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As part of Denver Yoga Underground’s yoga teacher training, students are required to attend five classes outside of the formal program.  They then submit a written reflection on their experience.  Here is an example of the process, this student learned to become a better yoga teacher through observation.

In total, I attended three Vinyasa yoga classes, one Iyengar yoga class and a Hot Power Yoga class. Overall, I learned that a clear theme for a class is essential as is the teacher’s use of language.

For the purposes of this exercise, I took a wide range of classes including a “goat yoga” class. The goats freely interacted with students during the class. The teacher renamed poses like downward goat instead of downward dog, which complemented the theme. The pace of the class was slower to allow time for a goat to crawl onto or off of a person. The class was silly and fun however I would not go there to learn about the deeper meaning of yoga.  It felt more like a visit to the county fair with some “yoga poses” mixed in. It was more amusing than enlightening.

It felt more like a visit to the county fair
with some “yoga poses” mixed in.

The goat class had a clear intent, to generate a novel experience.  Other classes presented an odd mixture of unrelated intentions. I most appreciated classes that stayed within the parameters of their stated theme.  The Iyengar yoga class I attended had a clearly defined theme. This was the first time I participated in a class deconstructed a single pose with such detail. As a prospective yoga teacher, I was reminded of the many ways people can hone in on their craft.

The theme of a class, and the quality of instruction can either make one feel grounded or disoriented.  Yoga is a potent medicine. I can even create a new destiny.   Most of the time the result is positive however if the medicine is used in the wrong way, it can make someone anxious or imbalanced.

Yoga is a potent medicine.

Through this exercise, I learned the importance of language as a yoga teacher, how to pace a class, and why it is essential to have a clear theme. Overall, I learned to be a better yoga teacher through observation.

A well designed yoga class flows effortlessly; every instruction or posture builds consecutively.  And at the end of 60 minutes you seemed to have magically found the reset button. How is this possible? A successful class does not happen by accident, an experienced teacher will reference set principles to design and deliver their classes. Here are three keys to teaching yoga.

Three Keys to Teaching Yoga:

Connection

Connection happens when we truly take in, listen too, and or observe whatever is in front of us with genuine wonder, empathy and appreciation. This is true of all genuine human interaction. Relationships occur when we set aside our personal agenda and become more curious and attentive.

As a yoga teacher, we can build connections with students by closely observing students.  On the most surface level we observe their alignment.  We can reflect upon the quality of our instructions and if they translate for students.

Teachers can also be attentive to more subtle signals from students; such as the quality of breath, skin pallor, responsiveness, focus and general quality of energy. 

Experience

Most importantly, a yoga teacher is there to provide an experience for students.  They help them feel integrated and at peace. The sequence of a class, and the cues that a teacher uses, either support or undermine a students ability to have an integrated experience.  

Some teachers get lost in the superficial aspects of a class. They focus on the kind of music they play or how to choreography multiple postures together and miss the bigger picture, often falling back on cliche cues

The point of yoga is to connect to a reservoir of peace inside rather than manufacture a sensational experience.  As a yoga student matures, they become sensitive to their environment. Too much stimulation makes it hard to be mindful and attentive.

One of the most important ways that yoga teachers create an experience is through the cues they give.  Different yoga teacher trainings have different views on how to design a training and instruct a class. Students on our teacher training become fluent in four different kinds of language; each of which creates a specific kind of experience.

Briefly said, some cues direct the students attention to the outer body while others ask them to direct their attention to their inner experience.  Additionally some cues awaken the practitioner’s imagination.  These kinds of instructions are more visceral than they are literal.

Coherent

Practiced deliberately, yoga can be very therapeutic. A skilled practitioner knows how to modify their practice based on their circumstances. The practice they do when tired looks different than the one they do if they feel anxious.

The postures need to build off of each other naturally and based on established principles.  A class should to be integrated rather than disjointed.  When a teacher does not understand the deeper “why” behind each pose, and puts them together haphazardly, the class is less potent.

There are many factors that go into teaching a yoga class. Connection, experience and coherence and three important keys to teach yoga effectively.  A masterful teacher knows how to combine these elements to awaken the higher nature of the students.

As part of our YTT, students conduct a yoga teacher training exercise to enhance their skills outside of the classroom.  New teachers often experience a lot of anxiety about their new found role and the responsibility it entails. And they may even hesitate to get started.  Once they do get started, they typically find that teaching is not as scary as they’d first presumed.  By the end they feel relieved and event enjoyed their experience.  Here is a sample of one students experience.

As a first step, I set my intention for the assignment. This did not come easy, I have a history with wanting to control outcomes. However, I am can draw on my yoga experience and adjust to get the job done regardless of old anxieties. 

I had the following goals.  Number one, provide a safe comfortable place for students to have a wholistic yoga experience. Number two, the students leave class rejuvenated and to inspire student to continue their yoga practice. And number three, students learn to deal more effectively with their own life challenges.

