Yoga as a language lab

In 16 years of living overseas, I have often lamented my monolingual brain. Sure, I picked up a pretty good amount of Turkish, Mandarin, and even Lao (then I totally dropped the ball in English-saturated India and learned almost no Hindi). Despite the inner glow of success that radiated confidence when I chatted with waiters, haggled at markets, booked hotel reservations, asked for directions, ordered food at restaurants, and understood signs around town, I always knew the cruel fact: It wasn’t enough. There’s no way to fully integrate into a host country’s culture without a deep dive into the language.

Since arriving in Chile, we’ve encountered less English than in any of our other four postings. Suddenly, learning the language feels urgent. It was actually a big reason we moved here. I’ve always wanted to learn Spanish. Now I just feel like I need to learn Spanish.

In general, I am an eager, inhibition-free language learner. I embrace mistakes and laugh at myself. I pay attention to the language around me and try to adopt it. A total grammar dork, I love identifying false cognates. “Estoy embarazada” does NOT mean “I’m embarrassed,” for example. (Yep, I said that to my fifth graders last semester.)

Tony and I took three weeks of intensive Spanish during the semester break, but it feels like nothing stuck. Now we have a hard-core tutor coming over once a week with piles of vocabulary and grammar assignments. Still, I know what I have to do. Get out of the apartment and talk to Chileans! Why is that so scary?

Barely able to babble in Spanish, I feel caught in a frustrating cycle: I can’t learn Spanish until I am forced to use it, but I’m too nervous to put myself in situations where I’m forced to use it.

Today, I finally decided to stop being such a wuss. I decided it would be best to immerse myself in an activity which I know well. Then I wouldn’t have to start from scratch. I would already understand the concepts, so I would only have to learn the Spanish vocabulary. I rolled up my yoga mat and walked to the nearby studio, Yogashala.

On the way there, I practiced saying in Spanish, “Can I try a class, please?” So far, I only know present-tense verbs, but I knew they would ask about my yoga background and physical issues. I had an answer for them: “I practice yoga many years, but now I have a bad knee.”

I was so nervous.

As I explore Santiago, I am discovering that you can’t guess what lies behind the fence in many neighborhoods. From the street, Yoga Shala looks like a three-story house. I rang the bell and was buzzed through the gate into a tranquil, shady courtyard with a bamboo-lined flagstone path. I entered the building and greeted the receptionist. In Spanish, she asked me to leave my shoes outside on the shelf. (I understood! I understood!) After ditching my Chacos, I recited my practiced phrase about trying a class. She said si, told me the price (6,000 pesos, or about $9 U.S.), asked for my Chilean ID number, and then directed me to the room. Whew! I felt immensely proud to have come this far.

About 10 people had already staked out spots in the room, so I followed their lead by unrolling my mat and grabbing a cushion and folded blanket from the cubbies on the wall. I whispered hola to the woman next to me, but we were obviously meant to stay quiet, so I spent the next few minutes trying to relax and prepare for class.

I glanced around the room. Caribiners clipped stretchy bands with plastic handles to one wall, while the opposite wall featured horizontal barres, like you see in a ballet classroom. The shelves and cubbies were filled with yoga props, including several racks of folded chairs. I don’t have much experience with Iyengar yoga, which is famous for its use of whatever it takes to correct your alignment, so that realization suddenly merged with my language anxiety, and I felt my face go warm with stress.

When the teacher, Polly, arrived, she scoped out the room and identified the newcomers. She gestured to a man and asked if he had ever come to the studio before. No, he hadn’t. Then she asked his name. Felipe. OK, now it was my turn, and I was totally ready! She asked if it was my first time at the studio. Instead of responding, primera vez, which means “first time,” I said, primavera vez, which means “spring time.” Polly looked a little confused, but she must have made the leap because she calmly asked for my name and then began the class.

Polly talked a lot. I tried to focus on what she was saying, but mostly I just used the environmental cues (that’s education-speak for “copy what the other kids are doing”). We started in a cross-legged sitting position with our hands in namaste. We chanted “om” three times, and then she led a choral-response chant in Spanish that I couldn’t follow.

Once we started moving into asanas, Polly’s directions were pretty clear. She would model a sequence first and then talk us through it. I found I could understand many of the directions, especially when she used the sanskrit names for the poses. However, the Spanish names sounded familiar, too: downward dog was el perro, and child’s pose was el niño. I was feeling pretty optimistic.

Then, as I lay down on two wooden blocks – one under my head and one under my torso, Polly said, “Sharon, blahdeblahdeblah.” I sat up to see what she meant, and she huffed a bit in frustration. In English, she said, “Move your block directly under your shoulder blades to open your chest.”

From that point on, she occasionally switched to perfect English to correct my form. I thought at first she might be annoyed to do so, but she soon softened and served up encouragement in both Spanish and English. At the end of class, we chatted a bit. I told her I would love to use as little English as possible in future classes, and she agreed to help me build my yoga vocabulary. “I only spoke English because I told you to do something, and you didn’t do it,” she laughed. (Story of my life.)

I realized the yoga lexis set includes body parts and directional words, as well as a few basic verbs. For example, I understood the Spanish instructions when she told us to lower our arms to transition out of Warrior or to make sure our legs were straight in Revolved Triangle or to lie down for Savasana.

Sometimes I think about young, crazy, risk-taker Sharon. She wouldn’t have balked at a yoga class in a foreign language. What changed? Why does 50-year-old Sharon have to muster up so much courage? It’s yoga, for god’s sake. I was pretty much guaranteed a kind, compassionate group of people.

Anyway, I feel great that I did it, physically, emotionally, and linguistically. My goal for next time is to strike up a conversation with another member of the class. I’ll practice some key phrases ahead of time, but she will probably say something I don’t understand. And we’ll laugh. And I’ll learn. And that’s what it’s all about.

3 thoughts on “Yoga as a language lab”

  1. I’ve always enjoyed reading about your adventures Shaz. You have a way of putting the reader right in the middle of the action along with you.

    Nutter

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *