Voice & Language

By Mark Stephens on Mon, 02/11/2013 - 15:49

Your voice and use of language are invaluable teaching tools. Considered from a chakra perspective, the voice manifests through the vishuddha chakra, which opens with ease and clarity when the body is grounded, the creative juices flowing, the willful center strong yet supple, the heart open, and the mind clear. How you speak as a teacher thus reflects where you are in your life, skills, and knowledge. Building from this natural foundation, there are several elements of voice to consider.

First and foremost, your voice should be sufficiently audible that everyone can hear you, yet not so loud that it interferes with students’ attentiveness to the sound of their breath and sense of being in a tranquil space. If you choose to use music in your classes, control the volume of the music to be lower than you can comfortably project your own voice throughout the class. If you have a very soft voice or find yourself teaching very large classes, consider using amplification

Explore how you can modulate your voice to match the mood or intensity of the asanas without resorting to a singsong quality of elocution. Your voice should flow along with the arc of the class, starting gently as students are warming into their bodies, reaching moderate crescendos accented by strength and dynamism as the practice moves through waves of intensity, softening and quieting as the class wanes toward Savasana. In a restorative class, try to maintain an even, relaxed tone that encourages letting go, allowing more space between statements so students can experience the freedom of silence.

Be aware of your tone of voice. Try recording and listening to one of your classes to become more aware of your tone. Many teachers are unaware that their voices sound a certain way. Speaking from your heart, let your technical instructions come across with the same even tonality as if you were speaking casually with a friend. At the same time, play with bringing enthusiasm and inspiration into your teaching through the current of your voice, balancing these qualities with assertiveness that tends more toward loving kindness than stern authority.

Language itself plays significantly in how students will hear and comprehend what you are saying. Try to use plain language that clearly describes what you intend to cue. It is usually much more effective to use direct, simple language than esoteric terms you learned studying anatomy, physiology, yoga philosophy, and psychology. Giving instructions in a concise manner is usually more effective in helping students to understand than flowery poetics or verbose statements. If you want your students to bring their feet together at the front of their mat, say, “Please bring your feet together at the front of your mat.” That’s all that’s needed. Focus your initial cues on the basic foundational elements of the asana, saving more elaborate (yet still concise and specific) cues for the transition into the asana and refinements.

Different terms carry more or less weight. Verbs of action such as press your fingers or breathe deeply have more of a command quality than their noun forms, which tend to be more encouraging: pressing your fingers or breathing deeply. An even softer quality of instruction is expressed with terms like feel, allow, and explore. As a general approach, try offering the stronger verbs of action when cueing what you consider the most important foundational actions of an asana, then use softer language to cue refinements and inner exploration.

Using Sanskrit terms for asanas and other aspects of the practice is a matter of personal choice. You might feel that Sanskrit does not resonate well with your students (or with your employer or you), or you might feel that using Sanskrit lends to a deeper feeling of authenticity in your teachings as you anchor your expressions in the ancient and traditional language of yoga. If you choose to use Sanskrit, try also to give the English terms for the words. For example, say, “Preparing for Ardha Chandrasana, Half-Moon Pose, please.… ” Some Sanskrit terms have become so ubiquitous in yoga classes that they have now entered the English lexicon: Chataranga (short for Chataranga Dandasana) is surely more familiar to most students than its English translation, “Four-Limbed Staff Pose.”

As with other aspects of your teaching, play around with this to find what is most comfortable for you and your students.