How effective communication can educate and empower studentsFeb 20, 2023
A 300 hour teacher training essay by Katherine Smith
A study of the use of language in teaching yoga: how effective communication can educate and empower students.
Several qualities make a good yoga teacher, but it is fair to say that without effective communication, our expertise and passion soon become redundant. Throughout my training, I have been fascinated by the use of language and how it can be a powerful tool. As yoga teachers, there are several aims in our specific use of language: we can educate and inform, calm and induce deep relaxation as well as choose selective and considerate language that inspires and empowers.
In this essay, I will focus on the linguistic angle: the use of the language of Sanskrit to educate and introduce students to the philosophy of Yoga. I will also consider different styles of language: enquiry, clarity, repetition, inclusivity and poetic imagery. I will ponder how each of these styles, not only instruct, but also, allow students a greater autonomy in their personal practice. I will attempt to delve deeper into the importance of avoiding the language of pain and the benefit of substantiating claims with the use of scientific language. Finally, I will consider the use of no language at all when teaching, touching on the benefits of the language of silence.
The language of Sanskrit: to educate linguistically
Many may query the relevance of using Sanskrit during a weekly class in the western world. Sceptical students have even commented that I could be saying anything as far as they were concerned, but I feel strongly about using Sanskrit when teaching as a way of educating my students.
As well as teaching yoga, my other profession is as a teacher of modern foreign languages and I have always been fascinated by etymology: the origin of words. Even with my primary school pupils, I love pointing out the relationship between words in different languages and feel it helps embed their learning of vocabulary. Indeed, my own proficiency in one language has always been an effective and useful springboard when learning other Romance languages. An understanding of Latin, the shared parent language, furthered my natural intrigue in the origin of words. It enabled me to link vocabulary and even guess meaning. So, when learning Sanskrit, the ability to see linguistic comparisons and learn the vocabulary deepened my understanding of the asanas which, as an educator, I am passionate about sharing. For example, when learning Trianga Mukha Eka Pada Paschimottanasana, I broke the name down to aid retention. Knowing “Eka” means one and “Tri” means three, encouraged me to learn to count in Sanskrit and being able to count, helped understand “Ashtanga” as the “Eight” limbs or “Pancha Prana Vayu” as the “Five” energy flows. The pose also meant learning a selection of the parts of the body e.g., Mukha, Pada. I also learnt that “Paschima” means “back” and “uttana” means “stretch” and that liaison of these two words required the “u” to become an “o”. This linguistic structure I was then able to apply to help break down other words like Parsvottanasana or Pranopanishad. Other asanas required the learning of animals e.g., Gomukh, Svana, Bhujanga or objects e.g., Nava, Setu, Chandra all contributing to the widening of my vocabulary and introduction to the grammar of Sanskrit.
My love of languages is inherent in my teaching of yoga and using Sanskrit in class is clearly important to me, but it also reinforces the idea of the meaning of “yoga”. The word itself is derived from the Sanskrit root “yuj” meaning “to unite” or “to yoke”. Whilst this is a reference to the union between mind, body and spirit, it is evident that the language of Sanskrit also binds both our personal practice and our teaching to the tradition via a shared vocabulary used by all practitioners around the world. By use of the common language of Sanskrit, it is possible to teach yoga to a group of, for example, Chinese students, yet still communicate effectively and still connect to this ancient art.
The language of Sanskrit: to introduce the philosophy of Yoga
I have often thought how my knowledge of Latin and other Romance languages enables my attendance at church in most European countries. By understanding the language, I feel I can participate in the Mass which provides a bond and a feeling of shared heritage. This affiliation is comparable to the use of Sanskrit in class which acts as a reminder that yoga is an ancient practice and that Sanskrit pays respect to its oral lineage. So, use of the language of Sanskrit is not only to educate my students from a linguistic angle; it also offers the opportunity to introduce students to the history and philosophy of the practice of Yoga.
As mentioned in a recent article in The Guardian:
“Teaching yoga isn’t just about the ability to get someone into weird and wonderful shapes – it’s about conveying the spirit of the philosophy, and offering students solid tools they can use in their own journey of self-discovery.”
