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

Teaching to nonnative English speakers is challenging, but these tips will help you make sure your teaching transcends all language and cultural barriers.

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.’."

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