about language in yoga instructionBy Kathryn Boland

Language in yoga instruction is extremely important. Being invited to something – to a party, to a meaningful life passage event, even to do something that just plain feels good – carries its own special joy. It’s even difficult; at least for me personally, to put into just the right words that special feeling of allowance and/or inclusion. Invitation can also be part of when one seeks to direct another in more formalized, structured activity (that which we might not commonly associate with such simple joy). As yoga instructors, we can both direct and ease our students through using “invitatory” language. Furthermore, it opens up opportunities for students to make their practices truly their own – versus our ideas of what we think those practices should be.

The Oxford Dictionary defines “invitatory”, an adjective, as “containing or conveying an invitation”. Language with that quality suggests options and opens up possibilities, rather than commands. Yoga teachers have many opportunities to use this type of language in their instruction. One way to do so is present multiple options, using such transitional words/phrases as “perhaps” and “or maybe.” Particularly fitting times in typical asana classes to do that are during beginning meditations and closing relaxations.

For the former, an instructor might suggest setting an intention or calling to mind something one is grateful for. The instructor could then say “Or, if it feels more right for you today, simply tune into your breath and see if that helps to quiet your mind.” For closings, instructors could offer guided meditation options – such as envisioning a walk through a peaceful favorite place or a self-guided body scan – or simply time to let the mind remain silent and eased. Giving options in those ways gives students helpful doses of guidance, yet allows them freedom to put into practice what they sense will most benefit them.

When it comes to leading students through specific asanas, invitatory language has similar benefits. For instance, I often give students the option to point or flex their feet in certain postures where either is possible (such as Half-Moon and Warrior III). I explain that flexing the feet especially stretches the calves, and pointing gives the shin a good stretch – “so, perhaps try both and see what feels better for you today”. My students do typically experiment with both, and some settle on either option as best for them right then. Leaving both of those choices open also allows students with certain injuries or sensitivities to respect their bodies’ pain signals. That helps avoid further, more serious injury – as some students will continue doing something even if it hurts (as much as we might advise them against doing that) simply because we as instructors asked them to.

Guiding students in using props also offers opportunities for instructors to use language that invites instead of commands. That is especially helpful when it comes to props – because practitioners can have very varied and individual needs, desires, and past experiences when it comes to using props. For myself as a practitioner, I tend to not heavily use props, but in recent years I have challenged myself to learn more about using them through direct experience. I believe that I developed that helpful openness because many of my favorite instructors guided me in how I might use props, yet never ordered me to do so.

As an instructor, I’ve seen how one prop use I suggest is helpful for one student, yet not for another. Resting a hand on a block in Trikonasana (Triangle Pose) makes one student feel more balanced, while doing so just feels limiting and awkward to another, for example. Unique anatomies often account for such differences, and we as instructors serve our students best by respecting those variations. In most – if not all – cases, students know their own bodies better than we could ever hope to!

Just as with anything, invitatory language has its limitations. As one, beginning students often feel overwhelmed, confused, and lost if given too many options. Most helpful for them seems to be an approach that is directive, but also includes many questions and “check-ins” (as in, “how does that positioning feel?”). That way, instructors can guide such students as necessary; yet gain insights through consultation about their practice experiences at the same time. That allows instructors to guide such students in ways that keeps those experiences the students’ own.

Other instances in which invitatory language should be avoided involve those with safe positioning and alignment in specific asanas. Instructors should never lead students to believe that it’s a good option to place their feet on their knees in Vrkasana (Tree Pose), for instance. All in all, however, invitatory language allows us as instructors to guide students in executing the yoga practices that they come to understand are those that are best for them. Such a process is a beautiful part of life as a yoga practitioner. We can invite, rather than command, as we travel it with them.

© Copyright 2016 – Aura Wellness Center – Publications Division

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