Yoga Words

If you are a school teacher or remember being students yourselves, think back to writing essays for a class. Sometimes, you pull out a thesaurus and try to find a flowery, pretentious, over-the-top word for something simple. You use alliterations that attempt to make mountains out of molehills. If you say something too simple or direct, then you think people will think less of you.

As a yoga teacher, we try to communicate as best we can so a student can flow through class without confusion. However, there are times when that elementary school essay comes into play. We use imagery and allegory to a fault. Don’t get me wrong, there is a time and place for these things. In meditation, it helps to guide the mind to a happy place. But for most of yoga, keeping simple cues and direct commands are so much more effective.

A pet peeve of mine that I am guilty of myself is the word “don’t”. Don’t turn your toes out; don’t rotate your shoulders inward; don’t look from side to side in shoulder stand. Instead, we should use  more positive, affirmative statements. Like, “Be sure to keep your head stable in shoulder stand”. Instead of “don’t let your arms sag in Warrior II”, say “engage your arms and feel energy through your fingertips”. OK, maybe that last part was a little flowery. But that’s ok, right?

Another key thing is either the student saying they are “tight”, like “I have tight hamstrings”, or, even worse, when a teacher says that about a student. Think of a marathon runner who is most efficient in a shorter range of motion. Think of a powerlifter who squats 800 pounds with thighs parallel to the floor. Yes, they may actually be tight in those muscles. But what they really are is very strong in those positions. So a more correct and positive statement is “you have strong hips”. Or, “if you have very strong hamstrings, it is OK to bend your knees”. We don’t have to denigrate shorter ranges of motion; instead we can celebrate their strength!

There is a time and a place for gushing words and phrases. But for the most part, we can do without them. There may be times and places where your words are totally accepted. But for a general vinyasa yoga class, it may be better to find more neutral words with direct meanings. Imagine you are at Fort Benning, the home of the Infantry, teaching a yoga class. Or maybe you are asked to teach a yoga class to weightlifters at the Olympic Training Center. Think of how your words come across. Do you sound like some fruity nut job or do you sound like a professional yoga teacher? Don’t be the stereotype. Be the teacher.

Lastly, as I just related, always know your audience. Make your words, intensity, and demeanor reflect the goal of the class. Give more energy to a Power class and be more soothing in a Restorative Yin class. If you teach to specialty groups, be aware of where your words may lead. If you are teaching at a women’s help center for those who have experienced trauma, make sure your words don’t exacerbate their feelings. Make it safe for them. Many of our ancient texts are written completely about battle scenes, hence Warrior poses and the like. While it is often appropriate to embrace this spirit in classes, be aware of when it should be refrained.

ADDENDUM: Since we are talking about communication with words, we can relay this to body language. When I was in Army Drill Instructor School, we were taught how to come across as strong leaders. You point with a full arm extension with fingers extended and closed. It looks weaker to point with a bent arm and a single finger. Stand with good posture without slouching. Demonstrate correct form, not modifications or dance interpretations of a pose. I know it looks good to point toes for aesthetics, but a flexed foot is usually the correct anatomical position. And drishti always counts. Always demonstrate and instruct where they should focus. Drishti changes where the energy should be focused and guides the pose. This is all a part of good communication and should be combined with positive, direct, simple verbal commands.

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Ooops, I’m in the Wrong Class

Once upon a time, I was sitting in a University class and the professor walks in. He is known to be a stern teacher and not all that personable. He doesn’t even acknowledge us and starts writing on the board what appears to be very basic chemistry. He is writing about molarity and Avagadro’s number. The problem is, everyone in the class had signed up for something a lot more complex. Someone finally spoke up and asked, “Isn’t this supposed to by Physical Chemistry?” For those in the know, its likely the most difficult class you can take in the sciences. He kind of scoffed and looked angrily at us and began wiping off the board. Next thing you know, up go the differential equations and formulas for understanding the geometrics of a water molecule.

Kind of a different slant on this is when a beginner yogi walks into my Rocket Yoga classes. It happens almost once a week. The information sheet and website describe the classes, but I don’t think people usually read the descriptions. I mean, yoga is yoga right? [Wrong!] The description says that Rocket is a mish-mash of Ashtanga from all 6 series. And to the right column says it is “High Intensity”. So you think people would ask around.

We start out with 5 sun saluation A’s and 4-5 sun B’s. Chair pose and wide leg forward folds. Once we get into splits, they are already fully invested in the class. But then we start into much more difficult poses not to mention throwing in some forearm stands and handstands.

Now is when they say “What have I done?!!!”

But its too late to back out now. I can tell by even the most basic poses that they’ve never had an Ashtanga class. Even more accomplished yogis who are strong and flexible who haven’t been taught the style of Ashtanga show their different experiences. Its not wrong, its just not how we do it in Ashtanga.

And you know what? All of this is OK. They didn’t stumble into the wrong class. I tell everyone, do what you can do. If you need child’s pose, then by all means take it whenever you want. If you want to sit and watch when arm balances come up, go ahead. But please try if you can. I tell them to keep coming back. Maybe take some Ashtanga and other more intense classes to build strength and breath. Anyone can try Rocket and is welcome to come. I try my best to speak to every new face I see after class. Most often they don’t come back, but I’m hopeful they will try again. That’s all we can do is try our best.