Body Language: Speak Volumes Without Saying a Word

Learn to let your body language convey relaxed authority and a centered focus on your students.

“I don’t know what it is about your voice—it just makes me feel so totally relaxed in Savasana I could fall asleep!” When a student said this to me recently, I took it as a slightly backhanded compliment. As a teacher, I know that Savasana (Corpse Pose) is not, technically, supposed to be nap time; but if I can help a student achieve a more relaxed frame of mind and body, I’ve done part of my job right.

The “yoga voice,” as Boston-based teacher Bo Forbes calls it, is easy to identify. But what about the voice of a yoga teacher’s body? We all know that body language sends signals in everyday situations—crossed arms signify closed-off or defensive feelings; hunched shoulders might indicate anxiety or cold or sickness. A teacher’s body also communicates in the classroom by the way she stands, moves, and assists students.

So if your body talks, what are your students hearing? A few experts sound off on the importance of body-language consciousness.

Opening Lines

Everybody has a characteristic way they carry their body, says Tom Myers, author of the whole-body patterning Anatomy Trains series and director of the Kinesis mind-body training center in Maine. “You could probably recognize your husband or friends from a block away just by how they carry themselves,” he says.

In the classroom setting, this means that, to a certain degree, your body language is just how you are. Some of that language can be changed, Myers says; but consider the posture and physical styles of Richard Freeman, John Friend, and Patricia Walden—all very different, though all are considered expert teachers.

Knowing that our bodies bear the stamp of our own physical habits, teachers have to realize that students will, unconsciously or consciously, mimic their teacher’s posture. Forbes notes, “This is wired into our brains, to mirror others’ emotions and patterns of movement. And our physical bodies mirror our emotions.”

This issue of authenticity comes up again and again in the body-language discussion. Kim Valeri, director of YOGAspirit Studios, which train teachers across New England, notes that the “unspoken communication” of the body has a lot to do with how comfortable and secure a teacher feels in the role. “It’s about feeling confident,” she says. “In any good class, when you as the teacher are not overly concerned with your own self-critical evaluation but more concerned with service given to students, that unspoken message is communicated: I am doing my best to support my students.”

Forbes draws on the Yoga Sutra to further illustrate this point. “By standing tall as a teacher and cultivating the seeds of good posture, we convey what Yoga Sutra II.46 says: sthira sukham asanam—comfort (in our bodies) as well as a sense of stability and grounding.”

Standing Savasana

According to Elisabeth Halfpapp, vice president of movement programming and workshops for the Exhale mind/body spas and a master teacher of that spa chain’s Core Fusion classes, a teacher’s entire posture and stride should convey a sensitivity to the student’s needs. Halfpapp calls this unforced authoritativeness a “standing Savasana,” where the teacher is relaxed but ready, calm but focused. “There’s an openness, with the shoulders back and down and eyes lifted to make contact with students so we communicate we’re ready to move forward together,” she says.

Denise Crowe, the mind/body class coordinator for Exhale in Boston, adds, “There’s a thin line between openness and aggressiveness [in one's stance]. Thrusting forward through the face, neck, and chest conveys aggression, while standing tall with broad shoulders and collarbones conveys a comfortable centeredness.”

Forbes explains further, “It’s about being relaxed and not forcing things. For example, a teacher who tries too hard to stand up straight might actually hold more tension her body, which will transmit itself to students. And at the same time, slumping can lower a teacher’s energy, make it harder to breathe and take in prana or energy, and this also can transmit to the students.”

Both Forbes and Myers point to the breath as an essential part of a teacher’s posture. A teacher who slouches, for example, points the sternum down, which indicates he is “stuck on the exhalation,” says Myers. He observes that avoiding this can be especially challenging for newer teachers, who may not feel confident in their abilities and can convey that unease through their breathing and stance.

Valeri considers body language not just in a physical context but also in the context of interacting with a student’s subtle energy bodies. Teachers who are aware of both physical and energetic body language offer students “an outpouring of energy that is palpable,” she says.

