YSC 2017 – Yoga Cues for an Inclusive Environment

My thoughts on this topic were inspired by Jasmine Chehrazi’s Yoga Service Conference Session “Inclusive Cuing:  The Art of Offering Sensitive Cues for Diverse Experience Levels, Intentions, and Mobility Expressions” which has unfortunately been cancelled. Hopefully it will be rescheduled to fit into another part of the conference!

“We’ll explore the best practices of using objective rather than subjective qualifiers in cuing, as well as process-oriented cues rather than goal-oriented cues. This discussion will also examine how to present options sensitive to common physical and psychological conditions. We will learn how to use class time before the practice begins to set guidelines that promote inclusivity and celebrate diverse practice expressions”

My Master’s Degree is in International Communication, and while I don’t use that degree in the capacity I planned to (media development in post-conflict and transition countries …obviously!), I do love using words in a logical way to communicate in general, and enjoy finding creative ways to communicate in yoga.

Why do verbal cues matter?

Much of our lives revolve around visual input, so, for me, switching to audio without visual creates a qualitatively different experience. This is part of what a lot of us want in yoga. Since I don’t offer hands on assists in my trauma informed classes, and usually at least some students are newer to yoga, I mostly do the postures as I teach them. This has both advantages and disadvantages (students working to replicate what I’m doing instead of making the practice their own, for one). But cues still matter, quite a lot, both when I do the poses in trauma informed classes, and when I mostly don’t, in public classes which I also work to make trauma informed.

How do I personally use cues to make classes more inclusive?

I feel like there is always space to learn! Right now, I work to make my cuing inclusive in a couple main ways:

  • using invitational language
  • [if I’m right with my interpretation] using objective rather than subjective cues, speaking to “if you feel stable here, lift your back knee up” versus “level one keep your back knee down, level two lift it up”
  • offering cues that speak to intentions other than finding the “deepest expression” of a pose; intentions other than physical alignment (notice your breath, move with your breath, identify where you feel the most sensation in this pose and also somewhere you feel ease). Physically the “full expression” may not be accessible to some students due to experience level, injury, body type, or anatomy. Always speaking as if there is one “full expression” that is the goal can imply that their practice is somehow “less” because of this. It’s not!

Isn’t alignment important for safety?

Yoga International’s article on movement science insight also offers up a point that I think is really relevant to how we approach cuing: “alignment is less about injury prevention and more about load optimization…it turns out that the human body is more resilient and adaptable than previous modes of alignment and pain have taken into account.” To me, this is a great reason to lessen our focus on making poses “perfect” by focusing solely on alignment (because you’ll break yourself otherwise..?), and to incorporate cues that speak to other things. Noticing the breath. Linking breath and movement. Feeling a pose and where our joints and limbs are in space rather than seeing the pose. Observing what feels most stable rather than moving automatically following a teacher’s verbal prompt or physical assist.

What else matters?

In my English as a foreign language training, we explored Paolo Freire‘s ideas about education. He called what is often the more traditional approach “banking education” – which implies that students are “containers into which educators must put knowledge…[and] reinforces a lack of critical thinking and knowledge ownership in students, which in turn reinforces oppression”.

General school education is of course a different thing than a yoga class, but I think there is some analogy to be had… yoga teachers are not the end all and be all, with all the answers. Assuming all bodies are the same and the same cues speak to us all without exception is simply wrong; the teacher assuming s/he knows better than an individual what that person is feeling or should feel in a pose strikes me as quite presumptuous.

Students have a tremendous amount of insight into their own bodies and needs and a first-hand perspective on what poses feel like. Yoga is not about getting poses right, or getting better at poses, it can be about better knowing yourself … and  our cues can speak to this too!

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