Therefore, use of Sanskrit to introduce even a beginner to the Sutras of Patanjali and encourage application in their practice, stimulates an interest in the origins, history and teachings of yoga. This in turn, educates and inspires them to find the relevance in their own lives. For example, the concept of finding balance both in asana practice and in life is a loose translation of Patanjali’s sutra 2:46
“Sthira sukham asanam”
and knowledge of this sutra helps a student focus on this challenge both on and off the mat. During class, we may work hard at trying to perfect a posture, to achieve alignment and explore our flexibility and stamina. The challenge is to blend this with the breath, peace and becoming more present in the moment. Patanjali’s teaching helps us educate our students to reflect on how, in our daily lives, we are also striving to find the co-existing harmony between strength and stability. By introducing the sutras in their original Sanskrit, we can also educate our students about other philosophical teachings. For example, sutra 2.36 tells us:
“Satya Partisthayam Kriya Phalasrayatvam”
meaning when we are truthful with ourselves and with others, are actions are in alignment and the results take care of themselves . Satya, meaning truthfulness, is the second of the Yamas, a moral code within the philosophy of Yoga. Understanding the Sanskrit meaning of “Satya” can lead our students to further discovery of the Yamas, as taught in the Eight Limbs of Yoga. This moral code is clearly addressing our culture of lies, violence and deceit but can even slip into our daily yoga practice. Satya suggests that if, whilst on the mat, we are distracted by coveting someone else’s clothing, mat or even figure, we are far from being truthful to our authentic selves. A large percentage of my students are in their mid to late fifties, so educating that it is acceptable to appreciate our bodies’ strengths and limitations, as well as that our bodies change over time is an effective way of learning about Satya. We may be tempted to compare our practice with our neighbour’s, possibly even experiencing a feeling of frustration or incompetence, especially when that neighbour is twenty years younger. Surrounded by Instagram posts of perfection, we can easily forget how staged these photographs are, as rarely does an influencer post their failed attempts. Learning to be fully honest with others but more importantly, honest with ourselves, Satya is still so relevant today and refers to that instinctual knowing that we all possess.
Using Sanskrit in class teaches students that yoga is not just another exercise class. An effective form of communication, it not only educates linguistically, but also refers to the philosophical teachings. It helps students focus on their own personal sensations and achievements rather than succumb to competition or comparison. This in turn boosts confidence and empowers our students to feel at peace and honest with themselves.
The language of enquiry
In my role as a teacher if I actively question a pose, I have noticed how it encourages my students to push themselves to their edge and relish the empowerment. For example, in Utthita Trikonasana, if I ask “how high can you reach?” or “can you touch the ceiling?” I immediately see them lift, stretch and lengthen, naturally engaging their legs and core. This is far more effective than just giving a passive instruction of “right palm faces forward, straighten elbows, pull up on knee cap”. Encouragement to turn their attention inward helps a student personalise and enquire how their body feels at that particular moment in time. By asking questions, the instruction becomes subtle and indirect.
Querying a sensation and avoiding dictating how the students should feel is also a reminder that not everyone experiences sensations in the same way. A student might think they are doing something wrong if they don’t feel or relate to what the instructor is indicating which can be disconcerting. Instead, asking them what they are feeling or making suggestions about what the experience might rather than should be, reinforces the argument of encouraging the student to take agency for their own practice. They seem intrigued when I suggest they compare the flexibility of one hip with the other. Sometimes, I suggest they do what feels good for their bodies and notice how they will naturally step out or wiggle their hips in Adho Mukha Svanasana or pull their knees to their chest as a natural counter pose after a back bend. Slowly, they are becoming their own teachers and feeling it is safe to experiment to suit their own needs. In this way, effectively communicating through use of the language of enquiry helps them feel empowered by their own judgement.
The language of clarity
Being clear and precise is vital when teaching yoga and this is where the language of clarity plays such a part. One of the biggest compliments I feel is when a student tells you they don’t need to watch the demonstration to know what to do and indeed as a teacher, one of the hardest goals for me has been learning to give confident instruction whilst off the mat. When learning my script to deliver the Ashtanga Modified Primary Sequence, it was a challenge to appreciate that instruction had to be just a few moments ahead of the students’ achievement of the pose. Only this enables flow and speed rather than having the students wait for the next cue. From attending classes, I can understand how long it takes to process an instruction, how difficult it is to even appreciate left from right, let alone a convoluted asana. “Right foot replaces right thumb” is therefore far clearer than “move your right foot to just next to the right hand, on the inside, near the thumb”. It is also helpful to eliminate filler words and simply say “toes” rather than “those toes”.
Preparing the posture with phrases like “we’re going to…” are superfluous and it is far more effective to simply instruct to do it. Whereas specific praise offers encouragement, I have queried the relevance of generalised compliments like “nice” or “good” – is this for my benefit or for theirs? Are these expressions merely just allowing me time to think? Keeping instruction to an eloquent minimum is an art in itself, thus allowing space for a student to feel the benefit of the asana. Allowing time for that embodied experience, for students to connect with how they are feeling is far more important than filling silence with words.
