I took a course in another language. What I learned surprised me

April 29, 2023 0 Comments

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Inhale… exhale… inhale… exhale

Inhale… Exhale… Inhale… Exhale

In the yoga class I attended, the teacher spoke in her native language. German. A language I don’t speak. Well, I know a few important sentences: “You speak English,” “I’m sorry, I don’t speak German,” and most importantly, “Let me have a glass of red wine.” Apart from these three phrases, I am completely useless.

I arrived in Germany on Friday ready to spend a year in Hamburg as I was transferred due to work. After a few days of recovering from jet lag and exploring my new city, I knew where to buy groceries and how to get to the office without directions. Just a few blocks from my apartment, I found a cafe that serves delicious mushroom tacos and a mean mezcal margarita. Now it’s time to look for a yoga studio in my area.

For more than a decade, as I moved from one end of the United States to the other and back to study, work, and live, yoga was the foundation of my wellness routine and my social circle. Now I found myself in a completely new city. I craved social contact, and yoga felt familiar and safe.

Fighting vulnerability

An internet search turned up a studio nearby and I took a class. I took the address off their website but the exact location was unclear. Then I noticed a woman a few steps ahead of me on the sidewalk, also holding a yoga mat. I followed her into what looked like an office building and we exchanged confused looks. She said something to me in German, but I was too proud to admit that I couldn’t understand her. Instead, I responded with a nervous laugh and a shrug, hoping that was an appropriate response.

The aroma of incense was a clear sign that we were in the right place. The studio space turned out to be an oasis of warmth in a building made of cold tiles and sharp edges. As I was going through the registration process, the teacher informed me that she would be teaching in German and that if I got confused I could call her. For the first time, I questioned my plan to attend class. I have practiced yoga for thirteen years and at one time had my own yoga studio. As someone who struggles with humility and the need to be perfect, the teacher’s call for personal help was a level of vulnerability I usually try to avoid.

I placed my mat in the back of the room and sat excitedly as the space filled with bodies and the familiar hushed chatter that echoes before class begins. But these loud whispers were different. They were in a language I didn’t know, so instead of offering me interesting gossip to eavesdrop on, they acted as a reminder that I was, in fact, an outsider.

The clock struck the hour, the door closed, and the teacher walked to the front of the classroom, where she took her place on her mat.

Finding the familiar in something new

The language of yoga is Sanskrit, one of the oldest languages ​​in the world—and yet another language whose knowledge is limited to just a few words and phrases. Based on the English names of the poses, I can teach yoga without it. My 200-hour yoga teacher training took place in Mexico, but was taught in English. I didn’t even have to use the Spanish I remembered from school and college.

Now here I was, being led through meditation in a language I didn’t understand, in a city I was just getting to know. How was I to be directed to my inner peace when I could not understand the instructions? We were supposed to close our eyes, but if I did, how would I know she was starting to make small movements? I came to seek consolation; I felt only restlessness.

But like everyone else in the room, I sat cross-legged on a meditation cushion with my hands on my hips. I closed my eyes. I took a deep breath through my nose. As I audibly exhaled through my mouth, I was met with the sound of a collective exhalation. It was a sound I knew. It was familiar. We inhaled again. Breathing through the nose; exhale through the mouth. We found a rhythm in the room. I felt the tension between my shoulder blades ease.

Let the breath be the guide

When we switched from meditation to yoga, I realized I loved it. In fact, there was something magical about not understanding every word the teacher said. Of course, as a teacher, I knew the sequence of sun salutations. I didn’t need to know the German translation of Ardha Uttanasana to lift in half forward bend. I just had to watch my breathing.

Watch your breathing. This is what yoga teachers say, something I have said countless times in my classes. Move with your breath. But I never felt it on that level because my breath was now my only vehicle.

For the next sixty minutes I moved and breathed. I stretched, twisted, balanced, and strengthened myself, following the instructions of the students around me as we moved into new sequences. I heard the Sanskrit names for some of the poses used in class and appreciated their familiarity. But mostly I listened to my breath. Inhaling, I stretched my arms to the ceiling, exhaling, leaning forward to the mat.

Language beyond words

In this class, I learned that yoga transcends language. Breath has no language. Come on and Exhale maybe it wasn’t the words I understood, but the sound of people filling their lungs with a deep breath and the forceful release of the exhale? These were known to me.

I became a regular at this studio. Each time I took a class with a new instructor, I learned to embrace the vulnerability I had so often pushed away. My German vocabulary has expanded to include words for right, left, leg and hand. I roll out my mat with a new level of humility because I know I depend on the people in front of me and beside me to help show me the way. And, for the most part, I’m much more present in my body and connected to my breath because it really is my guide.

Inhale… Exhale… Inhale… Exhale

Inhale… exhale… inhale… exhale

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