Positive Language and Encouragement

I am a yoga teacher and I run a teacher training programme for yoga teachers. When I practice in yoga class and when I lead discussions during training programmes I listen closely to the language used by the teacher of the class and by the trainees as they express themselves. One of the elements of communication that I listen for is the language used by the speaker. As a teacher and trainer it is my intention to leave students in their own greatness.  One of the principal methods of achieving that goal is to use positive language.  Up-beat, encouraging positive language creates good results.

Using positive language during yoga class is very important in helping my students achieve their goals both within and outside of the classroom.  Yoga class is an excellent context in which to reframe a student’s perspective.

Create the Conditions:

In yoga class I encourage my students to use a breathing method called ujjayi. This is a method of breathing that requires conscious attention. The student must tone their abdominal muscles and exercise the muscles of their abdomino/thoracic diaphragm and their rib cage. The intention is to create a deep, rhythmic flow of breath out of and into the student’s chest and lungs. In addition, the students are called upon to keep their mouth closed, their nostrils relaxed and to breathe from their chest and throat. This form of breathing is characterised by a whispering, sighing sound – often called an oceanic sound. This is generated with a gentle constriction of the trachea low down around the glottis.

This breathing technique has the effect of calming the students’ nervous systems by activating the parasympathetic side of the nervous system (rest and digest) and turning off the sympathetic side (fight/flight/freeze). The students’ focus upon their breathing focuses their minds and makes them less-susceptible to extraneous thoughts, distractions and worries.

Brain Wave Frequency:

This relaxed state of presence slows the brain wave frequency of the practitioners from the usual high beta that adults tend to spend much of their waking hours in to low beta or even into alpha. In these slower brain wave frequencies the practitioners enter a zone where their subconscious mind is receptive to suggestion and is programmed to achieve what is suggested.

This occurs during meditation. In meditation you move out of the normal state of consciousness (beta state) into heightened consciousness (alpha and theta states) where you are a super-learning machine. These are states of creativity and intuition. In this state it is possible to make affirmations and declare a way of being that shapes your whole outlook.

Positive Language and Messages:

In yoga class, if your teacher is telling you that you are strong, powerful, and mobile, it is likely you will be.  You will take your strength, power and mobility into all aspects of your life, be it other physical activity, your workplace, or your family life. The experience you create in class carries forward when you leave class. I often hear from students that their colleagues or partners have told them they need to go to yoga. This is because the yoga student is a different person when they have practiced yoga from when they have not. The way the student is with their colleagues and family after practicing yoga reflects the positive effects they create while in yoga class.

Negative Language and Messages:

Conversely, negative language and imagery used during yoga class depresses students and keeps them in their weaknesses.  There are styles of yoga where the teachers say things like, “Your back should hurt like hell when you backbend!”, “You must kill yourself for 90 minutes!”, and “If you’re doing the pose 95% right, you’re doing it 100% wrong!”

There are other studios where the language errs on the side of everything being very safe. Teachers in these styles will qualify their cues with phrases such as “if you can” or “try to” or “only if you want”. Others will shape their classes with a projection of their own problems with poses and will steer their students away from more difficult poses to easier options that ultimately just keep the students in their weaknesses and stifle growth.

There are gym classes where the instructor and even other students will yell at and berate students for not meeting arbitrary standards of lifts, chin-ups or whatever.  This can push students into the danger zone, where they are attempting actions which are beyond their current strength to practice safely.  The peer pressure placed on students in some cross-fit classes, for example, can leave them feeling that they’ve disappointed the teacher and other students if they don’t achieve certain goals set by the teacher.

Some examples from my experience:

I was in a rugby team once when I was about 17 or 18 years old that was performing poorly. We did not have a good group of players – we did not have the cattle, to use a modern vernacular – and lost most of our games. The method of motivation employed by our coaches, our captain and, when our performances drew the ire of the club’s officials, the club captain, was negative language that we were rubbish, a disgrace and we had to do better. Rather than feeling uplifted and motivated by this language, I felt alienated and disenchanted. I did not play rugby the following year, not because I was a poor loser, but because I disliked the culture where putdowns were employed as a means of exhorting people to better endeavours.

Curiously, before I had conceived of the positive approach to language that I am addressing here, I made a talk to our team at half time one day. It was late in the season and we were well behind at half time against the competition leaders. I criticised our tactics of kicking for touch and moving from set-piece to set-piece where we were being well-beaten. I said we should use any ball we got to attack.

