I distinctly remember the first time I heard the instruction to Open to Grace.
My “yoga career” was just starting; I was a 22-year-old searching for healing, clarity and connection to something higher.
I had a lot of work to do on myself.
We were at the wall setting up for pincha mayurasana, an inversion I had not yet begun to befriend, so of course I was feeling fearful and anxious about the pose. In fact, I even resented the pose because I wasn’t good at it yet (put that on the list of things you aren’t supposed to think or say in yoga).
So there I was, in the prep position, all caught up in my small-self storyline, when my teacher said, “You know, the first principle of Anusara yoga is Open to grace.”
That was all she said — and all she needed to say. I remember thinking, Damn, that’s life changing. And it was, and it continues to be. I’ve been opening to grace for the past ten years, and that has made all the difference.
The instructions I have heard from my wisest teachers over the years have become the little voices I hear in my head when I’m off my mat, trying to practice yoga all the time. Those instructions to soften your face or stay and breathe pop into my head when I find myself contracting, obsessing, forcing, grasping, or generally operating from a place of fear and worry. Long-time practitioners know that the practice of yoga really takes hold when it slowly starts to permeate your life, little by little at first, and then in larger ways that can be truly transformational.
It never ceases to amaze me how the way I think and talk about yoga is the way I want to think and talk about life. When I’m on the mat, “stepping into the flow of grace” or “firming my foundation” I often think, I should do that ALL the time!
The alignment and energetic instructions we hear in a yoga class can help us orient ourselves more optimally both on the mat and off, and the eloquent, symphonic language of a yoga class can become part of the soundtrack of our lives.
How we move through an asana practice can serve as the baseline and bedrock for how we move through our day; gathering our scattered energy, balancing opposing actions, coming back to center. Yes, actions speak louder than words, but when it comes to yoga, words cue actions.
So language is important. Words matter.
When we come to the mat we are encouraged to set an intention for our practice. That intention is one that can reverberate in our lives off the mat. The self-talk we engage in during our practice, from the intention we set at the beginning of class to the running interior monologue throughout the class (“I’m tired, I can’t do this,” “I LOVE this pose, I want to stay in it forever,” “I HATE this pose, why is she keeping us in it forever?,” “Ugh, my hips are so tight,” “Yay, backbends!”) can offer us a glimpse into the storyline we create for ourselves as we endeavor to find the same steadiness, ease and equanimity in our lives off the mat.
One of my teachers used to ask us, “What is your highest intention for yourself?”
I always loved that question (she would drop it into class at just the right time), because it would remind me that yoga helps me be better. It holds me accountable for how I show up for my practice and for my life. Yoga asks us to operate from a higher plane. Yoga calls us out. It calls out our ego, our dark side, our petty side, our small-self side and asks us to do better.
So a teacher’s words, both the alignment instructions and the thoughtful comments about the practice offered at key moments in the class, can help students create an inner-narrative that reflects their highest intentions for themselves. A teacher’s instructions are a gateway for students to go deeper into their physical body but also their emotional body.
It is imperative for teachers to parse their language and use precise words.
Verbs are particularly important. They cue skillful action and invite students to move from a place of compassion, self-respect and wisdom. Connotatively-rich verbs such as “allow,” “let,” “firm,” “soften,” “engage,” “release,” “loft,” and “inflate,” to name a few, are nuanced action words that can help students align better in a pose, which leads to a better flow of energy, which leads to more wholeness, lightness and well-being in the long run. So words, especially verbs, matter.
Equally as important for us yoga teachers, however, is to know when not to talk. We want to be good teachers and cue every action, right? But there’s a lot to be said for not saying anything at certain times in a class. For example, I tend to give a lot of instructions on the first side and then make a conscious effort not to give as many instructions on the second side so students can actually internalize and implement what they heard and find the pose on their own. A yoga class doesn’t have to be an endless stream of instructions, cliches and “yoga-isms.” As teachers, we don’t have to fill the space with words.
A quiet moment is an invitation for students to tune in more. We can trust the power and potency of the pause.
Our words are an offering, a quite literal call to action for our students, so we must choose them wisely. And sometimes our own next skillful action as a teacher may be to not say anything at all.
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