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I Took a Yoga Class in Another Language. What I Learned Surprised Me

Moving to another country gave one yoga teacher a chance to learn the universal language of the practice

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In the yoga class I was taking, the teacher was speaking in her native language. German. A language I do not speak. Well, I do know a few important sentences: “Do you speak English,” “I’m sorry, I don’t speak German,” and, most importantly, “May I please have a glass of red wine.” Beyond those three phrases, I’m pretty useless.

I arrived in Germany on a Friday, ready to spend a year in Hamburg having been relocated for my work. After a few days recovering from jet lag and exploring my new city, I knew where to buy my groceries and how to get to the office without directions. I had located a taco joint only a few blocks from my apartment that served both a delicious mushroom taco and a mean mezcal margarita. Now it was time to look for a yoga studio in my neighborhood.

For more than a decade, as I have moved from one side of the United States to the other and back again for school, work, and life, yoga has been a mainstay of my wellness routine and of my social circle. Now, here I was in an entirely new city. I was craving social contact and yoga was familiar and safe.

Struggling With Vulnerability

An internet search identified a studio nearby and I headed out for a class. I took down the address from their website but the exact location wasn’t clear. Then I spotted a woman a few steps ahead of me on the sidewalk also carrying a yoga mat. I followed her into what looked like an office building and we shared a look of mutual confusion. She said something to me in German, but I was too proud to admit I couldn’t understand her. Instead, I responded with a nervous laugh and shoulder shrug, hopeful it was a fitting reply.

The scent of incense was a telltale sign that we were in the right spot. The studio space turned out to be an oasis of warmth in a building of cold tiles and sharp edges. As I navigated the check-in process, the teacher informed me she would be instructing in German, and that if I was confused I could call her over. For the first time, I questioned my plan to attend a class. I had been practicing yoga for thirteen years and had at one time owned a yoga studio of my own. As someone who struggles with humility and the need to be perfect, calling a teacher over for personal assistance was a level of vulnerability I normally try to avoid.

I positioned my mat toward the back of the room and sat anxiously as the space filled with bodies and the familiar low-volumed chatter that takes place before classes start. These loud whispers were different, though. They were in a language I didn’t know, so instead of offering me entertaining gossip to eavesdrop on, they acted as a reminder that I was, in fact, an outsider.

The clock struck the hour, the door was closed, and the instructor made her way to the front of the classroom where she took her place on her mat.

Finding the Familiar in Something New

The language of yoga is Sanskrit, one of the oldest languages in the world—and another language where my knowledge is limited to only a handful of words and phrases. Relying on the English names of poses, I can teach yoga without it. My 200 hour yoga teacher training was held in Mexico but taught in English. I didn’t even have to use the little Spanish I remembered from high-school and college.

Now here I was, being led through a meditation in a language I didn’t understand, in a city I was just getting to know. How was I supposed to be guided to my inner peace when I couldn’t understand the instructions? We were supposed to close our eyes but if I did that, how would I know if she started cueing small movements? I had come seeking comfort; I was finding only unease.

But like the other people in the room, I sat propped on a meditation cushion with my legs crossed, palms resting on my thighs. I closed my eyes. I took a deep breath in through my nose. As I pushed the breath out audibly through my mouth, I was met with the sound of a communal exhale. This was a sound I knew. This was familiar. We took another breath. Inhale through the nose; exhale from the mouth. We found a rhythm in the room. I felt the tension begin to release from between my shoulder blades.

Letting the Breath Be a Guide

As we moved from meditation into a yoga flow, I realized I was enjoying myself. There was actually something magical about not understanding every word the teacher was saying. Of course as a teacher, I knew the sequence of a sun salutation. I didn’t need to know the German translation of Ardha Uttanasana to lift into a half forward bend. I just needed to follow my breath.

Follow your breath. It is something yoga teachers say—something I have said countless times in my own classes. Move with your breath. But never had I experienced it to this level, because the breath was now my only guide.

For the next sixty minutes I moved and breathed. I stretched, twisted, balanced, and strengthened, watching the students around me for guidance as we moved to new sequences. I heard the Sanskrit names for some poses woven throughout the class and appreciated their familiarity. But mostly, I listened for the breath. Inhaling as I stretched my hands to the ceiling and exhaling as I folded forward toward the mat.

Language Beyond the Words

In that class, I learned that yoga reaches beyond the confines of language. Breath has no language. Einatem and Ausatmen may not have been words I understood, but the sound of people filling their lungs on a deep inhalation, and the energetic release of the exhale? Those were known to me.

I became a regular at that studio. Every time I took a class with a new instructor, I learned to embrace the vulnerability that I so often push away.  My German vocabulary has expanded to include the words for right, left, foot, and hand. I roll out my mat with a new level of humility as I know I am dependent on the persons in front of and beside me to help show me the way. And, mostly, I am so much more present in my body and connected to my breath, as it is truly my guide.


Einatmen… Ausatmen…Einatmen…Ausatmen

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