Yoga Teachers: Your words MATTER!
Do you feel like your 60 minute yoga classes are an hour long, stream of consciousness monologue? Or are your cues thoughtful, well-planned, and impactful? Maybe you’re somewhere between the two?
Cueing is arguably the most important skill a yoga teacher can hone. Sure, demoing can show your students what to do and hands on assists can help an individual find the perfect expression of the pose, but the way you communicate your class to your students is what truly differentiates a decent teacher from a masterful teacher.
Below are some essential do’s and don’ts for cueing a yoga class that can help take you from the teacher on the sub list to the teacher that always has a waitlist.
Keep your cues clear & concise!
Say what you mean! Extra words are often just that - extra. Teachers, especially newer teachers, tend to ramble on when they’re not sure what to say. Take a breath for you and plan what to say while you’re breathing so you don’t end up rambling through your entire life story with your students stuck in Goddess Pose.
Use action verbs.
Use action verbs to give direction. There’s no need to shy away from giving commands. It’s okay to tell students what to do, in fact it’s kind of your job. Many teachers shy away from giving students commands by using passive verbs like gerunds.
Which sounds better to you? “Lift your arms and bend your front knee”, or “Lifting your arms and bending your front knee”. It sounds silly but you’d be amazed how many teachers get stuck using passive -ing verbs.
Using action verbs not only sounds better and clearer, but it also helps you claim the seat of the teacher and builds trust in your students.
Your students might forget to breathe, especially during more challenging parts of the sequence. Remind them! Tell them where to breathe and how. For example, during backbends I cue my students to breathe into their hearts, or cue them to breathe deeply and feel for their entire rib cage expanding with breath.
Get creative with your verbs.
Avoid using the same verb for every cue, like place or set. You can use playful verbs like waterfall, caress, cascade, or ground. But even varying more basic verbs makes for a more interesting class. Verbs like place, bring, and set can often become crutch words, meaning that we repeat them constantly without realizing it.
For example, cueing students into Warrior 1 this could sound like, “Bring your right foot between your hands. Bring your back heel down. Bring your arms up.” A more engaging way to cue this might be, “Step your right foot between your hands. Ground your back heel. Reach your arms up.”
Use experiential verbs like feel, sense, or notice.
Encouraging your students to feel not only gets them out of their thinking minds and into their bodies, but it also helps with proprioception and listening to intuition. When we’re stuck in the thinking mind, we’re more likely to push a pose to the point of injury.
Diversify your language.
Know how to say the exact same thing multiple ways. This helps your students understand what you mean if they didn’t grasp the cue the first time. Watch your students when you cue, that way you’ll catch it if a cue doesn't make sense for one or more of your students. Then rather than repeating the same words, find a new way to say the same thing.
Sprinkle in some creative imagery - without getting too carried away! Cues like “Root down through your feet”, or “Extend your fingers like branches of a tree”, or “Waterfall down from the base of your spine to the crown on your head” can give your visual learners something to focus on.
Play with your voice!
Play with the pitch, tone, volume, and cadence of your voice to keep students interested! Monotone cues are far too easy to drown out. The quality of your voice can also motivate students during challenging moments and soothe students in gentler stretches.
Avoid crutch words.
Crutch words are filler words that you use over and over again. These can range from common filler words such as “um”, “uh”, “like”, “so”, or “and then”, but they can also expand into words like “gently”, “just”, “next”, “from here”. Listen to yourself when you’re cueing and try to catch those words you say over and over.
If that feels challenging, turn it into a game! Record your classes and listen to the audio while taking notes. When you hear yourself say a filler word, tally up how many times you say it in a 10 minute period. The words you used most frequently are now off-limits!
The best thing you can do for yourself while teaching is to take a deep breath for you. . While you breathe for yourself, decide what to say next to avoid speaking mindlessly and falling into the trap of crutch words.
Avoid lengthy, confusing set-up cues.
