Speak to the Room
Standing in front of a room full of yogis can be intimidating for sure. Standing up there with a cache of good words in your head makes it about a trillion times easier. Language is a very powerful tool. In teaching yoga it is an essential tool. For much of a yoga class, your students won’t be looking at you. They will however, be listening to you. You are going to try to talk them into creating shapes with their bodies when their eyes are closed. You may cue them into complex asanas that require a high level of body awareness. You are going to talk them into transitions between poses when right and left and up and down and length and space need to be precise. You may even ask them to step a little closer to discovering the mental and emotional benefits of a yoga practice, and you will use your words to do that too. So, the number one rule is this: choose your words carefully. The second rule is this: be succinct. There are lots of rules to follow these two pillars of “yoga speak” and you must not stray, I tell you! We have all taken, and the yoga teachers among us have most likely taught, at least one “run-at-the-mouth” yoga class where he/she/we go onandonandonandon about yoga and life and Sanskrit and love and light and after a while every yogi in the room is somewhere else… Somewhere better. Somewhere more quiet. I think that part of this is because as teachers, we want to share what we have learned. We want to take our class beyond the basics. We want to share something of ourselves and we want to do a good job. But words… words are tough. A few words can mean a lot and too many words can mean nothing at all. So, how to choose? I am going to share a few tricks I have learned from all my years of screwing up. I have had some ridiculous things leave my mouth. Words I wish I could take back. Careless words. Ignorant words. I don’t mind admitting that I have taught some pretty awful classes. And really, it would be silly to deny it. We all make mistakes and we all learn as we go. I like to think I am a better teacher than I was a year ago, and I hope I will be an even better teacher a year from now. I do know that the more I focus on the words I use and the way I use them, the more powerful my teaching becomes. Yoga teachers talk about yoga talk. It might be similar to a bunch of chefs sitting around talking about recipes: “What if I tweaked this one little ingredient?”… Or teachers chatting about lessons: “What would happen if I tried to explain it like this…?”. Most of us probably over-scrutinize our classes (recipes, lessons). Resist the urge to re-live your class: take a deep breath and move on when you say something you wish you hadn’t. More importantly, resist the urge to talk to students after class about your class! Save those conversations for fellow instructors if you need to have them at all. Just the other night a few of our instructors and I were laughing uncontrollably about some of the dumbass things we have unwittingly said in class. My most ridiculous mistake was when I intended to ask the room to “sit on their shins” and instead I asked them to “shit on their sins”. Although it may be a good cue in life, it really isn’t very yogi. A dear friend of mine and an incredibly dignified, elegant woman asked her class to please “don’t go down on yourself” instead of some version of “take your practice as it is today”. These slip-ups don’t really count though. Although mortifying at the time, they are just mistakes and we have to let them go. Don’t worry too much about the words that have already left your mouth, if there is something to do, it is simply to learn from your mistakes. If you don’t want to say it again, make a mental note. If you really, really don’t want to say it again, make a written note. Commit to documenting your classes. Pay attention to what went well and what didn’t. You may find that you are really good at teaching a particular part of the sequence or a specific type of asana; say arm balances or forward folds. You may find that you struggle with the juicy bits of yoga; maybe talking people into their breath or out of the chatter in their heads. Learn these things about yourself and then take classes from other teachers at every studio you can get to. You will learn a lot by listening. I have only touched the tip of the teaching iceberg, but I have come a long way from that first class about eight years ago. Here I share with you some of the fruit of my mistakes:
1. Speak to the breath. A general rule is that extension is an inhale and flexion is an exhale. By the way, did you know that there are actually animals that breathe this way when they run? It’s fascinating. At top speed, as their body lengthens out (meaning their front two feet reach forward as their back legs extend back) thereby creating space for the incoming breath; the lungs and belly fill up. That is the inhale. As they draw everything forcefully back to the midline, essentially tucking all four legs beneath them, those muscles help to forcefully press the breath out. That is the exhale. It makes sense. Inhale, length and space. Exhale, strength and release. This can be confusing for students at the beginning. So tell them! Inhale/extension, exhale/flexion. “Inhale” and exhale” are very good words. They are easy to understand and they are vital to a good practice. That doesn’t mean that connecting the breath to movement is easy. It can take a long time for students to make that link. It does mean you have to cue it over and over again. “Inhale. Reach up. Exhale. Forward fold. Inhale. Halfway lift. Exhale. Chaturanga Dandasana…”
2. Create your flow with a “lead cue”. Giving your students an idea about where they are going is helpful. You could potentially teach a class just by reeling off the names the asanas themselves: “Warrior I, Warrior II, Peaceful Warrior, Extended Side Angle…” However, it really helps to use a verbal cue to lead your students from one pose to the next.
For example: “Inhale. Lengthen your arms long overhead…”
3. Speak to the pose itself. Tell your students where you want them to be. Downward Facing Dog. Upward Facing Dog. High Crescent Lunge. It you only offer cues without specifically naming the pose itself, your students will get lost. You don’t ever want them to have to guess where they are going. Or, equally worse, to have to wait for you to tell them where they are going. They will lose the rhythm of the breath if you aren’t half a step ahead of them.
