The Importance of Body-Affirming Language in Yoga Class
Creating space for self-acceptance
As yoga professionals, we have the special privilege of guiding individuals through movement experiences. We also have responsibility for creating safe spaces for that exploration to unfold. What an extraordinary honor it is to hold space for others as they learn to recognize sensation, feel their breath, take up space, and seek inner quiet—all while making shapes with their bodies in a public space with strangers. Although movement may come easily for some, being present with one’s body is often uncomfortable, even scary, for others. Sometimes, much more than we may realize.
My personal recovery from an eating disorder and my professional work as a certified yoga therapist supporting others in eating disorder recovery has enlightened me to the reality that many people are burdened by inner dialogues that are steeped in guilt, shame, and comparison about their bodies. Let’s face it, relating to our bodies in a caring or thoughtful way, as we would to a close friend, is an unfamiliar practice in our society. We are more familiar with controlling or improving our bodies than with affirming or honoring them. This “self-fixing” attitude has permeated our consciousness, greatly influencing how we think our bodies should look, perform, and age.
The constant and unending stream of headlines and images about weight loss and beauty ideals reflect our culture’s preoccupation with outside appearance. The marketing of “before and after” photos, fad diets, and quick-fix workouts leave an indelible impression on the average consumer regardless of their body size, race, ability, gender, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, or age. We, along with our yoga students, are part of a hyper body-focused society, making it difficult for many to untangle their moral worth from the shape of their bodies.
Yoga, with its tenets of self-compassion and self-empathy, is an incredibly powerful pathway to forging a kinder relationship with one’s body. The yoga room represents a space for people to renew their relationships with their bodies. It helps them to value their inner qualities, and to realize that their self-worth is not dependent on the size of their jeans. Yoga teachers can play an active role in nurturing these uplifting experiences by adapting our language to something I call “body-mindful” —and by integrating body-affirming language into our classes in order to foster positive body image among our students.
Yoga, with its tenets of self-compassion and self-empathy, is an incredibly powerful pathway to forging a kinder relationship with one’s body.
The concept of “body-mindfulness” is the subject of my new book, co-authored with Robert Butera, PhD, called Body Mindful Yoga. Written for individuals who wish to improve their self-confidence and body image, Body Mindful Yoga aims to bring awareness to how words influence body image, and it offers empowering yoga practices that employ affirming language. Ultimately, our intention is to guide readers to transform attitudes and beliefs that have kept them stuck in disempowering body narratives about how they should look, perform, and age—into self-affirming ones.
In the context of teaching yoga, we can incorporate body-mindfulness into our classes in multiple ways. For the purposes of this article, however, I will focus on one skill you can immediately begin to experiment with. A concrete way we can help students find safety and ease in the movement experience and ultimately feel more comfortable in their bodies is by decreasing the use of prescriptive language, and using “guide” language instead.
In other words, a body-mindful yoga teacher aims to guide rather than prescribe physical and emotional sensations so that students have the space and opportunity to be curious about their own unique experience on the mat. Notice that I used the word “sensations,” which is different from alignment. Cues about alignment are prescriptive in nature and need to be for the sake of safety. The language of sensation, both physical and emotional, is very different.
The classic example I use in my trainings to demonstrate prescriptive versus guide language is pigeon pose. Remember in teacher training when you were taught where in the body students “should” feel the stretch or sensation in the pose? And how many times have you either repeated this “fact” in your own classes—or attended a class as a practitioner and been told where you should feel the pose? But what about the student who does not feel the stretch in pigeon pose in the prescribed place? What are they to think—that there is (yet again) something wrong with their body? That they aren’t doing the pose right, and thus (yet again) aren’t good enough at yoga?
Believe it or not, the self-doubt that can occur in someone from not “feeling” a pose in the “right” place can exacerbate a negative body image, because that sense of “inability” can fuel self-talk about how one’s body fails to fit in or measure up. Integrating language that opens up space for varied and individual experiences in a pose (and that also includes the most common areas of sensation) is a key body-mindful skill that allows for exploration, which has a very different vibe from that of perfection or “doing it right.”
Here are four categories of guide language for you to creatively play with in your teaching.
1. Inquiry. This means asking questions, being curious, and encouraging curiosity in practitioners. Some examples are: How does this pose feel? Where do you feel the stretch? Where do you feel it the most? What happens if you shift your hips a little to one side or the other? Questions such as these draw people’s attention into their bodies in an inclusive way and invite students to pay attention to their individual experiences.
2. Neutral observation. Incorporate language that guides people to practice the yogic skill of observation or self-study, which is essential to learning how to notice without critique or judgment—a very real paradigm shift for those accustomed to harsh self-talk. Some of the words that encourage neutral observation are “notice” and “observe” and phrases like “check in with.” Rather than tell people where they should feel a pose, try a statement like, “Notice where you feel sensation in your body.”
3. Purposeful pauses and silence. It’s imperative that we allow students space for self-discovery in quiet moments. Yoga is a journey of self-discovery. Learning to be comfortable with silence will allow this process to unfold within ourselves and our students. I recognize how awkward silence can feel, but I assure you, we all need it. Most of us live in a constant state of stimulation. Purposeful pauses and silence create a quiet that is golden. We free ourselves from the pressure to perform, and we gift practitioners with the space to glimpse their inner wisdom.
4. Permission for comfort. It’s incredibly powerful to be granted permission to rest or modify in a pose because many people resist or struggle to give that permission to themselves. We can guide people to embrace their right to be comfortable through simple cues that suggest permission. For example, I often say, “If it’s comfortable for you, feel free to close your eyes.” You can apply this idea to a variety of instances throughout class, and I encourage you to be creative with the language you use to guide permission for comfort. Imagine how life changing it could be for someone who feels uncomfortable in their body to finally have permission to explore feeling more comfortable in a yoga pose! The domino effect of that very shift can be incredibly profound and can awaken a kinder relationship with oneself and one’s body.
I believe body-affirming yoga experiences have extraordinary power in shifting people’s perceptions about their bodies and their self-worth in a more positive direction. I encourage you to get curious and creative, and to give yourself permission to experiment with language in a way that resonates with your teaching style, your personality, and your own experience. You might also practice guide language in your own life to initiate a gentler dialogue with your own body. This inner work can only make you a stronger, more body-mindful yoga teacher, practitioner, and student of life.