How to Keep Your Teaching Language Student-Focused

August 30, 2017    BY Anna Withrow

As a yoga teacher, I know that the language I use is important to the experience students have in my asana classes. When students practice yoga with me, I want them to be inspired, challenged, nourished, and rejuvenated. I want them to feel deeply loved, boundlessly curious, and full of enthusiasm. I want them to be healed of all suffering and fully confident in the purpose of their lives.

Wow. I’d better have a great class plan and an endlessly rich vocabulary, right?

I do believe yoga can help to further all of these outcomes. But as a teacher, it took me a while to learn that yoga doesn’t need any special assistance or poetic inspiration from me.

I’m doing my best work when I’m simply offering a well-designed, straightforward practice and helping my students stay present and embodied.

Asana relies on moving the body to transform stagnant and inert energy into an experience of ourselves that is more harmonious and vibrant. As an asana teacher, I’m involved in just the first part of this equation—guiding students through movement and helping them stay present during the process.

If bodies are the vehicles for practice, I can assist mostly by acting as the GPS: offering clear, well-timed directions. I can also help students keep the volume down on that car radio that we all are tuned into at varying volumes—the mind.

If we’re focused on an outcome for our practice that is as important as having full confidence in the purpose of our lives, we can assume the road we’re heading down needs our full attention.

If bodies are the vehicles for practice, I can assist mostly by acting as the GPS: offering clear, well-timed directions.

Finally, in those places when the ride is smooth, I may have the chance to point out an interesting milestone or two along the journey. Yes, it’s okay to be the charming tour guide at times—so long as the directions remain clear.

There are some specific ways we teachers can use language to excel in these roles and offer a great yoga practice without letting unclear language (even when it comes from good intentions or a sparkling personality) take over.

1. Offer great directions.

Great directions are simple—they inspire confidence and minimize mental processing. When your GPS is directing you to turn left, it says, “In 500 feet, turn left.” You are sure about what it’s asking you to do and you can process the information quickly enough to make the turn.

Imagine driving in an unfamiliar place and relying on the GPS to help you get where you’re going, without taking your eyes off the road. If it were to say, “Feeling the wheel under your hands and turning left,” or “Think about turning left,” you might be unsure what to do or when to do it and end up missing the turn.

Use simple, imperative sentences (i.e., commands) as your default for instructions. When you want students to step forward, say, “Step forward,” instead of “Stepping forward.”

The difference may seem small, but the cumulative impact on mental processing could be huge. “Step forward,”is a complete grammatical construction. The brain is satisfied with the meaning. When someone hears, “Stepping forward,” which could be a noun or a verb phrase, there is a sense that more information is needed, which could slow mental processing.

Don’t worry about coming across as cold or overly authoritative. Your kindness and compassion won’t be lost when you speak this way.

Remember, your willingness to speak with authority can be comforting. Students want teachers. They sought you out to guide the experience. So do so with confidence, and leave out the -ing verbs and superfluous phrases as much as possible.

2. Turn down the volume on mental distraction.

After we gain some experience driving a car, the processing needed to get from here to there becomes pretty automatic. We can mentally handle the task of driving while at the same time chatting with a passenger, listening to the radio, and enjoying the scenery.

Many students can go through an asana class in much the same way, following the teacher’s directions while scanning the mental to-do list, daydreaming, and occasionally looking around to see what a fashionable yogi nearby is sporting.

That approach may be okay if the purpose for the practice is “feeling a little better than when I came in.” But if we want to lead students to a place more sublime, we must ensure that our language is helping them to turn down the volume on mental distraction so as to stay present and focused in the body.

Again, I’ll suggest that simple language has a lot to offer in this regard. It can be tempting to search for metaphors to explain complex directions or refinements to a pose. But a metaphor, by definition, activates the imagination. It turns up the volume on mental activity.

Be discerning about which metaphors you use, how often you use them, and how students might respond. For example, I’ve heard a teacher suggest that in prasarita padottanasana (standing wide-legged forward bend), I should feel like I’m riding bareback on a horse.

In response, instead of focusing on a sensation of inner thigh engagement, I’m on a free-wheeling horse ride through my mind. I’m thinking, I’m pretty afraid of horses....I know they’re super nice….But my grandma told this scary story about horses….She said she tried to tame a wild horse in Ireland and broke every bone in her body….I bet she didn’t really break all her bones....Everyone in my family exaggerates so much....Should I call my mom?

This does not sound like a student with her eyes on the road.

Over the years, I’ve heard (and used) some pretty good explanatory metaphors. But honestly, few were so good that a careful explanation without the metaphor couldn’t have done the same job. Metaphorical language may make a class more entertaining, but remember that it’s the yoga that is meant to be the focus—not the language nor the teacher.

3. Reserve nuanced language to make an intended impact.

If it seems like I’m making the case for being the most boring yoga teacher of all time, fear not. I know you’re not a yoga teaching robot, and there are undoubtedly some aspects of your teaching and language that are appropriately unique (and likely cherished by your students).

If it seems like I’m making the case for being the most boring yoga teacher of all time, fear not.

Having the less flashy language defaults in place will ensure that when you do use language for effect, it will really work.

Think, for example, about a teacher who says “Float your arms up” each time she wants you to lift your arms. Eventually, you no longer pay attention to the nuance of floating versus lifting the arms. Your brain simply processes that “float” in this instance means “lift.” Or you become fixated on the idiosyncratic word and become annoyed.

I recall a class when a teacher instructed us to do everything “gently.” “Gently lift your arms.” “Gently step forward.” By the time she said, “Gently close your eyes,” I thought I might scream.

But if you, the teacher, says “Float your arms up” because you have directed students to an experience where grounding in the low body creates a sense of freedom and lightness in the upper body, you just enriched the students’ experience with a careful, strategic use of language.

Reserve language that is nuanced, interesting, or special for those times when it will help the students gain a deeper, more subtle experience of the body.

If you say, “Brighten your toes” every time you mean “Flex your feet,” students will miss the one time it’s important among all the others and may even become distracted or annoyed.

Please remember that these are not rigid rules but rather a means of making the student and the embodied experience the priority. So apply these suggestions with an open mind.

My caveat to accompany any guidelines for teaching is always this: In the moment, help the student. If a student is struggling in a pose and the only way you can think to help is by offering a metaphor about opening a peanut butter jar, just say it—and then do your best to get him or her back in the body as soon as you can.

At other times, just try being a little more direct and transparent with your language. And enjoy watching students take the journey of their lives.

Anna Withrow
Anna Withrow teaches traditional yoga with a focus on becoming more stable in body and mind. In addition to teaching, she is a perpetual student and spends as much time as her schedule allows learning from her teachers. She is the Director of Yoga Bird in Fort Myers, FL, which she owns along with her husband, Chip. At Yoga Bird, she oversees a schedule of over fifty classes per week, weekly workshops that explore the deeper aspects of yoga, and a 200-hour Yoga Teacher Training program.

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