Empower Your Students: 5 Language Tips for Accessible Yoga Classes

Amber Karnes
Updated: 
November 18, 2020

I talk a lot, y’all. More than most yoga teachers, maybe. In my yoga classes, we spend time setting up expectations, discussing safety, and creating an environment of permission and personal agency. As yoga teachers, our words are among our most powerful tools. Our language sets the tone for what our class (and this practice) is really all about.
 
My goal is for my class to be a place where each student feels empowered and safe in the body they bring to the mat today. Through the lens of that mission, I’d like to share effective ways of making language and asana cues more inclusive for students of all shapes, sizes, ages, and abilities.

How to Use Language to Empower Your Yoga Students

1. It’s Okay to Have a Body

Yoga teacher tips to make language and asana cues more inclusive for all students with all kinds of bodies

Encouraging students to ask questions about the practice or share concerns about their bodies gives the message that it’s okay if a body isn’t in “perfect working order.” You can use your language to let students know that their current body is worthy and okay just as it is. This creates a culture of permission—it’s okay to practice with the body they have today. It also sends the message that bodies change from day to day and throughout the seasons of our lives, and that is a normal part of life.

Lots of us in bigger bodies, disabled bodies, or “non-conforming” bodies have faced hostilities in fitness environments like gyms and yoga studios. Give your students the space to feel welcome in the body they have today—which may be a totally new experience for them.

2. Normalize Opting Out of a Yoga Pose or Practicing Pose Variations

I always start everyone in the class out with the same set of props, so no one feels singled out because they need a prop. I also like to specifically normalize opting out or taking variations on postures. I like to joke around that no medals are given out at the end of class for doing all the asana, and students should honor their bodies by taking a break or backing off to a different variation if that’s what supports them best. Then with my class sequence, I take students on a journey from more simple shapes to more complex, so they can choose where to work along the way according to their needs and abilities.

3. Eliminate Yoga Pose Hierarchy from Your Language

The benefits of normalizing yoga pose variations to create empowering yoga class environments for everyone in modified Eagle Pose (Garudasana)

Using language like, “If you can’t hold Downward Facing Dog Pose (Adho Mukha Svanasana), you can just rest in Child’s Pose (Balasana),” suggests that holding a pose is “better than,” and not being able to do those things is “less than.”

I feel that it’s important to normalize variations on poses, with the understanding that everyone’s practice looks different. That includes removing any hierarchy of value (like beginner/advanced), and encouraging students to listen to their bodies while honoring where they are today.

I also recommend removing the word “just” from your teaching vocabulary. “Just walk your feet up between your hands” or “Just lift your leg” might sound innocuous enough. But for some people, “just” lifting their leg is a huge effort—or may not even be possible. “Just” implies that everyone should be able to do the thing you’re asking, which can make students who can’t do that thing feel othered and excluded.

A slight tweak in language can fix this: “Lift your leg as high as you are able.” “Step the feet up between your hands, or walk your hands back toward your feet.”

4. Make It Clear that Your Yoga Classroom is a Low-Pressure, Judgment-Free, Non-Competitive, and Inclusive Environment

Yoga teaching tips to create a low-pressure, non-competitive, and inclusive class environment in modified Plank Pose

I believe that reducing competition and judgment can help keep students safer. This environment tends to discourage ego and striving while giving each student agency and permission to work wherever they are today.

Sometimes I have said that in my class there are two rules: no suffering and no judgment (with an explanation of how we track that in our awareness). Experiment with your own language so that it invites inquiry and encourages students to trust themselves as the expert of their own bodies.

Making clear that your class is about permission instead of perfection also allows people who won’t be best served by an accessible yoga class to seek community elsewhere.

5. Remember the Other Seven Limbs of Yoga

As capitalism has commodified yoga into an industry that is bought and sold, many “yoga classes” in America are basically group fitness stretching classes. As teachers, we can remember that often the most powerful parts of the practice are the most subtle and the most accessible. De-emphasize peak physical prowess as the goal of a yoga class and remind students about the fullness of the practice, which includes self-study, community, breath, presence, meditation, and so much more.

We all want our yoga classes to be welcoming. For me, making welcome means ensuring that my classroom space is body-positive, trauma-sensitive and that students don’t feel like they need to leave any parts of themselves or their identities at the door to participate. Our language can set the tone for space that feels unsafe or a space where it feels safe to relax.
 
When our students feel safe in their bodies, then the practice of yoga can really begin.

Julie Gudmestad, Yoga teacher, Yoga therapist, practicing safe inversions in yoga, Yoga and Anatomy, Yoga and Anatomy-based alignment

Reprinted with permission from accessibleyoga.blogspot.com
 

Amber Karnes, Body Positive Yoga, Board of Directors for Accessible Yoga

Amber Karnes is a yoga teacher trainer, ruckus maker, the founder of Body Positive Yoga, and a lifelong student of her body. Amber trains yoga teachers and movement educators on how to create accessible and equitable spaces for liberation and belonging. She also creates community for folks who want to build unshakable confidence and learn to live without shame or apology in the bodies they have today. Amber is the co-creator of the Accessible Yoga Training School and Yoga For All Teacher Training, an Accessible Yoga board member, and a sought-after contributor on the topics of accessibility, authentic marketing, culture-shifting, and community-building. She lives in Baltimore, Maryland, with her husband Jimmy. You can find her at bodypositiveyoga.com. @amberkarnesofficial on IG