It’s the stuff of a yoga teacher’s nightmare: You’re leading your class, and it’s going seamlessly. Everything is flowing so perfectly, in fact, that you’re starting to wonder if anyone is actually paying attention to the subtle nuances of your instruction. Nothing, you think, can shake your students. Then you attempt to take them from Down-Dog into Warrior I, and the unthinkable happens. You mean to say, “Step your right foot between your hands,” but somehow you tell them, “Step your right hand between your legs.”
In the time it takes to make this simple yet deeply flawed instruction, your flock dissolves from the cohesion of a well-choreographed ballet corps into abject confusion. Some students, anticipating Warrior I, do what you meant to ask. Others look around in bewilderment. And, yes, others timidly place their right hand between their legs. Suddenly you realize that your students are indeed listening intently, and that language matters.
If you’ve ever had a moment like this, you know that paying attention to your own words is paramount when you’re teaching a class. What’s more, a few tricks can make your language so much more vibrant that not only will you stay on your toes and avoid embarrassing slips, but your students will actually grasp what you’re trying to tell them. Practice these simple concepts to help make your instructional language alive and effective.
1. Provide landmarks when you give instructions.
Do you remember how confused you were when you first practiced yoga—figuring out which foot was your left, which leg was your right, and following the teacher in mirror image? There is no easier way to provide your students with clarity than by using obvious landmarks in the room when you give instructions.
Think about teaching twists, for example. Your students’ bodies are so tied up, overlapped, and crisscrossed that their left is on their right and their right is on their left. So instead of saying, “Turn your torso to the right,” tell your students to “Rotate your torso toward the prop cabinet.” I promise that practicing this simple step will make your language more clear and save your students from being thoroughly baffled throughout your class.
2. Learn your students’ names—and use them.
As a yoga student yourself, you are well aware that everyone spaces out in class once in a while. Truthfully, whose eyes don’t glaze over after 90 minutes of impersonal and generalized instructions? Make your teaching more skillful and intimate by using your students’ names. Instead of repeating the same tired instructions, really look at your students, and help them clarify, expand, or deepen their poses by relating to them directly. Try saying, “Jeff, please bend your front knee more deeply” or “Lauren, relax your neck and soften your jaw.”
Personalizing instructions is not only a good way to take care of your students, it is the best way to make your communication more direct and relevant. The added bonus is that everyone else in the room who needs to relax his or her neck will probably follow suit. Of course, you should use a soft, encouraging tone when you use names so that people don’t feel like they are being singled out or scolded. You should follow up with affirmations such as, “Yes, you’ve got it,” “Excellent,” or “Thank you,” so that everyone knows your direct instructions are designed to help people rather than make them feel like they are doing the wrong thing.
3. Pretend you’re working with a translator, and allow space between your instructions.
I’ve been fortunate to participate in several teacher trainings in Havana, Cuba. I speak only English, so I had the interesting and fairly rare experience of teaching with a translator. I learned very quickly that I couldn’t ramble on, nor could I give cluttered and unclear instructions such as, “Well, OK, really, really try to extend through your leg if you can.” Seriously—just try to translate that.
But to tell the truth, that is what your students are doing: They are translating your instructions. If your directions are clear and you provide enough space between each one, your students will be able to follow along. If, however, you give 15 instructions in a row with no breath or pause between, your students will be lost. Always provide time for your students to digest your words before blazing ahead.
4. Three is a magic number.
Don’t tell your students everything you know about each pose. Some teachers, your author included, are tempted to fill every second of each class with instruction, precaution, lore, personal revelation, and more. After all, there are few moments when we have a captive audience for an hour and a half.
But this is yoga class, not a storytelling seminar, so don’t overcrowd your students or compete with yourself. Stick to an average of three instructions per pose. This probably sounds like too few, but it’s as many as your students are likely to handle. What’s more, if these instructions are related to each other, richly descriptive, and relevant to the overall theme of the class, they will give your students plenty to work with while allowing them to have their own experience.
5. Use images and metaphors (preferably your own).
Teaching yoga is not like giving a PowerPoint presentation. Even when it’s succinct, teaching should be full of lively insight, experience, and nuance; it’s not just a bone-dry recitation of information. So use language that appeals to sensations and feelings as well as language that applies to reason. Surely you’ve had an Iyengar teacher command you to open “the eyes of your chest,” or an Anusara teacher has invited you to “melt your heart.” Taken at face value, these instructions are completely nonsensical. While practicing yoga, though, the words deeply inform your practice because they appeal directly to what you are experiencing in your body. They apply to your kinesthetic and proprioceptive awareness; they may even touch you emotionally or awaken your sense of empathy.
The best images and metaphors are those that come from your own practice. It is easier to recycle the words of others, but there is no poetry in plagiarism, and teachers have a responsibility to do their own homework. Sure, we all assume our teacher’s voice at times, but recognize that developing your language skills requires the same level of commitment, consistency, and compassion as deepening your backbends. Heartfelt, authentic, and fresh images will convey more meaning and instruction than overused clichés.
To do this successfully, delve deeply into the sensations of your body as you practice, and describe what you are feeling. One day when I was practicing Ustrasana (Camel Pose), I thought, “It feels like my lungs are full of helium today—like that lead balloon that I sometimes feel in the pose is gone.” So, as I teach backbends, I’ll often ask students to float their chests as if they have helium in their lungs. And, much to my pleasure, it actually works—people’s chests will vault and float spaciously.
To contextualize these five steps, think about your exploration of Downward-Dog for a moment. When you were a beginner, you probably struggled just to do the pose, let alone make subtle refinements. Then, as you practiced, you developed a deeper understanding of the posture’s essence and it became more satisfying and interesting. The process of developing your language skills as a teacher is similar. As you practice these steps and develop your ability to effectively communicate with your students, you’ll find that you are teaching with greater depth and ease. In the process, you’ll help touch your students and support their growth by conveying the essence of your teaching with clarity and grace.