If you’ve ever taught or practiced Ashtanga in another country, you probably already know that we share a common language. Ekam, dve, and trini are equally understood by practitioners the world over. The words are guides like the eight limbs we ascribe to, providing us a structure upon which to build and hopefully deepen as we practice. What happens, though, when you want to convey more than the vinyasa count, and our common language is not enough? As a typical monolingual American, I recently found myself teaching in the Spanish speaking Canary Islands for two months and here’s some things I discovered:
1. Body language works wonders. If you’ve taught for a while and practice daily, you know the importance of verbal skills to communicate. Demonstrating is a last resort for most teachers I know and an act of self-preservation. However, when all else fails and the language barrier is a mile high, it works. The first words I learned were, ‘sigueme’ (follow me) and ‘mirame’ (watch me) and were incredibly useful, especially with a room full of beginners. Or moments of total brain freeze.
2. Actions speak louder than words. In a Mysore room, adjusting is commonplace. In led or beginning classes too, straightening a limb or coaxing a shoulder down can be done quickly, efficiently, and lightly so as not to freak anyone out or disturb the rhythm of the class.
3. Use Guruji as a guide. We all know Guruji’s command of the English language was minimal- and yet perfect. Why you do? Bad lady! You go! It was simple, direct and to the point. No need to be verbose. Learn to say what is needed as easily and directly as possible: respira (breath), mova mas despacio (move more slowly), mas recta (more straight), mala mujer (yes, bad lady).
4. No fearing. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. If you’re trying to learn a language it’s inevitable to make tons of them and feel like a total idiot all the time. Nothing will keep you more humble than doing it while teaching a yoga class. Hint: Don’t confuse your hombros (shoulders) for your hombres (men).
5. It’s not about you. Even when you feel your brain strain as you think in English, speak in Spanish and count in Sanskrit and amaze yourself with the small victories of language comprehension along the way; you are there to assist others with their practice of Ashtanga yoga to the best of your ability. That is always the priority.
6. Less is more. Not teaching in English made me realize just how many words I use when I do. It may be helpful, even necessary at times, but is certainly not mandatory. I see how I can say just as much with a lot less and hopefully not detract others from their present moment awareness.
7. The language of the practice is universal. I’ve practiced and taught in numerous countries enough to see. Beyond all the words, beyond samasthiti and all the bad ladies, something draws us all to practice. As we explore the depths of our humanness in its infinite forms there is a call to transform, to transcend that which we think we are – wherever we are. What arises, what is realized, between a mat and a practitioner at any one time, is the same in Japan, Russia or a living room in Belfast. It’s an alchemical language – like love – and knows no boundaries.
Sonja Radvila teaches Mysore Practice around the world
Do you have any thoughts on Sonja’s seven things? To what extent do these resonate with your own experiences? What are the seven most important things you’ve learnt from your own Yoga practice? Or the practice of teaching others Yoga? Have you ever taught Yoga in a context where language was not the best form of communication with the group? Please add your thoughts below.