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Teaching Yoga

Inclusivity Training: 4 Ways Yoga Teachers Can Hurt Students with Language

You may quickly pick up on outdated alignment cues, but what about common words and phrases that inherently single out gender, ability, race, socioeconomic status, or age? Learn how to realign your language in yoga class.

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Sign up now for Yoga Journal’s new online course Inclusivity Training for Yoga: Building Community with Compassion for an introduction to the skills and tools you need as a teacher and as a student. In this class, led by Chelsea Jackson Roberts, PhD, you’ll learn how to better identify student needs, make compassionate and inclusive language choices, gracefully offer pose alternatives, give appropriate assists, reach out to neighboring communities, and expand and diversify your classes.

As yoga teachers and students, we quickly pick up on alignment cues that make no sense or promote misconceptions about anatomy (think about doing Triangle Pose “between two panes of glass”), but we may not be as fast to catch common words and phrases that inherently single out, or exclude, gender, ability, race, socioeconomic status, or age. Here are four ways teachers may be inadvertently hurting their students and suggestions for how to realign language in class. Make yoga synonymous with ahimsa, or non-harming, so all students feel welcomed and included.

4 Common Language Misalignments in Yoga

#1: Pose value assumptions: “Now to move into the full pose…” and “The full expression of this posture is…”

Suggestion: Instead of placing more value on some versions of a posture over others, try using language like, “Another variation of this posture can be…,” or, “If you want to try another version…”

A great way to reveal the unintentional and hidden biases we bring with us to our yoga classes is to reflect on our personal relationship to the practice. Notice if you place a hierarchy on certain poses. Are some “better” than others? Do you use language that describes a posture as the full expression? If so, what message does this send to the practitioner who may never achieve that form? The more we reflect on our own practice, the more we will become aware of the language and lenses we use with our students.

#2: Body image assumptions: “This posture is a great way to get rid of your belly fat.” and “Let’s shed those holiday pounds.”

Suggestion: Be conscious of the language you use when talking about yoga and the body. Notice if you tend to project your relationship with body image and yoga onto your students. Stay focused on what the posture is doing in the moment with the bodies you have in front of you. Try language that does not focus on losing weight or altering the bodies of your students. Our relationships with our bodies can be deeply personal, and as teachers it is our responsibility to not make decisions about how our students’ bodies should look. Also, always be aware of who is in your class. Notice if you place more value on certain body types when talking about physical yoga postures.

#3: Gender assumptions: “Men typically have tighter hips than women in this pose.” and “Men have stronger upper bodies than women.”

Suggestion: Stay away from making body and gender generalizations, especially if you are not certain about the gender identity of your students. For example, do you assume someone can’t get into a hip-opening pose based on the way they look? Or do you talk in terms of just two genders? Also, notice if your assumptions privilege a certain gender over others. An easy way to become more aware about the gender identity of your students is by including a question about preferred pronouns on your student information sheet.

#4: I’ll never get it right

Have you ever caught yourself thinking: “It seems like no matter what, I am going to get it wrong.” Or if you are a yoga teacher, “I have too many students to be able to cater to each individual need.” Or “This is yoga. I don’t have to be concerned about inclusivity and diversity because we are all one.”?

Suggestion: Just like your yoga practice probably did not happen overnight, the ways in which you teach and the language you use won’t evolve instantly either. This takes practice, too! You are not expected to get it right the first time, but you are expected to move from a place of compassion and love yourself throughout the process.

The definition of yoga is simply to join, to yoke, and to unite. If yoga teachers truly believe in the sacred teachings of yoga, then they should be open to reflecting on ways to be more inclusive through our practice, words, and teachings, uniting students with language that builds trust and safety within our yoga classes. Above all, be mindful of your assumptions and get to know your students—why they are there; where they come from; and what practices are best for them. 

Eager to learn more? Sign up now for Inclusivity Training for Yoga: Building Community with Compassion.