The Language of Yoga: ‘What did she just say…?’

Before I get on to ‘talking’ langauge, I wanted to say a massive thank you to everyone who came along to my two free classes this week. I enjoyed both classes hugely and can’t wait to be back on the mat with you on Monday (7th September) at 7:00 pm, and Wednesday (9th September) at 10:00am. I am in the process of working out a third class time and so if you have any suggestions please let me know in the comments below.

To book, you can visit this page. I have listed a suggested contribution of £5 per class. Payment is taken via Stripe which is an extremely secure system, and no details are held by me other than your contact details which will be used to tell you about classes and send you the link to join.

Now, on to what I wanted to post about to day, which is a subject I feel incredibly passionate about as I start on this journey as a yoga teacher – language!

“Language is power, life and the instrument of culture, the instrument of domination and liberation.” – Angela Carter

When I first came to yoga I was pretty restless, anxious and unsure of myself. I knew Kundalini Yoga was making positive change in my life, but I didn’t always find classes easy. Sometimes I could leave a class and feel quite unnerved. Sometimes even more anxious than when I started. This wasn’t a ‘fault’ in the classes or in me, it was just part of my journey. But, over time, as I have come to really study yoga classes as a teacher trainee and beyond, I have noticed more and more how much the language a teacher uses plays a part in my experience of a class.

If I was to list every incident where I have been triggered whilst practising yoga I’d estimate that over 90% of them would come back to words. To language and the way in which it is spoken.

Early on it could be as simple as a fellow student verbalising their own state of anxiety as I sat teetering on the edge of my own. As my practice deepened, so did my ability to regulate. Often providing an opportunity for recognition and reflection, ‘that’s interesting, she sounds angry and for a moment I was scared’. When no reflection comes I can pause and consider ‘perhaps that really was a weird thing for them to say?’ Language is incredibly powerful, and if yoga teachers wish to create and hold a safe and sacred space in which every person who comes to sit with them can experience the class and themselves in a kind and compassionate way (I know I do), the language used in the space is supremely important.

In my own teaching it is incredibly important to me to be mindful and reflective of the language I use. Language can play a big part in creating inclusive, safe and kind spaces, and there are some of common areas in which language can become problematic. 

When it comes to posture, offering choice in what to do, and how, feels kind and inclusive, and I really notice when teachers place emphasis on empowerment and choice by simple gestures such as reminding us that if we have pain as we work through a posture we can always stop. Also by providing alternatives postures – and not with on being better than another. Options in a posture are equal but different variations. 

To offer options while eliminating judgment, “If you’d like to try something different, do this…” is so much kinder than to imply that one ‘perfect’ posture is the goal, which can leave us feeling inadequate – measuring ourselves against the ‘ideal’. 

I find it is incredibly powerful to be handed permission to rest or modify postures because so many of us struggle to give that permission to ourselves.

Yoga teachers have a huge privilege in having an opportunity to guide clients to experience comfort in their body. Using language that gives permission for choice really aids in this. We may say ‘If it’s comfortable for you, close your eyes,” rather than ‘eyes should be closed’ and then apply this approach to a variety of instances throughout class, always guiding with the permission for comfort.

I can talk about this from experience.

I have been someone so uncomfortable in my body I did not really want to be in it at all. To finally, through yoga, have permission to explore feeling more comfortable in the body is a gift beyond measure.

The domino effect of that shift can be incredibly potent and can awaken a kinder relationship with the self as well as the body. 

I want my teaching to take place in spaces that feel ‘safe enough to take a risk’. A risk to try something new. To experience something for the first time. It is easy to see safety and risk as opposites but, actually, it is the safety that allows us to move in to places we may feel fearful of, slowly and comfortably. We must not forget this when choosing to be kind and inclusive with words. Safe enough. 

Language, words, have a huge influence on body image and our relationship to ourselves – including our self esteem. If I hear a teacher say ‘you will/should feel…’ in relation to both physical and emotional sensations I tend to beat myself up when I don’t feel as they describe. ‘You may notice…’ or ‘Possibly…’ are much kinder and I feel, generally, the most important thing is for each of us to be aware of sensations, not to measure ourselves against what it ‘should’ be like.