Students leave class rejuvenated and to inspire student to continue their yoga practice

As I assumed the role of yoga teacher, I contended with my own insecurities around control and a lack of trust in other humans. I doubted if they would even show up and I procrastinated doing the assignment for at least 10 days, until I realized that all teacher probably started with some doubt and reservation. 

Once I was able to overcome this low point, I found teaching my students to be a fun and rewarding experience. In particular, I appreciated the chance to work with novice yogis. I remember my initial teachers and it felt good to be able to support others people who just started the journey.  This yoga teacher training exercise revealed that I do have love in my heart and desire to grow as a teacher, despite my initial doubt.

 

There are many ways to communicate as an instructor.  In this segment we will explore Figurative Language when teaching yoga. Figurative language is more sensual than it is literal, it invites the student to see and feel their body and mind as a poetic process.  This language invites us to soften the analytical mind with metaphor, imagery and even wisdom.  Figurative language invites the muse to guide the heart, mind and tongue.

It encourages students to see the practice and themselves through a unique lens; a specific color: such as red, yellow, or perhaps green.  Each color has a unique feeling-tone.  This specific color invokes a kind of felt-atmosphere or bhavana in Sanskrit. Different kinds of music carry a particular bhavana and have their own enchantment.

In contrast, Subjective Language is more neutral.  It does not have a particular agenda other than to be aware of what is happening in the immediate moment.  It’s the difference between observing the sunset and being the sunset.

It’s the difference between observing the sunset and being the sunset.

There is a definite place for Figurative Language when teaching yoga. It needs to be authentic.  It is important that Figurative Language be authentic.  Silly analogies or forced metaphors will not suffice.  This language is the voice of creative inspiration that cracks open a layer of insight in the student – a ray of light in a darkened sky. Or simple helps them feel held and more in touch with their imagination.

Generally, figurative language is used sparingly, and makes up about 10% of instruction.

Some may struggle to find their authentic creative voice, and to project it into the room, particularly as a new teacher. However, you do not have to start with a literary masterpiece on the first day. 

Here are a few suggestions to help you begin:
    • Teach depth rather than breadth.  Gear your class towards ONE simple principle, or theme and explore it in detail.
    • Ask provocative and rhetorical questions.
    • Share readings with heart

    • Use metaphor artfully
    • Make use of poignant silence
    • A well timed joke. Laughter brightens joy
    • Teach yoga philosophy in the most simple way possible without diminishing its intent and meaning. Be respectful.

    • Use synonyms to emphasize a particular point. How many ways can you describe a similar action in a posture?
    • Maintain a regular yoga practice and speak from experience
  • Integrate one or two of these principles at a time

 

This is the 4th part of an ongoing series that explores the different kinds of language a teacher uses to shape their classes.  In this segment, we look at invitational language when teaching yoga.

Invitational language is a subset of subjective language.  Subjective language asks the student to self reflect (or observe themselves) from a neutral perspective.  “Be aware of how you are breathing” as a simple example. Invitational Language invites students to become aware of their particular needs and gives them free will to act upon them.

Both subjective and invitational instructions ask students to reflect on their experience and sense of self.  This awareness teaches people to be less reactive and more empowered.

This awareness teaches people to be less reactive and more empowered.

Invitational Language is often used in “trauma sensitive” yoga classes. It has been proven to be effective for people for whom agency over their lives was forcefully taken; such as a car accident, combat, or growing up in an abusive household.

In many ways, “Invitational Language” is the antithesis of Directive Language, which emphasizes specific alignment cues and implies a “right way” to do the pose. Invitational Language, freely presents possible variations and encourages students to make choices for themselves.

There are many different ways to best communicate with students, depending upon one’s ability as a teacher and the needs of the students.  And there is an optimal place to use invitational language when teaching yoga. Gradually, a yoga student becomes a seasoned teacher, and learn when to use the appropriate style of language to best meet the needs of students. (You can find out more about our yoga teacher training here).

Examples of Invitational Language:

  • “If you feel like it……”
  • “When you are ready.”
  • “If you want to…”
  • “I invite you to try and _________”
  • “As an alternative, you can bend your knees”
  • “You don’t have to do any of these postures, you have free will”
  • Give people the option to participate or not

Words shape our world.  What we say and the manner in which we say it invokes a quality of attention and actionable instruction.  This is true of not only teaching yoga but also pertains to all moments of exchange. Teaching yoga with subjective language, opens a unique view for students.

Subjective Language is the yin counterpart of Directive Language’s  yang. This manner of speech is qualitative in nature, it asks the student to self reflect.  Directive Language emphasizes the outer parameters of the posture, Subjective Language invites the student to observe their interior experience.

In many ways, the deeper intent of yoga is to develop self-awareness, to recognize one’s bright strengths and shadowy impulses with equanimous attention. While much of the deeper work of self-awareness happens in meditation, Subjective Language can begin to build that bridge and generally constitute about 20% of class instruction.  

