Hone Your Yoga Teaching Language

This entry was posted on Sep 20, 2022 by Charlotte Bell.

A few years ago, a yoga student from 30 years ago returned to class. He told me he was finally ready to practice again after a very long hiatus. His schedule had prevented him from continuing all those years ago. But there was one other thing that made him hesitate to come back until now. He told me that one time, long ago, I apparently made a comment on his practice that went something like this: “That’s how you do the pose when you’re a beginner.” Hearing this, I was horrified, but not completely surprised. In the early days of my teaching I had a pretty embarrassing case of beginner’s hubris. Obviously, my yoga teaching language needed a lot of work.

Mindful speech is something I’ve given a lot of energy to in the past 20 years. After a massive speech faux pas—that’s so often what it takes—I committed to be more aware of the impact my speech has on others. That, of course, filtered into my yoga teaching language, as well as in the rest of my life.

As yoga teachers, our first responsibility is to create a safe space for our students. We can’t know what kinds of conditioning or trauma they’re bringing to their practice. So it’s important that we make our yoga teaching language as welcoming, clear, non-judgmental and truthful as possible.

Yoga Teaching Language: 3 Crucial Questions to Ask Before You Speak

By the time we reach adulthood, speaking is second nature. Speaking in our first language is automatic. That’s why it’s sometimes challenging to have to monitor what comes out of our mouths. It can feel as if we’re taking a step backward. And yet, as yoga teachers, we have a responsibility to think before we speak.

You may already be familiar with the three questions I’m about to introduce. They’ve been a part of our culture for a while now. Asking these questions before we speak can help keep our communications clear in our daily lives. They can also be an important tool in forming our yoga teaching language.

Here are the questions:

  • Is what I’m about to say true?
  • Is it useful?
  • Is it kind (or non-harming)?

How to Incorporate the 3 Questions into Your Yoga Teaching Language

So how do these questions apply to yoga teaching? I’ll give a few examples, but I urge you to contemplate them on your own. In what ways can you honor these queries when you’re teaching yoga?

Is It True?

No matter how many years we’ve been teaching yoga, there’s a whole lot we don’t know. For example, we only know a tiny sliver of our students’ unique histories, genetics, and their physical and mental conditioning. Inevitably, students are going to ask us questions we can’t immediately answer. While it’s important that we share our knowledge freely and openly, it’s equally important that we acknowledge what we don’t know. It’s okay, and actually important for our and our students’ learning process that we be truthful when we can’t answer their questions. This can be an inspiring springboard for co-learning with our students.

When a student asks a question you feel you can’t answer truthfully, it can be helpful to inquire as to why they’re asking the question. Their explanation can give you more insight into their experience, and can lead to more questions. This can help you get to the core of the issue.

Is It Useful?

Your students come to your classes for a variety of reasons. Some come to decompress and destress. Others come to care for their physical bodies or to address a particular physical issue. Still others come to learn about how the system of yoga can help them live more gracefully. They likely don’t come to hear your opinions about politics or your latest drama. While creating a comfortable, informal environment can be helpful, distracting students from their practice by telling an unrelated story is not useful. Of course, there are exceptions. Sometimes telling a brief story can make a concept you’d like to emphasize in the class more relatable. But in general, your speech should relate to whatever the class is experiencing in the moment.

Is It Kind?

This, of course, is the key question to ask in making your class feel safe. Like the mindless comment I related in the first paragraph, a single arrogant or dismissive comment can turn a student away from yoga, for years if not forever. We have a responsibility to yoga to represent it with the wisdom and compassion it deserves.

Here are a few ideas:

  • Let go of using the words “good” and “bad.” It’s not easy. But these two words express subjective judgment. Try using words such as “healthy” or “unhealthy,” “helpful” or “unhelpful.” For example, when a student asks about a pose or alignment “rule” you think is unhealthy, you could say, “In my experience, this pose (or this alignment concept) is not helpful for everyone.” Then explain why you’ve found that to be true. Encourage them to investigate this for themselves.
  • Yoga students sometimes regularly practice different types of yoga. Sometimes you may not prefer the other yoga styles your students are practicing. Or you may not care for their teacher. Please don’t badmouth other styles or teachers. First, obviously your student is benefitting in some way from practicing other yoga styles or they wouldn’t be doing it. Badmouthing a yoga style or teacher belittles your student. Second, it makes you look small. It’s neither useful nor kind.
  • Avoid saying, “If you can’t do [insert pose], do [a different pose] instead.” Offer modification options without implying that not doing the “full expression” of a pose is somehow deficient. I like to offer modifications first, and then give options for other variations. I assiduously avoid classifying poses as “advanced” or “beginner.” I also avoid using the phrase “full expression.“ Instead, I’ll invite students to practice whichever version of the pose creates a mild to moderate stretch, allows them to breathe easily, and allows them to relax incrementally into the experience.

A suggestion that works with all the above questions is to pause before you speak. Like any skill you want to learn, you have to practice. And it can be very helpful to give yourself time to form your instructions and responses, rather than blurting things out on automatic. This gives you time to set your intention. Changing speech habits requires intention and the willingness to work at it. It also requires a commitment to not judging yourself when you falter. Instead, you can resolve to learn from your mistakes when they happen. Honing your yoga teaching language will bring more ease to your students’ experience, and to your own life.

About Charlotte Bell
Charlotte Bell discovered yoga in 1982 and began teaching in 1986. Charlotte is the author of Mindful Yoga, Mindful Life: A Guide for Everyday Practice and Yoga for Meditators, both published by Rodmell Press. Her third book is titled Hip-Healthy Asana: The Yoga Practitioner’s Guide to Protecting the Hips and Avoiding SI Joint Pain (Shambhala Publications). She writes a monthly column for CATALYST Magazine and serves as editor for Yoga U Online. Charlotte is a founding board member for GreenTREE Yoga, a non-profit that brings yoga to underserved populations. A lifelong musician, Charlotte plays oboe and English horn in the Salt Lake Symphony and folk sextet Red Rock Rondo, whose DVD won two Emmy awards in 2010.