Language Matters: How Words and Tone Affect Our Students


I recently attended a yoga class that was nothing short of sublime. 

It wasn't the sequence. Nor was it the music or beauty of the space, although both were on point. 

The teacher, Michele Vinbury, at Yoga on High in Columbus, Ohio, brought the soul, vibrancy, and humor I was desperately seeking. Her succinct yet whimsical vocabulary led to sentences I never would have thought to string together. And her instructions all made sense. 

She was welcoming, kind, and respectful to everyone in the room, and everything about her rang sincere. 

I sensed that an incredible amount of thought and energy had gone into the way she cued us through simple as well as tricky transitions. Her words landed softly, but they also had an impact that stayed with me. The class really felt like a once-in-a-lifetime experience. 

If I sound dramatic, forgive me, but it was just that wonderful. It's not often that I leave a yoga class feeling like I can do anything. 

I also felt “seen” that day. And I'm betting every person in attendance would say the same. 

Conversely, last year I went to a class that left me feeling confused and turned off. The instructor said at the start that we'd be focusing on arm balances and inversions “to conquer fear and to embrace challenges with gusto.” This was advertised as a level one class, so that kind of language felt aggressive. I was new to the studio and to her. She glanced my way a couple of times but didn't introduce herself. 

She instructed us to breathe as deeply as possible. She suggested that if we had trouble with this, our egos may be to blame. 

Really? That's the number one cause of difficulty with breathwork? 

I was already irked by the suggestion that practicing challenging postures was a way to “conquer” our fears, and many other questions were clouding my mind. 

What If someone in the room has a wrist injury or glaucoma and isn't supposed to invert? How about beginners who may feel overwhelmed and excluded? How about the fact that it may not be fear but rather intelligence alerting a student that a certain posture is not yet in their wheelhouse? 

Will she encourage variations? Will she support someone's choice to simply avoid doing a pose? 

And then, 10 minutes into class (after I was already aggravated), the teacher began to push hard on my back in down dog. And she didn’t ask for my consent before adjusting me. 

I told her I was okay and didn't need an adjustment. She sighed and asked, "What are you afraid of?" Well, let's see. For one, being pushed too far and getting a hamstring injury. And then there’s the discomfort with being challenged for simply saying no when it comes to my body. 

A few years ago, I would have stayed for the remainder of the class and simply never gone back. But now I have little tolerance for that kind of thing. I rolled up my mat and walked out.

After deciding to leave the class early, I went home and emailed twenty yoga-loving friends, both teachers and students, to ask about their experiences with teachers who either are or are not at all aware of their tone and word choices. And through my informal survey, I found that everyone could relate. 

Examples included teachers speaking too quietly or too harshly, offering cues that didn't make sense, and repeating the same thing over and over again. Many said these experiences were the norm rather than the exception, and also that the impact remained with them for days or even longer. 

As disappointing as it was to hear this, it motivated me to explore tone and vocabulary in yoga classes more intensively. I want to be as mindful a teacher as I can possibly be. As a student and an advocate for my students, I knew that I needed to make this a priority. 

Self-Awareness in Tone and Word Choice

When leading a yoga class, a harsh, flat, or blunt tone or confusing cueing can leave students feeling cold. In my earlier years as a teacher, I often didn't consider my tone or my way of explaining things nearly as much as I do now. And, as a result, I'm sure I did some harm. 

In the first year of my teaching career, I distinctly remember theming a specific class along the concept of taking a gentler and kinder (ahimsa) approach to the practice. Then, probably not even 15 minutes in, I recall instructing students with, "Don't dial it in. You made the time for this. Put the work in." Yes, I'm cringing too. It was a contradictory message. 

Holding ourselves accountable in every meaningful way includes the tone we set and the vocabulary we select. We must remain vigilant in recognizing how we affect a student's experience. The good news is that we can learn this through practice.

What do you look for in a teacher? 

As a teacher, determining what matters in creating a welcoming class experience, as well as why it matters, is not just a thought exercise. It’s something I know I have to make a top priority. 

I found it helpful to make a list of the qualities I look for in a teacher and the experience I'm seeking from a yoga class. For example, I want to leave class feeling emotionally warm, inspired, and thoughtful. My guess is that those are commonly held desires by yoga students. 