Body image is certainly an area to reflect on when it comes to the language of teaching people and not just postures. We may hope that for every teacher, every person in a yoga class is exactly that, a human in a yoga class, a person like any other. In seeing all as equal, we may assume there is no need to draw any attention to different bodies, but as discussed in The Yoga Teacher Mentor by Jess Gleny, there may be times when body size, shape, height, cleavage  (to give a few examples), are going to make a real difference when looking at physical adjustments or alternative postures. This is another area in which I feel hugely passionate about in bringing awareness and consideration to the language used.

When it comes to the language around body shape I do not use or appreciate language like ‘overweight’, which is not body positive – presupposing as the word does, that a person’s weight is in an undefined way ‘too much’. Where possible, I would always consciously avoid commenting on someone’s physical appearance. I have felt myself feeling incredibly self conscious in the position of student when singled out, even under the pretence of being given a compliment, on my physical appearance. To me it is only relevant if I can help with an adjustment to make a posture more comfortable.

 I will always strive to use gender-neutral and inclusive language in classes, avoiding statements such as, “this should be easier for women” or “men have tight hamstrings.” Such statements creates judgment and false perceptions. It is time to step away from the limits of the binary, and acknowledge and welcome that gender identity can be fluid and not fixed.

By using inclusive terminology I truly hope to remove barriers that can exclude gender-variant or transgender students.

I have found it a worthwhile experiment to take an extended length of time where I replace all pronouns with ‘them/they’, it is illuminating to practise, we revert to the binary so quickly. The use of gendered pronouns in teaching can feel inevitable, but is alienating. I hope that using inclusive language can play a part in showing that, for me, every single person who comes to a class is valued and respected. There’s a place for everyone in my classes. I feel it is very important to bring awareness to my use of gendered language, getting it right all the time is less important than showing the willingness to listen, and to respect all gender identities and preferences. 

 Yoga teacher and activist Diane Bondy has said that we have forgotten how to practise svadhyaya, self-study and the examination of our beliefs and attitudes stating “too many of us fail to acknowledge our own biases, privileges, and limiting beliefs. We fail to critically analyse the messages we are seeing and hearing as we navigate through the world.” I agree wholeheartedly and feel that it is imperative that we do truly practise self reflection, examining any place where conscious and unconscious biases may be limiting the inclusivity of classes.

Language is a key area any biases or limiting beliefs may make themselves known in a class. As a teacher I do my best to incorporate language that guides everyone to practice the art of observation or self-study, which is a key component in learning how to notice changes that happen in a class without critique or judgment. And just as I aim to teach with words that encourage neutral observation, such as ‘notice’ and ‘observe’ I am committed to shining the light back on to myself, and to work towards using language that welcomes every body to come and join me in a safe, sacred space.

Safety in Silence 

 When we talk of language in the yoga class, it is also important to reflect on the power of silence. In Kundalini Yoga we really play with purposeful pauses and silence. These are, after all, often the most potent moments of a class.  

When I reflect on the teachers I love to be in classes with, I see the skill in how they work in leading us toward stillness, giving us permission to be comfortable with silence. Much of the language that is used is with the intention of doing just that. Leading us to the silence. 

When I think over my teacher training, I recognise in my own experience that silence can feel uncomfortable for the new teacher, but  each and every class certainly needs it. 

It is in the silence that we are able to gift you the space to glimpse your inner connection. So I do not avoid the silence. I find classes in Kundalini Global go to it very naturally, intuitively.

Ultimately language should be intuitive, and I am aware that by reflecting on so many areas where language can ‘trip us up’ there is a danger of over-regulating and moving away from such intuition and in to a place of fear, ‘I can’t say that.’ ‘Oh gosh, what if I get it wrong?’ I certainly know I don’t have to, and will not, get it right all the time, and recognising where I have made a mistake is very important to me.

What I take away from my research and reflection is the importance of being willing to learn, be open, to always reflect on where language could be kinder. Researching the language of yoga has led me to begin a practice of being kinder how I speak to myself, inviting the same gentler dialogue with my own body and minds.

This inner work is perhaps where any consideration of language should begin, and from there, it can move in to our classes from a place of real authenticity, kindness and openness, and with the knowledge that in moment where we get it wrong, we are ready, open-hearted, to say sorry and to learn.

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