Why Words Matter

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It’s not often that I make it to a yoga class and when I was recently in a yoga class, the teacher said, “root through your ‘sits bones,’ ” I cringed. I also cringe every time I hear “extend your arms overhead”. Why, you may ask? Your “sits bones” are called “ischial tuberosities” and it is anatomically impossible to “extend your arms overhead”. You can extend your elbows, flex your shoulders and you may also reach overhead, but you do NOT extend overhead, mmm’kay?

Yes, I am that person holding the grammar mug.

You know? This one:

grammar mug

I realize that I may be labelled as “particular” or narrow-minded, but my intentions are pure-ish. Hear me out:

I believe that as a community, yoga teachers have a wealth of intelligence and knowledge that is often discredited due to lack of formal, university based, dogmatic education.

Yoga has often been dismissed as a “new age”, “hippie”, and “artsy fartsy” type of movement practice. However, there is an increase in scientific-based evidence showing the benefits of yoga for overall health. If yoga wants to be recognized as a therapeutic movement modality that is supported by science, then the language needs to start reflecting this. This means correct anatomical terms and directions of movement need to start making appearances in the class room.

There is a culture that exists within the educational world that assumes that in order to reach an audience, we have to cater to the lowest common educational denominator in order to get the message across. However, something as innocuous as a medical information leaflet (i.e. How to prepare for your ultrasound), takes the opportunity to educate its audience by introducing new words and concepts.

Why must we as yoga teachers assume that our students will be unable to grasp this within the context of a yoga practice?

Note that given my day job as an Occupational Therapist, I have also fallen into the reverse trap of lapsing into “anatomese” while teaching an asana practice.

Anyone who has gone through yoga teacher training (regardless of lineage) will tell you that it was no walk in the park. Your teaching style should reflect that. It is an opportunity to show off your broad knowledge that goes beyond the “ down dog, chattarunga, up-dog” teaching-by-rote style. Own the scope of your knowledge and experience!

My teacher always told me that the cues you give your students need to land for them to be effective. Agreed. However, we also have this wonderful opportunity to educate our students in the hour between “hello, my name is…” and “see you next week…”

star wars body partAs educators we need to find a balance between cues that have become Pinterest memes – losing them in a maze of anatomical jargon and finding the sweet spot where your students are getting the most out of their time in your presence. This takes time, patience, practice, and an open mind.

The Yoga Tune Up® Integrated Embodied Anatomy course is an excellent starting point that will give you the tools to find your unique voice to go beyond instruction in order to become an educator.

I know that this post will no doubt generate some controversy, and my hope is that it triggers some thoughts about your own teaching habits about how your words represent who you are, both in and out of your teaching space.



Enjoyed this article? Read TOP TEN THINGS I have learned with Yoga Tune Up®

Genevieve Herzog

A fellow teacher suggested Yoga Tune Up when he observed how sad my Happy Baby was. A self-proclaimed gym rat, I had ignored my mobility until my lack of it was staring me in the face, or in my case, in the hips. I was hooked from my first class, and knew immediately I wanted to share my knowledge with others. As an occupational therapist, I have seen how chronic injuries, and complacence with pain as "part of the aging process" can impact daily activities. Yoga Tune Up® has provided me with further tips, tools, and techniques that I take great pleasure in sharing with others, empowering them with the knowledge required to move better in their bodies, building healthy habits that last a lifetime. The Level 1 Teacher Training also inspired me to continue with a 200 hour Yoga Teacher Training which will help deepen my practice and knowledge of Yoga Tune Up®.

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I really appreciate you being particular on this. In some ways I think it’s the difference between seeing our students are smart, capable people who can learn things if we teach them and translate some of these terms, as opposed to assuming that they need to receive things dumbed down.The words we use as teachers matter not just in their educational value as you mention here, but also in the emotional imprint they can leave on our students with the use of nocebic language for example.


Great points to ponder!

Being open as a teacher can be challenging simply because we put our passion and soul out there and criticism can feel like a personal affront.

However, receptivity is a necessary skill for improvement and growth. Recognizing that no one can know everything is an important reminder. Besides who wants to know “everything “ anyway!? This would make life incredibly boring.

The challenges of life help us grow. Letting go of the ego opens up opportunities. Curiosity fuels passion.

Emily Botel

I appreciate your strong opinion! As a student that has experienced various teacher trainings and also loves being a student, I know how easy it is to stick inside the box of the training and the language one is required to regurgitate. I love being reminded to keep my mind open, to teach to the room I have, but to also challenge them. Thanks!

Barbara Gentile

I agree with what you are saying and it helps to think that if I am a yoga teacher I am an educator as well… it’s a word I didn’t associate yet to yoga teacher! Thank you.

Andree-Anne Gagnon

I struggle so much with breaking cueing patterns, repetitive cues and empty cues. I have been working with a thesaurus and looking into other movement modalities to find novel ways of saying things and guiding my students. I sometimes wonder what my longtime students hear when I give cues and have vowed to ask for more feedback!


I agree with you. We are teachers so we should actually teach our students. And we should also teach from a place of anatomical accuracy, giving students an embodied exploratory experience.


I think you made a really great point about the fact that yoga isn’t always taken seriously in the realm of scientific, therapeutic movement based on the language used. There is value in being accurate. The more we can universalize the language around the concepts, the more clear and concise it can be for everyone. That’s one reason I always appreciated the use of Sanskrit in yoga classes. While it can be challenging to learn and memorize, once you do, it’s way easier than sorting through the half a dozen different english names for the same pose!


