The Art of Dynamic Language

Language matters. When yoga teachers use varied language, creative words, and clear instructions, there is a more complete quality to the practice at hand. Our language supports students in remaining more present to their own internal experience while feeling safe in the outward structure of a given posture.

It is vital to remember that we are all going to have diverse language edges. Some teachers are better at instructing technical language and long for the ability to weave in creative imagery into their classes. Other teachers are proficient with images and inspirational words, but are challenged by clear and direct instructions. Regardless of where you are at, the first step is to build awareness and then slowly begin to take action to cultivate a new skill.

  1. Action Words: Lucid and direct instructions involve dynamic action words that clearly communicate to the students what to do next. Action verbs like “step,” “take,” or “extend” embody confidence, create safety, and allow the teacher to create a class tempo that provides space for an experience to unfold. Sometimes when teachers begin to use clear language they fear sounding too bossy, yet there is a way to express with confidence while still staying in the soft space of the heart. A simple formula to utilize while sharpening this tool of clear direct language is verb (move your) + body part (knee) + direction (in line with the ankle below) = clear instruction.
  1. Experiential Words: Reflective and investigative words like “notice,” “feel,” or “sense” can follow after a few direct instructions, which invites students into an expanded inquiry while invoking a softness into the physical practice. Furthermore, these words create introspection and help students remember that yoga is an all-inclusive process that engages all layers of our being.
  1. Diversity of Language: The ability to say the same exact thing in several different ways is a valuable skill while teaching yoga. Instead of only utilizing the instructions of inhale and exhale, we begin to express these actions with phrases like “take a breath,” “draw in oxygen,” “let the breath go,” or “release all the air.” In relaxation, in lieu of saying only “relax, relax, relax,” we spice it up with words like “soften,” “let go,” “descend into the earth,” or “release.” In leading students into movements and postures, instead of always saying the same instruction such as “step your right foot back, front knee bends at 90 degrees,” we begin to add variety as in the examples, “take your right foot back, front knee comes to a right angle,” or “Front knee aligned with the ankle below,” or “front knee in line with the second toe.” The potency of this ability to diversify our words as teachers is twofold. First, it provides deeper clarification for students on a technical level in case they didn’t understand our wording the first time. As students, we all learn and hear differently, so we ensure a higher probability of comprehension through utilizing a range of instructional language. Second, diverse language aids in facilitating a deeper, heartfelt experience as each new word used carries a distinctly powerful vibration.
  1. Creative Images: Voltaire writes, “Poetry is the music of the soul, and, above all, of great feeling souls.” Poets use creative words, intelligently constructed grammar, and cultivated poise to weave an experience that taps right into our imagination, heart, and emotions. One of the most powerful techniques poets use in their writing is the comparison of what might seem like ordinary life experiences to the majesty of the natural world. The body itself is part of this wonder of nature, and thus can serve as a platform through which to draw connections to this greater essence. The ability to communicate images and specific body actions as they relate to a theme is an essential tool in teaching yoga. In general, it is valuable to compile a collection of similes and metaphors that can be used for teaching certain technical ideas. Images make instruction more stimulating and interesting, and they give visual learners an added tool to take in auditory cues. Once there is a general understanding of the use of simile and metaphor, we can begin to customize our imagery-based instruction to the particulars of each theme. A metaphor is an expression used to refer to something it does not literally denote in order to suggest a similarity. In yoga, we might say: “Stretch your roots deeply into the earth,” or, “Notice the ocean waves of your breath.” A simile is a figure of speech in which two essentially unlike things are compared, often in a phrase introduced by “like” or “as.” In yoga, we might say: “Feel the breath ebb and flow like gentle ocean waves.” “Plant your left foot into the earth as tree roots anchor into the stability of the ground.” “With each exhale, let the muscles soften like snow melting in the warm sun.” Keep in mind that utilizing metaphor and simile is delicate business, as too many images in one class might overwhelm students or dilute the main focus of the practice.
  1. Power of Voice: The inherent power of the voice can be accessed through careful modulation of pitch, volume, and thoughtful pacing. Skill in maneuvering these qualities can be highly useful for teachers, as we can utilize them in different ways relative to the kind of experience we seek to craft. Speaking loudly and quickly through a centering would be awkward, as would be whispering while students hold Side Plank with focused intent and vigor. If the voice becomes too monotonous, students might begin to disengage from the class, whereas too much fluctuation can become distracting. As we continue to work with language and sound, we can thoughtfully explore integrating more dynamic, expressive, and colorful language into our teaching. For some themes, less description and “teacher” talk is more effective. For others, full, expressive language takes students deeper into their understanding and embodiment of the practice. Building the skills of language and voice takes time and requires focused attention, profound self-acceptance, and compassionate humor.
  1. Guiding and Teaching:In the conversation on language it’s valuable to draw a clear distinction between the modalities of guiding and teaching. In both modes of operation the skills mentioned above apply, yet there is an overall difference in the way we weave the class depending on which delivery system we are choosing. In the guiding mode (whether it be a sequence of poses, breath, or meditation), the teacher steps more and more into the background, in a sense almost disappearing. Characteristics of guiding include a seamless voice that carries students into their experience with clarity and grace, a less conversational atmosphere, a focus on students, and a skillful tango between action words and experiential language, an atmosphere that supports students in tapping into all the koshas. In the teaching mode, the teacher is breaking down the posture or pranayama to offer greater detail, benefits, and contraindications, ways to modify, and a time to answer questions. The characteristics of teaching include a more conversational and interactive experience, time for verbal or silent demo, more information about the posture, and more of a workshop feel.

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Excerpted with permission from the guide “Dynamic Language and Heart Opening Themes," by Danny Arguetty.

Danny Arguetty, MA, E-RYT 500, is the mindfulness program manager at the University of Washington, a yoga teacher trainer, nutrition and life coach, health counselor, and wellness educator.

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