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Since the dawn of time, words have provided us with a way to form connection or division. The words we use carry certain connotations and emotions. They reveal so much about who we are and what we stand for. They can define us and create a lasting impression. There are so many paradoxes with language, and people may understand words differently depending on societal factors. As yoga teachers, we’ve become more aware of using inclusive language because we recognize the power of words.
Language is very deeply ingrained, and therein lies the problem. Our vocabulary reflects our cultures, families, friends, identity, and community. We need to become aware of our own biases expressed in our language—often picked up from people we have met, the media we’ve consumed throughout our lives, and our lived experiences.
How do we begin to address this? The answer is through education and training. Listening more and speaking less is a great way to be aware of our biases and what we tend to say. Nowadays, we live busy lives and are often on autopilot. “Think before we speak” should be our mantra, as most words flow out before our brains even engage.
Using our words carefully
Self-study is an important way in which we can become aware of the language that we use so that we can avoid causing unintentional harm. History shows us that language, communication, and experiences continually evolve. This means we can rewrite the proverbial script and create vocabularies that are more compassionate and inclusive—vocabularies that allow everyone to feel welcome. Language isn’t meant to alienate us; it’s meant to help us understand one another and create connection.
Teaching with care means speaking with care
As yoga teachers, we must be open to reflecting on ways to be more inclusive and understand that our choice of language is critically important. Our words have the power to inspire and heal. They can also devastate, traumatize, harm, and make students feel they don’t belong. And our words really influence the yoga space—we therefore need to take care when establishing our vocabulary in order to create a safe space for everyone. Feeling excluded can certainly cause students to lose a sense of safety. Here is some language to consider.
8 terms to (re)consider using while teaching yoga
How many times have you used the word “just” in your teaching? Chances are, you’ve used phrases similar to “Just put your right foot between your hands.” It might seem like a simple throwaway comment that seems to effortlessly fit into our vocabulary and appears to have no real meaning, but it has so many negative connotations. Its use is actually considered to be ableist and can instantly snap someone out of their mindful yoga practice.
No one was more surprised than me when I listened to a recording of myself where I cued the entry into a posture with “just.” I put myself in my students’ shoes and thought about how I’d feel if a teacher said, “just go into splits.” I’d feel inadequate, because the use of “just” makes it sound like something that should be achieved effortlessly. I’m currently considering creating a “just” jar—like a traditional swear jar, but for “justs.”
2. Good and Perfect
Listening to one of my own recorded classes was an excellent way to experience my use of language. It made me aware of the words that I use as fillers as well as their frequency. I seem to love describing everything as “good” or “perfect,” and this is something I’m consciously working to remove, particularly when I’m asking anyone to do something in class. Using praise in this way is unhelpful as it contradicts me telling my students that there is no such thing as perfect, yoga is a practice, and falling out of the pose is okay as this is all part of being a yogi. Perfection should have no place on the yoga mat.
Avoid referring to large groups of students as “guys.” It’s seen by many as a ubiquitous term used to address any gender and is hence considered gender-neutral—but is harmful. At first glance, “guys” seems inviting and friendly, but it undoubtedly has masculine connotations. The term may be commonly used, but it may be considered inconsiderate to subconsciously address only one specific gender. It could also be difficult for women or gender non-conforming people to feel empowered when, upon receiving a greeting, they’re immediately misgendered or ignored.
Some alternative ways in which you can greet the class are “friends,” “everyone,” “humans,” “folks,” or “beautiful people.” I remember when I was teaching in Texas a teacher called Brad would try to get me to say “ya’ll”—but not with much success (the memory still makes me smile).
4. Gendered pronouns
Do not openly refer to students’ genders, as you do not know how the people in the room wish to be identified. The only instance where this will be appropriate is if you are able to find out (and remember) everyone’s pronouns before the beginning of class.
One way I try to work around this is addressing the students by their names; I feel that it is so much more personal. How do you feel when someone acknowledges you by your name? It’s so lovely to be seen. However, it’s been suggested that it is a good idea to get permission to use someone’s name, as some students may not want to draw attention to themselves in the class.
5. Body references
Consider moving away from using body parts or clothing as reference points, as these can prove to be confusing for students and can also be gendered. One example is telling people to place their hands in line with their bra strap. Instead of these landmarks, use other reference points as alignment cues—the mat (long or short side) or places in the room (front of the room or ceiling). We often cue the feet to be hip distance apart, but I like to say, “place your feet to whatever distance feels comfortable,” or alternatively “have the feet at least two fists’ distance apart” (which can be demonstrated) to help with awareness. I’ve found that using such alternatives eliminates some of the confused expressions that I used to see in class.
6. Body size
Altering the language we use to talk about weight can reduce stigma. While many people are uncomfortable with certain terms, others may choose to use them. This can be seen as an act of rebellion or a way to neutralize a word that has previously been wielded against them—or they may simply feel that it’s the most appropriate word to describe their body. Some examples are overweight, fat, curvy, plus size, straight size, skinny.
7. Gendered cues
I’ve heard teachers say, “Men may find Chaturanga easier as they have greater upper body strength.” Although this may be true for some men, we can’t assume this to be the case for everyone, and there are plenty of women who are able to do Chaturanga (Four-Limbed Staff Pose) with ease. This kind of phrasing is unhelpful and may make students feel uncomfortable. An alternative to make this statement less gendered is “You may find Chaturanga easier if you tend to have more strength in your upper body.”
Othering is a phenomenon in which some individuals or groups are defined and labeled as not fitting in within the norms of a social group. This occurs in statements like, “I wish I had a booty like yours!” Or “I am the same color as you are now.” (The latter usually occurs when someone returns from a holiday and wants to highlight their tan.) This is not the best way to try to connect with students. Othering Black and Brown people in wellness spaces takes away the safety of these spaces and serves to maintain the white wellness status quo that has long been prevalent.
Adapted from Teaching Body Positive Yoga: A Guide to Inclusivity, Language and Props (Singing Dragon) by Donna Noble. Yoga Journal readers can receive a 15% discount when they order the book directly from Singing Dragon.
Donna Noble is a writer, educator, wellbeing coach, and founder of Curvesomeyoga based in the U.K. She advocates for social justice, diversity, and inclusion in yoga and wellbeing spaces.