Intonation and expression also enhance the use of clear, concise language. After my practical exam, I was relieved to read the only criticism of my delivery was poor voice projection. I had concentrated so hard on what I was saying, I hadn’t paid attention to how I was saying it. Fortunately, I knew that, away from exam conditions, this would come naturally and can see how emphasis of words like “reach” or “squeeze” achieve desired results that are incomparable with what a student demonstrates when given just a monotone instruction. Choosing my words carefully has therefore become a skill worth developing. No one enjoys attending a class with a hesitant, quietly spoken, shy teacher or with one who overflows with instruction that it is too much to take in. My confident delivery breeds self-belief in my students and it is rewarding to see them feed off it, feeling stronger in themselves.
The language of repetition
My experience of teaching languages to primary school children has taught me how repetition is also a use of language and a style of teaching that is of paramount importance when educating and empowering the learner. Providing my pupils with a safe learning environment encourages confidence to experiment or feel bolder in their response.
In 1932, T.M. Krishnamacharya was employed by Maharaja Wodeyar IV to create a physically demanding routine for the young princes of the Mysore Palace. Repetition provided a structure so that they could be tested for their agility, precision and stamina. One of his earliest pupils was K. Patabhi Jois and it was from his teaching that the Ashtanga Sequence, as we know it today, was born. There are times when I feel weekly Ashtanga sessions must be tiresome and repetitive for my middle-aged ladies but on the contrary, they love the structure and have told me that if I didn’t give the repetitive cues, they wouldn’t remember to do it! Ashtanga even offers guidance of where to look and telling them where to place their gaze or “Drishti” helps eliminate distraction. Instruction of Drishti also helps perfect alignment in asana, for example to gaze between the knees allows for immediate lengthening of the back of the neck in Uttanasana.
There are ways of repeating, but also choosing different language, to achieve the same result. For example, “inhale” could also be “breath in” or “take a long breath”; variation makes it less robotic and more emotional for the mind whilst still being functional for the body. Repetition helps achieve the postures and contributes to the students’ appreciation of their improvement in stamina and flexibility. Just like my primary school pupils might feel braver from frequent repetition in their attempt to speak Spanish, my yoga students may feel they can push further as their confidence in the pose increases.
The language of poetic imagery
Breaking away from the strict, repetitive instruction of Ashtanga, use of language in Hatha or more creative yoga classes really allows room for poetic imagery, which fuels a sense of empowerment. Descriptive cues speak to the heart and help students tune into their bodies and connect with a theme. Use of metaphors and similes can really help a student relate to nature or find grace in their bodies.
When giving the instruction to “spread your hands like a starfish”, I have witnessed a better response than “spread your fingers so you can see large pieces of the mat”. Instructing to lift the inner arch of the back foot, “as if there were a secret petal underneath that they don’t want to crush”, has achieved a sense of calm and appreciation, rather than simply telling them to lift the inner arch. Imagining feet are “heavy like stones” seems to convey a sense of weight far greater than “feel the weight of your feet”. Using poetic imagery such as “look down your middle finger as if you were an archer taking aim” really seems to help experience a sense of strength and focus.
In teaching yoga, there is certainly room for action cues as used in Ashtanga, giving the student a specific task to complete - these are clear, concise and effective communication. Technical language is vital for safety, however poetic imagery permits students to experiment with the beauty of alignment and the structure of asanas. It also speaks to them on an emotional and spiritual level. As Jeraci quotes:
“Creating a language that supports an experience that you are trying to offer to your students is a powerful instrument in your teaching repertoire.”
Since using more poetic language, it has become more obvious to me how guiding with our words and can help heal, illuminate and inspire. Using emotive language to enrich and engage has contributed to my students’ empowerment and self-esteem.
The language of inclusivity
Another use of language technique that is an effective communication tool to boost confidence is the language of inclusivity. Attending a yoga class once a week in between the pressures of work and children is not the same as daily practice. Students have different levels of flexibility and stamina, yet attend because they feel yoga makes them a better version of themselves. Motivation to practise yoga differs for everyone. Personally, when I look at the physical deterioration of my own mother, a mere twenty-four years older than me, and see the hunched spine, regular falls and poor mental health, I know this is something I seek to avoid for my own future and it is incentive enough to encourage my practice. However, if some people can’t actually touch their toes, it is far more effective to communicate empathy and suggest a modification, rather than allow them to struggle in discomfort. If they can’t reach, it is far more positive to bring the floor closer to them through use of blocks or encouraging bent knees.
