Pictured Above: Sarah Artha Negara with students Amy Malepeai & Jean Garcia

Transformational Language – Part 2

by  Sarah K. Artha Negara, MFA, PMA®-CPT

Each Pilates class is a physical and emotional journey for our students

I have five transformational secrets that I share with all of my teacher trainers. They help them to be more effective teachers, land jobs, and build successful careers. Using these five concepts has proven time and time again to promote a positive, inclusive, and transformative experience for students that keep them coming back for more….

In Part 1 (last week), we covered the first two of the five secrets (Inclusive Language and Action Verbs).  In Part 2 (this week), we’ll cover the remaining three secrets.

Here is a handy reference sheet with all five secrets and some suggestions for specific language cues to use (and to avoid).

Secret 3:  Positive Words

Using positive language to encourage our students and to focus on correcting alignment is more effective than using negative language. Positive language includes telling students what we want them to do (recall Secret 2 “Action Verbs” from Part 1) rather than what we “don’t” want them to do. Exceptions to this rule however, may be if someone is in a dangerous position and/or about to injure themselves. As children, we generally develop a fight or flight response to words like no, stop, don’t, never, etc.  Therefore, if we say to a student, “Don’t grip your neck,” they may very well become tense for at least a moment or two. Instead, saying something like, “Soften the neck muscles,” will get the results we want faster. Once students become familiar with your cues, all you eventually have to say is, “Neck!” and they will know what you mean.

I also teach instructors to omit words like problems, dysfunctions, or bad. Instead, one can label misalignments and injuries as challenges or conditions that one is healing from. If someone is dwelling on an injury, condition, or dysfunction that has been identified by a medical practitioner, we can still speak about it in a less diagnostic and/or permanent light. For example, “All right, let’s get to work on stretching, mobilizing, and strengthening that hip to get you moving with more ease, comfort, and efficiency.” This idea can be incorporated into working with a new student by saying something like, “Are there any injuries your body is healing from today?” If a specific injury is known, for example, a sprained ankle; then one could say, “Is your ankle feeling stronger (or more stable, more flexible, etc.) today?” instead of “How’s your injury?”

In addition, we must be careful not to be too complimentary when it comes to using positive words. It’s easy, but not effective to give empty compliments. These are blanket statements like, “That was perfect,” “Beautiful!” or “Great job!” Compliments like these don’t give students specific feedback, and most of the time they just aren’t true. When did you last perform Boomerang perfectly? Instead, I encourage instructors to elaborate their compliments. For example, “You’re doing a great job of connecting your breath to the movement.” Be specific when giving compliments. If you just can’t help being a super complimentary person, use general phrases like, great effort and nice concentration, phrases that won’t give your client’s illusions of grandeur that may hinder their progress.  If you tell them they’re perfect, they may believe you even though there may still be room for improvement.

Secret 4:  Progressive Language

Progressive language is another great tool that can be used to abate the ego, keep students engaged in activities, and encourage them to meet their goals.  For example, “Just for today, let’s use our elastic bands so we can feel our abdominals more in the Roll Up,” or “As we reach toward our toes, let’s enjoy that nice stretch in the hamstrings.” If instead we use deficient language and say, “If you’re not strong enough yet, use your elastic band in the Roll Up,” how many people do you think are going to utilize their elastic bands? Not many, if any!

Often, students don’t want to try modifications because they think they don’t need them, they don’t like change, or they don’t want to stand out in the crowd. Using language that gives permission for students to try something new just for today is almost like a dare, which tricks students into being more open to experimenting with a new approach, trying a variation, etc.

Progressive language can also be used to help our clients push themselves a little further than they would go without our encouraging words. For instance, a teacher can say, “Great effort! Remember you’re getting stronger with each repetition. Let’s finish up with 3 more reps. 3-2-1!”

Using progressive language can also encourage positive thinking (see Secret 3).  Instead of using phrases like, “Wow, your body is totally messed up, I’m sorry.”, you could say, “I see there are some asymmetries in your body’s alignment today, so let’s work toward balancing those out to get you stronger.” The second sentence uses inclusive language, action verbs, positive words, and progressive language. It helps clients understand that you see them as a holistic being and capable of change. How we see and speak about our clients’ bodies may help to shape their own views of their bodies as well – an amazing vehicle that is always changing and capable of transformation.


Pictured Above: College of San Mateo Teacher Training Students


Secret 5:  Mindfulness

Finally, our teaching should also be mindful. When speaking of mindfulness, we must think of our clients’ mental states, as well as our own. Since our brain doesn’t connect to their nervous systems, even the most experienced, knowledgeable, and intuitive instructors need to check-in with students occasionally to see what they are feeling, ask if they have any questions, and/or take special requests at the beginning of a session/class. I have found that intermediate level instructors tend to be the best at check-ins. Beginning level teachers are just trying to remember the basics (set up, movement sequence, breath, etc.), and more advanced teachers have so much knowledge that they’re Rubik’s cubing that they sometimes forget to check-in with the clients during the session.

In addition to our clients, I recommend, as instructors that we also try to check-in with our own mental state of focus and what is going on in our bodies throughout our sessions and workday. If we are not focused and centered, it is more challenging for our clients to achieve that state as well. Checking-in can be as simple as focusing on our breath during our commute to work, taking a moment to notice if anything is mentally and/or physically taxing us lately and visualize dumping it into the garbage, or taking a few minutes to meditate prior to our shift or in a quiet space between clients. Throughout our sessions, as we remind our students to listen to their bodies, bring awareness to their posture, breath, and alignment, we can also take moments to become aware of our own.

Wrapping It Up

So there you have it.  Five instructional secrets that I share with all of my teacher trainers. The tips are simple and practical, but not always easy to put into play. I do my best to implement these tools into my own teaching, but certainly I slip up here and there using some nos, don’ts, and yous, etc. The point is to continually strive to do our best today, to continue growing our consciousness as teachers, and to try to create the most positive, inclusive, and transformative experience we can for students in order to keep them moving, progressing, smiling, feeling amazing, and coming back for more!

bio-picSarah K. Artha Negara, MFA, PMA®-CPT, ACE-CPT, NASM-PES is a dance and kinesiology educator, founder and director of College of San Mateo’s Pilates Instructor Certificate Program, a Balanced Body master instructor, and owner of Bali Body Pilates. Sarah has an MFA from Mills College and BFA from CSU Long Beach. She studied extensively with Karen Clippinger at CSULB and is a proud graduate of the first teacher training class held at Turning Point Studios (lead by Nora St. John and Naomi Leiserson). To learn more about upcoming trainings, classes, CEC workshops, and retreats visit www.balibodypilates.com