Skills & Drills
Choose words consciously to increase the subtle power of verbal communication.
When you were new to teaching yoga, you had a lot to focus on. You navigated the room, demonstrated poses, gave hands-on adjustments, held space for emotions and skillfully managed time. In the early days, it may have felt like a victory just to make it through a class successfully!
It took time and effort to discern your own voice and teaching style. Eventually, though, teaching became second nature as you learned to weave through class with ease, read the room and assess students’ needs on the spot. Once you felt good about your ability to sequence, create a killer playlist and be confident in front of people, that was it, right?
Right. Sort of.
If you’ve been feeling complacent or sensing that something is “off,” you may need to take a big warrior I step back and ask yourself what you can do to stay on top or get better. One area to review is cuing, where there is often room for improvement. Read on to find out more about how to streamline your cuing before your next hatha, yin or vinyasa class.
The Nuance of Language
There are several ways to provide guidance in a yoga class, but one of the most obvious and immediate is through verbal cues. “Language . . . guides experience,” says Danny Arguetty, mindfulness program coordinator at the University of Washington in Seattle. “[Language] clearly communicates alignment to keep students safe, and it creates a welcoming environment to help students (especially beginners) feel successful.” However, it’s easy to allow cuing to become cluttered, overly wordy and imprecise.
When you streamline your language, not only do you communicate more effectively, but you provide a reprieve from “mental clutter.” If you think you have no verbal tics or redundancies, think again!
For example, when I was a relatively new teacher, my mentor pointed out one of my verbal tics: “Take it into . . .”
“Take it into pigeon.”
“Take it into down dog.”
“Take it into warrior II.”
Once she pointed this out, I was amazed at how often I felt compelled to use this phrase, which in itself was harmless, but wasn’t precise. It didn’t mean anything, nor did it richly describe the action I wanted students to take. Once I was aware of this, I caught the urge to say it and replaced it with more helpful cues, such as, “Press your hands into the mat, and lift your hips up and back into downward-facing dog.”
Often, verbal tics and habits develop out of nervousness—you need to fill silence, aren’t clear what you want to say next or simply haven’t put that much thought into a cue. Xenia Guido, studio owner and teacher at Pura Vida Yoga in San Diego, says that when you “repeat words like ‘good’ or ‘beautiful’ over and over,” the message can get lost because the words lose their meaning. Once you’ve identified your habits, you can replace them with what you actually mean to say.
Say What You Mean
A cue that Arguetty often hears is “Whenever you’re ready, . . .” He notes that, while the cue itself is sweet and well-intentioned, teachers usually don’t mean it. While he believes teachers can and should offer “pockets of freedom” at different points within a class, this cue is typically brief, and the teacher moves on to the next pose anyway. Arguetty offers a refinement: “‘Take five more breaths in fetal position,’” he says. “After five breaths, guide [students] out” and trust that if they want to stay longer, they will.
It’s good to take a step back and ask yourself if you’re saying what you want to say. For example, consider this cue: “Allow your knees to fall right.” Is “fall” really what you mean here? Instead, you might say, “Release your knees to the right.” It’s a simple, subtle difference, but many students take cues literally. If you tell them to let their knees “fall,” they may do so with less mindfulness and ease than if you say “release.”
When your cuing is mindful, you provide students a stable foundation on which to practice, eliminating confusion.
Use Empowering Words
Often, in an attempt to provide a safe experience, you may get caught up in telling students what not to do.
“Don’t open your hips.”
“Don’t let your shoulders creep up by your ears.”
“Don’t forget to breathe.”
“Stop tensing your jaw.”
“Try not to let your upper back collapse.”
“Avoid arching your lower back.”
Cues like “don’t,” “stop,” and “try not to” and “not” have a disempowering, negative quality and may generate anxiety. When you’re told “not” to do something or to “stop” doing something, how does that make you feel? You may want to do it anyway!
Instead, use supportive and empowering language that conveys the same actions in a positive way:
“Square your hips.”
“Allow your shoulders to soften.
“Continue to breathe.”
“Relax your jaw.”
“Engage your upper back.”
“Lengthen your tailbone.”
When you use empowering language, students feel more confident and supported. “We have the power to color and shape students’ experiences with the words we choose,” says Guido. “We can greatly influence whether the practice is focused, introspective, meditative and contemplative or busy, cluttered, distracted and frustrating.”
Economy of Language
It can be tempting to throw every cue you know for a pose at students. Many teachers make this rookie mistake, falsely assuming that the more information they give, the better.
Karen Fabian, founder and owner of Bare Bones Yoga in Boston, recommends using short phrases with clear action words. “Structure your instruction into easily digestible phrases, such as ‘Step your right foot forward’ and ‘Reach up,’” she says. Fabian adds that using clear and concise cuing, along with moments of silence, allows students “to transition from thinking, work overstimulation, phones, computers and the media in all its forms to a more mindful state—being more present.” When you bombard students with every possible cue for one pose, it can be overwhelming. Instead, offer clarity.
Yoga teachers often avoid using clear action words because they sound like commands; for example, “Step your right foot forward.” It makes some people uncomfortable to be so direct because it feels bossy or demanding. Own your confidence and be okay with giving your students clear direction. They’ll appreciate the clarity and directness.
Learn By Seeking Feedback
What are some concrete ways to streamline your cuing? Experienced teachers recommend two things: Record yourself teaching and ask for feedback.
“The most effective way to become aware of your language is simply to record yourself and listen,” says Guido, who advises paying attention to unnecessary word usage. “Notice opportunities for alternate language,” she says. “Does your energy match your words?”
Arguetty suggests asking a teacher you respect and admire to take your class and give feedback. This may feel intimidating at first, but it’s very helpful. “It’s important [to be] familiar with giving and taking feedback using conscious communication,” Guido says. “It is not about personal preferences. Also, be clear that you are asking for feedback regarding language, not your sequence or playlist.”
Once you pay closer attention to language, it becomes hard not to notice it. It’s a creative way to add depth to your teaching and provide a successful and supportive experience for all students.