EJ Unedited

Lost in Translation

You know that game of telephone you played as a kid? Remember how the transfer of words from person to person could become jumbled, mixed up and even comical?  You would succumb to a fit of giggles as common phrases turned into jibberish and then laughed out loud at anything referring to sex, poop or ‘bad’ words. Much like that childhood game, the language we use to convey movement and feeling to our students can sometimes be misinterpreted and misleading.  But should it be considered negligent or even dangerous? A misdemeanor worthy of professional regulation and public ridicule?  

I recently attended a Yoga workshop that covered various anatomy and alignment topics and I while I was inspired with the presenters’ wealth of knowledge about the human body and the historical perspective of Yoga, I struggled with a tangent discussion on cueing phrases that some feel teachers should strike completely from our vernacular.  Learning how our human body parts compress and flex and contract and expand during asana practice is like unveiling the ‘man behind the curtain’ running the smoke and light show.  A small glimpse as a mere mortal into a truly miraculous bit of divine engineering.  My personal credence leans toward mandating a basic understanding of our internal framework as the core foundation of every certified yoga teacher’s skill set. But in the practical world where we all live and teach, where class size is swelling and newbies, contortionists and seniors collide (sometimes literally) , things are not so easily classified, defined or absolute.  While I try to err on the side of using more scientific and anatomically correct words to direct my students’ physical bodies, the fact remains that not every student ‘gets’ that kind of talk. The recipient on the other end of your studio telephone game may very well have a dreamy English major running the old brain show upstairs.  And sometimes, this flighty artsy-fartsy part of the anatomy does not respond well to direction from the likes of a Sheldon Cooper-esque Pre Med student.

There have been several articles and movements over the years to rid the world of the evil that is the yoga instructor and their misuse of terminology. And to a good part of what is being said, I agree. ‘Heel to heel alignment’ in Warrior 1 is almost never correct for the average hip owner but I don’t lose much sleep over that queue being ‘out there’.  Teachers using it will eventually see that their students are not moving comfortably into the traditional pose and one day the heavens will part, the angels will sing and they will direct their eager students to open up their stance.   Maybe even telling them to, “Get off of the tightrope and stand on two train tracks”.  But sometimes a lack of instruction can be a little dangerous. For example, the militant overuse of chataranga as a verb and a one word command for the traditional Vinyaysa sequence leaves out some important alignment instructions which should be reiterated for safety.  We, as a profession, should want to avoid destroying the shoulders and low backs of those struggling to keep up with a teacher hell bent on ‘kicking their ass’.  Ass Kicking is often good but shoulder shredding never is. Yoga is about balance after all. Perhaps our use of language should work towards that balance by offering both the abstract and poetic alongside the keen and precise.

Having just taken a trip to India last month, the importance of language recently slapped me right in the chahera [face]. Although I was with an amazing friend who doubled as an amazing interpreter, (Indians would literally gather round and offer praise for her beautiful Hindi), when left to my own communication devices, things quickly fell apart.  Our driver, a lovely gentlemen [with the best laugh on planet earth], who safely delivered us to Rishikesh from Delhi, was rehired again to take me to the Dehradun airport. My friend and interpreter had to get back to Delhi a few days before I was to fly home.  As a joke, sort of/maybe/not so much, we bought a knife for me to keep in my purse. A woman traveling alone who does not speak the language, never knows; even though I never had one second of discomfort in this uber welcoming country.  I am sure had an incident ensued I would have only ended up stabbing myself. Regardless, it was a bit of a comfort to know it was nearby. When our driver picked me up we had an engaging conversion. Well, as engaged as it can be between one person who speaks a thousand or so words of English and one who knows about four Hindi words. Cut to the airport, we pull up and I remember I have the knife in my purse! My driver, being a thoughtful service oriented person leapt out of the car to check with the outside staff as to the status of my flight (click the link above to see how tiny this airport is). So, here I am looking at 20 or so military and or police agents, each sporting an assault rifle, greeting me at the lone terminal. I did not have the communicative means to hastily explain to our driver that I needed to ditch a very large knife and that I did not in any way ever intend to kill him with it. My only choice was to ditch it under the seat and head for the security checkpoint. Fortunately the AK47’s were far enough away to allow me to discretely do this much. Wracked with guilt over what my thoughtful, contentious, law abiding driver would think when he found a giant bread knife under his back seat (yes, it was all they had at the Rishikesh general store) I had no choice but to hope a huge misunderstanding had not just occurred.  When communication is difficult or impossible, confusion takes over, mistrust develops and sometimes the roles of driver/fare can get twisted into innocent prey/escaped lunatic.

Fortunately my friend will be back in India soon to set things right with a call to our driver and hopefully the three of us will one day look back on this and laugh out loud together. But this crazy story about a failure to communicate made me wonder about all of the students that may have not been able to understand the meaning and intention behind my words. I might say the words ‘tuck your tailbone slightly’ but I don’t mean to imply that they should curl their pelvic bowl under until they are hunched up like a pill bug [potato bug dependant on your locale].  Just as I said a simple Goodbye and Namaste to our driver, what I really meant was, “you have a large weapon wrapped in newspaper in your backseat that you may need to quickly dispose of if you are pulled over”.

Common teacher queues like ‘bend at the waist’, ‘pull breathe into your belly’ and ‘lengthen your spine’ may be anatomically inaccurate, but the average yoga student is probably not going to respond viscerally to a dissertation on how the pelvis, diaphragm or the spinous processes work. Yes, it is critical for teachers to guide students into postures safely and to create body awareness by sharing the scientific knowledge that these postures are based on, but sometimes bending at the waist is just bending at the waist.

