Your most important teaching tool

Being a yoga teacher means using our voice is an important part of our daily life. So much of what we want our students to learn from us is passed on by what we say.

Having an authentic voice, being mindful of what, when and how much we speak, and how to speak skilfully are essential for yoga teachers.

Cultivating mindful speech

Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh said: “A single wise word bringing peace to the listener is worth more than a thousand speeches of empty words.”

What we say reflects what’s in our hearts; if love, clarity, kindness and empathy are there we will communicate this regardless of how unsophisticated our language. If confusion, impatience or anger are present, our speech will reveal this regardless of how sophisticated our language. The practice of mindfulness of speech is looking into our hearts and asking whether what we intend to say is beneficial to ourselves and others in the present moment.

Thich Nhat Hanh also said Right Speech, one aspect of the Buddhist Eightfold Path, means both talking AND listening as a mindfulness practice. It’s not only what we say that matters, but also our ability to hear deeply. Without this mindful listening, our speech becomes disconnected from our relationship with others.  It becomes about us, not them.

What is Right Speech?

Words have power. Like a stone dropped in a pond, what we say ripples outwards, sometimes lingering in people’s minds for days or even weeks. Right Speech is about cultivating awareness of this. It’s speaking from a place of truthfulness and kindness, and having the will to truly listen, both acts of radical generosity in a time of constant distraction. Thich Nhat Hanh says Right Speech is the commitment to “cultivating loving speech and deep listening in order to bring joy and happiness to others and relieve others of their suffering.”

Right Speech means saying:

NO to false and manipulative speech

NO to divisive speech and slandering others

NO to harsh and rude language

NO to idle talk and gossip

YES to talking truthfully and honestly

YES to speaking in a way that promotes harmony and goodwill

YES to talking kindly, in a way that reduces anger and eases tensions

YES to using language in a way that is useful. Not being afraid of silence.

Right Speech and teaching yoga

The first of the five Yamas (moral guidelines) in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali is ahimsa or nonviolence. As yoga teachers we should avoid causing harm with our speech. This means being careful not to embarrass, criticise or discourage any of your students, perhaps by singling them out or comparing them to others. Avoid using language that fosters a competitive, ambitious or overzealous environment.  Instead, use easy-to-understand and inclusive language that encourages kindness, care and acceptance.

The second Yama is truthfulness. As an example, this might mean we need to request a student to slow down or approach an asana differently, even though we might not be comfortable doing so in front of others. Truthfulness also means speaking from the authentic place of our own personal practice and insight. While it can be helpful to quote inspiring teachers, avoid replaying other people’s wisdom, no matter how amazing it sounds. Trust your own insights and understanding instead.

Eyes and ears open

When talking to people, listen with all your senses. Let go of your preconceived ideas and internal dialogue and instead soak up what your student is saying with his or her whole body. Studies have found a majority of communication to be nonverbal. What are your students’ physical gestures, postures and facial expressions telling you? And what is your body language telling them? Do you smile often? A gentle smile is worth a thousand words.

Sometimes you’ll find out a lot more about a person by laying your palms on her back than by talking with her. You might learn a great deal by silently observing a student’s face when they enter Triangle Pose; is his or her face soft, or does the jaw look tense? Sensory knowledge is not intellectual. It’s a precious gate for a deeper understanding and compassion. It deepens your communication skills and refines your authentic voice as a yoga teacher.

Be patient

It takes time to find your authentic voice. It will emerge naturally with experience and insight so it’s not something to force or worry about. To help the process, start becoming mindful of speech in everyday life: what you enjoy, what not so much, and learn to listen deeply and observe nonverbal communication.

Practical advice:

  • Practice talking during your personal practice. Record yourself while teaching and then take your own class.
  • Be mindful about how much you talk. Give concise and clear instructions.
  • Do not be afraid to repeat yourself – the body likes repetitions.
  • Make sure you’re well hydrated before the class to avoid a dry throat and mouth.
  • Provide feedback and encouragement – not just for things that could be improved but also for what’s done well – “That’s it, that’s great!”
  • Use commands, but not in a commanding tone.
  • Leave space for students to digest the information.
  • Don’t tell or suggest what your students are experiencing. Instead, help them to enquire by asking open questions.
  • Smile often. It makes people feel good.
  • And last but not the least: Do NOT be afraid of silence.