What do teaching yoga and ELT have in common?

A surprising number of things, particularly with regard to individual lessons but also for large groups too.

Terminology

As a yoga teacher I know not to tell my client to put their thumb on their ‘ischial tuberosity’. Saying press your thumb on your sit bone, is certainly more helpful. I think other yoga teachers use this kind of terminology to justify charging a little more than the market rate. But in reality they often end up alienating the class, as participants may simply not know what they’re on about.

Likewise in an English class if you say: here you need the third conditional rather than the second conditional or if you avoid nominalization the sentence will be more readable, there’s a good chance that some of the students won’t know what you are talking about. They may not ask for clarification as they don’t want to lose face. Either use a more common term, or use the correct term but remind them – what it means. When talking about the conditionals you could say:

Here you need the third conditional rather than the second conditional. This means you need if + had + participle etc (i.e. you give the student the formula).

Given that conditionals are commonly used, it makes sense for students to know the terminology associated with them. This is not the case with nominalization, a term which many EFL / ESL teachers are not familiar with. If you are an experienced teacher then it is also worth remembering not to bandy around such terminology in teacher training sessions or seminars as you may make your colleagues feel stupid and yourself appear to be a bit of a know-it-all!

Slowly but surely

In yoga the idea is to make slow movements. If you make a fast movement

  • you tend to follow the same old pattern
  • you don’t have time to notice all the individual things (steps) that are going on when you are making the movement

The same is problem true when speaking. If students slow down a bit and analyze each part of what they are about to say before they say it I find that they ‘hear’ their mistakes more. Obviously we only do such an exercise for a couple of minutes as otherwise it starts to sound ridiculous!

Exploration and variety

In yoga I think I challenge my clients much more than I challenge my language learners. By ‘challenge’ I mean take them out marginally out of their comfort zone. For example, I might get them to twiddle their toes in a way that they have never done before. The idea is that you explore new areas, so that the client doesn’t fall into the trap of doing the same old thing again and again, or even getting body amnesia when you forget what your body can do.

I started teaching English before I got into yoga. But after a few months teaching yoga I realized that the exploration I was doing in yoga had an equivalent with experimenting a bit with language, but also going back to re-remember what the student had already learned. I also realized that I tended to get through a lot more different exercises in a pure yoga session than I would do in a purely ELT situation. I have now started to integrate a series of much shorter exercises within my one-hour English lessons and this had led to much greater attention and retention by the student.

Adjustments and emotional dependence

In yargon (yoga jargon) an ‘adjustment’ is when you physically put your hand on your client when their body is misaligned to help them find the right position. In a language class, this would be called a ‘correction’. In both yoga and English teaching this can lead to the client feeling awkward. So you need to be upfront in the first class that this is what you intend to do. However, adjusting a yoga client can have an unintended effect. I have found that male clients in particular sometimes find the adjustment pleasurable in some way and misassociate what I am trying to do with some kind of emotional need on my part to touch them. This it’s all about me and my teacher fancies me attitude has an exact equivalent in ELT. Particularly in 1-1 lessons, students receive a level of attention from their interlocutor that they have probably rarely received in their life. They often associate this attention with the teacher finding them particularly interesting or as an indication of a potential romantic interest. Of course, in both cases you are simply doing your job. My advice is to always maintain a very professional approach. If things seem to be taking a turn in the wrong direction, then you need to explain this directly to the client – possibly via email if this would be less likely to cause embarrassment.


Priscilla da Cuhna is native of Portugal (Welsh mother), with a passion for fostering cross-cultural connections in her adopted home: Macau. Holding a Master’s in Intercultural Communication from the University of Bangor, Priscilla’s commitment to holistic education shines through her uniquely designed Yoga for Language (YFL) program. Priscilla integrates her yoga expertise with her TEFL instruction background, which she honed through a CELTA completed in Cardiff. Her classes not only facilitate language acquisition, but also offer a profound exploration of cultural contexts. By combining yoga postures, breathwork, and mindfulness practices with language lessons, Priscilla nurtures a conducive environment for students to enhance their English skills, while fostering intercultural empathy and student-teacher wellbeing.

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