In the current yoga climate, teachers have an incredible amount of latitude when it comes to choosing the cues we offer as we help students move through their practice. As we’ve begun to step back from the idea of that there is such a thing as a set of “correct” cues or perfect alignment for all bodies in a pose, we are only beginning to appreciate the effect our words can have on others—and not only in terms of how easily they can be understood to create shapes.
In recent years, we’ve seen teachers become increasingly conscientious about properly pronouncing Sanskrit and employing terms that are gender-inclusive and body-positive. Some teachers have become aware of our unconscious use of fear-based or nocebo-centric language that can be more discouraging than empowering. But in the fervor to become as conscious and supportive as possible, many teachers have overlooked a simple aspect of cueing that affects everyone in class, and that is the use—and misuse—of active versus passive language.
What is active versus passive language?
Lately, I hear a lot of passivity being encouraged by yoga teachers in classes. By that I mean teachers tend to confuse things that can happen without our involvement or intention with those that do require action. Consider standing in Tadasana (Mountain Pose) before commencing Surya Namaskar A (Sun Salutation A) and your teacher invites you to “allow your arms to lift.” Unless you’re in zero gravity, your arms are not going to lift without you exerting some kind of effort. In this instance, the teacher could simply say “lift your arms” or “sweep your arms up.” Otherwise your arms will remain at your sides.
I have no issue with the word “allow.” Used in context, it can be an invitation to surrender. Imagine yourself in Downward-Facing Dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana) and you hear “allow your head to hang heavy.” That might be exactly the reminder you need to release tension in your neck.
But sometimes in yoga and life you need to exert effort. And the instructions we use have implications in our students’ physical bodies, the effectiveness of their practice, and the lingering effects in their psyches.
Active language cues for yoga
Active language can be incredibly powerful and motivating when something is required of you. Think of engaging your muscles properly in Anjaneyasana (Low Lunge) or Virabhadrasana III (Warrior III Pose). That action could be physical, such as “reach forward,” “drive down,” “squeeze in,” or “ripple through.” In my opinion, the more energy required, the more robust the cue should be. Think about the difference between “floating” and “sweeping” your arms up. Between “press back” and “kick back.”
Active language also has relevance beyond a vigorous effort. It can also be used to prompt more subtle or philosophical effort, like “focus,” “feel,” “sense,” “notice,” or “explore.”
Passive language cues for yoga
Passive language has a potency of its own. It reminds us that there is a time to strive and a time to soften. Passive language is useful when moving with gravity. As you complete a Sun Salutation A and return to Tadasana, as opposed to when you start it, the cue “allow your arms to drift back down by your sides” makes sense.
Passive language can also imply more nuance in alignment. Imagine holding Warrior II Pose (Virabhadrasana II), your arms spread wide; the cue “allow your shoulder blades to rest on your ribcage” would have a different effect to something more active like “draw your shoulder blades down your back.” The use of passive language can also be used to create space in reflective or meditative practices. Using words such as “feeling,” “sensing,” and “noticing” suggests that we are observing things that are already happening, as opposed to the more deliberate or directive “feel,” “sense,” and “notice.”
What to consider when you teach
Cueing with active or passive verbs is not about second-guessing every word we use. It’s about being aware and accurate in our cueing. As teachers, we need to recognize that we words we choose play a considerable role in creating the atmosphere of our class and can create lasting impressions in the worlds of others. When we use language intelligently, it becomes easier for our students to experience the intended effect of the yoga practice, which is the entire point.
See also: 5 Cues Yoga Teachers Should Rethink
About our contributor
Rachel Land is a Yoga Medicine instructor offering group and one-on-one yoga sessions in Queenstown New Zealand, as well as on-demand at Practice.YogaMedicine.com. Passionate about the real-world application of her studies in anatomy and alignment, Rachel uses yoga to help her students create strength, stability, and clarity of mind. Rachel also co-hosts the new Yoga Medicine Podcast.