In my earlier years as a practitioner, I remember hearing frequently that the teacher doesn't matter and it's all about what the student chooses to learn and feel. That idea places all of the responsibility on the student and none on the teacher. 

But many things can be triggering for students and what we say and how we say it can make a huge difference in how they receive the information and process their experience. 

The way it's always been done is no longer acceptable.

As we know, hierarchical power dynamics has been a destructive force in the yoga realm. Shaming, belittling, and condescension were never effective in teaching, even though they have been accepted and often even encouraged. Instead, I choose to offer kindness and compassion, and to roll out a gigantic welcome mat that invites everyone into the practice. 

This was not always true. For a long time, I (embarrassingly) wasn’t concerned with inclusivity. My immaturity and self-centeredness won out over any concerns about accessibility. Now, however, inclusivity and accessibility are among my most important considerations as a yoga teacher. 

Humility is one of the most authentic qualities we can develop as teachers. Bringing a healthy dose of it into our words and the overall tone of our classes will help to create a much safer and more welcoming space for all. 

"Yoga teacher voice" vs. voice 

In discussing tone, I absolutely have to mention “the yoga teacher voice.” There’s a very strong stereotype of what a yoga teacher is: a Western-created image of a thin, white, athletic, young, very able-bodied person who speaks a certain way and uses clichés and platitudes to instruct. However, many people—such as Dianne Bondy, Jivana Heyman, and Jessamyn Stanley, to name a few—are doing everything they can to deconstruct this stereotype and celebrate our differences. 

Whether or not we fit into this stereotype, it can still influence the way we speak, leading us to take on a tone that’s inauthentic. YI editor Kat Heagberg refers to it as "yoga-speak." In her article about avoiding the trap of trying to sound like a yoga teacher, she explains, "By yoga-speak, I mean the speech patterns, habits, and clichés that we tend to fall into when trying to sound how we think a yoga teacher should sound." 

The good news? The most authentic teaching voice is our everyday voice, when we’re not inhabiting the role of “teacher.” The dilemma, of course, is that we may be unaware of how we sound when we’re teaching. 

I’ve learned to teach in a conversational tone, though I used to be much stiffer and more serious in my approach. Thankfully, people I respected illuminated this for me and I’ll always be grateful for that feedback. 

Once I lightened up and allowed my natural personality to emerge, real connection followed. I could then enjoy being human with my students—asking them their thoughts during class, speaking directly to individuals and cheering them on.

This doesn’t mean my style works for everyone. I don’t know that any of us can remain authentic and genuine and be universally appealing. 

There’s a big difference between mindfulness of tone and tone-policing.

Is all of this bordering on tone-policing?

If you're not familiar with the term, tone-policing refers to the practice of discarding the content of what a person is saying by focusing only on their tone of voice. In an article for FEM magazine, Jacqueline Pei breaks it down, saying "Tone-policing is the act of silencing a person's ideas and thoughts on the basis of their emotional tone and therefore ignoring the actual content of their message." Tone-policing applies to the myriad ways we silence others (often those who are marginalized) who speak up with emotion about all that is oppressive. 

However, yoga teachers are in a position of power and thus watching and witnessing our own tone in class is a very different kind of thing.

Ask yourself the following: What is the message we intend to deliver and why? Does it stand to be beneficial? How do we want our words to land? What feelings do we want to inspire in our students, knowing that these feelings will likely outlast their time on the mat?

There’s a thin line between expressing our thoughts and ideas and imposing our own beliefs on students. There are often a lot of “shoulds” thrown around in a yoga class: Your foot should be aligned like so, and you should be feeling thus and such. I frequently suggest that teachers swap out should for could wherever possible and encourage students to personalize their practices. Respecting individual choice is invaluable to me as a teacher and it’s also what I appreciate and need as a student. 

Developing a Richer Vocabulary 

It’s likely that every one of us has heard an impactful cue that helped something click for us. I once heard a teacher tell us to “live the pose.” Afterward, I found myself better able to commit to the more subtle nuances of that pose, with every limb, muscle, joint, and tendon all invited to the party. (I wish I could remember this teacher’s name, as I feel it’s important to acknowledge the verbal cues I've learned from other teachers.)

