The Language of Teaching Yoga. ~ Michelle Myhre

Via on Mar 5, 2011
Photo: Lululemon Athletica

Clarity in communication takes your listeners/students where you want them to go with minimal distraction. Yoga teachers especially want to be understood, to inspire, and elate the people we are blessed to work with.

Lately, I’ve been exploring podcasting my yoga sequences and have noticed I use a number of filler words. Doh! Filler words are our verbal blind spots. In yoga, we call our patterns “samskara”, so you could say our filler words are verbal samskara.

Common verbal samskara yoga teachers use while leading classes include: go ahead, we’re gonna, and now, try, uh, um, nice, good, great, beautiful! don’t….

We each have unique language patterns that our students may be more cognizant of than we are!

Another word many yoga teachers use with alarming frequency is “down”: “Shoulders down the back, put the knee down, press down into the earth…” Downward facing dog gets an all clear, although adho mukha svanasana is a stronger way to convey the pose.

Roget’s Thesaurus has this to say on the word down:

Photo: Lululemon Athletica

down

adjective

1 I’m feeling a bit down: depressed, sad, unhappy, melancholy, miserable, wretched, sorrowful, gloomy, dejected, downhearted, despondent, dispirited, low; informal blue, down in the dumps, down in/at the mouth. ANTONYMS: elated.

2 the computer is down: not working, inoperative, malfunctioning, out of order, broken; not in service, out of action, out of commission; informal conked out, bust, busted, (gone) kaput, on the fritz, on the blink. ANTONYMS: working.

verb—informal

1 antiaircraft missiles downed the fighter jet: knock down/over, knock to the ground, bring down, topple; informal deck, floor, flatten.

2 he downed his beer: drink (up/down), gulp (down), guzzle, quaff, drain, chugalug, slug, finish off; informal knock back, put away, scarf (down/up).

noun

1 the ups and downs of running a business: setbacks, upsets, reverses, reversals, mishaps, vicissitudes; informal glitches.

PHRASES

be down on—informal

why do you have to be down on your parents all the time? disapprove of, be against, feel antagonism to, be hostile to, feel ill will toward; informal have it in for.

Photo: Lululemon Athletica

Is “down” a seed we want to plant in our students minds? Is “down” a samskara we want in our own heads? Is “down” confident? Is it uplifted, high, vitalized, soaring, and joyful? The ubiquitous “down” needs an overhaul.

An excellent tool for yoga teachers is to develop a language of yoga, even better, use language that buttresses the theme you’ve created for your class. As we edit out our verbal blind spots, we can write a list of alternative words and phrases to express body cues and movements.

This conscious languaging has an energetic resonance that students will feel.

Another “downer” is “don’t”. “Don’t lift your shoulders… Don’t bend your knee.”

“Don’t think about a pink elephant!” Pure Yoga instructor and singer Amy Loftus teased as we explored languaging.

What picture just popped into your head? The phrase “Don’t allow yourself to be distracted” is, well, distracting.

Our new and improved languaging may also become verbal samskara when they’re over-used. Apparently verbal samskara are like Medusa’s snake hair-do. You cut one snake dread-lock off and two more immediately grow in it’s place. This is okay.

Language awareness is a mindfulness practice. Our inner listening creates clarity from the inside out. It’s better for the brain than a crossword puzzle.

When we speak with mindfulness, we choose our words specifically. What we say aligns itself with what we wish to convey with greater precision.

Say to yourself:
“Push your hand down into the earth.”

Now say:
“Stretch your hand into the earth.”

Photo: Carolyn Coles

Say:
“Pull your shoulders down the back.”

Now say:
“Pull your shoulders away from your ears.”

Say:
“Put the knee down.”

Now say:
“Put the knee on the floor.”

Say:
“Press your foot down into the earth…”

Now say:
“Press your foot firmly into the earth.”

Did you feel an energetic difference with each set of instructions?

An additional little poison bullet many of us use is the word ‘again.’ Pure Yoga Trainer Allison English of Equinox Chicago says, “Hearing the word ‘again’ tires out your brain and your students will zone-out.”

Another word for “again” is “repeatedly”. In yoga class, when we are in the midst of a challenging sequence and our brains hear the word “again”, where does that take us? Where does “again” begin?

Perhaps what we mean to say rather than “again” is “We’re going to practice that same posture one time on the opposite side of our body”?

Is all that necessary? How about “left side”? It brings us to the same place but so much faster, physically and mentally. In any case, “again” is a filler word. I’m letting it go.

Our languaging is a powerful tool. When we edit out the places we go into auto-pilot, we are stepping into new territory with presence and authenticity. Your students might not know exactly why they’re listening more closely to you, but they will definitely appreciate the shift.

____________________________________________________________________________________________

Michelle Myhre, ERYT 500. Michelle teaches joyful vinyasa, yin & hatha private and public yoga classes on the California Peninsula. Please join her and Keith Ericson April—June 2011, for a 200 hour PURE Yoga teacher training in Palo Alto.

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16 Responses to “The Language of Teaching Yoga. ~ Michelle Myhre”

  1. anniegirl1138 says:

    I still struggle with "don't". Probably goes back to my being a middle school teacher forever.

    Nice post.

