5 Ways To Choose Your Words Wisely As A Yoga Teacher
Cover Photo By Emilie Bers.
By Sarah Ezrin
The nursery rhyme “stick and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” is a lie.
Words are powerful. Words get under your skin and into your brain like a parasite. They can zap away self-confidence and break a person with the flick of a tongue. Broken bones heal. The damage that words can do may last lifetimes. They can ruin marriages and start wars. They get passed down through generations as “values” and “beliefs”, molding how think about the world. Words matter. What we say, what we write, what we think, matters. Especially, as teachers.
I learned about the power of my words as a yoga teacher one evening some time ago. I had asked everyone to gather for a headstand demonstration. The student I chose to demonstrate was quite petite. I am 5’8”, so when I stood next to her, I felt as though I was towering over her. All of my childhood insecurities began bubbling to the surface. Feelings of being too “big”, shape wise and personality. This was running through my head, when I cued her to come down and said aloud the words, “of course, I am much bigger than her, so that probably wouldn’t look as graceful!”. Cue the laughter. Self-deprecating humor gets them every time.
When I graduated college, I was 50 pounds underweight. My parents enrolled me in an outpatient program in Los Angeles led by one of the city’s top eating disorder specialists. As fate would have it, on that pivotal night, one of the students in class worked as a counselor for the very same out-patient program. After class she hung back and asked to talk. We huddled near the front of the room as the students cleared out. “What you say matters,” she started. “You are a role model to the class. By tearing yourself down, you are reinforcing society’s beauty ideal that we must be unhealthily thin.”
Boom. Mic dropped. I felt like I had been punched. I was seeing stars. I flashed back to all the classes over the years where I self-deprecated and how uncomfortable that must have been for my students. I flashed back to the times I myself was the student in classes where teachers I greatly admired praised the person next to me for having “a beautiful” practice or looking “thin” and how it made me feel unseen and ugly. Well-meaning words stinging like salt water. And it is insidious. We all do it. How many times had I said, “so-and-so makes this pose look easy” when having someone demonstrate? Insensitive to the other students in the room for whom the pose is a challenge. Unaware that in a space meant to be safe and uplifting, I was skewering people’s self-esteems for the sake of a joke.
As yoga teachers, we are leaders. Everything we say and do for the 90 to 55 minutes that we are in front of the room has impact. We do not need to be perfect. We do not need to be waif -like or be able to wrap our legs behind our head. We do not even need to know the answers! No, we simply need to guide students away from the external measures we all misidentify as important and toward the internal, where we are already perfect.
Here are 5 ways to choose your words wisely as a yoga teacher:
Have the class say “thank you” when someone demonstrates versus clapping or saying “bravo”: Being selected to demonstrate in class is a huge honor. Students can learn a lot by watching others demonstrate, whether that person completes the full shape or not. In many classes there is a trend to clap after someone demos a pose well. This is often followed up with a congratulatory “good job” or “bravo”. While support by one’s community is an important and beautiful thing, perhaps we could show that support from a place of gratitude versus praise. Rather than clapping for someone executing the pose, have the class say “thank you” for the demonstration. There is great power in an entire group of people expressing thanks in unison.
Give positive feedback versus praise: It always feels good to be given praise, but as yoga teachers, we are there to teach self-love and non-attachment, not to be our student’s best friends. Tirumalai Krishnamacharyawho taught pivotal teachers such as B.K.S. Iyengar and Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, famously withheld any praise from his students! The belief being, students would get attached to the poses and results, versus focusing on the journey and work. I admit that I love giving (and receiving!) public compliments, however I try to keep positive feedback as a reflection of a student’s hard work versus the end result of their pose. For example, I try to say, “nice work, Bob” when someone understands a cue we are working on versus complimenting the look of a pose like, “wow, Bob, nice handstand!” when they are hovering in an inversion.
Stick with the yoga: The line of where a yoga teacher ends and a nurse/therapist/friend/parent can be easily blurred, whether we consciously mean for it to our not. One of the roles yoga teachers seem to take on a lot is the role of nutritionist or diet counselor. “Orthorexia”, is characterized as an obsession with eating healthy, often to the point of restriction. It has quickly become a danger in the wellness community. Unfortunately, it is quite common for yoga teachers to regularly speak in their classes and social media platforms about their dietary choices, sometimes shaming students for what they deem unhealthy behaviors, like eating meat or drinking alcohol and caffeine. Everyone has a right to their opinion, but unless you are a licensed nutritionist, it is not really appropriate to advise people on how they should eat. Personally, I have been shamed by a yoga teacher for eating meat, but I have to eat meat for health purposes. Most importantly, let us remember that we are ultimately here to help people tune into theirbody and their desires. Yoga teachers can encourage deep listening versus assigning their own personal beliefs.
Know your audience: Having suffered from eating disorders throughout the years, I am very sensitive to people complimenting one another for looking thin. For example, I have been a class where a teacher complimented me for losing weight, completely unaware that I was starving myself and over-exercising to get there. And what if another student on the next mat has also been struggling with body issues their entire life? It always boggles my mind why do we not also praise for gaining weight. Instead of measuring attractiveness by some number on a scale or some prescribed body ideal, let us learn to see people’s energy. When someone is taking care of themselves, they shine and there is nothing more attractive or more important to support than that!
Do unto yourself as you would do to others: We are often kinder to others than we are to ourselves. It has become sadly common, especially for women, to bat away a compliment by putting ourselves down. Many yoga teachers are gifted performers and naturally funny. This is a beautiful way to engage the students, however, like I was reminded me that fateful night, we must be careful to not use self-deprecating humor for we never know how those jokes may land. For example, there are certain poses that are challenging for me and I have said, “if you are stiff like me” when offering modifications. While this was well-meaning, it can be alienating. If I am at the front of the room saying I’m “stiff”, because by Instagram standard I can’t wrap my legs behind my head and spin around, what message am I sending my students? That is basically saying that flexibility is important, which was not my intention. Return to your original objective before saying something to find the best way to word it. I wanted to show students that I too struggle in poses. Saying something like, “I know these poses can be challenging, but remember the final shape does not matter”, would have been more appropriate and powerful.