The Language of Yoga: Part One – Don’t Get Stuck at What Not To Do

The Language of Yoga: Part One – Don’t Get Stuck at What Not To Do

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We’re Stuck At What Not To Do

Last week in our 300-hour yoga therapy teacher training program, a student asked an earnest and pivotal question about the language of yoga. I felt the fire of my passion for elegant language tools that elicit the experience of yoga for our students, in their brains, bodies, hearts, minds, and relationships.

In fact, her question was so stirring to me that I actually had a hard time staying in my own seat. I wanted to jump up and give a thorough demonstration of Language Styles, including a fervent exposé on what is not working in parts of our language culture in yoga.

I’ll go out on a limb here and say this:

In an effort to create more trauma-informed, more gender sensitive, and less body shaming language systems (all of which I wholeheartedly endorse):

  • it’s possible that we’re missing some of the foundational skills about language in yoga classes at all;
  • in some cases, trying to be more sensitive, we’re misusing language altogether; and
  • based on brain science and developmental processes, we’re also missing a tremendous opportunity that language choices can uniquely catalyze in our students’ experiences, including developing a sense of self, lessening the impact of trauma, and increasing personal leadership and capacity in relationship with ourselves, others, and life at large.

In yoga many trainings, designed for increased sensitivity, what teachers are learning is What Not To Do.

(Having not attended all of these trainings, I am noting here what the trainees are learning, as expressed directly to me. I am not making an assumption about what the training intended to teach. Yet, uniformly, what I am hearing is the What Not To Do Approach.)

It’s actually more important to teach our yoga trainees What To Do.

Learning What Not To Do, a teacher can walk into a classroom armed with information, yet anxious about making a mistake. (Don’t use this word phrase. Don’t teach these sorts of poses. Don’t refer to the body in this way.)

What To Do Is Better

Understanding What To Do, a teacher walks into a classroom with important information, with language that is empowering, reflective, and developmental in nature, and able to adapt to the students in their classroom. Their language choices are also magically attuning their brains and nervous systems to the “hum” of their ventral vagal parasympathetic rhythm, something from which their students in proximity to, will feel more understood, valued, relaxed, curious, and capable. Any fear students have that they could potential do yoga wrong dissolves (in them and in their teacher!). The realization that the yoga is coming through them increases their confidence in themselves and their rapport with their teacher and their classmates (and beyond!).

This truly elicits the opportunity for healing.

So, what was this student’s question that was so stirring for me?

“In another yoga training, on trauma-informed yoga, I was told ‘don’t tell students what to do, and don’t tell them what they are feeling. I understood that I ought to reference only what I am feeling in my body and report to the students from there. I was told that would be less invasive and would lessen the students’ expectations of what they should be experiencing, letting them have their own yoga and preventing them from feeling that they are doing yoga wrong.”

Now, it’s important to me that you (the reader) know that I very much line up with the aim of not telling students what they are feeling (nor what they should be feeling), not being invasive, not using expectation as a teaching platform (not stirring the part of human nature that lives in expectation), and allowing students to have their own sovereign experience of yoga, one that can’t be made wrong.

If I share the values of what I understood this other training to be emphasizing, wherein lies the trouble that motivates me to take action?

What’s the Problem?

There are two issues I want to address, one of which I can begin here, the other of which I will hint at, but which needs a different context in order to satisfy the conversation.

One issue is the language design, crafted out of good values without deep enough understanding of What Not To Do (and without asking what challenges might this language style generate? We might be trying to solve a dilemma while creating another one.)

The other is the tender issue of genuine stewardship of a student’s yoga journey – while living in and being so conditioned by Western culture. How do we, as teachers, Wisely Steward our student’s experience of Yoga, not just a feel-better-physical-practice with lovely hints of soaring poetry? (Remember, I am a poetry indulger! This isn’t a comment about poetry.) This is the conversation that I will save for another time.

Back to the catalyst for this commentary…

The student demonstrated one piece of how the language was recommended while teaching yoga poses:

“What I am feeling in my body in this pose at my right hip is …”


“As I deepen into this with my right heel, what I am noticing is…”


“Now, I will want to with my right foot. And as I do that, I feel this happening…”

If I were a yoga student with a history of painful body experiences, the sort that conditioned me to live a short distance from my body (disconnect, dissociate, numb, resent, or be less kind to my body), this kind of language would help me continue my distanced relationship to my body. The teacher isn’t talking about me, after all. They are up there, on their yoga mat. Not over here, with me, on my yoga mat.

If I were a yoga student with a history that taught me that other people’s feelings or experiences or needs are higher priorities than my own, this kind of language would reinforce that for me. After all, I am hearing what they are experiencing. I wonder what they want or need from me about this?

Or, if I were a yoga student vulnerable to needing other people’s experiences and leadership in place of my own sense of self (including my inner compass about my body or life), this language could also reinforce this process. If that is what they are experiencing, is that what I should be experiencing? In fact, I want to have that experience. (I also want to buy that new car with the new life that comes with it.)

At some level, I might feel right at home with this language. It may not require me to drop into my body, to value my inner leadership, nor to embody the painful process of relying less on the compass of others and paddling in the unknown waters of a journey towards knowing my own inner compass.

Nor would important brain centers be awakened by this language process. These include the precuneus (responsible for having a sense of self), insula and anterior cingulate (part of our empathy networks), and other social engagement networks (dorso-lateral structures).

Where Do We Go From Here? A new language for yoga…

While I am only able to begin the conversation on a new language of yoga here, and hint at the other neuro-biological teacher-student discussion I mentioned above, I hope I’m opening your ears to consider how language is being shaped by our yoga culture. Again, wisely and kindly intended, but the problems that I see with the current language of yoga—not merely in vulnerable populations, but also across the yoga industry in the majority of classes and programs out there – are both a misuse of language and a missed opportunity.

Stay tuned for upcoming posts where I will address What To Do with the language of yoga in order to evolve your teaching, and hopefully to nudge our larger yoga community to consider language and the teacher-student relationship through a few additional lenses.

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Sarahjoy Marsh, MA, E-RYT 500 is a yoga teacher, yoga therapist, and author with more than 25 years of experience in the field of yoga. She is the founder of the DAYA Foundation, Yogajoy and Living Yoga. Her book, Hunger, Hope and Healing can be purchased from Amazon.

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