Attempting to perfect asanas developed in the East sometimes just cannot be translated for the average middle-aged Western woman with accumulated adipose layers and large chests. Does this mean that yoga is not for her or can we still allow her to feel empowered and experience the benefits? Through use of the language of inclusivity, I am careful not to suggest a lack of ability or flexibility, and instead adapt the pose to the body.
One modification or option I have encouraged recently is the placing of knees on the floor in Chaturanga Dandasana. This simple suggestion has helped improve core strength and allowed concentration on position of elbows, thus also strengthening triceps, deltoids and the rotator cuff group of muscles. Some have commented on improved upper body strength, how it has helped with their practice of arm balances and ultimately, how their full and correct Chaturangas are now something attainable.
Communicating options, rather than modifications, also allows students to choose, but subtly reinforces the idea of an asana hierarchy. Equally, using words like “try”, “explore”, “notice” or phrases like “let your arm float” or “see if your arm can reach”, are more conducive to achieving the pose, compared to using commands such as “lift your arm, reach down, twist deeper”. A small variation to vocabulary makes such a positive difference. Offering the use of modifications or props, the postures can still be achieved and layering alternatives, so students can choose, allows a simultaneous sense of empowerment and building of strength.
The language of pain
It is worth remembering that our words plant thoughts like seeds and we should always consider whether we are adding to someone’s fear through the misuse of language which can evoke images of danger or pain. Kinesiophobia is a real fear in the yoga world and students regularly experience the fear of motion as it is associated with a feeling of vulnerability to injury in response to movement. This may be from a traumatic experience in the past or just the social learning and observation in others that pain will induce injury.
It is vital to realise how the instruction you use affects the messages sent to the brain via the nociceptors. If you cue statements for protection e.g., “stack the knee to protect your joint” or “squeeze the core to protect the spine”, these messages carry the underlying message that the body is fragile and that we are weak. We often find children, athletes and animals performing the most convoluted of postures and the body adapts and copes, yet in a safe, controlled environment, yoga teachers are communicating that postures are dangerous.
It has long been the understanding that pain signifies something is wrong in the body, but recent research confirms that it is possible to have tissue damage without experiencing pain and it is also possible to experience pain when there is no apparent tissue damage. It has become apparent that if people are told that something will hurt, they are more likely to experience pain. Interestingly, the mind’s ability to catastrophize is something addressed in Patanjali’s sutra 1.8:
“Viparyaya mithyajnanam atadrupa pratistham”
which translates as “Misconception occurs when knowledge of something is not based upon its true form”. Sri Swami Satchidananda explains this sutra in his translation, using the example of confusing a coiled rope for a snake. Although there is no real threat of danger, the imagination is capable of creating terror. The sutra teaches us that our thoughts of perceived fear have the same effect on the nervous system as factual information. Yoga teachers need to be mindful that the brain relies on prediction and that by cueing protection, we are using words to paint a very vivid picture. We should be fully aware that the interpretation of potential pain can increase or decrease. As yoga teachers, we have the power to dial it up or down and by selecting appropriate language we can instil confidence and trust.
When teaching, it is imperative to bear in mind all the extra baggage that our students are carrying. Use of affirmative language is so important especially for students like mine who are mainly women at a time of life when their adult children are leaving home. Many are working part-time or are already retired and some care for elderly parents offering a reminder of their own vulnerability and mortality. As well as social change, they are also experiencing hormonal changes as their bodies deal with the challenges of menopause. Lots of them have told me how they have serious feelings of doubt about their purpose in life and how they feel taken for granted. Many feel frustrated by the physical changes in their bodies at a time when their daughters are in their prime of life. Women like this are more likely to feel pessimistic and anxious, especially when science has confirmed that the long-term health problems of postmenopausal women include cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis and breast cancer . This can spark a fear and dread for the future. Although there are conflicting reports on reviews as to whether yoga offers any further advantage over any other type of exercise when it comes to improving menopausal symptoms, it is clear that using a language that warns of pain reminds students of their fragility and is clearly detrimental.
There is an obvious need to ensure safety and clear instruction of technique is of paramount importance. However, aiding the adoption of a positive attitude to students’ health and well-being by using a language that empowers and uplifts fuels strength and stability.
