Yoga with an Accent


By Meghan Searles Gardner  |  

Every yoga teacher—and every yoga student—knows the “yoga voice.” Soft but confident, gentle but reassuring, often in the lower register of one’s range, this voice is the soothing sound of meditation and asana instruction around the world. In the same way that newscasters around the country train their voices to sound neutral and accentless, teachers may adjust their voices to sound calm, soothing, energizing, or supportive, depending on the needs of their students and the intentions of their classes.

Although the yoga voice is universal, our individual voices are, by definition, unique. Our accents, intonations, and expressions are a fundamental part of who we are and how we teach. A native Southerner’s drawl might change her pronunciation of Vrksasana; a New Yorker might bring a city-smart sense of humor to his classes; someone from South America might pepper her instruction with Spanish or Portuguese phrases.

This presents a challenge for teachers: To what degree does our native tongue, dialect, or accent impact our teaching—and should we change how we speak naturally in order to adopt the yoga voice that students know and love? More fundamentally, how does where we come from define who we are—and what we bring to the world as teachers?

Speaking the Truth

At the heart of the yoga voice question is authenticity. The yogic tenet asteya (nonstealing) requires that yogis work to live truthfully, which includes thinking and speaking with honesty. While this can generally be taken to mean that we shouldn’t lie, it also implies that we should speak authentically, without masking or changing our inner thoughts as we express them outwardly.

Asteya puts us in tricky territory when it comes to our voices. As anyone who has moved to a new region of the country or spent time in a country where they don’t speak the language can tell you, our awareness of how we sound can cause us to change what we say and how we say it. Kerry Jordan, a yoga teacher and massage therapist, lives, works, and practices in Boston but hails from New Jersey—or, as she jokingly puts it, “New Joisie.” She carried a slight Garden State accent with her when she moved north.

“While I don’t really have a strong accent, my natural tone is kind of loud and fast and probably more nasal than I’d like to admit . . . so I sound very ‘New Jersey,’” she says. Jordan’s awareness of her voice has led her to evaluate and adjust how she sounds—but, as she explains, it’s less about self-consciousness than it is about consciousness of the Self.

“When I’m teaching, it’s not so much that I’m trying to suppress that or hide my roots, it’s more that my speech becomes part of the practice,” says Jordan. “During asana practice, we’re trying to bring mindfulness to our movements that we don’t often practice in our everyday lives. When I’m teaching, I need to be mindful of the tone, the words, and the emphasis I choose because, generally, it’s not easy to explain mindfulness. I need a lot of what I would call ‘linguistic tools’ to convey the real essence of mindfulness to my students.”

To Jordan, then, being aware of how she sounds isn’t about trying to emulate a yoga voice but rather about creating an environment that fosters the intentions and the spirit of yoga.

Caroline Clark Bihldorff, who teaches vinyasa and restorative yoga as well as yoga therapy, agrees that the quality and tone of her voice helps create a “container” for each class, helping set its pace and feeling.

“For example, if I’m teaching a class of people who are working on depression, I’ll ensure there’s a certain strength or liveliness or vibrancy to my voice in order to hold that space open for the students,” explains Bihldorff. “On the flip side, if someone is working on anxiety, I’ll bring a gentleness and ease to my voice. I focus a lot on these therapeutic aspects in teaching, and the voice is a really great tool for introducing that essence—such as providing more pitta energy in a class where people are slumping forward.”

If Bihldorff’s voice is a tool for communicating a certain kind of energy, it is one that she honed early in life. Born in Connecticut, she moved with her family to Europe at the age of three and subsequently relocated every two years or so for her father’s work. The child of an English mother and a French father, Bihldorff had lived in Germany, France, and several U.S. states by the time she was a teenager. Seeking a sense of permanence, she and her brother both decided to attend boarding school in England at the age of 13. Bihldorff returned to the U.S. to attend Wesleyan College in Connecticut and has spent time in Connecticut, New York, and Boston since graduation; she now teaches in Boston.

As a result of her geographic rootlessness, Bihldorff says she has always been very conscious of her accent. “My accent was always different from where we lived,” she notes. “I was aware of the flexibility of my accent, and I could change it based on where I was in the world—at a young age this was really more to fit in.”

Now, says Bihldorff, her global accent is “still in there somewhere,” and she can’t help but have it distinguish her as a teacher. She finds her voice is “interesting” to students. “It opens a door for human-to-human conversation,” she explains. “When students ask, ‘Where are you from?’ it’s a great opener to let them tell their stories as well about where they come from. I don’t intentionally use my accent to stand out as a teacher; it’s more that people notice, and I’ve heard comments like, ‘Oh, I love the way you say that.”