We may also need to include in this conversation the special dynamics of the group class environment.  All levels classes, a whole other timely topic in the ‘one guru/one student’ realm of traditional yoga, mean that a 50 year old that has not touched their toes since infancy can be in the same class as a freakishly limber genXer that just  finished posting the latest conquest on their rise to ‘yogalebrity’ via instagram.  If the 50 year old has not really folded deeply forward since 1978, some types of cues may hold no meaning.  More image wielding phrases like ‘pull up your pelvic floor’ may cause them to wonder if they are being instructed to do so because it is hanging out of their Lululemons or it just may be the thing to help them understand the subtlety of mula bandha.  When we insert more common language, that shared understanding of the mundane, we are not just making noise but actually perhaps reaching both the left and right brained souls in our expanding classrooms.

Some purists with a much more scientifically honed mind than my own may think this language is just plain fluff. I cannot disagree; it is fluffy. But I like fluffy. I like it for my scrambled eggs, I like it for my bed pillows and I like it being used by my teachers. The world is full of hard edges and pointed absolutes; a soft covering of fragrant, flowery language can help to remove fear and promote discovery. Thomas Merton said, “Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time”. Jagged, textural, bumpy language lets us feel someone else’s words. Group classes are usually a mixed bag of backgrounds. We are often without a common dialect, cultural experience, or gender identity but the ore flecked medium of flamboyant verbal communication can shade and blend those differences from a big hot mess into  a tranquil Bob Ross landscape.

Pretend you are standing between two panes of glass. That sounds a little like day-one at mime school but it certainly does create a visual image. To someone who is trying to gain muscle control and pose alignment in Trikonasana, this imagery may be the keystone to their understanding of the pose.  Does it mean that the yoga police will be by with a citation if your particular body type, bone structure and fascia mobility don’t allow you to stand this way? Of course not, I am exaggerating to make a point (Jeez, Google’ irony’ Sheldon).

I’m a yoga teacher.  Cutesy comments and the occasional f bomb sometimes help to get a student’s attention. We have all been to class when someone uses a curse word (or cuss word if you’re from the Midwest). It pulls you in. I may have been hearing Charlie Brown’s faceless teacher trumpeting a muted ‘wah wah, wah wah wah’, until you threw in the naughty word for feces. Equally, I may have been solely focused on how close my hand is to the floor in triangle instead of where my backside is in relation to that effing glass wall you keep talking about.

Sometimes the oddball cue puts a different spin on the most ordinary of poses. At this awesome little place I serendipitously found in Rishikesh, (Yoga Vini), a young Indian instructor transferred more knowledge to me with a single word than many have done in entire books. Encouraging us to ground the foot with the thumb, (pronounced ‘tumb’ with a Hindi accent) I felt a new connection to the act of grounding my feet. We would say, as English speakers, that we don’t have a thumb on our foot.  But in Hindi, Big Toe and Thumb are the same word (angutha). By cueing me to ground and press down with my ‘tumb’ my very simple brain referred to the visual image of my thumb’s ability to grasp and in turn sent a similar signal to my foot.   When a student has an ‘aha’ moment, in spite of the anatomical correctness, and as long as we are safe, visual imagery may have worked quite well. Call it four corners of the foot, call it pressing into the pre-axial metatarsal digit (no clue if that is correct) or tell your class to become one with mother earth. Tomayto, tomahto; teachers want you to feel the grounded and stable in tadasana and in all standing poses.

So with the looming challenge of communication hanging out there like so much monsoon humidity, are we doing our students a disservice by calling each other out on a few trite and perhaps off cues?  This particular workshop was attended by students as well as teachers. Do the students fully understand why some verbal queues are a bit inappropriate or do they just hear “I need to make sure my teacher never says this!”  Now, I am the first to admit that this just might be my own paranoia talking but I don’t want even one person to be turned off from the pure joy that is Yoga by what amounts to just minced words.

Although we may feel a duty to accuracy in our lives ‘on and off the mat’ (there is an overused saying that may need banning…), we may be walking a fine line between unattainable perfection and blatant malpractice.  To make my point, (that is why we are here after all), let’s explore the perspective of one of the more unconventional attendees to said workshop.  She was a refreshing addition to the usual suspects and as a professional voice coach, she was there to learn the physical aspects of Pranayama.  Voice, like yoga, originates in the body and when it’s good, usually transcends to somewhere beyond that physical dimension. Who has not been uplifted by what their ear interprets as a beautiful melody or ethereal sound?  I’m not saying I believe in angels but as a culture we could probably agree that we tend to describe them as singing. For example, I just referred to that image earlier in this piece because I knew you would understand what I meant.  Picturing an angel barking like a dog, choking on a piece of gristle or farting really raunchily would conjure up a whole other image, yes? Sometimes this delicate language we use can be crushed by too much technical jargon.   Maybe we work a bit to preserve the invaluable parts of our teacher-speak in a little industry bubble wrap and  do some purging of the worthless nonsense that is sucking up the space for understanding. It can be used by us as guides into this magical-mystery thing known as yoga.  When carefully blended with specific guidance and concise queues, it is an integral tool to get a student to the next level of understanding.  Believe me, I know that this perspective sounds a lot like the ‘flowery shit that yogis say’ but personally, I am ok with a little more singing and bit less barking.