Teach Yoga Effectively; Avoid these Seven Phrases in Class

As yoga teachers, we want to make the practice as clear as we can. But there are several common ways of speaking in a yoga class that make the instructions confusing. I’ve identified seven phrases we can toss out to make our teaching more effective.

This list comes from the ‘Vocal Communication’ chapter in my Frameworks Yoga manual. I’m teaching a 300-hour course this year in Pittsburgh and next year in Ohio, and offer modules for thoughtful programs in Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Ohio.

1. Just

There are very few times in a yoga practice where a student is “just” doing anything. In asana, there are many body parts interacting with one another. I’ve heard the command “just focus on your breath” in headstand. However, nobody is just breathing in headstand; everybody has headstanding to do as well. A yoga teacher can teach to these various practices and incorporate them into one cohesive whole.

Even in shavasana, where there’s a stronger case for using the word, students aren’t “just” doing anything. They are relaxing their body, relaxing their brain space, looking for places where tension is being held, observing thoughts as they arise.

In short, using “just” can prove effective if the students should focus exclusively on one thing. This doesn’t happen often in a yoga class, so use “just” sparingly.

2. Vague cues

The more general a cue, the less a student is going to absorb it. Whether it’s “engage your legs” in a warrior pose or “relax your body” in shavasana, general cues can’t really be acted upon by students. As yoga teachers, our job is to foster viveka (discernment) in class. Cues should reflect this.

When deciding how to cue an action, think to yourself “when I do it, what exactly am I doing?” Movements are easy to figure out, but static and stability cues are more difficult. Even sharpening a cue from “engage your thighs” to “draw your quads into your femurs” can be more impactful.

3. “-ing”-ing all the cues

In an effort to avoid sounding pushy, yoga teachers avoid giving actual cues in class. Instead they “-ing” all the cues and describe what their students (are? should be? it’s hard for students to know) doing. Not only is this indirect, but it wastes precious syllables when teaching students. Compare these two cue sets, describing a part of a sun salutation:

  • “Inhaling, reaching your arms overhead. Exhaling, bending forward, placing your hands on the floor.” (24 syllables)
  • “On inhale, reach your arms over head. Exhale, bend forward and place your hands on the floor.” (21 syllables)

While shortening the phrase by 10 percent, we’ve also managed to make the cues direct.

If there is a justification for “-ing”-ing, it would be in meditation practices where the goal is to become a witness to sensation, and to relax the ahamkara (ego) in the practice. However, in this case I still think direct commands result in the clearest instruction for students.

4. “Great” (500 times in a class)

One of the Three Elements in the Frameworks Yoga system is pratipatti (recognition). This means acknowledging the students are working diligently, breathing well, and generally bringing their A-game. The teacher recognizes the efforts involved.

Sometimes teachers use “great” like a punctuation. Every move the students do is great. Whether it’s the tendency to be nurturing, or simply being uncomfortable with silence, saying “great” too much devalues the word and winds up having opposite its intended effect. No student believes the teacher thinks their effort is great when everything the student does is great.

So the recognition needs to be for real jobs-well-done. Whether somebody finds a second of balance in tree pose or headstand, or everybody makes it through a rigorous lunge sequence, the recognition matters because it’s used sparingly.

As yoga teachers, it is our jobs to be authentically supportive. The more present you are in class, the more you’ll realize how hard people are working. You can then recognize their efforts accordingly.

5. Maybe

This is a word that expresses a feature, but winds up becoming a bug. In class, it pays to be direct with options. “Maybe” implies the teacher isn’t sure if the student should do it.

In life, if somebody says “maybe” to us, we can get frustrated by the uncertainty. So instead of offering “maybes”, offer options. Compare these two:

  • “In side angle, reach your arm skyward. Maybe reach your arm overhead.”
  • “In side angle, reach your arm skyward. As another option, reach your arm overhead.”

For students, this is both an autonomous decision they can make and a mark of certainty on the teachers part.

6. Really (like “really lift” or “really melt”)

Save two syllables! You can express the “really” in the tone of your speech if you’d like to stress the importance of this cue. You can also choose a stronger word. Instead of “really lift”, you could use “boost” or “rocket” for example.

7. The

Using phrases like “the arm” and “the body” should be avoided. My guess is the use of “the” is tied to teachers not wanting to sound pushy. It may also have to do with the teacher’s “othering” of their own body in their practice.

“The” doesn’t work for two reasons: First, it sounds less like a command, causing confusion. Second, it disembodies the body part, reducing the wholeness and integration a yoga class should provide.

Teachers often aggravate this by declaring props to be yours. “Place the hand on your block” is opposite of what yoga teachers should teach. Compare these two cue sets, turning people’s torsos into Revolved Triangle:

  • “Place the left hand on your block. Reach the right hand out to your right. Twist the belly clockwise.”
  • “Place your left hand on the block. Reach your right hand out to the right. Twist your belly clockwise.”

It is clearer and students are more embodied when props are called “the” and body parts are called “your”.

head_shotThrough his workshops, classes and individual sessions, Richard Gartner reaches 100 yogis a week in Pittsburgh and beyond. He fosters a non-dogmatic and compassionate attitude about students’ abilities and circumstances. Click here for more information about Frameworks Yoga Teacher Training in Pittsburgh, starting March 2018.