Teaching yoga with Subjective Language is best suited for quiet moments of composure versus more dynamic or demanding sequences. However there are exceptions to this guideline.

Two common arenas in which to apply subjective self reflection:
  1. During more intense postures (such as Warrior One) invite students to soften mental effort or cultivate a more neutral perspective. While the physical pose may be quite active, the mental pose is relaxed.
  2. During more relaxing postures ( such as Child’s Pose) invite them to soften effort, reflect on their felt-self, or breath smoothly. Become aware of how you are feeling and breath into it.
Examples of how to cue subjective experience:
  • Invite rest
  • Ask students to observe the interior posture
  • Surrender more fully to the posture
  • Soften the mental edges of resistance in the pose
  • Give the students assignments such as “ease your way into the posture one breath at a time”

  • Reflect on the effect of the previous posture
  • Refine the quality of your breath
  • Keep the physical posture strong and stable as you relax mentally
  • Teach meditation


As yoga teachers we create a container for people to experience greater joy and become more embodied.  The words that we use help shape that experience.  We can accomplish this by teaching yoga with Subjective Language.

The words we use and the associations attached to those words tell unique stories. How we use words and language communicates a particular relatedness and brings forth certain possibilities; ranging from confusion to revelation. The language of yoga teachers creates a unique reality.

Encoded within a language is a unique history, set of values and cosmology. For indigenous tribes of the North West their names for a particular plant indicates: what it looks like, the season it grows in, where it is typically found, if it is edible or not, and possible medicinal properties.  The name may also carry mythological significance, which unpacks yet more layers of significance.

Conversely, the name of the plant “Scotch Broom” doesn’t tell you as much.  Maybe it came from Scotland? Though I do see how it could be used as a broom.

As students of yoga, we can be thoughtful about the words we speak and the effect they have; even more so when using the language of yoga teachers.  This can be a little daunting for newer instructors.

This is certainly understandable and very common. In the beginning, teacher training students struggle to translate their own thoughts and words into a corresponding response in someone else’s body.  They may know what they mean but it does not always register for the one who hears them.  

Clear communication is the difference between
saying the “right words” and being heard and understood.

With time the aspiring student learns to use the language of yoga teachers more effectively.  They learn to communicate not only the basic instructions about how to get into and out of a posture but they learn to do so with grace and poise.

They come to read the expression on people’s faces with greater clarity, observe bodily posture, and interpret subtle cues in how students breathe.  All of which inform their spoken instructions 

Ultimately, the job of a yoga teacher is to invoke an experience inside of the student.  They can guide them to recognize deeper parts of themselves not only through the techniques but also through the thoughtful use of language.  The words we speak awaken a particular reality.

 

I have been in the yoga teacher training trade for almost 20 years.  The first training sessions were nowhere near as polished and the current program.  Still, the students loved the spirit of the training, even with the rough edges.  Initially, practice student teaching was an afterthought and now it is a mainstay.  Yoga teaching language is one of the most important skills we present.

While 65% of people learn visually, 5% kinesthetically, and 30% auditorily, the great majority of yoga instruction happens on the auditory leve.  A teacher projects their presence and voice into the room.  As such, what you say, and how you say is critical and it happens on a variety of levels.

Perhaps you have experienced a class where the teacher gracefully cued you into a pose, offered whimsical metaphors, challenged you, and helped you to feel ‘whole’.  Chances are pretty good that did not happen by accident, there is a method to how they use yoga teaching language.

There is a method to how they use yoga teaching language.

In this series we will look at three principles of yoga teaching language.  For today we will look at Directive Language.

Number One: Directive Language 

Directive language makes up roughly 80% of posture instruction. It is the most base-line aspect of teaching.  The goal of directive language is to provide clear instruction – the teacher is clear in their intent and the student is clear on what to do.

Contrary to directive instruction, is ambiguous speech which consists of filler words such as “umm”, “like”, “sort of”, “kind of”, “now we’re gunna”, or excessive use of gerrings.  

Gerrings are words that end in “ing” and are to be avoided.  It is the difference between “Lifting” and “Lift”;  “Stepping forward” and “Step forward”;  “Opening your top chest” and “Open your top chest”.  Can you hear the distinction?  One is more passive and the other more declarative, which is important if you want to guide a group of people.

Another enemy of Directive Language is to state the overly obvious and or vapid.  Cues such as “feel the stretch” in a forward fold or “feel your back” in cobra pose detract more than they add. After holding warrior three for 45 seconds, why remind people that “this is a hard pose”?

“What does not add subtracts”
– Aristotle

In addition to making instructions clear, directive language moves the class forward.  Every word serves a purpose towards a specific end. The end goal could be a particular posture, a final meditative practice, or to learn a key physical action.

Economize words and learn to cue with brevity.

Directive language is quantitative  You can count, measure or specifically apply the instruction.