These are the most common verbal mistakes I see people in this field make:

  • Giving possible outcomes and metaphors, rather than clear methods, e.g. “Empty your mind”, or, “Have a mind like water”, versus “Bring your attention to the physical sensations of breathing”. This is known as non-operational language, as the clear method is missing and it forces people to guess what you’d actually like them to do!
  • Starting instructions with, “Just . . .” This is a common verbal tic, which minimizes the task, which may not be easy or trivial to your participants.
  • Use of foreign, “spiritual” or anatomical/scientific jargon, as a way of claiming status; it often makes things less clear.
  • Using an annoying breathy spiritual “yoga/dance voice” or even a different accent! Just speak normally! More broadly, practice use of tone matters, as this conveys your own embodiment.
  • Use of “good”, “nice” and other value judgements, which suggest certain options are better than others (assuming you don’t want to do this). For example, “nice and deep into the stretch”, implying that it’s somehow better to go deep than not. Value judgements may be inherent in word choices such as, “Collapse the chest”, which sounds bad compared to, “Flex the upper spine”!
  • Asking questions such as, “What happened in your body?” That frames people as passive victims of their own bodies. A better question that encourages personal responsibility would be, “What did you do in your body?”.
  • Telling participants what they are seeing/experiencing and not letting them spot it for themselves, for example, “You are feeling relaxed”. Letting people spot it for themselves teaches them self-observation and responsibility for their own bodies.
  • Not giving a reason for an exercise. This encourages blind faith, as opposed to healthy questioning.
  • Forgetting to ask permission when touching. Or alternatively, asking but not really being okay with a “no”. This creates compliance. The ethical way is to gain explicit verbal consent, or at least a non-verbal indicator.
  • Use of demands. Obviously, this is disempowering. I do not believe it is always necessary to make it explicit that a request not a demand is being made – e.g. by saying, “please” (!), ”I invite you”, “if you like” or by giving options, but it is a good idea to do this sometimes especially early on with a group. Tone conveys a lot but what is most critical in the request-demand distinction is how you treat anyone who doesn’t agree to your request!
  • Use of “we” when no agreement is made. This is an example of “forced teaming”, as opposed to gaining consent. For example: “We are doing X now” (also a fait accompli).
  • “Next you’ll . . .” This is another example of a fait accompli. Again, it removes the chance for participants to give consent. Instead, you could offer alternatives, support people who choose to not follow your lead and actively teach students to say “no”.

Some of these may seem like nit-picking and I’m pretty picky about this stuff to be fair, but these are more important than they may seem. That being said, it’s your embodiment that matters most and I’ve seen great teachers give terrible instructions, but with huge love, so they landed well. Others say the nicest things but filled with venom! Intent, tone and how things are received trump the exact words, and there are times when I would break many of these rules, so it’s situational too (for example in some cultural contexts, where too much choice may actually make people feel anxious).


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