Here's one way I talk about core in yoga. Move your ribs back. You either know exactly what I am talking about and probably did it as soon as you read that, or you have no idea and think I've gone mad! Over the last few weeks, I have been teaching this particular alignment action with a little more emphasis than usual because it is an action that we all need to do more.

Now, I know some of you are collapsed in front. Your shoulders are rounded, your belly is squashed and when you were a kid your teachers probably told you to sit up straight to which you reacted with your chest sticking out and your back arched completely the other way. And yo go to an exercise class, and even some yoga classes, and the teacher will say "engage your core" and you harden the muscles in your belly and hold your breath and get all rigid (of course...not everyone does this and not every instructor is unclear with saying this in a way that is helpful).

Moving your ribs back requires a deeper level of awareness than say "lengthen up through the crown of your head." You can lengthen up through the crown of your head, but then you have to move the bottom of your ribs back so your core muscle (called the transverse abdominals) can properly engage and therefore support your new and improved posture.

I don't just say this alignment action without context because to build a good posture you need other parts of the body to engage as well. Here is a step by step realignment sequence that will engage your core and improve your posture. You can apply this anytime you have a minute and remember to do it.

1. Engage the muscles of the legs by rooting down through the feet and hugging the muscles of your legs to the bones.

2. Isometrically squeeze your shins toward each other (isometrically means to make the action of sliding your feet together, but not actually doing it), which will make your inner upper thighs feel wider apart.

3. This is where is gets a little tricky, so I will write this as carefully and clearly as I can.  Look down the side of one leg and move the top of the thigh bones over your ankles without tipping forward in your upper body. I like to say "stick your butt out so you get a deep curve in the lower back." This tilts the pelvis forward.

4. But we don't want to walk around like a duck, so the next step is to make your pelvis tilt back upright. You do this by keeping the legs strong (all the actions you just did), draw the floor of the pelvis up, and lift the pubic bone to the ribs as you move your tailbone (a very mysterious part of our anatomy) down. This will encourage the ribs to move back so your chest is not sticking out.

Top it all off by lifting through the crown of the head to make the spine long and the sides of your body longer. You have just engaged your core!

It's like making a commitment to yourself., and this is how Yoga shows up in your life outside of your physical practice. You can say that engaging the core or moving your ribs back is the part of posture building that is a little mysterious, a little challenging and is very easy to forget or get confusing  when you are not being diligent just like so many of the commitments you make all the time to yourself.

What can you do every day to remember your commitment to making the life you really want? One little new habit that you do every day will make some pretty big benefits later down the road. You can add to the daily practice when you get the hang of each new practice until your whole entire day is one long series of practices that point you in the direction you want to go.

If you want to learn more about how yoga can improve your health and wellbeing, give me a call or send an email. alignagain@yahoo.com or 692-7041.