I called on our players to put the onus on the opposition to tackle us rather than giving the ball back to them so that we would have to defend. I said we should forget the score and have some fun running at our opponents. My words seemed to galvanise the players. We took a very different approach to that which we had in the first half and we played with spirit, an attacking mindset and a certain elan with the ball. We did not win. We were thumped, but we had fun in the process.

I say that was before I had conceived of a positive approach to language but I knew innately that positive language worked. My mother told me one time that, at a parent-teacher interview when I was about six years old, my father had told the teacher that I responded to encouragement. The carrot was a better tool to get the best out of me than was the stick. Sometimes punishments for poor behaviour are necessary and sanctions have been used effectively on me at times to denounce poor behaviour on my part and to deter me from repeating poor behaviour. But it is through encouragement that I feel best about myself and most heartened to deliver my best.

Programming and patterns:

Negative language feeds into the negative self-image and beliefs which, unfortunately, many people hold of themselves.  If they are used to putting themselves down with negative self-talk, then a teacher telling them during yoga class that they’re not good enough and need to be punished, seems right to them.

It reinforces their negative self-beliefs and, like many things that are harmful to us, that can be quite addictive.  People who are putting time and effort into their yoga practice but aren’t improving their strength or mobility are usually being undermined by the teacher and/or their selves telling them that they are not good enough and probably never will be.  People who are being stressed and depressed by the talk that goes on during yoga class will very likely be producing cortisol as a response, which tends to make them develop and hold onto fat, particularly around their middles.

A good example of the power of positive talk during yoga and other exercise is the Seattle Seahawks American Football (gridiron) team.  In 2013 their coaching staff took a different approach than the traditional hard-ass style of coaching.  Whereas other football teams continued abusing their players by screaming and yelling at them, berating them for not achieving goals, banning water drinks as punishment, and even throwing basketballs at their heads (!), the Seahawks coaching staff gave their players lots of positive, encouraging messages, and included yoga and meditation as part of the team’s fitness regime.  It was no coincidence that the Seahawks went on to win the Superbowl.

The talk you hear while practicing yoga is very important to your outcomes, both within and outside of the yoga studio.  Critically, that includes the talk you hear from yourself.  Criticising yourself for not “achieving” a pose will not help you achieve it or any other pose – quite the opposite.  When you find the positives in your practice and praise yourself for them, you will see positive change occurring.  Believe the messages that you are strong, powerful and mobile, and you will be.

Start at home with your inner dialogue:

If your inner dialogue is rooted in criticism, chastisement and constant reminders of your perceived deficiencies that will shape your experience of yourself and contribute to outcomes that fulfill your inner expectations. If your inner dialogue is encouraging, respectful and enlightened so far as the limitations that are inherent in one way or another in each of us, then there is a better chance that you will meet challenges with a greater degree of enthusiasm and with a higher prospect of success.

The same negative inner dialogue will create a pattern of such language being the norm. It will seem to you right and natural to be the subject of abusive language. When exposed to such language from others (bullying bosses, disparaging partners, drivers venting road rage or whatever) you will tolerate that behaviour and will accept as being valid the cruel words being directed at you. Bruce Springsteen has a line saying “You end up like a dog that’s been beat too much”. Indeed, the language you habituate yourself to in your thinking and that you tolerate, accept and treat as the truth, from other people can leave you cowed, fearful and lacking confidence and any sort of self-esteem.

Make a conscious choice now and speak to yourself with encouragement. Take time to slow down, be still and concentrate upon a slow, steady flow of breath through your nose. In slowing your body and breath down, slow down the stream of your thoughts and the frequency of your brain waves. In a relaxed and reflective state, compose and give to yourself a positive statement of support and encouragement. Live from that statement as the baseline of your way of being.

Be conscious in the way that you speak to others. Use words considerately to elicit the best of others and to enhance their sense of themselves. My recollections of my rugby coaches and the club captain from when I was 17 or 18 years old are not good. They left a legacy of alienation. Create a legacy of yourself in the positive way you make other people feel. Consider what sort of language you use to yourself and to others and choose your language wisely.  Book a class to share in the encouraging language of yoga at Apollo Power Yoga here.

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