  2. When training to be a school teacher we had to video ourselves and watch it specifically looking for our 'samskaras' – favoring one side of the room, gestures, language fillers, oft repeated words, etc. It was painful and illuminating. I continue to work at mindful communicating in order to use my words, tone and pacing to build a safe, respected, appreciated, exciting classroom and life.

  3. AMO says:

    My biggest pet peeve in yoga teacher lingo is the dropped "g" as in, "bringin' your arm over your head, reachin' for the sky, lookin' up past your fingers". Argh! I also notice that many teachers don't offer real instruction at all, they basically just stand at the front of the room naming postures so if you don't already know how to express the posture you're just out of luck. Equally frustrating is the opposite where vague instructions are offered but the posture is never named so there isn't any foundation for where we're headed from here. I find myself listening to a teacher who is saying something about my 'left hand back to the floor with a twist". I work to follow a formula: breath – posture – instruction. It sounds like "exhale – forward fold – grasp your ankles, elbows back, pull the top of your head toward the floor emptying your lungs, pause, inhale – mountain pose – sweep your arms over head….

    I think few teachers are aware how much they rely on experienced students to lead their classes. New students don't listen well and tend to learn with their eyes. I think they WANT to listen, but we as teachers often aren't saying anything they know how to hear. If the only way they can keep up with what's happening in class is to watch other students they will tune in visually and tune us out auditorily. As teachers we need to think clearly about what we say. Our students need to hear clean clear instruction from us that they can use to translate into their bodies to get the most out of their yoga practices.

    Thanks for this article. Keep calling us forward as teachers…

  4. Eve says:

    Michelle, thanks for this thoughtful post.
    Yes to clarity in language – my own bad habit, aside from mixing up left and right from time to time, is the entirely unnecessary: "now we're going to . . ."
    But in defense of "down," it's just a direction.
    It's true that our culture attaches negative associations to "down," but that's part of the habit of thinking (or not thinking) in opposites that yoga is supposed to help us escape: up/down, light/dark, mind/body, man/woman. In each case, historically one is "good" and the other is "bad."
    In yoga we mostly have to go down first, before we go up. In fact if we aren't rooting down, then we can't go up.
    Yes, mindless, repetitive use of down is dulling, especially when it's not necessary. If you're pushing your hand into the earth, then "down" doesn't add anything.
    But down, as in downhill skiing, can also be exhilarating.

  5. Heidi says:

    Wow, thanks for this posting. Yes, we all have language "ruts" that we fall into. There are times I catch myself using a term too much. It might be only when we are called on it whether by watching ourselves on video or even receiving feedback from students that we become aware of those habits. Changing those habits can be painful as Donna mentions in her comment.
    I LOVE you highlighting the use of the word DOWN. Wow, never really looked at it that way. I am going to play the observer in my teaching to see how often I use the word (bet it's a lot). And yes, AGAIN can be so exhausting! I appreciate the alternatives that you offer… shows how our our language choices can be power-FULL and mind-FULL.
    I do really love what Eve says in her comment: "… in defense of "down," it's just a direction." Like you, Eve, I often mix up LEFT & RIGHT… most of the time it is an opportunity for me to mention that our most valuable prop in yoga is humour. :)

  6. Michelle, this is so interesting and wow, I totally agree! Now, as a yogini this will be a challenge in class for me as I practice when I hear the word "down" from my iinstructor(s) not to think of your post:) This is a great concept however, and I am so glad you brought it to light! Thanks for sharing…namaste.

  7. yogiclarebear says:

    Excellent, brilliant, beautiful post! All truth there, no filler. :)

    I truly thank you for these reminders and ideas. I spent a good amount of time this morning with my own phrasing, writing down new "cues" and ideas, and now have more to add to my practice list.

  8. Alden Wicker Alden says:

    Good post! I was just thinking about this the other day. They words you cite are very subtle in their negative energy. But I have one diva of an instructor (my choices are limited out here) who actually used words like "yank" and "crunch." As in "Alright, just yank your shoulder to the left a little more. Push it in there." I think his choice of words reflects how he teaches yoga, as he can be very pushy and aggressive about having students do more, more, more.

  9. Ryanlvnv says:

    I love this Post!! Thank you for sharing Michelle’s knowledge – hope to see more!

  10. Nancy A says:

    great post! work really hard to not use filler and notice it painfully when I do!

  11. emmainbxl says:

    Interesting… am considering writing about teaching yoga in different languages for YTT final essay (am training in English but teaching back home in French, my mother tongue), and this is another difference you point out for me now: in French we use twice as many words to give instructions ;), verbs are much more important and not built the same way obviously. Which means there is no such emphasis on a word like "down".
    For instance to "put your knee down", I use (literal translation) "bring your knee to the floor". English is more concise, but in French I have to be more precise in action verbs and location.

  12. Jessica Acs Jessica says:

    This is wonderful – and timely – right on the heels of an exceptionally insightful exercise my business coach gave me in reflecting on word distinctions via their correct definitions (which I recommend to anyone to explore). It really does make all the difference – and we certainly internalize it – even more so when opening our parasympathetic systems (which deepens the imprint and creates opportunity in both directions to repattern). Thank you for offering this up!

  13. HCREW says:

    My pet peeve is a yoga instructor, who say “Lay down”.
    I might if I were a goose.

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