The Art of Verbal Communication
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.