The Words We Use

As yoga teachers, we feel responsible for so much: safety, ego, emotional health, students getting what they think they need, getting students in the door...and that's just IN the studio. My own personal view: Start Small and Keep It Simple. A colleague of mine recently emailed regarding a message I offered in one of my last trainings: Stop teaching rhetorically and think critically about what you are offering your students. I am posting her inquiry here and my response; I invite your take on this and an open discussion. Just remember to be nice :)


I've been thinking a lot about what you said about the "rhetoric" that plagues yoga instruction...

I'm really challenging myself and my colleagues to more clearly define what we are doing and why—and for our cues to reflect that.

Specifically, I'm struggling with the cue "open." I say it so much but I want to get away from that—I want to be able to explain what I mean by "open" to a beginning student.

So I wonder how you would define this idea of "opening" an area of the body, or a tight, specific muscle.

Does that make sense? Please let me know what you think when you have a chance.

Thank you!


Hi Erin,

I am thrilled to hear you talk about this. The words we use are important, and clearly communicating our intention is a big part of being a successful teacher. You are correct, a word like "open" can be ambiguous at best. I prefer to describe the particulars of the tissue, structure or joint I am referring to...because your description of "opening" may be vastly different for each area.

My own style of teaching has evolved to limit descriptors as much as possible so I can communicate more information in less time. Ex: "right hand reaches to windows" instead of reach your right hand to the window wall". At first, it may sound robotic, but over time, your voice, your cadence, your tone all bring meaning to these details without using extra words. You can be more direct when describing simple or basic movements. That way, when you begin to describe something more specific, the hip joint for example, the mere fact that you use more detail, or full sentences, draws attention to it's importance.

I might describe the joint itself:

"there is a fibrous ligament that spirals around the head and neck of the femur bone, holding it into it's socket. When we sit all day, the fibers of this ligament can get stuck together like velcro, and proper movement here can help pull those fibers apart and soften the tissue. We want to unwind the stickiness that extends through the connective tissue of the muscle and joint for more freedom. If we rush into a deep stretch or bully our way through these sticky spots, our tissue will fight us and even bite back...slow, movement, blood flow...that will serve us."

I've taken a few extra seconds to draw them a mental picture of what their action can accomplish, what they are truly working on. I often refer back to "finding the middle ground", "explore the edge but don't push past will move outward on its own", "balance between length and strength", "unwind", "soften", "melt"; instead of "open".

I like to teach my students something about the body they're in. You gotta start small, one little piece at a time. But those little pieces will begin to meet up in their minds to build a bigger view of what they are doing and why. Any time we are offered a meaning for the actions we take, we are more likely to take care in those actions.

I hope that helps! ~R