Yeah, That's Right, I'm the Yoga Language Police

The following is adapted from a Yoga Studio Instructor’s Guide that I wrote for my hot yoga studio. The heat specific references won’t apply to everyone, obviously, but I hope they are still instructive.

A professional yoga studio should allow instructors a good amount of autonomy in how they teach their classes. However, there are certain unwritten principles and standards that should be expected: greet people as they arrive; be nice to everyone; encourage people to take it easy, work to their own level and rest when needed; don’t do “hands on” adjustments (no touching clients); stay as close to the preferred heat index (105/40) as possible; thank people for coming to class and be available to them in the lobby as they leave. These may sound like a lot of presumptions but I believe each of them can reasonably be considered a baseline of standard ethical hot yoga instruction. The practice of barring “hands on” adjustments may be the exceptional case about which there is disagreement but it is my firm belief that it is not appropriate in any group beginner classes.

Until four or five years ago, the dominant Bikram Yoga culture was about control. Bikram has always taught like a dictator, and he encouraged us to do the same. We were taught to not let people leave the room, don’t let them drink water until told to do so, push them hard, don’t let them give up, don’t wipe sweat, don’t use hand towels or props, keep their fucking toes on the line, etc. I admit to having brought some of this nonsense into my studio during the early years but we have long since abandoned the torture chamber schtick. It didn’t take too many instances of offending someone, hurting their feelings or ensuring that they’d never come back to realize that even when meant as encouragement certain practices are disrespectful, such as refusing to recognize the individual’s right to their physical autonomy, or that certain language can be shaming or discouraging to some people.

What brings someone to a yoga practice and to a yoga studio? A desire to do something for themselves. You could say that they come to us for yoga instruction but that’s only partly true. They want us to tell them what to do but only as it applies to postural form and alignment. They also probably have many other motivations. What they’re really coming for is a totality of a group yoga experience that, beyond simply practicing asana, may also include physical exercise, meditation, practicing/connecting with other people, the heated room, de-stressing, and who knows what else. A yoga studio business model is built around yoga instruction but integral to that is providing a space that allows people to gather in a safe and supportive community to practice with others. Related to this is my preference for referring to ourselves as instructors (instead of teachers) and our customers as clients (instead of students).

Check Your Ego

Yoga Instruction is a service. From the minute someone walks into a studio our role is to see them, support them and keep them safe (to the best of our ability). To “check” your ego means leave it outside the room as in a “coat check” but since that’s not completely possible it also means to keep your ego in service mode. There are a couple of ways in which our ego might get in the way. The first is in wanting to control the room or the people in it, whether as a group or individually. The second is in using self-centered language, i.e., sentences that include the phrases, “I want you to keep a firm grip,” or “will you bring your feet together for me?” Try to use language that focuses on the client instead. “Are you able to keep a firm grip?” “Try lifting your right hip a bit.” “Yes! That’s what you your shoulders to be doing.”

Note that checking your ego doesn’t mean you don’t have one. You are welcome to talk about yourself, your experiences, your insights or anything else that you feel is informative or helpful.

There Should be no “Shoulds” in a Beginning Yoga Class

With an emphasis on form and alignment in class, it’s easy to fall into telling people what their bodies should be doing in the asanas: “Your feet should be together,” “your knee should be locked,” your shoulders should be in one line,” “your back should be round,” etc. This language is common and has some basis but it may also imply judgment of people’s abilities as well, in some cases, be incorrect.

For someone with knock knees, for example, it will be unhelpful for them to try to keep their feet together and it may not even be possible. Someone with fused spinal vertebrae is unlikely to achieve a rounded spine in any postures. These are some obvious physical reasons why “shoulds” may not apply but there is another good reason to avoid them. I doubt that any yoga instructor would ever intend to be critical of their clients’ abilities but many practitioners bring their own self-judgment into the room. Seeing a disparity between what they are being told their body should look like in a pose and the reality of what they are able to do is going to make some people feel like they’re “doing it wrong.” How many times have you heard someone refer to their postures or practice as “bad” or “terrible?”

Sensation is Subjective

Similarly, avoid telling people what they should feel. Example: in Rabbit, many instructors say, “You should feel a stretch through the entire spine” or “you should feel a stretching sensation in the lower back.” I guarantee you that for everyone who feels something, there will be someone who does not feel them. Let your language allow room for individual experience to be validated. “You may feel a stretching sensation in the lower spine,” or “focus some attention on the lower spine,” or, even better, “notice where in your body you may be feeling something.” Every person in the room is likely to have unique experiences in their postures according to a lot of factors.

The Only Absolute is That There are No Absolutes

Part of our job is to help everyone understand that the instructions we give about alignment and form in postures are directional and not absolute. Some examples I use in class are to remind people that we don’t expect them to the “touch the ceiling” in Half Moon Pose just as we don’t expect them to touch the front and back walls with their fingers and toes during Balancing Stick. The more you understand this, the more you will begin to use language that is less loaded and more inspirational than descriptive or commanding.

Leave the Scale Out of the Room

Don’t talk about body weight in class. Our societal culture is obsessed with weight and there is an enormous amount of fat shaming that goes on all around us, all the time. Body weight is probably the single most common thing that people use to shame themselves and each other. A yoga studio should be a shame-free zone, especially when it comes to body shape or size. You may not intend to shame someone in class about their weights, size or shape but sometimes just referring to weight can trigger client’s internal critical voice about their body.

I know that some of your clients will bring it up before or after class. Many will ask about losing weight from practicing yoga (the answer is a qualified “maybe”). It’s fine to talk about weight in this context but be extra sensitive to what you hear and what you say. Often, you will hear people shame themselves by referring to their weight. Unfortunately, such comments only serve to perpetuate a false stigma that is attached to weight.

Body weight is a particularly controversial subject in the international yoga community due to the emphasis on physical fitness and asana as exemplified by thin, sculpted, muscular bodies. It is my belief that the vast majority of yoga instructors are either blind, ignorant or insensitive to the reality that those beautifully photographed and Instagram yogis are an extreme minority. Many beginning yoga practitioners find such images more intimidating than inspirational.

Yoga is not about physical beauty or even physique. It’s a mind-body practice that uses exercise as a form of moving meditation. Practicing yoga does not inherently cause anyone to lose weight or to build muscle tissue. Those things are achieved through commitment to particular lifestyle activities and choices.

The roots of contemporary hatha yoga practice are in a movement in the early 1900s to bring the many benefits of hatha yoga to average people who live average lives as working people in their communities. This is why I often refer to my yoga approach as “yoga for the rest of us.” I don’t mean that to exclude anyone but to simply emphasize and promote a healthy attitude about bodies and our practice.

Obviously, hot yoga studios attract many people who are physically fit, as well. My hope is that all instructors keep a healthy focus on what everyone in the room has in common in their practice and not draw undue attention to physical shape, condition or ability.