In a prior article, I discussed how we yoga instructors will likely find ourselves teaching English Language Learners at some point in our teaching careers (if we haven’t already) – and will therefore have to make certain adjustments in order for them to have the best possible practice experiences under our guidance. Here are some general guidelines for doing just that.
1) Minimize the use of images, analogies, and energetic cueing.
As a teacher, I love to use images and analogies. I think that they offer nearly all students an accessible way of understanding how they enhance their practices. They can be less accessible to ELLs, however, because they often involve idioms - those ways of saying things that are unique to a certain language or regional dialect. Or there are just simpler ways to say the same thing. Being slightly more complex or colorful in how we verbally cue is normally not a problem, and can enhance how students experience their practices.
For those who are learning the English language, it's usually more of a hindrance than a help. Keep it simple and straightforward. For instance, instead of cueing such students to put a "stamp on the wall behind you" when flexing the feet in poses like Three-Legged Downward Dog or Half-Moon Posture (a fine cue that I do use often), simply say "Flex your toes a lot". They won't have to take up mental space thinking about the object of an ink stamp and how one uses it.
And then there are energetic cues, such as "Feel your hands and feet hugging together" in Plank Posture and "Hug muscle to bone" to engage muscles generally. These types of cues can very effectively guide students to the next, more advanced level of asana practice. On the other hand, I know that I personally have at times struggled to understand and implement these types of cues.
For someone just learning the nuances - or even the basic vocabulary - of the English language, that's a far greater challenge. By all means, explore using all of these types of cues, but be prepared with alternatives. Again, in this globalizing world you'll more than likely teach folks who - because they're learning English - will need something more straight-forward.
2) Speak loudly, clearly, and at a moderate to slower pace.
Good diction, volume, and pacing of speech are important, in general, in yoga instruction. ELL students need those things even more from us, however, to make the most of their practices. Be prepared to repeat things if it seems like these students aren't understanding you, or if they directly ask you to (not always the case, so try to stay as perceptive as possible).
To assess the clarity and strength of your verbal instruction, a good technique is to listen to a video or tape-recording of yourself teaching. As with all aspects of our teaching, seeking feedback on the matter - from mentors, fellow teachers, and students - can be enlightening and helpful. If it's the content (rather than quality) of your speech that's contributing to the confusion, again, be prepared with alternate cueing
3) Help them help you teach them in a more accessible way.
If you can decipher what the language gaps might be in these cases, you can get closer to bridging them with a little patience and some mindful questioning. If everyone can be open about what is and isn't translating, then interesting and helpful cultural dialogue can occur. For instance, ELL students can tell you how they say certain things in their native languages. You and other students can then learn some interesting things, about ELLs and about their cultures. At the same time, such conversation can stamp that English language learning in ELL students' minds. Everyone is then practicing more fully, more to their potentials, while supporting one another.
That kind of openness, from all involved, most often takes active prompting from instructors. If there are language barriers, you can ask mindful, sensitive questions about what it is that they're not understanding, and if there are ways (that they might be able to describe) that you can be more understandable to them. All of that will help those students more easily follow, and then benefit from, your instruction in the future. Everyone is also more culturally aware and sensitive at the same time. If yoga is about union, then that's truly yoga!
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