Since 2014, I've worked as a mentor and instructor as part of a 200-hour yoga teacher training. And curricula-wise, the development of effective verbal cueing is always at the top of our list. It's not easy to be creative, unique, and clear at the same time. This was the reason I created my website, My aim is to offer useful cues that yoga teachers can use to help students understand, on a deeper level, what could be available to them on the mat. Another goal of mine is to encourage other teachers to come up with their own cues that sync with their own unique vocabulary and thinking.

I keep a list of effective words on my phone that can be woven into my yoga teaching and writing. I’ve gathered these words both in and outside of yoga spaces—from conversations I’ve had, things I’ve read, television, and podcasts. 

Keeping a record of words that evoke something within you can help considerably with vocabulary development. And you can find inspiration anywhere.

Know your audience.

Vocabulary adjustments also affect clarity. For instance, there are innumerable ways to describe the breath and how to do breathwork. I struggled for years with it. Simply hearing teachers say “inhale and exhale” washed right over me. The feedback I've received from students over the years tells me I'm not alone. 

Breathing practices can be tough to grasp. We've been breathing all of our lives, right? If I tell you to "Breathe from the belly," what does that really mean? It's far too vague. Instead, what if I say "Pursue the inhale gently, witnessing your abdomen expand. Coax the exhale out until you feel engagement in your abdomen"? Does that make it easier to understand and feel the breath in your body? 

Maybe, maybe not. Everyone responds to cues differently. Depending on individual preferences, some cues may feel more effective than others. I respond best to a combination of metaphors, poetry, and action words. Others appreciate more concrete, direct verbal cues. The point is to be mindful and to do your best to help students understand you.

But don’t sacrifice clarity for creativity.

Getting creative with our cue development is a wonderful way to avoid saying the same thing over and over again. But getting creative for the sake of being unusual can't take precedence over driving home the points we want to make.

I've said many things over the years that were ineffective. In trying to be clever and provide unusual instruction, I only ended up confusing students. Every now and then, though, I land on something I know is gold. One of my favorite cues is, "Continue to shift the boundary lines of your breath pattern." Over the years, students have told me this cue has helped them understand that their breath is much more within their control than they’d thought. They’ve learned that they can take a deeper inhale and really empty the exhale by thinking of expanding boundaries. 

I often try out new cues on my partner. He is always willing to give helpful and honest feedback. Find that person in your life who will help you develop your own unique (albeit clear) way of cueing. 

Additional Tips for Teachers 

• With permission, video (or audio) record your classes. Football coaches use this technique constantly to review plays and help players understand what they're seeing. Listen to your tone of voice, notice if you repeat the same things over and over again, and even watch how your body language communicates your message. Take notes. If you can't do this in the confines of a studio, invite friends over and practice teaching them in your home.

• Practice speaking with kindness in everyday situations. People don't generally hear our message better just because we've spoken more aggressively. (There are, of course, exceptions to this rule. If we feel threatened, or we’re standing up for ourselves or others, our tone will rightfully convey this). For the most part, kindness goes a long way, especially when we’re frustrated. I’ve been guilty too many times of sacrificing another’s feelings because of my own lack of patience. Keeping our cool typically serves us better. 

• Choose a couple of habits to celebrate and a couple to let go of. I did record one of my classes a few years back, and I was embarrassed to hear how much I repeated certain words such as “explore” and “invite.” It was excessive, and I resolved to use those words less. On a brighter note, I noticed that voice projection had definitely improved. That’s a habit I’m keeping.

Tone and vocabulary can be learned and unlearned. Whenever we think we have no control over a situation in the studio, it can be helpful to remember that most of the time, we have control over ourselves. We can choose what words and habits to cherish, which to let go of, and how to seek out others to enrich our teaching.

There is great freedom and power in this. And you may find that embracing it can help your students more than you’d ever thought possible.

Photography: Michelle Linteris 

About the Teacher

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Lara Falberg
Lara Falberg has been teaching yoga since 2006. Trained in Atlanta, Georgia, she now lives in Columbus,... Read more