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7 Ways to Exponentially Improve Your Cues If You Teach Yoga

It's an inexact algorithm of action verbs, metaphors, brevity, and authenticity.

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I’ve always loved words. Always been in awe of the way a few short lines on a page can crack my heart open. When I was younger, I set out to become a writer, not a yoga teacher, but one day I found myself on the mat doing backbends and forward folds, releasing silent tears from a source unknown, and this also cracked my heart open. It was poetry in my body. And it changed everything for me.

My love of language was not wasted. Words are a valuable currency for those of us who facilitate the practice of yoga. They are essential tools of communication as we endeavor to help students know what to do with their bodies.

Yet we can do so much more with our words than that. We can ask practitioners to become present with their full selves. We can ask them to navigate by their breath, to listen with their skin, to anchor awareness into their bones and muscles, to perceive the subtle flow of energy, and to allow the currents of thought and emotion to move through their selves.

Words hold power. Our voices carry not only our words but the meaningful experiences that we intend to transmit to students. We want to inspire communion within and without. We attempt to uncover an expanded sense of self that far exceeds the scope of any hand or foot position. We aspire to elicit an experience of yoga.

Expand Your Vocabulary

As facilitators, we purposefully use our words to evoke different energies, that we hope will touch practitioners in distinct ways. How many different ways could we prompt someone to lift their arms?

We might say:

Or reference:
Up to the sky
Toward the ceiling
Past your ears

Each approach could be a successful cue in a yoga class, although each resonates slightly differently. Sometimes something short—Arms up!—is the perfect cue. Other times something more elaborate—Paint the space with your fingers, sweeping your arms overhead—can more accurately evoke what it is we’re trying to convey. As teachers, we need to cultivate an expansive teaching vocabulary to draw from so we can effectively teach the students who are drawn to our classes. We bring life to the practice of yoga through our language.

Rely on Strong Action Words

As in writing, spoken verbs—action words—can be powerful agents. They bring movement and life to the party.

Plant your foot.
Push your thighs back.
Pour more weight through your heels.

Teaching asana means engaging with words and meaning in an embodied format. It’s a creative art with profound implications. A strong verb evokes a certain quality in and of itself, allowing you to convey more while saying less. When we teach, an approach of less clutter, more potency is usually desirable, especially during a dynamic class when economy of language is a necessity.

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Speak to the Senses

We can use words to call on the eyes and the ears and the organs of touch. We can stimulate proprioception, our sense of where our body is in its surrounding space, and interoception, or feeling ourselves on the inside.

One way to do this is by incorporating words of description that help practitioners see, hear, smell, taste, or feel. Words like bright, sweet, swoosh, undulating, elastic, solid, cool, springy, curved, infinite, etc. Drink sweet breaths in, filling all the way to your collar bones. Release the weight of your body to the cool floor.

We can also invite the practitioner into sensory inquiry by balancing direct instructions with words that encourage introspection. Questions are a good way to do this, drawing awareness to concrete qualities including pressure, texture, temperature, scent, sound, vibration, and so on.

What sensations are you feeling?
Shift your weight to the different parts of your feet. How do your feet feel meeting the floor?
What’s the quality of your body-mind at this moment? What’s the feeling of being you?
Can you feel your glutes contract, drawing your knee toward the outer edge of your foot?
As you wake up your spine, is there more fluidity? Is there more space to move?

By incorporating words that speak to the senses, we help practitioners ground themselves in the moment, supporting the part of yoga that’s about being and experiencing rather than doing and performing. Think of engaging the senses as a mindfulness hack—scanning, sensing, feeling, being receptive to what is.

If the body is a doorway to presence, then the senses are a key. Find words for this and you will help your students into a felt sense of home.

Use Figurative Language (Sparingly)

Drawing on creativity and including figurative language can also help students connect on an even deeper level.

Remember similes and metaphors from English class? A simile likens one thing to another, often using the words “as” or “like.” A metaphor flat out says something is something else, equating two sometimes surprising things in order to illuminate another dimension of the first thing.

A metaphor could be calling the breath a wave. The body fabric. Likening the spine to a snake or river or luminous pathway. Comparing the pelvic floor to a trampoline. Referring to the heart as a fountain or home or breath-fed embers.