For example: “Inhale. Lengthen your arms long overhead. Extended mountain pose…”
4. Speak to the foundation of the asana first: Building the asanas from the ground up is a really good way to get your students into proper alignment. Or, said differently, building a pose from the top-down or middle-up can leave students shaky and unsure. Always begin your verbal cues from the foundation of the pose, all the while understanding that the foundation may be the feet (but Oh! The possibilities! All four corners. Knife edge. Big toe. Weight in the heels…) but it also may be the hands, the tops of the feet, the forearms, the crown of the head… It may be two of these at once. If you can get your students grounded, they can work to build the pose from there.
Now we have something like this: “Inhale. Lengthen your arms long overhead. Extended mountain pose. Root all four corners of your feet firmly into the floor…”
5. Offer a minimum of one and a maximum of three verbal cues as your speak to the physicality of each asana. Beyond that, it’s just too much. There are a myriad of specific cues that can be given for Warrior II say, but that asana will come around again. Next time you can choose another. Try not to feel like you need to talk the entire body into the alignment each and every time. Give a couple clear verbal cues and move on.
So: “Inhale. Lengthen your arms long overhead. Extended mountain pose. Root all four corners of your feet firmly into the floor. Lengthen your tailbone toward your heels and firm up the powerful muscles in your legs. Slide your shoulder blades down your back as you actively reach your fingertips toward the sky”.
6. Let there be silence! Please, please let there be silence. My general motto is this: at least a fifth of class should be silent. That doesn’t mean the room is silent – that means as an instructor you don’t speak for at least a fifth of the class. More succinctly: YOU are silent. Simple math tells us that if you are keeping your students in a pose for five breaths, you are silent for at least one of those breaths.
7. Speak to what you know and avoid what you don’t. This one is simple. If you don’t feel confident teaching students into and out of a pose, skip it. Roll out your mat at home and practice it. Say the words out loud to yourself as you practice so you know if they “land” how you intend them to. Pay attention to the cues to make sure they are accurate. If you have trouble speaking to a specific asana, look it up! You Tube is an amazing tool. Learn eight solid, accurate cues for every asana before you teach it. (Remember, you only need three of them! This is money in the bank.)
8. Ah! Ugh. My personal rule is this: if you don’t know it absolutely and feel 100% confident saying it, then don’t. Ever. I love hearing it when I take class, but I don’t mind at all when it isn’t there. Not everyone is like me of course, but I bet most of us get distracted when it feels forced, mumbled, wimpy, or even worse, when it isn’t accurate. It’s okay to build your Sanskrit vocabulary slowly. Pick an asana a week and learn its Sanskrit name. Use it in class as you teach throughout the week and store it up! It won’t be long at all until you have a solid Sanskrit vocabulary. Know when to use it too. If you are teaching a class full of beginners, you can lose them with too much Sanskrit. Give them a slice, but not the entire cake.
9. The hardest part of course, is giving yogi’s what they have come for: the emotional, spiritual, mental, philosophical, awakening, juicy bits of a studio yoga practice. I cannot tell you what to say here; and no matter how many books you have read or trainings you have taken, this bit has to come from you. You’ve got to take risks. Know what drew you to yoga and stay connected to that. Did you find yoga after being released from a job you loved, or following a debilitating emotional or physical illness? Did you find yoga because a yogi friend took you by the ear as he/she watched you struggle though a challenging life event? We all come to yoga in different ways, and your connection to your practice is your story. If you have become a yoga teacher, it is probably an interesting one. Be willing to share it! Death, fear, insecurity, sickness, sadness…? If you know one of these things well, then be willing to share how yoga helped you grow beyond it. This doesn’t mean you shout it from the rooftops. It means you know and understand how yoga worked for you and can understand and empathize with someone who might be rowing a similarly leaking boat. I have learned that when I teach from a place of authenticity, a place of openness and surrender, I teach a pretty good class. If I am scattered and late and desperately searching for a quote or a feel-good-phrase to carry my class for me, I teach a sucky class. I have done both and I know the difference. So do my students. I also know that teaching a consistent schedule means that you will have classes that you aren’t feeling inspired to teach. You may be bogged down by an all-consuming event in your own life, and are unable to step outside of your own head. That’s okay. Go back to the basics and speak to the breath, the alignment and the foundations of yoga. You may just find that as you move through class, your own mind begins to open up and you find yourself available to teach from a place of authenticity again. Don’t force it. You can teach a class without the juicy bits! Resist the urge to frantically flip through the pages of the Yamas and Niyamas for passages you have highlighted in the past. Share a touch of what has your mind where it is on any given day. Maybe something like: “If you feel like you are carrying 1000 pounds on your shoulders, release your arms down by your sides, and when you are ready, use an inhale to bring them back up again”. Someone else in the room is probably lugging around an equally weighted burden of their own. Resist the urge to give details! “If your twelve year old can’t make it through a day of elementary school without pissing off the principal, gently release your arms by your sides, and with clenched fists, punch them out to the sides again” is probably a really bad idea. Stay grounded in the truth, so that you can speak to the room honestly but carefully. Your students should be in class because they care about themselves and not because they care about you. The front of the room is never a platform for your life story. Use your experiences to build compassion and understanding for others. The practice of yoga works on its own! Honor the teachers before and beside you by speaking cleanly- by speaking with kindness and understanding. Do the work to lead a safe class. Learn from your mistakes and have fun!
In a nutshell, here it is again:
Choose your words carefully
Speak to the breath
Tell your students where you are taking them
Get them there
Speak to the foundation of each asana
Build the pose: give specific cues to the alignment, anatomy, breath…
Let there be silence
Teach what you know and avoid what you don’t.
Speak from a place of authenticity.
Have fun and trust the process!