The Art of Effective Cuing – Part 1: Language and Delivery in Yoga and Pilates Classes

31st May 2024

Cuing seems to be a hot topic in the mindful (functional) movement world right now, and with good reason. The cues a teacher uses throughout a class significantly impact how a student experiences, feels, and embodies movement. It’s not just about the cues themselves, but also the tone of delivery and the teacher’s expression during a class.

After all, a student’s nervous system responds to the teacher’s nervous system through a process termed ‘neuroception’. This is why it’s crucial for teachers to smile, make dynamic facial expressions, vary their tone of voice, and be anchored in the ‘ventral vagal’ (social connection) aspect of the nervous system when they teach.

Effective cuing is an essential skill to hone during any Yoga or Pilates teacher training. It’s a skill that continuously evolves and develops throughout a teacher’s career. In our Harmonise Yoga and Pilates teacher trainings, we share individual feedback regularly to help develop our learners’ progress and increase their confidence, often focusing on language and cues. Like the physical practice itself, the language, voice, tone, and delivery used during a class is an ongoing practice.

Long-term, the language used throughout a class can become poetic, setting the scene for a dance between the breath, body, and mind. This enhances interoception, self-awareness, and the mind-body-breath connection.

Here are some key tips we discuss in our teacher trainings regarding effective cuing and language use during a class:

Avoid Violent Language

Violent language is deeply ingrained in us and often used unconsciously in various settings, including fitness classes, gyms, studios, physiotherapy, doctor surgeries as well as in yoga and Pilates. Phrases like “don’t,” “never,” “you must/mustn’t,” “you should/shouldn’t” can make students feel like they are being ‘told off,’ potentially affecting them subconsciously.

Instead, focus on what ‘to’ do rather than what ‘not’ to do. This approach, also advised in ‘conscious parenting,’ fosters positive reinforcement. That said, be mindful of outdated phrases like “I want you to” (I used to use this and consciously aim to avoid it), “Show me,” “Let me see you,” and “Do … for me” are essentially the teacher ‘demanding’ something from the student (whether we realise it at the time, or not).

All the above are examples of ‘shouldism,’ a term I first encountered during a retreat led by Norman Blair. Such language is very limiting, applying a blanket approach that leaves no room for flexibility, adaptations, curiosity, or individuality. As teachers, our role is to encourage students to do things for themselves, fostering a sense of empowerment rather than disempowerment.

(Sidenote: I also notice violent language being used in blogs and on social media to create a ‘shock’ factor for impact and sales, often projecting fear onto readers. Anyone mindful about promoting health and healing would instead use language that fosters positive emotions, and avoid sensationalist headlines like “10 reasons why you SHOULD NEVER do a shoulder stand.”)

I believe it’s really important to be aware of the language we are ‘buying’ into both on and off the mat, and the impact that language has on our nervous system and those around us, in particular.

Minimise Filling Language

Filling language is common among new teachers and often a nervous response to uncertainty about what to say next. Phrases like “what we’re going to do next is” or “now we’re just gonna” can be omitted, creating space for an embodiment cue or a moment of silence where students can be present in their bodies with their breath. This helps to make a class feel more mind-body based rather than fitness class-based.

I have noticed those attending our training courses who have been fitness instructors or personal trainers often struggle more with filtering out filling language. This highlights how deeply ingrained subconscious habits can be. It’s important to receive guidance early on in your teaching career and/or ensure you invest in Continuing Professional Development opportunities. Making the subconscious conscious is an ongoing process requiring an openess to keep learning and adapting—this has been and continues to be my journey!

Make Every Word Count

Refining your language so you use the minimum number of words for maximum benefit is crucial. For example, instead of saying, “On the next inhalation, I’d like you to,” simply say, “inhale.”

Use Relatable Language

During a recent Pilates teacher training, a student asked if they needed to use anatomical language during their practical assessment. The priority is to use language that students will respond to most effectively to maximise the benefit of the exercise or asana. Then you can offer the anatomical term as well, educating students while ensuring they understand the cue. This can be more relatable than technical jargon alone.

Examples: “Send your hip bones (ASIS) towards your ribs (or your pubic bone towards your knee) and notice your lower back or lumbar spine move towards the ground – This is mobilising your pelvis posteriorly.”

Enhancing Your Cuing Skills

Expanding and refining your vocabulary is essential for effective cuing. Attend classes with different teachers and maintain a regular personal practice to test and embody new cues, and be creative in exploring new ideas. I’d also encourage you to take a look at the CPD courses and workshops we offer all of which will cover aspects of cuing and use of language to broaden your knowledge and skills. Remember that what works for you may not work for others. Language to support and celebrate differences is crucial.

If you are interested in training to teach, you can find out more about our 200hr Yoga Teacher Training or our Pilates Teacher Training on our website. Here are 3 key tips I share on our courses to help learners as they begin their journeys to effective cuing:

  1. Record yourself teaching a class and then play it back and take part as a participant. If you
    were a complete beginner, would you understand and embody your own cues?
  2. Record yourself doing a class, and then watch it back and add the language, cue’s etc so that
    you are effectively teaching yourself. This will also help you to become more aware of your
    body, movement patters, posture etc and where making the unconscious conscious may
    support you towards more freedom and support within movement.
  3. Practice teaching as many different people as you can and cue according to what you notice
    – this is where the ultimate learning journey lay.

One of the added bonuses for all our trainees is lifetime access to recordings of the teaching the entire training course. This allows you to revisit and review any aspect of the course at any time, during or after your training (this is only just released for our Pilates course, so please do get in touch if you’re a Harmonise graduate and you’d like access to this).

I hope all these tips help you refine your language and enhance the effectiveness of your teaching. The journey to effective cuing is ongoing, and continuous learning and self-reflection are key to becoming a better teacher.

This is just the beginning of the topic, and there are even more ways to enhance your skills. Look out for Part 2 of this blog coming soon, where we will delve deeper into techniques for effective cuing.

Article by: Clare Francis

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