Lift your heart like a fountain.
Trace the pathway of your spine with your breath.
Stretch your wings even further, as if to touch the edges of the room.
Can you breathe all the way to the edges of you.
Light up the entire constellation of your body with your breath.

When it works, metaphor is something that resonates deep within us. A practitioner may not immediately understand if you say “move your spine in lateral waves,” but saying “move your spine in lateral waves like a snake,” conjures an innate knowing in our body.

This is not to say that we need to be Shakespeare or engage in flowery language simply for the sake of being fancy. Use metaphor as you would a powerful spice—it needs to make sense in the given context and a little always goes a long way. Keep the majority of your cues simple and direct, using metaphor sparingly to enrich understanding.

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Explore Themes

The theme of your class can help inspire and shape the language you choose to use. There are verbs to support any theme, even when your theme is not explicitly stated.

Water-Themed Class
You might brainstorm verbs that call to mind a fluid aspect and weave a few of these in with your regular cues, such as cascade, pour, ebb and flow, slide, stream, spring, drink, soak, ripple, pulsate, swell, undulate, wash, trickle, pool.

Stability-minded classes
You could rely on words such as fix, firm, engage, anchor, activate, rotate, enliven, grip, strengthen, secure, support, turn on, balance, co-contract, stabilize.

Anahata (heart chakra)
This calls for verbs like radiate, offer, welcome, receive, befriend, hold, hug, gift, expand, amplify, bloom, resonate, harmonize.

Self Care
You might include words such as nourish, attend, attune, rest, listen, give, permit, allow, appreciate, thrive, reboot, sustain, take time, decompress, unwind, enjoy.

Along with your choice of verbs, consider layering in metaphor and focusing your language to make sure that you’re not sharing conflicting imagery or overwhelming students with rhetoric.

Edit and Refine Over Time

Like any skill, using words to invoke a felt sense in others is something we need to practice and refine. Strengthening our capacity to use language requires that we become relentless in our self-editing. We must distill our words. Cut away the unnecessary, including filler words, cliches, and that “just” or “um” before anything.

If it doesn’t need to be said, don’t say it. If it doesn’t add anything, leave it out. As you experiment and start to hone your use of language, take note of the words, phrases and metaphors that really land. How do you know if it lands? You will feel it. You will feel the room collectively feeling it.

A few choice words can greatly enhance our offerings, opening up so much potential to inspire, connect, and move.

Be Authentic

It takes work and practice to grow your language skills. Although ultimately, we want our command of language to no longer feel like work. We want to get to the place where we can step into a room to teach and our words flow intuitively.

Where do you find these words? Inspiration can come from anywhere. Get on your mat, drop into your body, and move. Keep pen and paper at hand and write reflections as they arise.  How does it feel, what it is like? When you sweep your leg into three-legged dog, is it like moving through honey or slicing through space? How would you describe the rise and fall of your diaphragm as you tune in to the sensations of breath? When you root down through your hands in plank, what does it remind you of?

Contemplate and brainstorm. Use a thesaurus. Turn to poetry and lyrics for that special turn of phrase. Open your ears when you attend other teacher’s classes, noting language that strikes a chord for you.

Adding even a few conscious word choices can greatly enhance a class, especially when supported by other elements of  your class, including the sequence, an introduction, music if you use it, readings, or anything else you choose to share. Just as you plan the other elements of your class, brainstorm and contemplate your words and work with your cues on paper.

But when you go to teach, put all of that aside and let the words be birthed from your own body. Words possess creative power, and that power is amplified by the energy you transmit as a facilitator. There’s something behind your words, whether you call it belief, embodiment, or knowing. It’s you. Your authentic experience.

Ground yourself in your own body, fully present, fully there in relationship to the individuals in front of you. Speak from your gut, your kidneys, your third eye. Speak from the place in you that knows. Trust yourself as a channel and let your language flow.

RELATED: The A-Z Guide to Yoga Cues

About Our Contributor

Leta LaVigne is a Seattle native and the founder of yogaROCKS studio in Finland.  She draws from a variety of traditions to craft intuitive yin and yang classes, gently guiding awareness through the body to the inner landscape. As a long-time student of Paul Grilley, Leta embraces a functional approach to teaching. Find her reflections on yoga, motherhood, and life as a transplant in the country of rye bread and reindeer at @leta_lavigne.

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