Yoga with an Accent
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.
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