The Language of Yoga: Part Two – Focusing on What To Do

The Language of Yoga: Part Two – Focusing on What To Do

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While I was only able to begin this conversation in my last blog, I hope I opened your ears to consider how language is being shaped by our contemporary yoga culture. The problems that I see with some of the current language trends in yoga—not merely in vulnerable populations, but also across the yoga industry—are both a misuse of language and a missed opportunity.

I celebrate that we have the opportunity for a discussion that can help us to be shaped by how yoga was meant to be transmitted. With the following language and personal development shifts I am recommending that we allow yoga to shape us—rather than us attempting to shape yoga.

To pick up where we left off, I want to help us to know What To Do (rather than focusing too exclusively on What Not To Do) with language in yoga. This is especially for trauma-informed, brain-sensitive yoga programs—but also offers successful strategies for all yoga programs.

Here are my recommended stepping-stones. These will increase the efficacy of your presence as a teacher, your relationship with your students, and the way you choose to utilize language in the classroom and, in your other relationships, too:

  • Know the Basics of the Poses
  • Value the Horizon Toward Which You’re Guiding Your Students
  • Teach People, Not Poses
  • Nourish Your Presence: Get in the GAP
  • Engage Your Whole Brain
  • Turn on Your “Lighthouse”
  • Set Your Antennae
  • Cultivate Your Ability to “Wisely Steward”
  • Conduct the Orchestra
  • Remember the Gunas!

Today, I want to share one of these with you.

Know the Basics of the Poses

Recognizing that most yoga teachers want (and need) to know how to talk their students through the yoga practice, which involves moving into, being in, and moving out of yoga poses, let’s talk about some of the basics involved in doing this well. Let’s also think of this foundational discussion in terms of scaffolding the structure of language much like we would scaffold the structure of yoga poses.

In our 200-hour teacher training, we teach 10 basic language skills, including Active/Passive, Direct/indirect, Commanding/Inviting, Bullet Point, Narrative, Imagistic, Essential Life Skills, Using a Theme, Left Brain/Right Brain, and Silence.

To facilitate our students’ explorations of the physicality of the yoga poses, we certainly want to use language well, and appropriately. Here’s an example:

Active and Passive; Direct and Indirect Language:

“Inhaling, let’s allow our arms to float up over head.”

This is passive language when we need active language. Our arms aren’t filled with helium. We can’t allow the arms to float up.

We, and our students, actually need to make the action.

This is also Indirect Language. It speaks to “our arms”, as a group, rather than to the individuals who have arms, and who can uniquely move their own arms.

I understand that their intention may be to invite students, without being too directive or dominating, to raise their arms. I also understand not wanting to create any adverse power dynamics in a yoga class, particularly when working with populations who have experienced (or who are experiencing) the kinds of traumatic events that have diminished their power. Yet, there are two very important considerations here: one is based on the relationship between you and the students; the other is how the structure of language influences this relationship.

Leadership Does Not Mean Authority Over

By offering a yoga class and courageously stepping into the role of yoga teacher, you have taken a position of leadership. This doesn’t mean authority over. Instead, what if your leadership role were a chance to demonstrate the skillful embodiment of respectful relationships? How might you embody your leadership role in such a manner that the students feel safe, connected, understood, and empowered? Furthermore, if students have experienced certain sorts of traumas, particularly during the developmental phases of their life, the parts of their brain that weren’t offered the essential developmental necessities, like: kind mentoring; wise stewardship of curiosity, potential, individuality; or an inner sense of a steady self, become muted. They’re pruned back—not just undeveloped, but truly pruned back in favor of other brain centers needing resources to tend to the trauma. Embodying the role of the leader includes using language that Directs your students in Taking Action, with their body and in ways that they can learn about and develop their relationship with their body. How might your relationship with them, through your embodied leadership, encourage their development of their embodied leadership?

Yoga Language that is Active, with Passive, and Direct

With this in mind, let’s look at a specific structure of language. We can combine Active and Passive language in our instructions. We can use Direct language to give our students ownership over their body parts and the actions they choose to do with those body parts.

Notice how this progression feels in you:

Passive and Indirect:

“Inhaling, let’s allow our arms to float up over head. Exhaling, allowing our arms to return to Anjali mudra.”

Active, with Passive, and Indirect:

“Inhale, raise the arms up overhead. Exhale, allow the arms to float back down to Anjali mudra.”

Active, with Passive, and Direct:

“Inhale, raise your arms up overhead. Exhale, allow your arms to float back down to Anjali mudra.”

These may seem like minor differences if you’re reading this blog.

I encourage you to read them out loud for your friend, roommate, or spouse; or to have them read out loud to you. Explore how your body experiences one phrase or the other.

Also remember, that we’re discussing the scaffolding of language. When we can instruct the basics using elegant and efficient language, we leave space in our teaching conversation to add other language opportunities.

In my next blog post, I’ll give you more examples and will talk about another essential skill in using language effectively in Yoga: Nourishing Your Presence—a language skill and teaching tool that I strongly recommend for teachers to avoid teaching-fatigue and burnout. So make sure you sign up for our bi-monthly newsletter.

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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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