Words Matter, The Power of Language for Yoga Teachers

Verbal Cues for Yoga

As a Yoga Teacher, your voice is a tool for healing and your words are medicine for the body, mind and soul. The words you use are the primary way in which your yoga students receive the teachings of yoga. Yes, you might demo yoga asanas and use hands-on assists etc but the main teaching modality which is delivered to each and every student in your yoga class is your words. The power of language as a Yoga Teacher is a key skill, for words matter. This is the key foundation or my Yoga Teacher Training Course here in Southampton. 


Get started with these 3 key areas.


How skilled and consider are you in your use of language as a Yoga Teacher?


Words have the power to heal and hurt. Remember that saying ‘sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me’ – this is just not the case. Injuries caused by ‘stick and stones’ will heal quickly but the emotional hurt caused by badly chosen words can last a lifetime. We all remember a time someone in authority, a parent or teacher for instance, harshly rebuked or criticised us – often with the addition of shame and blame. The words from these interactions can remain in our psyche for a lifetime often shaping how we view ourselves and our own self-worth. Words can cause a huge amount of damage, especially when spoken by a voice of authority, power or high regard. As a Yoga Teacher, your yoga students will respect you greatly and listen to you intently so please use your words with kindness, awareness and intention for even greater is the power of language to inspire, uplift and heal.


Your words are medicine.


Updating Verbal Cues

Many of our verbal cues as Yoga Teachers have been passed down through the generations, we cue ‘engage your core to protect your back’ because that’s what we heard our teachers say, like a giant game of Chinese whispers. But the modern teaching of yoga has evolved a lot in recent years due to collaborations with sports scientists, anatomy specialists and bodyworkers and we need to update our cues to match our new knowledge of how the body works both physically and physiologically. The simplest way to do this is to ask yourself ‘Why?’. If you can’t explain the why behind a cue or statement you give when teaching you’re not really teaching. Go to your mat, your anatomy books, your teacher and work out the reasons why and ask if they hold true.  Your verbal cues will grow and evolve as your knowledge does.


Pain & Fear Based Language – The Nocebo Effect

Much of our inherited language has a base of fear and pain avoidance which can be restrictive when it comes to healing. Have you heard of the NOCEBO EFFECT? This is the evil twin of the PLACEBO EFFECT, where negative statements or beliefs can have negative effects on your health and healing.


A classic example of this is when a student experiences back pain and is told that they have a weak back and need to go to yoga to strengthen their core to protect their back. Have you noticed the vast number of people that believe they have a ‘weak back’? They move awkwardly, avoid certain types of movement and are nervous about everyday actions like picking up a suitcase because they are scared for their weak back. This belief is what’s preventing them from moving forward in their healing to a place of pain-free and carefree movement. The human body is not weak; it is strong, resilient and capable of healing and regeneration. A better approach would be to empower the student by sharing that their back and core abdominal muscles could benefit from further strengthening for optimum posture and function and that specific yoga poses could help achieve this.


As general guidance try to avoid whilst teaching your yoga classes the language of:

Pain / Tension / Tightness instead try Sensation / Awareness / Attention

Negative / No / Don’t instead try Please / Try To / Focus On

Fear / Protect / Never instead try to explain the why, educate and empower


A few phrases to consider:


Nocebo/Negative/Fear/Pain Language Placebo / Postive Language
If you feel pain in your knee



If you feel sensation in your knee



Notice any tension in your shoulders



Bring your awareness to your shoulders



Don’t lock your knee



Please keep a micro bend in your knee



Engage your core to protect your back



Draw your navel in and up to engage your abdominals



Never let your knee go forward of your ankle



To feel more balanced stack your knee over your ankle



If you have neck pain don’t look up



How does it feel in your neck when you look up, would it feel nicer if you looked straight ahead?



Take care (insert student name) with your ‘bad’ knee



How does this feel in your ‘left’ knee?



If you feel pain in your knee but padding under it (e.g. low lunge) For a little more luxury place a towel under your back knee in this pose




Hierarchical & Challenging Language

A key teaching of yoga is that it is non-competitive. The lessons contained within the Yamas and Niyamas remind us to practice in a way which is truthful, non-harming, and helps to conserve our energy.  Beginner students, however, do not know this; they are likely to enter your class with sports logic such as pain no gain, go hard or go home, no pain no champagne etc! We live in a world where society judges self-worth through accomplishment. It is our job to create a sanctuary where students can accept themselves just as they are and not have to strive to do more and be more. Create this space through the language of permission and self-inquiry avoiding hierarchical and challenging statements and phrases.



Hierarchical or Challenge Based Language Language of Permission & Self Inquiry
Level 1, Level 2, Level 3 / Beginner / Advanced Option



Alternatively, explore, experience, experiment, maybe, or



To deepen the pose place your elbows on the floor



How does it feel if you lower your elbows here which variation do you prefer today?



To challenge yourself lift your back knee up and rise into a high lunge



For a grounded effect keep your back knee on the ground, for an energised effect try rising up into a high lunge



Never let your knee go forward of your ankle



To feel more balanced stack your knee over your ankle



If down dog feels too much / is too strong go into childs pose. Give yourself permission to rest today.


There is so much more I would love to explore about the use of language with you today but this is about lifelong learning and slowly evolving your verbal cues so get started with these key areas to elevate your students’ experience of your yoga classes. If you would like to discuss more look at my Yoga Teacher CPD offerings and Yoga Teacher Training.