The Sound of Distraction

No matter how much time yoga teachers spend assessing their own voices, the reality is that how we sound has a direct impact on our classes. “Students are really sensitive to their instructors’ voices and word choice,” notes Kerry Jordan, who cites an example from her own experience listening to a CD made by a famous yoga teacher, whose phrasing during a particular instruction is so distracting to Jordan that it’s hard for her to play the CD anymore. “Every time [I hear it], it buzzes in my ear like a mosquito,” she says.

Jordan acknowledges that her reaction to the teacher’s manner of speaking could be considered shallow or unimportant—the quality of the instruction is terrific, and the teacher has lots of insights to share. But her experience likely resonates with teachers and students everywhere who have been distracted by an instructor’s manner of speaking.

Anna Carbonell, who is a yoga coordinator and teacher at Exhale mind/body spa in New York City, says she has to be especially mindful of the way her voice sounds because English is her second language. A native Filipina, Carbonell arrived in New York as a young teenager. Now in her early 30s, Carbonell retains a slight Filipino accent and a strong connection to her roots.

“The tricky part is, some people don’t hear any accent at all,” she remarks. But knowing she has an accent, she adds, “I purposely speak more clearly and I try to choose my words carefully. I’m very mindful of the way I speak in class to make sure that I am quite clear.”

Carbonell recalls an incident where she was instructing her class to move in a certain way and a student became frustrated because she couldn’t understand Carbonell’s instruction. “I thought I was making myself clear,” she remembers. “I was not aware that I was speaking too fast—after that, I made sure I repeated myself in the case my accent may have impeded my instruction. Now, I say it once, then I look around the room; if I see students who appear to be unclear about the instruction, I repeat it.”

Carbonell’s approach likely resonates with all teachers—don’t we all have to be sure we offer clear instruction? “Yes,” she says, “but for a nonnative English speaker, it’s a little more of a challenge.”

Carbonell’s and Jordan’s experiences bring up an important question: Once we are aware of how our accents change the way we sound, how consciously should we try to change them? Isn’t how we speak a fundamental part of who we are?

It’s helpful to consider the question in light of aparigraha, or nongrasping. This yama reminds us that while we can work hard for something, we have to detach from—or not grasp at—the outcome that we are trying to achieve. In this context, the teaching tells us that we can work hard to create the right yoga voice for our students, but the result of that work isn’t really up to us. We will still sound like ourselves.

The Voice That Calls Us Back Home

Although our unique voices sometimes pose challenges for students and teachers, they offer an enormous opportunity as well. Accents communicate something about where we are from—and those roots can open up new perspectives and impart new wisdom to our students.

As an example, Carbonell notes that she has a “strong connection” to the Philippines, and that connection to her culture speaks volumes in the classroom. “In my culture, we are a people who think about the needs of others first. Yoga is about serving, which is in my blood—hospitality and service is very important in Filipino culture, so it is easy for me to take that into the practice.”

For Bihldorff, the question of connection gets to the heart of yogic philosophy and to both the insights and the samskaras (patterns), or emotional and energetic “scars,” that she brings to her practice and to her teaching. “Something that I’ve been very interested in and saddened by is that there are elements of judgment and division in the yoga community,” she says. “It’s something I’m very aware of as a teacher.”

Bihldorff’s awareness of her separateness, based in part on her accent, is a samskara she has carried with her, and one that has informed her practice and her teaching. As someone whose accent always has made her stand apart—especially as a child—Bihldorff notes that her awareness of that perceived division, based purely on the sound of her voice, makes her especially interested in finding unity among the various yoga communities. “Being open to the way the different schools do things is what I try to focus on as the foundation of my practice,” she says.

Our individual voices can collectively have an enormous impact not just on our students but on the entire system of yoga teaching, in this country and beyond. A true yoga voice is neither a bland reduction of accents nor a strong accent spoken without awareness of how we might sound to others. Rather, the true voice of yoga is both completely individual and consciously tailored to the nature of our work as teachers: to create safe, welcoming, and open spaces where students can hear the meaning of our words and translate them into their own practice.

Put practically, that means that, as teachers, we should be aware of the tone we set with our voices. But it doesn’t mean that we should change who we are. Our individual voices help define both our practice and the wisdom we impart by helping others with their practice.

Kerry Jordan puts it this way: “In America, yoga is a group activity. This is great for a lot of reasons, but it makes it very hard to focus inward and connect in a meaningful way, one-to-one, with a teacher. For this reason I’m always telling students, ‘If you don’t like my class, take another. It doesn’t mean you don’t like yoga or that yoga doesn’t “work” for you. It’s entirely possible that there’s something about me that doesn’t (no pun intended) speak to you. And it could be as simple as the sound of my voice.’”

Meghan Searles Gardner is a freelance writer and yoga teacher in Boston. You can email her at meghansearles@yahoo.com.