In the Yoga Industry, Words Matter.

by Dr. Anni Engelhardt

There is an epidemic of words existing in the fitness and healthcare communities that although may possess good intentions, perpetuate behavior that will have lasting effects on the people upon which they land. These words encourage negative self talk and body image, sweep self-efficacy under the rug, and ultimately create a hostile environment of competition and comparison for the client.

Six months ago, I co-founded an online women’s fitness company as its chief yoga instructor and operations manager, and I am a full time physical therapist and medical therapeutic yoga instructor. As it is my first time building a business, I am learning how crucial marketing and appropriate messaging is as our firm grows. When used thoughtfully, marketing is a tool in communicating the value of our movement classes to potential customers. However, the way aspirational marketing has been historically employed in fitness culture plays into our collective insecurities particularly as women: our bodies are wrong they way they are naturally.

The other morning I inspected the marketing materials and words used and presented in my PT clinic’s waiting room. I rummaged through the various stacks of magazines and studied the ones that included women, fitness, or some combination of the two on the front page. I collected some of the keywords used on the covers and in the headline articles. I noticed a pattern.

The literature, littered with fear-mongering, feminine idealism, promoted “beauty” and “skinny” as end goals for their purported advice. Words that spur comparison like younger and perfect filled the pages; adjectives like cranky and creaky described the body. These examples imply that something is wrong, something must be done and the options are black or white: either cured or in pain, best or worstthin or thick, young or old. Little to no emphasis on the experience of feeling good, feeling healthy, or any middle ground leaves so many of us with a sense of not belonging. Real people exist somewhere in the gray areas.

Of course, this is not news to feminists, or news at all really in Western culture, but I am deeply bothered that it continues despite our knowledge of how harmful body idealism is for women’s health and self-esteem. There is an undeniable correlation between the words we’re exposed to and the development of anxiety, depression, and eating disorders. This language doesn’t stay in these magazines, it becomes activated in healthcare and fitness communities too. How often do we hear the phrase “you should be able to…(fill in the blank here)” in an exercise class? Again, the wrongs words push class participants to compare themselves to a norm, or worse yet, drive them to move beyond their body’s limits to feel “successful” during exercise.

As a healthcare and wellness professional, it is my obligation and privilege to dismantle the effects of such harmful language by actively searching for elegant, empowered words in my yoga classes. It was during my ongoing education at the Professional Yoga Therapy Institute that I felt the significance of employing skillful language as an instructor. The coursework encourages the use of “poetic language,” a strategy using words to curate an introspective experience for the listener and class participant. The escape from anatomical jargon fosters imagination and meditation, rather that judgement and comparison. I understood firsthand in my own body and asana practice how purposeful, compassionate language was affecting me: it was changing the way I spoke to myself. Now, I am grateful for the poetic language I actively choose when I teach yoga, and see the benefits of, in my work as a physical therapist.

It is possible to sow seeds of self-care in an exercise experience. How can the fitness and health community develop a common dialect that supports the exerciser to tune in rather than tune out? Is it truly possible to affect deeper, more significant shifts for our clients when instructors challenge themselves to use words creatively and strategically? My answer is a generous, whole-hearted yes! I encourage anybody reading who isn’t familiar with this kind of cuing to use it on yourself; jot down a list of adjectives and verbs that describe your movement that are open-ended, positive in nature, focused on the five senses, and guide you into a personal, introspective experience. Then, teach a class to yourself using only those words, and notice their effects. You will find your experience and your teaching transformed.

Words, indeed, do matter.