Say What You Mean and Mean What You Say
I am very conscious of verbal instructions. My learning style is very language oriented, and I remember almost every instruction in every class that I take. As a teacher, I endeavor to be conscious of every instruction that I give and to be clear about my intended purpose with each sentence and word choice. I constantly analyze verbal instructions and their efficacy at accomplishing the intention behind them. I place a great deal of emphasis on verbal cues in my teacher trainings, and it is an important aspect in the pedagogy of The Mazé Method.
Efficacy of Verbal Cues:
Let’s consider the principle of efficacy as relates to verbal instructions (which I would translate as the power to produce the desired result). What would make a verbal cue effective? What would make a verbal cue ineffective or less effective?
Too often I hear instructions in yoga classes that are ineffective, or less effective. What is “effective” and what is “ineffective” is relative and can be debated, which is something that I embrace, and my goal is to create the most effective mix of verbal instructions to maximize each students clarity and learning in a yoga class.
Additionally, verbal cues have a variety of intentions and each teacher will have their own “style” in their use of language. Sometimes we are telling students what to do. Sometimes we are inviting them to feel and observe their experience. Sometimes we are speaking metaphorically. Sometimes we are giving energetic verbal cues for qualitative not quantitative purposes.
Further, different languages (I teach in the English language) and different cultures will have distinct grammar, composition and communication methods.
There are no “best” or “perfect” verbal cues. There are lots of considerations though, and lets explore some of those:
I emphasize active voice instructions in my trainings. By my estimation, 75% percent of what is said in classes should be in the active voice. Active voice instructions will maximize clarity and be the most direct. My intention is to provide clear information to the students about what to pose they are in, what the movements are to get there, and what the actions are that they need to create within the pose.
In active voice sentences, the subject performs the action of the verb. These instructions are going to be more directive and commanding.
Example: “Stretch your arms up.”
In contrast, passive voice sentences change the word order so that the subject is no longer active, but is acted upon by the verb. These instructions tend to be less clear in an inspire-dynamic-action-kind-of-way, but can be more self-reflective or descriptive. Facilitating the growth of students’ self-awareness and observation is entirely valid in yoga.
Example: “Your arms stretch up.”
For pronouns, I prefer ‘you/your’ rather than using the particle ‘the’. Again, my goal is to maximize clarity of verbal instructions to each student, and that will be better accomplished by talking directly to you.
Example: “Tadasana, Mountain Pose. Stand tall. Bring your legs together. Join the inner edges of your feet together so that your big toes and inner heels touch. Put equal weight on your right foot and your left foot…”
Contrasting example: “Tadasana, Mountain Pose. Stand tall. Bring the legs together. Join the inner edges of your feet together so that the big toes and inner heels touch. Put equal weight on the right foot and the left foot…”
Experientially, these same instructions for the same pose feel quite different. It’s not wrong to say ‘the’ or ‘our’ instead of ‘your’ and I do use those too, but if they are overused it starts to feel less direct and more passive, like you aren’t really talking to me, or you don’t really mean me to do that.
Accuracy & Names:
The verbal cues that create the desired response are not necessarily the most accurate cues. The use of language is based on our mutual agreements of the meanings of words. An instruction may be accurate, but if the listener does not understand it, it is not effective. It is often less about what is said and more about what is heard. This is true in all communication, not just verbal cues in yoga classes. Communication is a process of encoding meaning, delivering that message through a channel such as a verbal cue, and then the recipient needs to decode that message cognitively and translate that to their body.
Compounding this encoding and decoding process of communication, verbal cues may use a more technical language, like anatomical/kinesiological terms, or use a more simple and plain language. Anatomical terms are often in Latin and pose names are often in Sanskrit. So already we have a mix of English, Latin and Sanskrit. Eek!
Example: “Abduct your glenohumeral joints 90 degrees. Externally rotate your upper arms and supinate your forearms. Continue to abduct your shoulders, and upwardly rotate your scapula, until your palms come together overheard.”
This would make sense to students only if they know these anatomical terms and/or they have visual demonstrations to see what you mean while you give verbal cues.
Example: “Stretch your arms straight out from your shoulders. Rotate your upper arms out and turn the palms of your hands up. Stretch your arms up until your palms come together for “Upward Prayer Pose.”
This more plain/simple language is more likely to be understood.
Example: “Tadasana. Surya Namaskara A. Inhale, Urdhva Namaskarasana. Exhale, Uttanasana. Inhale, Ardha Uttanasana. Exhale, Chaturanga Dandasana…”
This would only be effective if students already know the poses by their Sanskrit names, already know the movement patterns and the breath/movement choreography. Names are zip files. Once there is content in that file, it can be highly effective to just use the name of the pose, but if there is no content in that file, it is ineffective as a verbal cue without further information.
