As humans, we’re unique in our communication because it’s filled with meaning, emotion, motive, and, well, drama. Words are never just words. They have the power to do both good and harm. And with that power comes a responsibility for all of us to be a little more mindful and cautious about the words we select.
With that in mind, here are a few things I don’t say anymore, on or off the mat. This isn’t an article about alignment cues, though. It doesn’t delve into my communications as a yoga teacher as it pertains to anatomy. Instead, I want to take a closer look at how the language choices we make in yoga spaces may be harmful to others and to make suggestions for being more inclusive.
The following advice isn’t just for yoga teachers, although that position does come with a greater ability to inform and persuade; it can also be helpful for students. I believe that all of us have a responsibility to make representation and inclusivity a priority. Here are some places we can begin.
It’s not just NFL teams who have erred in misappropriating Indigenous culture. Everyday language is laden with references to Indigenous heritage, and the language we use in yoga is no different. For example, why is the use of the word “tribe” so prevalent? I’ve seen “find your tribe” and “your vibe attracts your tribe” plastered over more water bottles and tank tops than I care to count, and yoga studios seem to include it often in social media posts and other forms of communication.
The problem, though, is that that word is stolen.
When we use the word “tribe” in these ways, what we’re of course pointing to is a group of people we like to spend time with, who make us feel good. Now I realize that isn’t pithy enough to make it onto a T shirt, but there are other words or expressions we can use that don’t disrespect an important component of Indigenous culture. You could have a gathering of souls or a community of practice. We’re creative creatures. I’m sure we can come up with words that are closer to our heartfelt intentions.
Similarly, if you’d like to have a discussion with someone, you can call it that, rather than referring to it as “having a powwow.” And I think by now we know that adding feathers to a braid or donning any kind of Indigenous clothing or accessories, if you are not of Indigenous descent, is appropriative.
There are a lot of expressions we commonly use that have a negative connotation and inadvertently shame people with disabilities, such as “turning a blind eye,” “doesn’t have a leg to stand on,” or “fall on deaf ears.” These might not be part of a repertoire of yoga cues, but could definitely crop up in conversations in the studio. By becoming aware of these phrases, and phrases like them, you may realize that they come up in everyday casual conversations more often than you think.
Again, instead of using a negative or hurtful turn of phrase, why don’t we just say what we mean to say directly? It might take a bit more careful thinking, or casting about for a different way to express ourselves, rather than leaning heavily on cliche, but the compassion and sensitivity offered is worth it. And the benefit is that if yoga teachers start modeling the type of language they’d like to hear, there’s a chance that students, friends, and co-workers will pick up on this example and adopt more sensitive language.
I am so, so hopeful that we can get past casually using body descriptors in class that place value on “small” over “large.” Unless the term “fat” is consciously owned and used with pride by someone who identifies as such, it isn’t one to be thrown around. Consider, even, the labels “overweight” and “underweight.” Those categorizations might have previously been commonplace in a doctor’s chart as measured against a growth curve, but why are they so prevalent in everyday society and even in yoga classes or training? What benefit is gained by judging and categorizing other people’s bodies?
And it happens. All. The. Time.
Even if it is meant as a compliment, saying someone looks great because they’ve lost weight passes judgment that bigger isn't better. Or perhaps we have been conditioned to be playful or self-deprecating about different body parts and think that joking references to areas where flesh accumulates, and how to move limbs with body mass attached, makes it okay—but even though “love handles” or “the girls” (in reference to breasts) may seem innocuous, such references can quantify, judge, and harm.
Part of the issue is, I believe, that in a yoga class we are talking about body parts and the science of moving through space, and many of us are not skilled enough to cue a whole class of bodies of different shapes and sizes through the same type of movements without quantifying differences in these harmful ways. These are skills and levels of awareness that I believe need to be taught and incorporated more frequently. (For more information on that, refer to the body positivity movement in yoga, and leading teachers in that movement, such as Dianne Bondy and Amber Karnes.)
