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Learning More than Language In Italian Class

At a language school in Umbria, a writer learns to speak from the heart.

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Spreading out my new travel yoga mat in the dim, tiny space between my bed and an oversize wardrobe, I tried to stand in Vrksasana (Tree Pose). The heat in this small town in the heart of Italy was already around a hundred degrees, and from the pizzeria below my apartment came shouts, followed by a series of crashing sounds. I wobbled and fell over. Craving light and air, I pushed open the shutters a crack, but any farther and I knew my clumsy attempts would be fully visible to the diners at the roof restaurant directly outside my window.

At this point, all I really wanted was Savasana—or, as the Italians would have it, siesta. I’d spent the morning in an intensive language course, combining grammar and vocabulary with exercises designed to delve into the deeper motivations behind what we say. The goals were inspiring—to overcome ingrained perceptions, release negative thought patterns, increase tolerance, and speak from a more authentic place, using yoga breathing and visualizations. But after a few days, I was feeling the strain.

I’d arrived in Todi, an ancient Umbrian hill town, by a circuitous route that started with a yoga retreat in California’s Santa Cruz Mountains. There, during a visualization exercise, we were invited to encounter our future selves. This wasn’t easy for me. My mother’s recent death after years of suffering made me fearful of looking too closely into my own future.

Lying flat on the floor, gazing at the redwood trees outside, I had to fight against images of disability, old age, and loneliness. And then, without rhyme or reason, I found myself mentally transported to a terra-cotta-colored cottage on a gentle hillside in Umbria. My future self opened the door for me. She led me around, showing me her writing room, the garden, and a yoga mat, all in sunlit, earthy colors. She was the centered, vital, productive person I hoped to be—and she spoke Italian, which I’d intended to learn since I was 19.

A few months later I was on my way to La Lingua La Vita, a language school that is experimenting with a whole new way to learn. After three art-filled days in Florence, I left the world of tourism and traveled south in a bright red two-carriage train. Built in pre-Etruscan times, Todi stands on a grand hill, its high walls still bearing their Etruscan, Roman, and medieval history like honorable scars.

Classes were held in an old seminary perched at the top, behind a 12th-century cathedral with a carved arched doorway and a delicate pink stone facade overlooking the main piazza. Students in the main part of the language school were learning practical conversational Italian, such as: Quanto costa un biglietto ferroviario di prima classe da Milano a Roma? (“How much is a first-class train ticket from Milan to Rome?”) Useful stuff, to be sure. But my course, called Beyond Language, was teaching me to speak about things that never appear in the standard phrasebooks—facing fears and healing old traumas—and to observe how the words I choose affect my attitude.

Often during class the instructors would ask us to focus on our physical sensations. The reminders prompted me to observe the flares my ego sends up—nervousness, self-criticism, and the frustration that often comes with learning something new—and return to the task at hand. Breathing evenly helped me recall the sense of groundedness and proportion that yoga brings.

As the classes progressed, I struggled to confront—in Italian—my nemico interiore (inner enemy), convinzioni (convictions), paure (fears), and atteggiamenti (attitudes). The exercises made me aware of shadowy parts of my life that I resisted as I glimpsed the inviting sunlight in the trees outside. But the work became exhilarating as the connections between language and life grew clearer. Redefining goals forced me to learn future tense and reflexive verbs. To speak of possibility, I had to tackle the conditional. Acknowledging good and bad qualities aloud felt liberating—in Italian, even charming.

When we began speaking Italian in situations that were alive and emotionally fraught, staying centered became even more crucial. Conventional language classes teach useful phrases, but in the heat of a real situation—someone nabbing your taxi or asking a personal question—they’re liable to fly out of your head. By maintaining presence of mind even when you express things you feel strongly, you come closer to the reality of the moment.

This idea was tested during an improvisation that involved pitting Io (Self) against Paura (Fear) and enlisting the help of Fiducia (Faith). We took turns acting out the parts, hamming them up, which helped us barrel through, mistakes and all. This exercise felt scary at first. But the power of drumming up words to protest, affirm, and triumph over humiliation ultimately brought me to calmness.

Toward the end of the two-week course, when I was asked to re-experience and describe a moment of pure happiness, I balked. This seemed too personal, too demanding. On the point of begging off, I suddenly recalled an hour spent sitting in a deserted cloister in Florence, gazing at The Deluge, a fresco by Paolo Uccello. It had been damaged by over 500 years of exposure to the air as well as by the devastating floods of 1966. Yet its furious energy directly conveyed the painter’s grappling both with the story of Noah’s flood and with perspective, the primary technical challenge of his time. Both artist and painting had faced immense challenges, yet come through with their essential spirit intact.

Hesitantly, I started to conjure the picture in words, its burnt umbers and russets, strange figures, and surreal angles. The artist had forged a unity out of chaos, death, horror, longing, and beauty, and its mystery set my heart pounding. My language skills were not up to this challenge, but the power of the painting made me forget worries about grammar. As my focus intensified, I breathed more easily, full of joy about being with the fresco—maybe even in it—once again. I was seeing it, feeling its impact—and talking about it!

All at once, my teacher Giorgia was clapping and shouting, “Brava! Bravissima!” I had no idea what I’d said. But in the heat of the moment, I’d forged enough language to express this mysterious experience. For me, it was a spiritual breakthrough as well as a linguistic one. The exercise had helped me find the fortitude to speak from a deep place, forget myself and my inadequacies, and lose myself in the experience. This was something I aimed for through yoga and meditation, but now, for the first time, language had taken me there.

There’s an old proverb: To learn a new language is to gain a new soul. Learning like this did feel a little like being reborn—haltingly, shyly, I was gaining a new understanding of myself while tackling the tenses, syntax, and idiom of a different way of looking at the world.

The future self I’d envisioned at the yoga retreat among the redwoods possessed the abhaya, or security, of someone who had learned to accept and inhabit her truth. I came to Umbria to find her—and, che fortuna!—she spoke Italian.

Diana Reynolds Roome, who lives in Mountain View, California, first encountered yoga in India more than three decades ago.