Language matters. What we say–and how we say it–makes a significant impact on the quality of our students’ experience. After all, compare how frequently your students are hearing your words to how often they are seeing your demonstrations and receiving your instructions. Despite all the pressure students in teacher-training programs exert on themselves to be stronger, more flexible, and more adept at advanced postures, these qualities aren’t nearly as important to your students as your ability to communicate your intentions and instructions.
Last week we looked at common verbal pitfalls. This week we turn our attention to 5 simple ways to improve your verbal skills. Consider picking one or two of these practices to focus on in your classes this week.
- Provide landmarks
Do you remember how confused you were when you first practiced yoga—figuring out which foot was your left, which leg was your right, and following the teacher in mirror image? There is no easier way to provide your students with clarity than by using obvious landmarks in the room (such as the windows, clock, alter, and so on) when you give instructions.
Think about teaching twists, for example. Your students’ bodies are so tied up, overlapped, and crisscrossed that their left is on their right and their right is on their left. So instead of saying, “Turn your torso to the right,” tell your students to “Rotate your torso toward the windows (or, whatever conspicuous landmark is to the right of your students).” Telling your students to face a landmark in the room instead of a cardinal direction will make a big impact on your students.
- Allow space
If your directions are clear and you provide enough space between each one, your students will be able to follow along. If, however, you give 15 blazing instructions in a row with no breath or pause between, your students will be lost. Always provide time for your students to digest your words before ahead.
- Edit yourself
Don’t tell your students everything you know about each pose. Some teachers, your author included, are tempted to fill every second of class with instruction, precaution, lore, personal revelation, and more. After all, there are few moments when we have a captive audience for an hour and a half.
But this is yoga class, not a storytelling seminar, so don’t overcrowd your students or compete with yourself. Stick to an average of three instructions per pose. You can use more instructions to get them into the pose, but once they in the asana be judicious. If these instructions are related to each other, richly descriptive, and relevant to the overall theme of the class, they will give your students plenty to work with while allowing them to have their own experience.
- Use your student’s name
As a yoga student yourself, you are well aware that everyone spaces out in class once in a while. Truthfully, whose eyes don’t glaze over after 90 minutes of impersonal and generalized instructions? Make your teaching more skillful and intimate by using your students’ names. Instead of repeating the same tired instructions, look at your students, and help them clarify, expand, or deepen their poses by relating to them directly. Try saying, “Jeff, please bend your front knee more deeply” or “Lauren, relax your neck and soften your jaw.”
Personalizing instructions is not only a good way to take care of your students, it is the best way to make your communication direct and relevant. The added bonus is that everyone else in the room who needs to relax his or her neck will probably follow suit. Of course, you should use a soft, encouraging tone when you use names so that people don’t feel like they are being singled out or scolded.
- Use direct command, images, analogies and stories (when appropriate)
Different students learn different ways. Also, different students resonate to different types of instruction. Some will hear you when you give straightforward, direct commands like “press the top of your femurs back.” Others will hear you more clearly when you provide an image or an analogy to articulate an instruction. Some students will only engage when you share a personal story that highlights a teaching. Don’t force yourself to use a style of language that doesn’t resonate with you, but do your best to vary your language and style of delivery so that more students can learn from you.
Jason Crandell was recently named one of the next generation of teachers shaping yoga’s future by Yoga Journal for his skillful, unique approach to vinyasa yoga. Jason’s steady pace, creative sequencing, and attention to detail encourage students to move slowly, deeply, and mindfully into their bodies. Jason credits his primary teacher, Rodney Yee, teachers in the Iyengar Yoga tradition such as Ramanand Patel, and ongoing studies in Eastern and Western philosophy for inspiring to him bring greater alignment and mindfulness to Vinyasa Yoga.
Jason is a contributing editor for Yoga Journal and has written over 13 articles for the magazine and website – many of which have been translated internationally (including Japan, China, Italy and Brazil). His integrative and accessible teachings support students of every background and lineage, helping them to find greater depth, awareness, and well-being in their practice – and in their lives. Follow Jason on Facebook and Twitter.