What You Say in Class Has a Powerful Impact on Your Students – 5 Words to Lose When Teaching Yoga
Choosing the right words is key to empowering our students versus intimidating them and causing them to compare themselves to us or others in the class. One of my main goals as a teacher is to create a welcoming & supportive environment where, ideally, together with our students, we can create a community of enthusiastic students who are each progressing at their own pace.
How to get there? Let’s start by giving thoughtful consideration to our word choices.
Our words have power. They carry energy and have an impact on our students. This is why it is important to be mindful of the words we choose while teaching.
Secondly, students place teachers on a pedestal, whether they should be there or not. This imbalance of power means our words have even more of an impact. The impact can be positive or negative.
Thirdly, the majority of the classes you teach will have a variety of experience levels in the room. I believe the words we choose need to be accessible and understandable to all our students.
Many of the words I’m going to suggest that we eliminate from your verbiage have a subliminal judgment to them. There’s an art to creating a welcoming and inviting space that encourages students to trust their own intuition and make wise choices for their own practice, instead of just doing what the teacher says and giving over their power and agency to us. (Check out my previous blog on that here: Are We Ruining Our Students’ Intuition? – Empowering vs. Disempowering Teaching in Our Yoga Classes)
Here is a list of 5 words that are often used in class that, in my humble opinion, could be cut from our vocab all together .
1. Word to lose: Should
Who am I to tell you what you should or should not do, feel, or experience?
The word “should” implies that I know better than you what you “should” be doing and that I know what is good for you. I definitely don’t!
Your body, your Yoga practice, and your life, are yours. They are yours alone. Your journey is very different than mine and I don’t know what your journey will be. Also, I don’t know better than you, in any way, shape or form. Yoga tells us that we are all the same at our core.
We are all perfect already.
This means, we can’t tell your students what they should be doing, feeling or experiencing. All of their experiences are valid.
While in a seated forward fold, teachers often say: “You should feel this in your hamstrings.” However, this isn’t true for all students. Someone highly flexible will not feel anything in their hamstrings.
If a teacher tells the student they should feel it there, they might push too far in order to
experience what they were told they “should” be feeling. This would put their sacroiliac (SI) joint and hamstring tendons at risk.
At the same time, someone else in the class might feel it in their quadratus lumborum (QL), because they are tight in their lower back. For them, hearing this cue might make them think they are doing it wrong and try to change in some way to match what the teacher is saying.
Both of these experiences are valid. As a teachers, we want them to have their own
experience, instead of trying to adjust to have the experience that we think and tell them they “should” have.
What to say instead:
We can ask questions, to guide them to they dive deeper into their experience and become more connected to their own journey:
- We can ask: “Where do you feel this, maybe your hamstrings or lower back?”
- Or we can say: “Try turning your focus inwards, you might feel this in a few places, or
not at all. Try to stay present with your own experience."
2. Word to lose: Engage
While an experienced Yoga practitioner will understand a cue to engage a muscle like the core, many students, especially new students or students with limited body awareness, will not understand how to engage a muscle. This lack of understanding renders this cue ineffective, thus it’s pointless.
What to say instead:
We can give them cues that cause the muscle to engage. These are called “action cues”.
For example, if we want them to engage their thigh in Trikonasana (Triangle Pose), we could cue: “Press into the front foot.” This is an action that will cause the thigh to engage.
Speaking to the core muscle, we could ask them: “Draw your hip bones up towards your ribs.” This is an action that will engage the core when they do it.
3. Words to lose: Level
Personally, this word is a pet-peeve of mine. I think there are so many other thoughtful and encouraging ways to offer options. We don’t need this word!
Saying the word “Level” introduces a rating scale to the class. It is divisive, competitive, and judgy. In my 20 years of teaching I can not count the number of students that have confided in me that they felt ‘less-than’, because they heard a teacher use this word in class.
Also, others feel ‘better-than’ when they can do the advanced ‘levels’. In both of these cases the teacher is telling them that they are judged on their performance and external looks, versus their internal attributes.
We are connecting them more to ego than to their truest self, which is the exact opposite of Yoga.
This word is discouraging for many people and makes many people feel as if they are not
included. Regardless if you believe this as the teacher or not, this is how people interpret this word.
What to say instead:
We can use “If…, then” type of cues. This is the perfect way to educate students on how to choose the right option for them (for that moment in time) and trust their intuition in an
We want to give them exact, measurable ways to judge for themselves which option to take.
For example, in side plank we can cue them into the regular version and then offer two
- “If you can’t keep the hips in line with the shoulders then lower your bottom knee to
- “If you are stable and can breathe comfortably, then explore lifting the top leg.”
Cueing in this way draws their focus and attention to themselves, not others, and asks them to check-in internally, instead of eternally.
Instead of always rating themselves based on others and external measures, they can start to evaluate their internal world and what works for them.
This shift can massively change one’s practice, as well as experience of life. What an
empowering way of teaching Yoga!
3. Words to lose: Correction
Our job is not to judge your students and tell them what is wrong with them.
In fact, many of your students are quite good at the negative self-talk already! If we really listen, we will hear it all that time. “I’m not good at Sun Salutations”, “I have a weak core”, “I can’t balance.” Students tell their teachers what is wrong with them all the time.
Yoga tells us that we are perfect already, that our worth is not based on our ability to do Sun Salutations or balance! Thus, if we approach your students with the idea that they are perfect as is, that they don’t need “corrections”, we have the amazing opportunity to offer them some positivity and maybe even open their mind to the possibility of changing their negative self-talk.
Our students do not need to be fixed.
What to say instead:
Let’s bring them back to gratitude and beauty.
When a student starts to tell you, with shame in her voice, that she can’t do a certain pose, maybe say to her: “But how amazing that those two legs let you walk into this room today. And how amazing that your two arms allow you to pick up a baby. Who cares if you can’t do the pose the way it looks in a book? Your body is beautiful and perfect just as it is.”
4. Words to lose: Adjustment
Our students are living, breathing, beautiful people, they are not mechanical devices.
The word “adjustment” implies they need to be fixed, much like the word “correction”. Are we going to go get our tools fix some malfunction? Let us rather give our students many tools to use on the journey of life… and we are so blessed that Yoga provides these tools!
However, our job is to offer the tools to them to use as they need, at their own discretion.
These tools allow them to tap into their own inner guide, so they can follow their own intuition.
We don’t have the tools to ‘fix’ them, that isn’t our job, and they aren’t broken in the first place ;)
What to say instead:
Instead let’s offer questions to encourage exploration and internal focus in their practice.
For example, in pigeon pose we can say: “Try putting a block under your hip, how does that feel?”, and then “How does it feel if you start to walk your hands forward?”.
Although cultivating our language can take time and effort, it is so worth it!
Not only do we get to offer a more welcoming environment for your students, we get to
cultivate awareness in how we use our energy and power through our words.
This can help us as teachers and in life.
Lastly, and to me most importantly, using words that reflect the true meaning of Yoga is
essential, if we say that we are teaching Yoga! We can’t say that there is no judgment in Yoga and then use judgy language.
We want to practice what you preach as best as humanly possible and uphold what Yoga really is!
How will you choose to word your classes from now on?