Example: “Do mulabandha.”
If this is all that is said, the assumption must be that the students know exactly what mulabandha is and how to do it. Presumably this was explained and taught to them previously. But what if it’s mixed level and there are some new students in the room?
I hear a lot of unnecessary phrases and filler words in yoga classes. Again, every once in a while these are fine, and even give a welcome change to active voice commands. But these unnecessary phrases and automatic and unconscious filler words can detract from the potency of what needs to happen and undermine the teachers confidence and qualifications in the minds of the students.
Example: “What we are going to do now is stand in Tadasana.”
The only necessary words in the above sentence are the last three. The previous eight words are unnecessary and are implied in “Stand in Tadasana.” Every once in a while, say all those extra words, but leave them out most of the time. ‘
Example. “Stand in Tadasana. Good, beautiful. Firm your legs. Good, beautiful. Engage your core. Good, beautiful.”
Any word(s) repeated so many times loses it’s meaning and people will tune you out. Students’ perceptions of you may be negatively affected. They may perceive you as being less intelligent, or less assured and qualified and confident in your subject matter. Avoid these unconscious verbal habits.
Confusing or Overly General Instructions:
I hear a lot of verbal cues that are confusing. By confusing, I mean that I do not know clearly what to do. This may be because the instruction is open to multiple interpretations, because it is more general, and this can contribute to ambiguity. Often times I am left with the impression that the teacher does not clearly understand what they mean with that instruction. Or worse, they do know what they mean but it is inaccurate. Here are a couple of my pet peeve instruction examples:
Example: “Scoop your tailbone.”
What does this mean? If no further clarification is given, I am left to choose between two interpretations: (1) This means to initiate an increase of posterior tilt in my pelvis by engaging rectus abdominus and gluteus maximus. (2) This means to engage my pelvic floor muscles, which are not involved in the posterior tilting of my pelvis, but are involved part of the deep core stabilizing muscles.
Example: “Engage your core.”
“Core” is used so often as to be ubiquitous. On one hand, it makes sense to say and seems to always be relevant. On the other hand, just like a filler word/phrase, unless this term and this instruction is explained further, and related to the pose that I’m in and what I need to specifically do in this pose, it tends to lose it’s meaning. There are four muscles (or groups of muscles) that make up the “deep core” stabilizers and over three dozen muscles that make up the “core.” There are a lot of ways I can interpret this instruction as a student…
The Principle of Economy, aka the “Goldilocks Principle”;
I define the principle of economy as the minimum effort to achieve the maximum result. It’s however much is just right. Not too hot, not to cold. Not to soft, not to hard…
What is the ideal amount of verbal cues? I’ve heard students say that they learned in their teacher training to never give more than three instructions in a pose. As a rule, this is absurd to me. How would you learn much about anything if you were only told three things?
Different types of classes will demand different types and amounts of instructions.
In a vinyasa class, if you are moving from pose to pose to pose with your exhale/inhale/exhale, you might not have time to give even one instruction. In vinyasa classes I will often slow the pace down in order to give more verbal cues in the first round, and then repeat the sequence again at a quicker pace and give less and less instructions.
In an alignment class, if students are holding a pose for a minute or more, you have time to give way more than three instructions. In alignment classes, I will often repeat a pose more than once to give even more instruction. Every pose is complex. The human body is complex. You can’t say everything you know about the pose all at once, so you have to layer those verbal cues in with repetition of the poses and in your broader sequencing strategy.
For example, in a vinyasa class, if I observe hyperextended front knees in Trikonasana, I might only have time to say “Micro-bend your knee”, before they move into the next pose with the next breath. If this is all I have time to say, and it improves the pose, it is effective.
In an alignment based class, I would say a lot more than this: Specific to knee hyperextension, I would address the agonist muscle group’s (quadriceps) relationship with the antagonistic muscle group (hamstrings and gastrocnemius). If the quads are overworking, and the hamstrings + gastroc are underworking, that creates hyper mobility in the joint. I would then instruct how to activate the hamstrings and gastroc in the pose to create a co-contraction with the quads. In order to cue this level of detail, I’ll need to repeat Trikonasana and likely also give postural demonstration with verbal instructions and possibly use other poses to teach these actions.
There is no cookie cutter formula for verbal cues. There are lots of considerations and factors to consider. Teaching yoga is another way that we practice yoga. Become more aware of what you mean, more aware of what you say and how you are saying it, and your verbal cues will become more effective. Say what you mean and mean what you say. Lean more. Script new instructions and practice saying them. Don’t just say the same things you always say. Question every instruction. Know what you are cueing and why. Record your classes and listen to your instructions and practice to your instructions. This will immensely humbling and extremely valuable. As you refine your use of verbal cues, your students will benefit from your clarity and their experience in your class will become even richer.