Denver Clark, CIAYT, ERYT-500
Yoga is promoted as a space for healing and growth. But what happens if a student comes for a healing experience and leaves feeling even more uncomfortable or triggered? Of course, it is never the intention of a Yoga teacher to exclude others but often we aren’t completely aware of the simple things we can change about our delivery that make yoga even more influential for our students. One very easy way to be more conscious and inclusive is though our language.
As a teacher, I feel that it’s most important to communicate with my students to learn what helps them feel more included in my class so I can continue to anticipate future student’s needs and make my classes even more therapeutic. Here are some common phrases you may hear in a yoga class that I’ve changed in my practice since becoming a teacher over 12 years ago:
#1 – “Come to a seated position…”
Remove Commanding Language – Instead, try invitational language
It’s common for Yoga teachers to speak like fitness instructors. For example, “Let’s come to seated…. I want you to raise your arms…..” This can make the class feel like a mandatory experience and place students in a position where they feel a lack of choice or agency over their practice. As we heal from trauma, it’s important that we find moments where we feel in control of our environment and the yoga class is a perfect space to give people choices back in their lives. Especially during a time when we may not have many choices elsewhere. Here are some examples of invitational language:
“When you are ready, you can raise your arms..”
“One option is to look upward…”
“You might decide to sit back into chair pose here…”
“You can bend your front knee on an exhale…”
#2 – “The full expression of the pose is…”
Instead of stepping up each option – Try giving 2-3 choices, popcorn style
David Emmerson, one of the leaders in Trauma informed Yoga work calls this the “ABC approach.” It’s easy for teachers to fall into the trap of making postures harder and harder: “This is the pose, but if you want more….. if you want the full expression….” This kind of language can make students feel like they are less capable in their practice or that they are “bad” at yoga. Similarly, teachers may present the “fullest expression” of a posture and then step back to “If you can’t do this, then grab a strap…” Giving students 2 or 3 options in a random order allows students to make a choice based on how they feel instead of what they think they should be able to do. Yoga is personal, not goal oriented and not every student should be doing the traditional version of every posture. This exploratory approach reminds students that yoga is about listening and responding to your body in the moment and that it’s ok to change your mind or your practice as your body changes. Try replacing the word “modification” with “version.” Here are some examples of how you might do this:
“One option is to raise the front arm in warrior two, if this is uncomfortable today you could decide to place your hand on your hip and another choice might be to tuck that arm behind your back…”
#3 – “Don’t practice this if you’re….”
Instead of contraindication rules, try education. You don’t know the whole story
To protect our students, it can be easy to assume that the element we know about their health is the most important. But there is so much more to the story that we don’t know. If we speak in absolutes such as “always” and “never” because we read in a book or learned in a workshop that something is contraindicated, we may be unknowingly holding our students back from things they are fully capable of and ready for.
It’s a great idea to educate your students about the possible complications of a posture or pranayama practice, for example “menstruation may be a contraindication to inversions.” However, explaining the energetic and physical reasons why this might be a contraindication (“Apana vayu energy is trying to eliminate tissue during menstruation and we may find that inversions are uncomfortable or make us lightheaded during this time…”) gives my student the power to choose. An empowering practice is a healing one and after all, that is the point of Yoga – to learn how to listen to my own body and be responsible for my own health and happiness.
#4 – “That looks beautiful..”
Instead, make yoga about how things feel instead of how they look
When we comment on the way postures look, we are reinforcing a possibly harmful idea that yoga has to look a certain way to be correct – and many students may internalize this as “I have to look a certain way to be correct.” The gift of yoga asana (the physical practice) is interoception – the ability to be aware of my body and it’s internal changes. Focusing on how a posture feels allows my student to know that whatever state they are in is acceptable and there’s no goal on the outside. Because yoga happens on the inside. We can change this habit by removing phrases like “beautiful” or “looks nice” and replacing those with comments such as “feel the strength in your legs.” Or “notice how this posture makes you feel.” This also gives my student agency over their own body and reminds them of how capable they are and that they are in control of themselves at all times, which is tremendously healing when recovering from trauma.
#5 – “You’ll feel this in your…”
Instead of telling our students what to feel, try inviting them to “notice”
One of the most powerful words in trauma informed and inclusive yoga might be “notice.” When we tell our students where or what to feel, we run the risk of placing them in a situation where they feel less than if they don’t feel that sensation. We also direct them to believe that feeling that sensation is good, when it may not be for them. Inviting students to notice what they feel, wherever they feel it is another practice in interoception and helps them build awareness of the subtle changes in their bodies so that they can be aware in the future off the mat if something is amiss. It also allows them to have a unique experience rather than a curated one that may be unfit for their body or mind. Anatomically, not every person will ever feel a pose the same way but that doesn’t mean they aren’t receiving a benefit from the pose somewhere else. I will often say something like “you may feel a sensation in the backs of your legs, but if you don’t that’s okay too. Everyone carries tension in different areas. Just allow yourself to notice what you feel here…”
Most importantly – Ask your students for feedback.
Our students are our teachers. By asking them for open feedback we are allowing ourselves to become uncomfortable and on the other side of discomfort it always growth. Teachers are human and we make mistakes. It’s what we do once we are aware of those mistakes that matters most. I hope that as a community, we all continue to educate ourselves, to inquire, to acknowledge when we make a mistake and to learn from it. Then, we are truly practicing yoga in addition to sharing it with others. Happy Teaching!