Words matter. They matter so darn much. They are the stuff of poetry and love songs and lullabies, but they can also be so destructive that it will knock your socks off (even those weird yoga socks with the sticky pads and individual toe slots).
One of the things that really gets to me about yoga is how careless we yoga teachers can be with our words. We simply do not hold ourselves accountable to the degree that we ought to, and we do not give full weight (if any) to the negative outcomes that our words can generate.
I’m sure it isn’t news to anyone that words can be destructive. Almost certainly, every person reading this post has been on both the giving and receiving ends of words that have injured, fallen short, deceived, or worse. We are human, and that is what we do. But when we are teaching (any subject really, not just yoga), the impact of our words is magnified. Consequently, the attention and care we should give to our words needs to be magnified as well. Unfortunately, this is often not the case in yoga settings.
About a year ago, I took a hot yoga class at a local studio. Not gonna lie, I’m no fan of hot yoga, but it was the only class that fit with my schedule that day, so I went. I had been feeling stressed out, lethargic, and just generally down, but the class was actually helping me feel so much better. At one point during it, I closed my eyes, savoring a much needed moment of internal calm. At that exact moment (which I am sure was no coincidence), the teacher instructed everyone in the class to open their eyes, saying that losing the focus of the eyes rendered the practice “self-indulgent” (of course she used the sanskrit term drishti instead of “focus” to make her statement sound like it bore some real yogic gravitas). Are you kidding me? Self-indulgent? You mean kind of like spending thirty bucks on a yoga class in the first place? Get real. But it stuck with me. And in me. Even now there are times during classes when I close my eyes and hear that critical voice; Best not enjoy the moment, Lauren, lest you become self-indulgent!
Now, in the grander scheme of things, is this a big deal? Not really. I mean, I know that what the teacher said was crap, and the fact that it still enters my consciousness probably says more about my own fear of being judged than it does about her. But this kind of thing happens in yoga classes ALL the time. Teachers feel compelled to put some sort of moralistic spin on whatever they are trying to get their students to do. She wanted our eyes open because that is what she thought we ought to be doing. She used the term self-indulgent because…actually I don’t know why she did; I don’t live inside her brain. But I can assure you, it sucked.
Fear is another moralistic term that gets thrown around far too casually by yoga teachers. As in, “Fear is the only thing holding you back from (insert yoga pose here).” This is much more dangerous territory than the land of mere “self-indulgence.” This is where you can do some real physical damage. I interpret this type of fear-infused language as a weird type of yoga bullying, about one millimeter away from calling someone a scaredy-cat. It gives me mental images of a teacher in yoga pants chanting I triple-dog-dare ya! to a class full of contrite students. It’s not a pretty picture.
The truth is that as teachers, we have no idea what is keeping our students from doing something, especially in a group setting. What we label as “fear” might be something else entirely, like, I don’t know, a medical condition say? And even if it is fear, who are we to tell them to ignore it or even to conquer it? Explore it maybe, but what if that fear is trying to tell them something that they aren’t ready for at that moment? Or what if just getting up out of bed that morning and making it to class took tremendous courage, and they arrive only to be met with a teacher admonishing them for being too fearful (or self-indulgent)? What if in that group of students you are teaching, there is someone with PTSD, depression, anxiety, an eating disorder, in an abusive relationship, just got a cancer diagnosis, just lost someone to cancer, and on and on and on? I can guarantee that it won’t do any of them any good to be told that fear is the only thing holding them back, and chances are high that it will actually cause them harm.
Often, I think that we yoga teachers say stupid stuff because we don’t know what else to say, and silence in our own classes scares the bejeezus out of us. Sure, we may give silence a lot of lip service, but take away the Krishna Das in the background masking every moment we aren’t speaking, and you will find a lot of teachers (and students) freaking out. Words matter. And so does silence. It is absolutely crucial that the words we speak be chosen with care. And in the moments we don’t know what to say, silence will suffice.