Thank you Genevieve, this post is gold! I’ve just completed my YTU Level One training and I am so thankful for it, because it has yanked me out of teaching by rote and dumbing anatomy and biomechanics down, which serves no one. The more you share the wealth of knowledge you have with your students, the more they will trust you. The more you sprinkle nerdy terms in, (with accessible muggle explanations) the more your students will feel respected and capable. Language has so much power, and we want to use it to empower our students. Let’s raise our standards… Read more »


I agree! Getting more cues into classes that advance yoga as a therapeutic movement modality is so important. The YTU level 1 training is so helpful with this!


The power of language and cues is essential for teaching a yoga class. When an instructor says, “root down through your sits bones,” metaphorically, I understand to press down my ischial tuberosities. However, if an instructor were to say, “externally rotate your iliacus,” myself, and possibly, students, may pause and puzzle at the instruction. In the same way, only using Sanskrit terms for poses may not resonate with someone as much as “downward dog” would. The more knowledge we acquire though anatomy, proper alignment, the better communicators we will become. But, we must find a balance of the words we… Read more »

Laurel Crane

Thank you! When I first started teaching I used a lot more correct anatomical terms but as time went on, I became more and more insecure about it. I have made a new commitment to use it again.


LOL I totally related! My pet hate is “move one vertebrae at a time”!

Janine watson

Columns like yours and education like Yoga Tune up classes are why I remind myself not to dumb-down my hour or so class presentation and get lazy about my choice of words. Or to find out I am making a mistake in my choice of words.

Genea Crum

I have been wrestling with this topic all week. How much anatomy is to much? How many technical terms should I use in every class? After attending the level one ytu teacher training all these terms are spinning around in my head. This past week I have been sprinkling some of them into my classes and so far no one has looked at me like I am crazy. Thank you for emphasizing why it is important to share this new found knowledge to my students.


I couldn’t agree with this article more. While at first frustrated having my repeater words pointed out it was so refreshing having to be accountable for what I was saying rather than just smile and nodding. Having to come up with lists of unique words was difficult at first but also drove home the importance of not repeating the same cues pose after pose, and YES educating our class, I want people to take something new home from each class they attend.

V. Ceglarek

I find myself seeking out peers and teachers who strive to use the best wording for the situation: precise, accurate as well as creatively illuminating.

Words do matter, and the more we hear and use correct anatomical terms, the better we are able to communicate with professionals in all fields.


amen!!! YTU level 1 revolutionized my ability to do this. its essential to helping students become more connected to their own bodies. ive gotten some feedback that, like yourself, ive gone to far overboard using muscle names they cant quite figure out (though i usually give the lay person name too). people must understand whats under their skin and how everything comes together. when i relate DOMs to everyday movements (hello context grids!) it helps and starts to piece everything together. its especially tricky when my class is very unique amongst a sea of vinyasa where its very flowy and… Read more »


This applies not only to YTU but to any fitness professionals. If we all work together teaching clients correct terminology it will help people understand what we are looking for. i always like to show what flex your shoulder or abduct your hip means soo people in the class don’t feel like I’m trying to trick them. Its not easy so if you haven’t been doing this don’t change overnight, start slowly and they will pick up.


I agree! most teachers myself included do not always hear ourselves…a test of vocabulary could be done by recording yourself. May be painful at first but it truly exposes the words good and not so good! watching or listen to yourself brings mindfulness to a whole new level.

Melissa Melendres

Completely agree! Amie Alpeteri loved your insight as well. The anatomy language has also been foreign to me, but Ill be damned if I don’t learn it! Time, patience and practice! I think all ALL Movement professionals should be REQUIRED and tested on the anatomy and use DOM’s.

Amie Alapeteri

I’ve struggled with this concept, because I know how difficult it is to have the majority of the students “hear” me, and in many yoga teacher trainings, we are taught to “use terms people understand!” YTU speak is very new to me, foreign really, and I know that teaching using terms like “flex your shoulders” will have students not knowing at all what to do, but just as I teach my new students Sanskrit terms, I can educate on anatomy and DOMs. I like how you make your point here, and I heard it! So true…as many of us yoga… Read more »


I agree, words are extremely important and powerful. I teach from a fundamental understanding of anatomy and movement science, but I don’t think all yoga teachers need to speak about anatomy. I think what is most important is to speak truth and to be genuine – offer what is real within your experience and understanding, and students will be drawn to you. We are all unique when we can peel back the layers of BS. I also agree with you that students can, and ultimately WANT, to be taught new things, especially when it comes to body parts, posture, and… Read more »

Elaine Jackson

Hi. Loved your column (I agree that it’s all about education) and also wanted to say I’m an OT too! I’ve been teaching yoga for about 10 years and I’m really curious about how many OT’s I’m meeting or hearing about doing the same. I love yoga (and Yoga Tune Up) because it’s given me really practical hands-on tools, and I think the years of problem-solving as an OT jive really well with therapeutic yoga. Anyway, just wanted to give a shout-out to a fellow OT. Thanks


This applies beyond even yoga classes! I teach my fitness classes with the same ideas about language that you talk about here. I totally take that opportunity to educate the participants about what they are moving, how, and why. Anatomy lesson, and yoga talk about “awareness” and “presence” is not what they expect in a core conditioning or bootcamp class… but I sneak it in there! A daily dose of mindful movement while pumping iron does a body good!