By Jivana Heyman
According to British writer Angela Carter,
“Language is power, life and the instrument of culture, the instrument of domination and liberation.”
As yoga teachers, we may be working to liberate our students, but are we speaking to them with language that dominates or liberates? Since language is the main vehicle for our teaching, we need to be conscious of the words we choose, and how we use them. In particular, we need to be sensitive to the needs of our students with regard to how they identify themselves.
Within the disability community, there is a lot of discussion about language and how it relates to identity. Some people prefer the use of identity-first language, and some prefer person-first language.
And actually, for many communities, specifically the autism community, Deaf, and Blind communities, people generally prefer identity-first language, because they feel like their disability is an important part of their identity, and there's pride in that. Similarly, for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color), the power to decide how to refer to oneself is essential and will differ from person to person. For example, “I’m Black,” or “I’m African-American.”
Pride is a way that people from under-resourced groups take back power. I remember marching with Queer Nation, an activist group in the 1990s. The main goal of that group was to empower queer people by raising awareness of our existence, and need for basic human rights through language, imagery, and representation. We put posters and stickers everywhere, we made T-shirts and buttons with pro-queer slogans like, “Queer Nation: get used to it,” or “Stop the violence: queers fight back!” Most importantly, we started a conversation about queer rights, and the way we took back the word queer was an important first step. It’s now part of normal usage, but not long ago it was only used as a slur.
Language evolves and changes all the time as culture shifts and changes. As a yoga practitioner seeking to practice ahimsa, we can be sensitive to these changes and actively reduce harm by embracing new habits. The point is, we don’t get to decide what language other people use for their own identity. We have to be sensitive to people’s preferences and ask them about it directly. Similarly, the correct use of pronouns is an essential way to respect someone’s agency and authority over their body and their life. So, another way language use can make our spaces welcoming is to focus on gender as a spectrum and move away from the strict binary of male and female—gender essentialism.
There is a well-known character in the Mahabharata (the epic Indian tale that includes the Bhagavad Gita) called Shikhandi, who is transgender. Shikhandi who is transgender and became a central figure in the famous battle that is the focus of the Gita’s narrative. During the battle, Lord Krishna defends Shikhandi’s right to choose their gender as opposed to being stuck with the gender they were assigned at birth.
Let’s take a cue from Krishna and respect people’s gender identity and pronouns. In other words, you don’t get to look at someone and decide, “You look male, therefore, I'll use he/him pronouns for you.” Rather, you get to ask someone, “What pronouns do you use?” And even better than that, share your own pronouns when you introduce yourself. When I speak with people, and especially when I’m teaching, I try to introduce myself with my pronouns so that people know that it’s safe for them to share their pronouns with me. I say, “Hi, my name is Jivana Heyman, and my pronouns are he/him.”
The more we actively share our pronouns publicly the more we normalize the fact that pronouns can’t be assumed. This is especially important for cis folks who hold space, such as yoga teachers. This simple act can create safer spaces for trans and nonbinary folks. Also, normalizing the use of “they/them” as personal pronouns is another way that we can create more welcoming spaces.
Although I think we all try to avoid stereotyping each other, it still happens frequently. For example, teachers often assume the gender of a group of students because they appear to look a certain way. It’s surprising how many times I’ve heard ridiculous stereotypes in yoga class. Often these are based on race, gender, or sexuality, but any kind of assumption is not helpful in terms of creating a welcoming space, and can cause harm. So rather than use terms like “Hey guys,” or “Hey ladies,” try to find language that isn’t gender specific, such as “Hey y’all” or “Hey folks.”
Language is constantly evolving, so even for experienced teachers it’s worth taking a step back and considering the words we are using. You can record yourself teaching and then listen back to the recording. The more conscious we become of our language, the more we can free our students to turn inward and truly benefit from the yoga we’re trying to offer them.
Jivana Heyman, C-IAYT, E-RYT500, is the founder and director of Accessible Yoga, an international non-profit organization dedicated to increasing access to the yoga teachings. Accessible Yoga offers Conferences, Community Conversations, a Blog, and an Ambassador program. He’s the creator of the Accessible Yoga Training, and the author of the book, Accessible Yoga: Poses and Practices for Every Body (Shambhala Publications, 2019). Jivana has specialized in teaching yoga to people with disabilities and out of this work, the Accessible Yoga organization was created to support education, training, and advocacy with the mission of shifting the public perception of yoga. More info at jivanaheyman.com
Interested in learning more? Join Jivana Heyman for the upcoming Accessible Yoga Training Online, a 30hr certification program where you'll learn how to design yoga classes where all students can practice together regardless of age, size, ability, or experience level from accessible yoga experts.
Program runs from May 10-24, 2021.
Tiered pricing, payment plans, and partial scholarships are available.