Reading Between the Lines

What yoga teachers say versus what they actually mean. By Meg Jackson

If a person is going to be a teacher of anything then being able to communicate what you mean is, you’d expect, Lesson 1 in teacher training. And when you’re teaching something (like yoga) that has the potential to get someone into A&E, or at least with a bit of their anatomy somewhere it shouldn’t naturally be, you’d expect it to be an absolute necessity.

If you’ve ever been in a yoga class, you’ll know it’s not always like that. Us yoga teachers have an annoying habit of saying simple things so….well…weirdly, that you’d be forgiven for asking for us to turn on the subtitles.

Ganesha knows that I’m as guilty of it as much as the next yoga teacher. Despite my very best intentions, I still hear the occasional eye-rollingly beardieweardie instruction come out of my face. I don’t know how it happens, but my inner narrative suddenly registers that I’ve just said something ridiculous like “connect with your inner sycamore and feel your roots…” when what I actually want people to do is just activate their foot and leg to find their balance in tree pose.

But there is a reason. Believe it or not,  being a yoga teacher can be a bit tricky sometimes. It’s not just wafting around a room poking at a bit of your body you’ve got in the wrong place, and ensuring we’re always armed with incense and magnesium spray. When you’re faced with a room of people who you know are all going to learn in different ways, hear different things, and process information in wildly different ways, sometimes we have to get creative.

So, here’s a quick introduction to some of the things you might hear us saying, and what we might mean…

“Move mindfully into your wide-legged forward fold…”
The key part of this is ‘mindfully’. That’s because you’re packed into the room like sardines and are all facing the long side of your mat with your legs wide apart. We need you to fold forward at the hips and get your head down towards the floor, but if you’re not careful your nose is going to nestle in the butt of the person in front of you. And, just as important, lifting up out of it too quickly could mean the back of your head gets very closely acquainted with someone’s perineum. Aaah yoga – it really is all about the glamour.

“Softly focus your gaze on…”
Each pose has its own gazing point. We call it the ‘drishti’ and it’s there to help you move safely into the pose, find balance, and maintain attention on what you’re doing. When we see your eyeballs bounding around the room like pinballs we know you’re not quite ‘in the moment’, or connecting with what’s going on in your body. When we see you scowling at the woman in front of you, we know you’re thinking more about the fact she took your spot. When we see you staring into the middle distance with more venom than Medusa with PMT we know you’re trying too hard to be bendy. So stop it.

“Check in with your breath…”
We say it ‘til we’re (ironically) blue in the face: breath is quite possibly the most important element of what you’re doing on a sticky mat. It’s the very best way of monitoring what’s going on inside your body and your mind. Let’s face it, if you stop doing it things will rarely end well. So when we ask you to enquire what’s going on with your breath, it’s normally because we haven’t heard anyone inhale or exhale for quite a long time and we’re getting a bit scared about our potential insurance claims. “So, Miss Jackson, you’re saying they all died because they just ‘forgot’ to breathe…?” Shudder.

“Imagine you have a…”
I know you haven’t got a light shining out of your belly button. I know you don’t have a corset on which you can tighten a little around the front of your core. I know there isn’t a thread lifting the top of your head up to the ceiling. But we’re trying to get you to feel like there is. So don’t automatically close your ears and your mind whenever your teacher asks you to suspend your actual anatomical knowledge for a moment or two. Few of us spend much time registering how our body feels, or connecting with what’s pointing where, so sometimes we need to get creative with a suggestion.

Yes. I hold my hands up to this one. And I appreciate how annoying it is. I’ve been there; in a warrior pose for so long it feels like my thighs are going to spontaneously combust at any moment,  when the teacher (who obviously isn’t doing the pose because they know how challenging it is) says ‘ooh and don’t forget to smile. Ha ha haaa….’ and I’ve wanted to fling a yoga block at their head. However, most of the time it works. It gets you to take the tension out of your face, it triggers you to breathe, and even if it doesn’t make the pose feel any better, just for a moment it reminds you that this is only yoga.

“Push down into the floor…”
My teacher says many brilliant things on a regular basis (unlike myself!). One which has always stuck with me is that savasana is the only pose (unless you’re doing a restorative class) in which you should be just resting on the floor. In pretty much every other pose, whatever is connecting to the floor should be doing so actively. When we ask you to push or root down into it, that’s because
it will automatically instigate a lifting somewhere else. Pushing down into the floor gives you balance, stimulates muscles which were probably on holiday up until that moment, and makes the pose much more challenging. You’re welcome!

“As you move into the pose, remember that yoga is not a competition…”
Yoga will absolutely require you to occasionally move out of your comfort zone – that is, fundamentally what will get you to the ‘a ha!’ moments we’re all hoping for. But when we see the veins in our forehead bulging, the gnashing of teeth, the thinning of lips, the spluttering breathing that sounds like a hippo in the bath, as you try and force your poor body into a pose it is not capable (and possibly not designed) to do, we know that there may be a bit of ego going on. So stop it. Back off before something snaps… and we don’t mean your sports bra.

Meg Jackson is the founder of Real Life Yoga, a movement to help real people bring a little (or a lot) of yoga into their real lives. Find out more:

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