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Yoga Language: Understanding Your Teacher
by Greg LoBiondo


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If you are reading this, chances are you practice yoga or have at least thought about it. Think of what initially brought you to the mat and how that may have changed as you read today. In the event that you have never taken a yoga class and are reading this article out of pure curiosity, think of what sparked this interest. Perhaps yoga was doctor recommended – or better yet, friend suggested and mother approved. Whether you seek stress relief or pain relief, understanding your yoga teachers’ intentions is critical for a fulfilling appreciation of the practice.

There can be several barriers to communication between teachers and students during yoga class. It can be challenging to fully listen to a teacher’s subtle cues while trying to maneuver through poses that are newer to you. Many teachers refer to poses with Sanskrit names which can be distracting or confusing – even for some well-practiced yogis. It can also feel intimidating to interrupt class to ask questions when something is unclear, especially when you are in a Downward Facing Dog! Overcoming these barriers is essential to practicing safely, getting the most out of your time on the mat, and ultimately growing your yoga practice.

The next time you take a yoga class, listen for the two main types of instruction offered by teachers: indicators of direction and calls to action. An indication of direction is the type of command that will lead you into a posture while a call to action is a request to develop that posture, which doesn’t necessarily require movement around the mat. In a technical sense, both are statements of navigation and require an understanding of the body, as well as connection within the mind. Indications of direction (bend your knees, close your eyes) are generally easier to follow than calls to action (flatten your shoulder blades, press into your feet) but both can be used to describe the same thing! This confusion causes us to watch and mimic. Visual learning works wonders, but often overlooked is what happens next. There is more to a pose than what it looks like, and understanding calls to action will cultivate their full expression.

Creating Muscular Energy

“Hug your shins” vs. “Step your feet together”

Be on the look out for statements such as hug your forearms together or draw in toward the midline. These phrases, as well as words such as firm and activate are used to stimulate muscular engagement. Muscular engagement is drawing energy in from all sides, which is different than just squeezing or tightening. For most, building muscle is the last thing they came to yoga class to do. Stretching and flexibility are critical, but without any muscular engagement you’re at risk for weakening, over stretching and further injury. Hugging your shins toward each other, or any other similar act, create an intrinsic response and don’t require a shift in position such as bringing your feet together. Most postures automatically trigger muscle reaction; but if you seek pain relief or are simply looking to take your pose deeper you should listen for the appropriate call to action.

Unlocking the Inner Spiral

“Press your inner thighs back” vs. “Step your foot back”

Ever notice a teacher paying particular attention to your thighs with mentions of rooting your sit bones or widening your thighs? Chances are his/her commands are relating to the principle of inward spiral, and shouldn’t be confused with distancing your legs. When your lower body is maneuvered by rooting the thighs back and expanding the back of the body, you will allow for the natural curve of the low back. Getting the back in its natural position will allow you take all your poses farther, safely!

Activating the Outer Spiral

“Draw your tailbone down” vs. “Lower your hips”

What is a sacrum? Where is the tailbone? The majority of participants only signed up for Yoga, not Anatomy – so it’s common to misinterpret this popular instruction. Scoop the tailbone or lengthen the bottom tip of your spine are references to utilizing the space created by the widened pelvic floor during the inward spiral movement above. You lengthen your tailbone toward your feet and scoop it forward while keeping your thighs rooted back creating a corresponding outer spiral effect. This prevents low back pain and tones the abdomen.

If you’re still reading this article, it’s probably because you’ve experienced confusion between a teacher’s directions or calls to action in the past. Do not be discouraged because things seem too difficult or too easy. If you understand the difference between being directed into a form and the requests to realign that form for maximum results, you’ll start to reap the benefits. It’s tough to list all phrases used by all teachers and give a synopsis of their intent. Instead, know that all yoga teachers try to incorporate the examples mentioned in this article – muscular energy, inward spiral, and outer spiral – to create power and freedom. The most important thing to remember is that your yoga teacher ultimately wants the best for you. Asking questions when things seem unclear will help open up communication and may even help fellow students also struggling with the same questions.



Have a comment or question? Visit our Yoga Forum to start or join a conversation.



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About the Author

Greg LoBiondo is a 200 hour RYT who studies the principles of Anusara Yoga. He teaches at several gyms in the central New Jersey area and at Balance Hot Yoga Studio in Woodbridge, NJ.








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