Lost in Translation: Tips for Teaching Yoga to Nonnative English Speakers


By Sara Avant Stover  |  

Once, while teaching in Paris with a translator, Nischala Joy Devi, international teacher and author of The Secret Power of Yoga and The Healing Path of Yoga, was asked by an English-speaking student if she would return to teach there again.

“There are certainly worse places I could come back to than Paris,” Devi replied, smiling.

The translator delivered her response to the group and, upon seeing the ensuing sea of horrified faces, Devi stammered to the translator, “What did you say to them?”

“That Paris was the worst place you could come to,” the translator answered with a grimace.

Devi is not alone in her miscommunication conundrum. Today many yoga teachers jet around the globe, teaching to diverse audiences. And in the melting pot of the modern world, one need not even leave her hometown to encounter class audiences that include nonnative English speakers.

As teachers, we need to ask ourselves whether our teachings touch the hearts of all our students—regardless of culture, ethnicity, or native language. How can we hone our skills so that students can receive the essence of yoga most potently and effectively?

Out of Your Element

“In any teaching situation, communication with the student is most important,” Devi explains.

“This principle is especially poignant in teaching students with English as their second language. We cannot depend solely on words,” she says. “Rather, add gestures, drawings, or other means of nonverbal communication.”

Patrick Creelman, faculty member of Evolution: Asia Yoga Conference, learned the importance of nonverbal communication while teaching his first classes at Pure Yoga in Hong Kong. “When I first began teaching here, I found my jokes flopped, and the music I played was way off,” he reminisces.

“I was coming from the social influences of Canada and California, and it didn’t make sense to many people [in Hong Kong]. Standing in front of a room full of students and saying, ‘Hello everyone, how are you today?’ pretty much left me in a space of silence every time.”

When faced with the reality that his Asian students were more shy and reserved than their North American counterparts, Creelman had to find new ways to communicate.

“My facial expressions and body language speak much more loudly and clearly,” he explains. “Because our language communication is limited, my gestures carry more power.”

The result? “This has made me smile much more, and move more slowly and with more grace,” he says.

The Upside of Language Barriers

Despite its challenges, teaching cross-culturally can be rewarding.

Jonas Westring, an international teacher of Thai Yoga Bodywork and Anusara Yoga, finds that when he teaches yoga in Asia, the students, while initially shy, display reverence and discipline.

“While this limits the amount of class discussion and dialogue, it has its benefits,” Westring attests.

“I need to get very clear in what I want the students to learn. My awareness of the delivery is increased; and I also have to be vigilant of the students’ expressions to make sure that they are actually ‘getting it.’.”


Lost in Translation?

Internationally renowned Anusara Yoga teacher Desirée Rumbaugh finds that the major difficulty she comes across when teaching to ESL students is the translation of terms.

“For example,” she explains, “the word for surrender to the Japanese could have something to do with Pearl Harbor, while in Germany, ‘opening’ or ‘melting’ your heart translates to open heart surgery!”

Westring agrees that challenges can arise with translation.

“It is difficult to get the more subtle points of yoga teaching across to nonnative speakers,” he says. “We can’t rely on some of our regular teaching tools, such as metaphors, stories, and jokes.”

Using a Translator

When teaching overseas or even to a group of nonnative English speakers at home, a translator can either facilitate or hamper the experience.

If you only have a few nonnative English speakers in your class, consider pairing them with students who you know have a good understanding of yoga. Have them set up their mats next to one another to offer visual cues.

Be sure to speak slowly and clearly, and be very physical and visual with your instructions. Keep a close eye on your ESL students to make sure that they aren’t getting lost. Then offer to answer any questions after class.

When the majority of the students are nonnative English speakers, you will have to arrange for a translator for the class.

“Working with a translator is always challenging,” warns Devi. “The timing and flow are dramatically changed, and when relating a story or presenting a dovetailing concept or idea, it can seem choppy and even ill prepared.”

As a teacher, you need to adjust your usual rhythm and let go of existing concepts about how the class should flow in order to accommodate the translations. This requires more patience and simplicity than you may be used to.

“When I teach with a translator, I have to slow down and learn how to speak one sentence or phrase at a time and then wait,” Rumbaugh says. “Also, there’s not a lot of time for wasted words.”

To overcome this, Devi advises having a high-quality translator who is both familiar with Sanskrit terms and has a strong command of English as well as one who just translates, without inserting personal commentary. It will also help if you elucidate your words, speak slowly, avoid slang, and position yourself in the room so that the translator can easily see your lips.

Westring advises spending time with the translator before class to go over key points that you will address, as well as the overall flow of the program session. “Maintaining eye contact throughout the teaching session is essential,” he adds.

“I also like to pick up a few phrases from the translation and speak in the native language whenever I can,” Rumbaugh says. “Sometimes I have my sponsor translate key phrases for me ahead of time, and then I learn and use them.”

Strategies for Success

Our experts share some of their secrets to help you make your next international teaching experience more smooth.

1. “Relax. Take your time. Be patient and clear. Convey the essence of what you are teaching and don’t get too uptight about all the little details.”—Desirée Rumbaugh


2. “Learn about their country and customs to make your presentation more relevant and alive. Become highly visual. Drop any agenda. Make the students feel at ease. Remember that less is more.”—Jonas Westring

3. “Good demonstrations are essential. Point to the actions, or main teachings, of the demo so that people know what you are asking of them. Go to a few yoga classes in a language you don’t speak to feel what it’s like for yourself. Always come from the heart. When we express ourselves with love and compassion, people are more receptive.”—Patrick Creelman

4. “Avoid using slang or colloquialisms. Use gestures or movements whenever possible. Draw or write on a board and use photos or books. Look directly at the group; reading lips and facial gestures helps them understand. Keep smiling; it is a universal passport!”—Nischala Joy Devi

Sara Avant Stover is a yoga instructor and writer who lives in Chiang Mai, Thailand. She teaches internationally in Asia, Europe, and the United States. Visit her website at www.fourmermaids.com.