Inspire Your Teaching Language with the Yamas and Niyamas

February 19, 2015    BY Amber Burke

If you are a yoga teacher, you are likely dedicated to continuously learning new information about asana and anatomy in order to keep things fresh for your students. However, simply saying what you already know in a new way—perhaps retooling your language according to the ten wise principles (yamas and niyamas)—can also revitalize your students' experience of yoga. And, by applying the yamas and niyamas to your diction, you will also make your speech itself yet another space in which to practice yoga. Here are some suggestions to consider.

Yamas

Ahimsa (Non-Harming):  Do use non-harming language. Non-harming is probably at the top of your yoga-priority list and already manifest in the content of your instruction. Yet, word choice itself may evince a certain violence. Are verbs like “cut,” “blade,” “scissor,” and “chop” most conducive to the state you wish to impart? And unconsidered language can do more direct harm if it makes a student feel singled-out or accused. “You do what I say or you get out” is an extreme example—one I myself have encountered—of a yoga teacher being unnecessarily rough. But asking a student who does not seem to be participating, “So you’re not doing this?” or, “Do you want to do what everyone else is doing?” can seem accusatory, too. Consider asking gently, “How are you doing over here?” or, “Did you want to try this, or are you happy where you are?” to provide students with the opportunity to communicate their questions or needs.

Are verbs like “cut,” “blade,” “scissor,” and “chop” most conducive to the state you wish to impart?

Satya (Truthfulness):  Do commit to truthfulness in speech, which will help you avoid giving the undoable instructions sometimes labeled “yoga-speak.” Can students in fact “brighten their hearts” in this pose? How? Can they actually “breathe into their left hip,” or is that a fiction? This principle can also inspire you to stay tuned in to the present reality, scrutinizing the true effect of each direction on the group before you. If, for instance, you tell your students to lift their heads, and they only lift their chins, you might consider adding a finer point to that direction so it better reflects the truth you are trying to impart.

Asteya (Non-Stealing):  Do make a point of not stealing. While yoga belongs to everyone, if you crib swaths of your cues, directions, or philosophy (or yoga jokes!) whole hog from other teachers, the graceful thing to do is to acknowledge the sources of your inspiration. (“That was Buddha, not me.”) Making attributions can also be helpful to students who might appreciate being pointed toward a resource with which they were unacquainted. “That tidbit was from the Yoga Sutra, not from yours truly,” for example, or, “If you guys like this, check out Donna Farhi’s Yoga Mind, Body, and Spirit for an excellent elucidation of the yamas and niyamas.”

Brahmacharya (Continence):  Do show continence in your speech by refraining from talking too much. Rather than barrage your students with an unprocessable amount of information, choose one main point or cue. Beyond that, teach what is most needed in the room. Especially if students are newer, resist the impulse to share all of yoga with them at once. “In downward dog, root down with the inner hands, soften the elbows slightly, and roll the biceps up” is great, but “straighten the arms” might be a better place to start.

Rather than barrage your students with an unprocessable amount of information, choose one main point or cue.

Aparigraha (Non-Grasping):  Practice not grasping with your language. It is so easy to keep to using the same directions for the same poses, but the moment you start giving a direction on autopilot, it begins to deaden for students. Instead of creating a script for yourself, try constantly refreshing your vocabulary to keep students (and yourself!) alert. Consider revamping the metaphors you’ve been using for ages. Have you been instructing students to curve into a “banana-shape” or “crescent” for the last ten years? Might there be something else with a curved shape? A tusk? A parenthesis? Might anything else be rounded besides “the back of a Halloween cat”? An igloo? A jellyfish? “Lift” is fine. But what about hoist, buoy, levitate, or boost? “Move” is okay. But depending on what you’re moving where, you could also use tack, veer, yaw, peg, pike, pitch, bank, or slope. New verbs will encourage/energize/enthuse/rouse/electrify/enlist/recruit/muster/enliven/embolden your students in entirely new ways! Troll everything you read for words you can transport to class. Keep an ongoing list, and refer back to it.

Niyamas

Saucha (Purity):  Do aspire to purity of speech by sending your sentences through a mental sieve before you speak them. Aspire to direct and brief phrasing, and avoid filler words. How simply can you say what you mean? “Try to lift your leg?” “I want you to lift your leg?” Just “Lift your leg” will do.

Santosha (Contentment):  Do foster contentment by using language that helps students be happy where they are. Judgments are inherent in phrases like, “If you’re stronger, do ‘a’/if you’re weaker, do ‘b,’” and, “If you’re flexible/if you’re stiff,” and more subtly present in, “For a more challenging pose/for an easier pose.” Instead, suggest modulating the intensity of a pose (“For more intensity, do ‘a’”) to help to foster contentment with the version of the pose a student is incarnating. And even saying, “If your hamstrings are tight today,” can impart a pleasing sense of impermanence to a tightness that seemed permanent a moment ago.

Tapas (Self-Discipline):  Do encourage enthusiasm by using language that makes your students the agents of the pose. Empower them with an active vocabulary. “Let your leg lift,” or the vague “Lifting the leg now” is not as vitalizing as “Lift your leg.” Articulating to your students why they are doing what they are doing—selling them on an action or pose—will also stoke their determination when the challenge mounts.

Empower them with an active vocabulary.

Svadhyaya (Self-Study):  Do apply the light of self-study to your own language to reveal the words or sounds you make unconsciously and repeatedly. Record yourself, or ask a friend or fellow teacher to be honest with you about your habits. You might decide some of your tics are working for you. Saying “interesting” instead of “impossibly hard” might encourage students to look at challenges in a new way. That little hum of yours might help the students to relax. Keep it. But does saying “that hip” and “that hand” help your students, or would “right” and “left” be more precise? Do “just” and “simply” make an action sound attractively easy, or undermine its complexity?

Ishvara Pranidhana (Surrender to a Higher Purpose):  Do invite students to celebrate the spiritual. This wise principle is your call to tinge each class with the goosebump-raising sense of something greater, finding the words that help tap us into our innate understanding of timelessness, togetherness, or the nearness of divinity. I admit it is for the invocation of this magic that I return to a teacher. There are many ways you can glance at the numinous: when the language of the ancient poem you are reading seems to uncannily befit the present moment; when your evocative imagery paints a wind-swirled sky of mind or a shimmering nervous system so vividly that we feel that wind on our skin or the tingle of that electricity within us; when you describe the actions of the breath in such a precise, detailed way that we are awestruck by the body; when the fearlessness of your Sanskrit chant for a moment liberates us to join you unselfconsciously, miraculously on key; when you point out that all of us are affecting each other just by being here, breathing and moving together, making us feel that we are not, after all, alone; when, by your words, you succeed in putting a sturdy planet beneath our feet: there the earth is, sudden as a conjurer’s trick. But you may also choose to say nothing: the divine exists most palpably in the silences you allow us between your directions, in the longer quiet of shavasana, in which you sit, and keep the door closed, and watch the time, and hold the sky up for a few minutes so that we can settle into the vastness inside ourselves that is always waiting, just beyond words.

Amber Burke
Amber Burke lives in Coyote, New Mexico, and teaches alignment-based and restorative yoga at Body in Santa Fe. In her classes, she aspires to a precision of language and detail that will not only create sustainable poses but also guide students inward, toward an ever-deepening self-awareness. She is a graduate of Yale, the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars MFA Program, and two yoga teacher trainings through Yogaworks in Los Angeles, and has been registered with the Yoga Alliance at the 500-hour... Read more>>

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