To further this empowerment, we can also educate using scientific proof to substantiate our claims. Science has established that physical activity, in general, strengthens bones. Yoga requires, at the most, the ability to bear one’s own weight whether through our hands in Chaturanga or through our feet in any of the standing poses. In a 2016 study, it was confirmed that daily practice of asanas “provide adequate stimulus to generate bone strengthening”, confirming that gentle stressing of the joints is beneficial and that loading is safe, building structural resilience when done gradually. My students are reassured to learn how the body adapts positively to change, so educating them through use of language that adds scientific evidence sends an empowering message. Actively inviting them to “feel how your body is strengthening/enjoying” in our cues reinforces this communication. As they develop in strength, there is less chance of pain and injury and the process becomes cyclical: confidence in their practice breeds confidence in themselves and vice versa.
Most relevant for yoga instruction is the knowledge that since pain is held in the nervous system, we can address this in our teaching and promote resilience. When holding a dynamic, isometric pose like Virabhadrasana 2, if we encourage the use of breath, thus inviting the nervous system to be calm and still, we are increasing our capacity to bear stress. As well as the physical benefit, this also encourages our students to apply this technique to everyday stressful situations, giving them a tool to cope with the pressures of society’s expectations. We can teach them that yoga asanas even have a role in healing, as holding isometric contractions has a natural analgesic effect. This lowers inflammation, moderates pain and increases the capacity to load even more.
Teaching in an informed way, choosing scientific language to substantiate a claim not only educates our students but reduces any perceived threats and emboldens them with a strength that is empowering.
The language of silence
My final point considers when it is appropriate to not use language at all. As teachers it is tempting to instruct all the time, yet allowing time for silence and holding space gives students agency for their own practice. Limiting instruction to approximately three points per pose is an effective way to allow time for students to connect with the breath and experience sensations in moments of silence.
The last pose of any class is universally acknowledged as the favourite: Savasana or the corpse pose. This is less morbid than it sounds as, by imitating a corpse, we are trying to emulate a temporary death of the needs, wants and desires of the ego and to experience a complete letting go. Interestingly, whilst the preferred pose of many, it is also the hardest as, hidden in the shape and silence, we meet the difficulty and complexity of stillness. During Savasana, we are inviting the students to draw their senses inwards and ignore the noises of worldly distractions. This is known as Pratyahara, the fifth limb of Yoga and is the antidote for our chronic agitated minds in our busy and hectic lives. We may choose to use a language of compassion and loving kindness as we invite students to sink into their mats. Our voice may become slower and softer to help enhance relaxation, but ultimately, ceasing all instruction allows them to really focus on their breathing.
Savasana down-regulates the body, stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system and if done correctly, there is a profound shift in the body and in one’s mental chatter, thus quietening the language of the mind. This deep sense of peace and calm restores energy, but also educates the student that the essence of Yoga is being able to rest with yourself compassionately and feel empowered from the experience.
As I draw to a close, it is clear that the study of the use of language in the teaching of yoga is a vast and interesting topic. Constraints of word count prevent me from considering other avenues for example, developing the language of silence in Pranayama and Meditation or considering the language of music or language of touch, which are very much themes of their own. However, I feel I have amply developed and incorporated the different styles of language that are part of effective communication in a yoga class. I have demonstrated how we enable our students to tap into yoga philosophy through knowledge of Sanskrit, the Sutras and the Yamas. I have shown how the simplicity of clarity and repetition, as well as the beauty of poetic imagery, have roles in developing skills and appealing to students’ spiritual emotions. I have clarified the value of the languages of enquiry and inclusivity in developing autonomy and personal choice, as opposed to cueing in a prescriptive way. I have established the importance of reinforcing and supporting the teaching of yoga through scientific back-up and explanation and stressed the consequence of avoiding the language of pain. Ultimately, I have considered the pertinence of the language of silence in the quest for awareness and reflection on the embodied experience.
My study confirms how our use of language can be diverse and how effective communication can be responsible not only for educating our students with knowledge, but also empowering them with a physical and inner strength that they can develop in their practice and transfer to their everyday lives.
A McGonigle & M. Huy, The Physiology of Yoga
Alistair Shearer, The Story of Yoga from Ancient India to the Modern West
Bee Creel, The Yoga Journal, Tempted to skip Savasana?
Celeste Pereira, Language and Pain
Celeste Pereira, Workshop: Anatomy, Pain and Rehab
Crofford, L, “Chronic Pain: Where the body meets the brain”, in The Physiology of Yoga, A. McGonigle and M Huy.
Gabrielle Harris, The Inspired Yoga Teacher
Laura Gilmore, Fascia in Focus
Laura Gilmore, The Good, the Bad and the Painful
Lu, Y.-H., et al, Twelve-minute daily yoga regimen reverses osteoporotic bone loss
Nadia Gilani, I teach yoga, its appropriation by the white wellness industry is a form of colonialism, but we can move on, The Guardian
Sri Swami Satchidananda, The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali
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