Avoid giving long winded and confusing set up cues. Instead, say the name of the pose you want your students to move into next. Once you’ve named the pose, many of your students will immediately go into it. For those who do not know the pose, give the most basic set up cues possible. Make these cues clear and concise.
Occasionally when teaching, you may find that all you have to say is “Downdog” and all of your students will move directly into the pose. In that case, set-up cues would be a waste of time and breath.
Lengthy set up cue example:
“From Downdog, rise up high onto your toes, draw your right knee in towards your chest, then ground your right foot down between your hands, spreading your toes and feeling for equal weight distribution across the foot. Spiral your back heel down. If your heel doesn’t touch the ground, feel free to widen your stance or keep it lifted like Crescent Lunge instead. Bend your front knee so it stacks directly over your ankle. Push strongly through both feet and like a Phoenix rising from the ashes take flight. Lift your arms to the sky and look up between your hands lifting your back kneecap up to engage your quads. Reach powerfully through your fingertips but relax your jaw and hug your front ribs down.”
Concise set up cue example:
“Warrior 1. Step your right foot between your hands. Ground your back heel down. Lift your torso and reach your arms up.”
The first cue gave a LOT of information. Students do not hear 100% of what you're saying while they are moving. They hear more like 10%, especially when you ramble on. Giving more concise set up cues doesn’t mean you can’t give more information once students are in the pose, it just means you give them the most basic, need-to-know cues so that they can get into the pose. Once they’re in the pose, then you can scan the room and look at your students bodies to offer more personalized cues. If you plan to keep students in the pose for 5 breaths once they’re in the pose, you can likely cue them through two additional actions within that time-frame. But too many more actions and it just gets confusing.
Avoid making your students feel unintelligent.
Using anatomical terms and Sanskrit may show your students how smart you are, but using it without giving the common name afterwards may confuse your students. Instead, follow each anatomical term or Sanskrit pose name with the common or English name.
Avoid shame-based cueing.
This should go without saying, but shame-based language is still far too prevalent in the yoga world. Instead, be kind with your words. If it sounds like something that would come out of a bully’s mouth or something you’d hear in an ad for diet pills - do not use that wording. Leave it completely out of your teaching.
Shame-based language is so common that many teachers do not realize they’re using it. For example during core work, some teachers may say things like “do this to get a flat tummy”, or “this works your muffin top”, or “burn those holiday calories”, or “earn those weekend calories”, etc. While teachers may not mean to trigger students, those with body image issues, or those who’ve struggled with eating disorders, or bullying in the past may be triggered by this language.
Body positive or body neutral language is preferred. Trade the cue “get a flat tummy” for “strengthen your core” or “strengthen your core to support a healthy spine”. Instead of “earn those weekend calories”, you could say “sweat now, glow later” or “celebrate the fact that you came and spent this hour on you”.
Avoid triggering language.
Some people use yoga to help heal from trauma. And while yoga teachers are not therapists and should not attempt to “heal” a person’s trauma, we can be smart about the language we use to avoid bringing up painful memories for students. Instead, be mindful of the way you phrase things.
Avoid putting students into failure mode.
Avoid cues that put students into failure mode. Give pose options and modifications without making students feel like one variation is more superior than another. The pose should change to fit the student, not the other way around.
Using cues like “if you can”, “if you can’t”, “if you’re not strong enough”, or “if you’re not flexible enough” signals to students that they should be able to do that thing that they cannot, or no longer can due to age or injury. Students may also try the “most advanced” or “fullest expression” of the pose if it's phrased that way regardless of whether or not it's right for their body or feels good.
Empower your students by saying things like, “if you’re working towards”, or “while you’re building the strength” when offering modifications/options. One of my favorite ways to cue poses is by saying “if this feels good, stay, if you need more here, try ___.”, or “if this feels crunchy/uncomfortable/etc, try ___”.
Yoga can be SO empowering. The way that you structure your cues can make all the difference between your student feeling not strong/flexible/thin/young enough, or your student feeling excited that they have something to work towards.