It’s one thing for an individual to proudly own their “thunder thighs.” It’s quite another if a teacher talks about “thunder thighs” nonchalantly, or any other term that can be triggering out of context, in a general class.
A long hold in plank pose or a HIIT (high-intensity interval training) class should not provoke verbal reactions such as “I’m going to kill myself” or “I want to die.” We never know if a fellow student, or even your teacher, struggles with thoughts of suicide or other mental health concerns. These words, strewn about so casually, sound callous to those who have actually felt these things. And they signal a lack of support, which is the last message we want to send anyone, let alone in yoga spaces, which should be filled with compassion.
We also have to stop saying we need yoga because our lives feel “crazy.” The words “crazy” and “insane” don’t need to be synonymous with “stressful,” “hectic,” “intense,” or even “exciting.” Similarly, just because you like to line up yoga mats or picture frames doesn’t mean you are “OCD,” and being a little bit individualistic or extraordinary does not warrant a “schizo” reference.
Check your words. What are you saying? What are you implying? Is your communication devaluing important mental health concerns? Let’s transcend such flippancy and be more mindful with our words.
Even though yoga teachers are not healthcare professionals, conversations in and around yoga classes often turn to medical topics. Where and when appropriate, teachers need to know about various injuries, illnesses, or other underlying conditions so that they understand where their students are coming from. Given this, yoga teachers, and people in general, could use a primer on how to discuss such topics sensitively (within their scope of practice).
For example, people with various medical conditions have often been identified as their condition: as alcoholics, diabetics, epileptics. Often, (though not always) a more appropriate approach is a person-first approach. Instead of saying “alcoholics,” say “people experiencing alcoholism”; instead of “diabetics,” “people with diabetes”; instead of epileptics, “people with epilepsy.” (Editors’ note: Per our Yoga International writers’ guidelines, we recommend always using the preference of the person you are referring to when deciding whether to use person-first or identity-first language if applicable and possible.)
Another unfortunate yet common language choice is to say “suffering from” or “battling with,” which presumes individuals who have certain medical conditions feel things or think about themselves in certain ways that they may not identify with.
Cancer is often described as a battle, but what does using such terms say about the people who died from cancer? That they perhaps didn’t “fight” hard enough? And what about people who view a disability or other physical condition as part of their body, as part of their makeup? By using “suffering” terminology, we are highlighting the negative, but do they see their experience as negative? For example, a “medical model” thinks of disability as something to "fix" or "overcome," whereas a social model sees it as a part of a person's whole that has both positive and negative aspects.
Let’s keep the value equation out of descriptions of medical conditions.
How we speak about and relate to gender in yoga spaces is a vast topic that has already been explored in many other articles (including this excellent piece by Tobias Wiggins). The topic deserves to be detailed in greater depth than I am able to do here, so I passionately ask that we continue to build awareness of the plentitude of genders and identities that exist.
Keeping descriptors neutral is a start, but even better is celebrating people regardless of where on the spectrum they find their identity.
Choosing inclusive language is an act of kindness and consideration. More than that, it’s a fundamental human right for everyone to be treated equally, and with respect. There are stellar resources on how to make communication inclusive and respectful of diversity. The internet is a good place to start. Individuals, yoga studios, organizations, and businesses should certainly check out some of the excellent diversity style guides that are available.
Various mental health organizations have excellent primers on how to sensitively speak about mental health—I highly recommend checking to see what your local mental health association has to offer.
Finally, some people treat language as an afterthought, and are quick to deride others who speak up about offensive terms, calling them “uptight,” “too sensitive,” and “overly P.C.” (politically correct). I’ll welcome those labels any day if it means that I have avoided causing harm to even one person.
As yogis, let’s aim for mindful language. Let’s focus our lens of compassion, of ahimsa, on the history and meaning behind the expressions we choose to use. Let’s learn not just about anatomy and meditation, but also about representation and inclusivity. Let’s do no harm to others’ bodies, emotions, and mental states. It’s the loving and right thing to do.