If you Google: “weird things yoga teachers say,” you will get a lot of hits. Many of them are kind of funny:
We store a lot of anger in our thighs.
Melt your shoulders.
Exhale out the soles of your feet.
Others fall more into the category of alarming:
Widen your anal canal.
Leave the world and enter the Limbic System.
Even, dare I say it: Open your heart (ouch!).
As a writer, I am sensitive to language. And as a yoga teacher, I am honored by the fact that my students actually try to do what I ask. So I choose my words carefully. I aim to say what I mean and mean what I say. Teaching yoga is, in fact, the perfect opportunity to explore the Buddhist practice of Right Speech.
As a yoga teacher, I am honored by the fact that my students actually try to do what I ask. So I choose my words carefully.
Right Speech is the third element of the eightfold path, an ancient recipe for living that is said to lead us back to our own true and awakened nature. Bringing together what I have learned from books, classes, and retreats, I would define Right Speech as truthful, well-motivated, compassionate, and not foolish. It should also be uplifting.
Let’s start with truthful. For yoga teachers, speaking the truth means staying within the realm of your understanding. This quality of truthfulness is relevant whether you teach from an anatomical, devotional, or philosophical foundation.
You can still teach a pose you have not mastered or explore a concept (such as samadhi) that you may not have experienced, so long as you fully understand the component elements and are clear about your sources.
Although we benefit from the observation and wisdom of our teachers, we should clarify when we are sharing their findings and not our own. For example, I can say, “Mr. Iyengar believed that if we practice headstand without doing shoulderstand afterward we may be more prone to losing our tempers.” I might try to interpret why he believed this sequence is balancing, but I would not express his conclusion as fact, nor as coming from my own experience.
When instructing our students we should also maintain awareness of our own motivations. How can we bring clarity to our intentions? What are we actually teaching anyway? What the heck are we trying to do up there at the front of the room? These questions seem simple, and yet I find that I reflect on them often. Some days reasonable answers appear, and on those days my teaching flows. Other days—due to nerves, distraction, or ego—I can easily lose my way.
The third element of Right Speech is compassion, and it is a beautiful place from which to teach.
Our language should be inclusive and direct. It is okay to be bossy in the interest of creating a safe space with clear expectations. Yet it can be tricky to own our authority without removing the students’ agency or denying their experience.
We might request, for example, that a particular student not practice handstand if we feel they cannot attempt it without potential harm to themselves or those around them. Yet if that student is still eager to try we should explain our reservations carefully and offer alternatives through which they may still cultivate a sense of mastery and fun.
Compassion should always be offered to ourselves as well, with the awareness that our own relationship to the practice—and even to the particular students in the room—is subject to our own eccentricities and habits.
In my own case, for example, I am conscious that my sense of humor can have a rough edge and that I need to be mindful that no feelings get hurt. I find this particularly challenging in one of my weekend classes that is usually filled with regulars. Most of us have known each other for years and the atmosphere is casual, friendly, and personal. Occasionally I poke fun, maybe even tease. Yet there might be someone in the room I know less well, or who is going through something about which I’m unaware, and I occasionally wish certain words had not tumbled out of me unbidden. In general, I try to convey that my joking comes from a compassionate place; we are all in this together, and sometimes laughter really is the best medicine.
The fourth aspect of Right Speech is that what we say not be foolish, which brings us back full circle to some of those weird yoga teacher expressions. One of the greatest gifts I received from my teacher, Cyndi Lee, was a sensitivity to this common foible.
In our teacher training, she enforced a ban against common teaching language clichés, and even against specific words (such as “heart”) which teachers tend to use indiscriminately. Joking that these words were “illegal,” Cyndi offered exercises to help us deepen our attention to language and even to expand our vocabularies.
As a result, on occasion we got a little too excited about language. Once when the teaching instruction of a student in our group got out of hand she admonished him not to turn his class into “a prose event”—that is, a predilection for wordiness that can distract and call attention to itself, rather than the yoga.
With all of these considerations in mind, perhaps the most important is that the language we use be meaningful to our students. We have a responsibility as teachers to build a shared vocabulary. When we truly understand each other we are all lifted up.
If you are already immersed in the language of asana it may surprise you how strange some familiar yoga cues sound to the “uninitiated.” As I researched this piece I came across many phrases that I say quite blithely, and I realized how odd they might sound to a civilian. And indeed, how they could be misinterpreted.
These humorous illustrations of some of our common teaching expressions really made my day.
I’d love to hear about some of the more bizarre or confusing instructions that you have received. And some of the most wonderful as well.