Language is powerful. Most people know that the age-old adage “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me” simply isn’t true. It’s probably safe to say that people are hurt more often by words than by anything else. For many of us, our emotional bodies have far more scar tissue than our physical bodies.
I believe this is something powerful that yoga teachers need to consider. The words we use when we stand in front of our students have the power to soothe or to trigger. They can calm or they can instigate. While we may never perfectly fill a class with language that makes everyone feel both welcome and challenged, we can certainly try our best to do so.
That is why I suggest that, as yoga teachers, we stop using the phrase, “I want you to...”
I realize that at first glance, this may seem exceptionally nitpicky, even melodramatic or extreme. But please hear me out.
Yoga is a personal practice and a personal journey. We often hear comments along the lines of “Keep your practice on your own mat” or “Don’t compare yourself to anyone else in the room." However, when we teachers actively introduce ourselves into the language of the classroom, we ask students to practice for someone other than themselves. We ask them to practice for us.
When I say, “I want you to step your right foot forward,” for example, I instantly change the meaning of that cue: It’s now about fulfilling my needs and desires, rather than the needs of the student. Instead of choosing to follow (or even disregard) that cue to move the right foot forward (or any variation thereof), the student may feel obliged to do this action for me—or even worse, to impress me.
While I understand that a student comes to class to be guided by a teacher, that is something very different from the student coming to class to satisfy the teacher’s “wants.” And while I believe a yoga teacher should use strong, clear, active language, I also believe that saying “I want you to…” signals "Do this or disappoint me" rather than “Do this or some version that is appropriate for you and your body.”
I admit that this language is very subtle, but subtlety is one of the great gems of yoga, and more importantly, of the art of leadership. As teachers, we are in a position of power and leadership, which necessitates careful consideration of our role, our actions, and especially our words. This becomes even more important when cueing more challenging postures, as using empowering language is essential when guiding students into “advanced” poses.
If, for example, I were cueing students into vasisthasana (side plank), I would offer modifications and variations so that each practitioner would have options for finalizing their own personal pose. In this instance, I might offer the option to start with one knee down in a kneeling side plank, or with one foot on the floor as a “kickstand” to help with balance, or with both legs staggered, or both legs stacked. And, finally, I might offer the option to extend the top leg toward the sky and hold the big toe with a yogi toe lock.
Because there are many “steps” along the way where a student can stop and hold the pose, there is less pressure for anyone to find a “deeper” or “fuller” variation of side plank than is appropriate for them. If someone chooses to move into a particular variation, it should ideally be a personal choice.
However, if I use language that is not empowering—such as “I want you to stack your feet on top of each other” or “I want you to lift your top leg and hold on to your big toe with a yogi toe lock”—then I disempower students to take control of their own practices. Instead, I encourage them to potentially move beyond their own capacities because of my choice of language.
When intimate and internal practices, such as mindfulness and meditation, become influenced and controlled by an external source, they lose their very essence.
When working with more esoteric cues, I find that “I want” language can be even more problematic. If I were to say, “I want you to pay attention to your breath” or “I want you to quiet your mind” (addressing practices that relate to inner awareness and inner wisdom), the practice becomes even less about the student and more about me as the teacher.
The moment I make the practice about me as the teacher, inner reflection is diminished. And when intimate and internal practices, such as mindfulness and meditation, become influenced and controlled by an external source, they lose their very essence.
The yoga classroom should not be used to bolster the ego of the teacher. As yoga teachers, our role is simply to suggest and guide our students through both a physical and a spiritual journey—never pushing, never prodding, and certainly never wanting of our students.
I understand that eliminating our sense of self-importance from our teaching is no easy feat (and it’s something I’m certainly working on), but I do believe that we can choose to take ourselves out of the conversation as much as possible. We can make the practice more and more (if not completely) about our students and their journeys, and less and less about our own.
While I probably do want my students to do what I am instructing, I avoid telling them so. In the end, their practice is about them. And in the realm of a student’s practice, my desires have no place.
Beyond all of this, the phrase “I want you to...” is really just a “filler”—it fills empty space where there otherwise would be silence. But silence is a powerful tool, particularly in yoga practice. As teachers, we don’t need to fill every moment with the sound of our own voices. We can allow for moments of silence when our students can reflect and fill that space, instead, with their breath or their own thoughts (or even lack thereof!).
Of course, many students may never notice the subtle implications of the words “I want you to….” However, it’s important to be aware of our power when we take the seat of a yoga teacher. And it’s important to respect and honor that power as much as possible, and to not abuse it or take advantage of it—whether that’s done intentionally or not.
In the end, I think allowing our students to do the wanting and us to simply do the suggesting is far more empowering for our students—and much more in line with the aims and purpose of yoga than the opposite.
Photography: Andrea Killam