Making Yoga More Inclusive: Language Do’s and Don’ts for Teachers
by Amber Karnes
As asana teachers, our words are among our most powerful tools.
Some teachers prefer to talk more, and others talk less. In my classes, I do spend a great deal of time talking. I consider it crucial to spend time setting up expectations, discussing safety, and creating an environment of personal agency.
I probably talk more than other teachers, and I am sometimes self-conscious about this. But in conversations with my own teachers, I’ve come to realize that my goal is not to get students to some advanced pose, or to see how many postures we can get through. What I strive for most is to create a certain type of environment that fosters personal growth.
My goal is for my “yoga lab” to be a place where each student feels empowered in the body they bring to the mat today. I want to help my students practice on the edge between effort and ease.
I want to provide them with the tools necessary to reduce suffering, to enable them to let go of ego and cultivate “the witness,” and to feel safe in their bodies—all without judgment.
Through the lens of that mission, I’d like to share some do’s and don’ts that have been effective in my classroom in making language and asana cues more inclusive.
DO ask students about injuries before class.
Ask about injuries, but then follow up by asking for more information. I know it’s not always easy because of time constraints, but I always try to ask students individually about any injuries rather than asking the class as a whole. If I can’t catch them before class, I try to do so while folks are setting up their mats.
I discreetly ask if there’s anything they’re concerned about, or if they’re recovering from an injury—nine times out of ten, they don’t come up with anything. However, when I ask a follow-up question, such as “How are your ankles, wrists, back, knees, neck?” I always seem to learn more information.
Allowing your students the space to discuss any concerns about their bodies and all their “imperfections” normalizes two things: it gives the message that It’s okay to talk about bodies, and that it’s okay if a body isn’t in “perfect working order.” This is empowering, and it creates a culture of permission—it’s okay to practice with the "imperfect," injured body they have today.
Lots of us in bigger bodies, disabled bodies, or “non-conforming” bodies have faced hostilities in fitness environments like gyms and yoga studios. Give your students the space to feel welcome in the body they have today—which may be a totally new experience for them.
Allowing your students the space to discuss any concerns about their bodies and all their “imperfections” normalizes two things: It’s okay to talk about bodies, and it’s okay that a body isn’t in “perfect working order.”
DO use language at the beginning of your class that makes it clear your classroom is a low-pressure, judgment-free, non-competitive, and inclusive yoga environment.
I believe that reducing competition and judgment can help keep students safer. This environment tends to discourage ego and striving, while giving each student agency and permission to work wherever they are today.
At the beginning of my classes, I say something to the following effect:
I have two rules in my classes. The first rule is: No suffering. That means we pay attention to the physical sensations in our bodies—good sensations, sensations we can move toward. Feeling a muscle stretch or work, shaking, trembling, sweating, your heart rate quickening—those are sensations that are okay for most of us, and an indication that we’re building strength or doing work.
In contrast, here are bad sensations we want to move away from: pain (such as stabbing, throbbing, aching, and burning), tingling, pressure in the face or throat, the breath getting away from us (such as gasping and shortness of breath).
These are signals that we need to back off or try something else. Only you are in your body, and only you know what sensations you’re feeling. If you feel one of the bad sensations, I ask that you back off the pose, try another variation that will be offered, or wave at me and we’ll try something different together.
There is no one “magical pose” in yoga—there are lots of other ways to get the same benefits of any of the poses we try. You will not be disrupting the class or hurting my feelings if a pose doesn’t work for you. So, rule one: No suffering. Everyone got that?
Rule number two is: No judgment. We have people in this room who have been practicing yoga for more than ten years, and people who are here for the very first time. Your practice is your own. If you look next to you and see someone bending further, stretching deeper, or taking what you perceive to be a more “advanced” variation of something, you may say to yourself, "I should be able to do that." "I used to be able to move that way." "I used to be thinner or younger." "My practice sucks." "I’ll never get there." And so on.
The minute you do that, you’re out of your body and into your head, and the comparisons you’re making are stealing your joy away. You are also causing yourself mental pain and breaking rule number one, which is: No suffering. Our goal for the next hour is to connect with our own bodies, feel our own breath, do our own variations of these postures, and take home our own unique benefits from this practice. Rule two: No judgment. Everyone agree?
You may not be as verbose as I, and you’ll probably need to find your own language that feels authentic to you. But setting up expectations that striving, competing, and comparing are not welcome in your class is an effective way to help your students feel at ease.
DO normalize opting out of a pose or trying different modifications.