Assists: The Conversation of Touch

If posture and stance are the vocabulary of body language, then assisting is speaking through the body of fluency. When teachers initiate contact with a student through an assist, they open a direct line of dialogue where actions really can speak louder than words.

The simple act of walking around the classroom, observing and preparing to assist students during a class, is a form of body language that can set the tone for the one-to-one conversations you will have when you assist an individual student. As Halfpapp observes, “This is not a New Yorker’s walk.”

“You’re usually in bare feet when you’re teaching, and especially when students have their heads on the floor—as in Savasana or Sirsasana (Headstand)—you want to be really careful about how hard you are walking,” explains Myers. He also notes that a teacher’s overall body alignment—relaxed lower back, pelvis over the ankles rather than the toes, and eyes dropping back into the head rather than peering out, all help to make students feel more secure.

Once you’ve begun observing a class, these teachers all agree, it’s generally not a good idea to stop near a student and just watch, waiting to see how a pose unfolds before you decide to offer an assist. According to Forbes, “Stopping and watching a student can make them feel self-conscious, as though something is ‘wrong’ with their pose and they’re about to find out what.

“When we learn to see, and take in, more information about a pose,” Forbes continues, “an assist is something we’ll be able to formulate from across the room, or from a few mats over, because we’ve ‘read’ the language of a student’s pose.”

As all teachers know, deciding which students to assist requires fast thinking. “You’ve got to see who needs to be assisted for safety first, then who didn’t get the instruction and needs to be helped, and then decide who can be taken further in pose,” Valeri explains. But once you’ve made the commitment to provide an assist, how should your body speak to a student’s?

The hands speak volumes about an assist, the experts agree.

“When I observe teachers in training, I can see [their body language] in their hands,” Valeri continues. “There are teachers who are sensitive and tuned into a student’s subtle bodies. When they assist, they are not just touching and leaving; the palm is cupped to contain energy and the fingertips have backed off slightly from the student so that when the hands leave, they send a double message: ‘I’m going to contain you and guide you; I’m going to hold you tight but back off.’”

Assists should be delivered mostly from the palms, rather than the fingers, which give a more sensual touch and can imply inappropriate intimacy. Similarly, say Halfpapp and Crowe, body positioning can communicate messages that teachers should generally avoid—a pelvic tilt performed very close to a student of the opposite sex, for example, or showing a pose at a particular angle, might cause students to feel uncomfortable.

Learning the Language

Learning how to read students’ bodies takes time and practice, says Valeri. “When students come into the classroom, 50 percent of what they are looking for will be for what you know as a teacher; the other half is the energy you create in the room. You have to be sensitive to how you create that space.”

In her training programs, Forbes calls this the “art of assisting,” and she says that many teacher training programs overlook the amount of practice it takes to become confident in assisting. A lack of confidence translates into body language that can seem tentative or unsettling to a student. Ultimately, she says, body language is about being awake and present in each moment.

Teaching the body to speak with equal parts strength and support may take practice, but it’s far from impossible. Here are some key ways you can bring yogic fluency to your own body language:

Trust yourself.

“Authority is inherent” in yoga teaching, says Forbes. In other words, you’ve already earned your students’ permission to teach them, so let that confidence speak through your voice and your posture.

Let your palms—not your fingers—do the talking.

In general, using the palms of the hands rather than the fingertips establishes a more professional and less intimate kind of body language from teacher to student. “Trailing fingers” along the body, says Valeri, is an inappropriately sensual touch.

Know when to let the body be silent.

“Sometimes the best assist is none at all—when you speak rather than physically adjust a student,” says Crowe. In that split second between seeing a student’s pose and reaching out to help, ask yourself whether a verbal cue, rather than a hands-on adjustment, might be more effective.

Practice, get feedback, and practice some more.

Myers suggests videotaping yourself so you can observe your physical habits. It is, he says, “awful to watch, but it will be the greatest learning tool you’ll ever get—watch yourself from outside, shake your head, and go back to see what you can change.”

Meghan Searles Gardner is a freelance writer and yoga teacher in Boston. You can email her at meghansearles@yahoo.com.