The public speaking aspect of yoga teaching is daunting, but once the nerves are gone, it's time to tidy up both what we're saying and how we're delivering it. There are a lot of teachers out there with excellent offerings whose effectiveness is clouded by poor delivery. It’s important to take the time to think about what we meaningfully say in choosing our cues, but it’s also important to take note of what you’re not meaning to say.
I’m referring to the little verbal idiosyncrasies that crop up around your cueing that you don’t notice. From your busy, yoga-teaching mind, you can’t hear them, but from the mat-perspective, your students can. For chaotic minds, a yoga cueing tic can be just enough to distract them that they do not sufficiently enjoy their practice to return.
I know that sounds tough, but a lot of people are so wound up they latch onto any distraction. They’re there to become skillful at self-soothing, and we can help them by diminishing distractions.
It’s also a wonderful mindfulness exercise for teachers to get comfortable with the silent spaces between their cues rather than unintentionally filling the gaps. Let your words linger and let them be quiet, rather than saying…
This one front ends directional asana (pose) cues, as in, “from here, you’re going to step your right foot forward”. It doesn’t make sense most of the time, because they’re always going to be doing the next thing “from here”. A more intentional cue would simply be, “step your right foot forward”.
If you want to move them around somewhere unexpected you may say, “from here you’re going to do X rather than Y”. If you’re trying to specify the transition space then use, “from the front of your mat” would be more purposeful.
“I want you to…”
Another front end filler (“I want you to step your foot between your hands”), since everything you’re offering is something you would like them to do. It also creates atmospheric confusion when coupled with the idea that everything is an invitation. If it’s all optional and then you’re saying specifically “I want you to do this thing”, then it’s no longer an invitation. Again, let it go and pare down the entire cue.
“You’re just going to…”
I take exception with the “just” in this sentence. I first heard it early, early in my yoga practicing journey as “you’re just going to grab your big toe, stand up, and lift your leg over your head” as a teacher demoed us into Hasta Padangusthasana. Naturally, she could do the pose with ease. At the time, I found it tough to stand on one foot starting upright!
Eliminate the word “just” because it implies an ease that’s not always there. I believe in simple cues for difficult things, but “just” feels disrespectful for the amount of effort it’s taking someone to give the initial phases of a pose a try.
I plead guilt on this particular cue! It’s usually a drawn out “niiiiice” or a decisive tone to finish a sequence. It's not that praise shouldn’t be doled out during teaching – it should be! – but such little phrases become filler that punctuate quiet time unnecessarily. Praise goes further when it’s used specifically with emotive tone.
Used to “ask” the room if they understand a concept or a cue, it only makes sense if they’re looking at you and you’re in dialogue in workshop-style approach. If your yoga studnets are mid-sequence or in a pose, they’re highly unlikely to respond, “OK!”.
Rather than letting your cue phrases trail off with this unnecessary question, use a confident, conclusive tone, offer your directions, and let them execute. If they don’t understand, you’ll see them looking around or simply not doing the thing you directed.
I once attended a class where the teacher tacked “guys” onto the end of so many cues that I was expecting her to close out with “Namaste, guys”.
If you want to use a term to imply the group you could use yogis, but guys is an unintentional gender-specific term that’s come to mean everyone. Everyone might not feel that way.
I know, it’s your job to remind people to breathe. I include this one because when we say something frequently, it’s easy to offer it up with mindless intonation. (Think of a kid repeating back to you the phrase you always say to them. That level of non-enthusiasm.)
Treat as many cues as you can with curiousity, and it will help you switch up how you phrase these necessarily repetitive cues. For example, if you start a sun salutation sequence with “inhale, arms reach”, you don’t really need to say, “exhale, fold toward the ground”. You certainly can, but if they’ve inhaled while reaching upward, they’re probably going to exhale on the way down the fold.
What comes up throughout this advice is purposefulness – what should be the driving force behind all of our cues. Why are you saying this particular cue? What clarity does it add? How does it support their practice? “Idiosyncrasy” implies something mindless when our teaching should be mindful. Simply use noticing these little tics as your own mindfulness practice, and elevate the experience of your students.