I always start everyone in the class out with the same set of props—so no one feels excluded or “othered” because they need to use a prop. But I also like to specifically normalize opting out or taking modifications or variations on poses. During the first challenging pose, like down dog or balancing table, I’ll usually say something like:
Just so y’all know, there are no medals given out at the end of class for doing every pose or for holding a pose the longest. If you want to take a break, take a break. Come down to hands and knees, take child’s pose, sit down, lie down, or leave to go to the bathroom.
If your breath gets away from you and you want to take a break, do it. I will offer variations for every pose we do. If one isn’t working for you, try another. If you try a pose and weird emotions come up or you get frustrated and want to skip it, that’s fine. Skip it. There’s always next time. Your practice is your own.
DO cue from a place of inquiry.
Using words like invite, explore, try, or inquire encourages students to take their practice into their own hands. Cuing from a place of inquiry creates agency in your students and encourages them to explore what any given pose means (and feels like) to them.
You can say things like, “What would it feel like to lift your arm in this pose?” “Explore the sensations you feel when you lift your gaze.” “Another variation to try is...” and so on.
DON’T tell students what to feel.
I never fail to become irritated in class when a yoga teacher says something like, “You’ll feel an awesome stretch in your hamstrings...mmmm, it feels so good.”
Maybe to me it doesn’t feel so good!
Everyone experiences sensation differently in their own unique bodies. Encourage your students to explore and track sensation. Encourage your students to be curious and learn about their bodies. But don’t tell your students what to feel.
DON’T use language that’s limiting or creates a hierarchy of poses or ability.
Using language like “If you can’t take the bind, it’s okay to leave your hand at your waist” or “If you can’t hold down dog, you can come rest in child’s pose” establishes that taking a bind or holding a pose is “better than,” and not being able to do those things is “less than.”
I feel that it’s important to normalize variations on poses, with the understanding that everyone’s practice looks different. That includes removing any hierarchy of value, and encouraging students to listen to their bodies while honoring where they are today.
I also advocate for removing the word “just” from your teaching vocabulary.
“Just walk your feet up between your hands” or “Just lift your leg” might sound innocuous enough. But for some people, “just” lifting their leg is a huge effort—or may not even be possible. “Just” implies that everyone should be able to do the thing you’re asking, which can make students who can’t do that thing feel othered and excluded.
A slight tweak in language can fix this: “Lift your leg as high as you are able.” “Step the feet up between your hands, or walk your hands back toward your feet.”
DON’T talk about the “full expression of the pose.”
I always put “full expression of the pose” in scare quotes. I don’t use this phrase in my classes.
"Full expression of the pose" implies that there is one correct “real yoga” way to perform any given pose. In my class, I prefer to offer variations on a pose, and folks get to pick what they work on.
As an example, I get a lot of students in larger bodies, and none of them (me included) are ever going to be able to do the thigh-wrappy-tuck-your-foot thing in garudasana (eagle pose). Does this mean we don’t practice garudasana?
Heck no! When I introduce a pose, it goes something like this:
Next, we’re going to work on garudasana. There are a lot of places to work here—on the mat working on your balance, at the wall finding the shape of the pose, practicing either the arms or the legs, or maybe both together—all of them are legit places to work. So try one of them and assess where it falls on the balance of effort and ease that we talked about.
If it feels too easy, perhaps try a different version of the pose. If it feels like hard work, then maybe work there, or pick another variation. Remember, no prizes are given out for picking whichever you think is the hardest or most advanced variation.
Okay, let’s all go to the wall and start breaking down this pose…
By focusing on the foundations and purpose of a pose, and offering variations from there, you are embracing a more inclusive way to teach. You’re also encouraging the students to make the practice their own.
DON’T use gender-specific language.
You can’t automatically know someone’s gender identity just by looking at them. You may assume your classroom is filled with only women, but you really don’t know unless you ask.
You can’t automatically know someone’s gender identity just by looking at them.
Using gender-specific cues like “Drape yourself over the bolster at about the level of your bra strap” or addressing the entire class as “ladies” can be disorienting to someone who falls somewhere else on the gender spectrum.
In my conversations with transgender or gender non-conforming friends, they’ve told me that a comment like this can snap them out of their peaceful practice and into their head, making them feel self-conscious about how the class and teacher is perceiving their gender.
I am by no means perfect. I still get feedback and correction on my language and cues. And to be perfectly honest, after the initial sting, I’m now always grateful for the chance to hone my language.
I want my yoga classes to be not only body-positive, but also inclusive, trauma-sensitive, welcoming, and warm for everyone. Still, I’ll be the first to admit that I have a lot to learn when it comes to creating safer, braver spaces for everyone.
I’d love for you to comment and let me know how you’ve adapted your language and teaching to create more inclusive yoga spaces.