Language is a pretty unique part of who we are. Everything from tone, inflection, and the words we choose will communicate something different. How we speak is so important in day-to-day life so it makes sense that it’s an essential skill for yoga teachers. Clear, concise, cueing act as some of the holy grails of teaching. Understanding what or how to do a pose is great but it’s not just about the efficiency of the cue. Communication also affects how a yoga practice will impact students mentally and emotionally. There are so many ways language can be used to empower students, yet it can also send them in a downward spiral. You might be thinking “whoa, a downward spiral sounds intense! I don’t want to do that to my students…. Have I done that to my students?”
Hopefully not, but I’d like to point out that there’s always the opportunity to turn things around. There are things I’ve said or done while teaching and evolved from those experiences. There are also situations that teaching ideas have been brought to me that just aren’t a good “fit” for me and my beliefs. My hope is that these suggestions help you consider how students digest the words offered to them.
Speaking to the assumptions
I feel like this is a big one in the yoga world, especially for teachers. It’s assumed that someone else is having an experience because we had that experience. The idea that someone should “feel this” or “have that” sensation makes the assumption that we’re all the same. The only person that knows what’s going on in your body is YOU. Everything else is an unknown. I love talking to people about how they experience different poses because you’ll get this crazy mix of answers. Nearly everyone has a love/hate relationship with every pose… even the “universal” favorites like child’s pose or savasana have students who cringe each time. In fact, the only thing that can be assumed is that it is a unique experience, even if it’s one person practicing the same pose over and over. For example, there are so many times I’ve practiced savasana and been ushered into a peaceful, awakened state while other days I lie there restless and frustrated. When identifying something for students I like to use suggestions like you might feel this. Sometimes, I offer my own experience as a guide without assuming it’s what they’re feeling too.
For all of you anatomy nerds out there (myself included!) I like to add the disclaimer that even the anatomical experience can vary a lot! There are poses where it’s “supposed” to be a hamstring stretch but a student might feel it more in their ankles.. even if they’re doing the pose the “right” way and they look identical to everyone else in the room.
Teaching in “levels” or beginner vs. advanced
This one always confused me as a teacher. Aren’t we supposed to be offering students the chance to be their most authentic self? Don’t get me wrong, I love a good challenge but who are we to judge what that challenge is? I just don’t see the point in offering levels which makes it seem like one choice is better than another. It’s the same reason why I don’t believe in labelling poses as “beginner” or “advanced” especially in public classes. Yes, there are going to be some poses harder than others but I think the most advanced students can recognize the days those poses feel “right”, and the days they don’t. One day doesn’t define a student. And who are we to judge or make a student feel “lesser than” they are?
“How do you challenge them then?” I had one student wonder in a teacher training. Then she asked if you could give those challenging poses to anyone who felt brave. This leaves me to question whether we have the right to define who is brave and who isn’t. What if the student choosing to take child’s pose instead of down dog is actually standing up for themselves for the first time? Or maybe the student who chose NOT to do an arm balance is resisting the urge to be perfect all the time.
So what can you do instead? There’s no simple concrete answer, but I recommend being cautious with how variations are presented. Give students the opportunity to explore other options but also remind them of how it feels in their body and their breath. At the end of the day, that’s the most important part!
Using humor can be a great tool especially if a pose is intimidating. Relating to students by sharing your own struggles with certain poses can be really helpful. It’s nice for them to remember that their teacher is a human being, not a yoga robot.
One last word on demoing. I think it’s great to demo a pose especially for visual learners. However, if you are offering more challenging variations be mindful of what you are demoing. It’s nice to demo the options but make sure you take the “easier” variation to stay in. This will welcome students to choose whatever they want without fear or shame. Those students who are struggling will appreciate that you’re right there with them!
Talking about props in a negative way
Now you might not straight up say “try using this prop if you suck” but that’s the message that some students might be receiving depending on how it’s integrated into the class. The majority of students will be turned off from props if it’s suggested they’re inflexible or weak by using them. Props can open doors for any student, regardless of how long they’ve been practicing for or how advanced they seem. Try exploring props in a way that presents them in a positive light. I find the key here is to demo with the prop and explain how it’s helped your experience.
For example, you’ll nearly always find me sitting on a block or on a cushion. I explain why this is important while using the prop and the majority of students follow along. It’s important that students understand a.) how to use the prop and b.) why they’re using it. It’s also essential that YOU use the prop as students tend to follow good modelling and assume that the teacher is always doing what’s best.
I hope this has given you some useful tools to consider for your next class. Has this brought up more questions for you? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments down below!