After getting off the phone with my boyfriend in New York, whom I had just convinced that my two week stay in India was turning in to four months, I had a minor flash of panic.
Logically, it seemed like the perfect time to make this impulsive decision; I was between apartments back in New York Cityand had just quit at the studio and gym where I formerly taught yoga. Not to mention, the calm lapping of the Arabian Sea and the warm Goan sand seemed much more appealing than the cold winter awaiting me back home.
Still, that rush of adrenaline from fear of the unknown swept over me as I sat in the internet café, rebooking my flight.
I had initially come to Goa, India, with my students from New York and Canada for a two week yoga retreat. It was my second time in this magical land. Immediately upon my return, I felt at home in this foreign country. It was a dream come true to be able to teach for the whole season in the Mother Land of Yoga.
There was only one problem: at least half of Goa’s tourists, who were my potential students, didn’t speak English as their first language.
This realization didn’t really kick in until I had a lovely Russian women and her twelve-year-old daughter in my class one day. The mother had limited proficiency in English and her daughter only spoke Russian; a huge challenge to overcome, given that my style of teaching relied heavily upon verbal instruction.
I quickly adopted a more tangible approach and found I was able to use the body itself as a communication tool. The breath cues also assisted me in guiding the practice.
Fortunately, the students were receptive to the hands-on adjustments of each pose.
After class, I strolled back to my house on the beach and pondered the implications of this obstacle. Even though I was able to translate the physical practice despite a language barrier, how was I going to connect to the students on a more esoteric level?
Without the words to relay the philosophical aspect of yoga, it seemed that I would just be teaching “gymnastics” to them, as my Guru, Bolo Baba, would put it.
This troubling notion began to slip away as the weeks passed; to my surprise, my students expressed, as best they could, that their time on the mat in my class was a much deeper experience than I could have imagined.
A German couple who had practiced with me almost every day for three weeks gave me a teary goodbye. As we looked into each other’s glossy eyes, our souls danced in the sunlight and everything else around us became still. A connection was formed with them through yoga that was indescribable, as it surpassed language itself.
Perhaps the emotional reactions were due simply to the knowledge that their vacations were over and they would now be heading to their respective home countries. While I’m sure that played a part, I believe their reluctance to leave the Shala had more to do with the fact that they had experienced a deep energetic resonance and profound spiritual understanding during their time on the mat—all despite the benefit of philosophical discussions.
The idea that Hatha Yoga is a unique system that awakens the consciousness of individuals through Asana (postures), Pranayama (breath) and Dhyana (meditation) was solidified for me during my time in Goa. I could not rely on spewing out ancient philosophy or even communicating my own modern day experience with yoga through language.
The practice, I realized, is so much more experiential than the theory, which can be an easy trap for any teacher.
While articulating through language can be helpful for more specificity, I found that my students were tapping deeper into their essence by the practice alone, rather than getting caught up in the mental understanding of the experience. That essence usually had an underlying commonality that each student, regardless of their background, sought joy, peace and compassion in their lives.
This powerful realization reminded me that if we become more conscious of ourselves, we in turn realize we are not that different from each other after all. This notion of commonality is key to dissipating, the human flaw of feeling separate and superior.
These lessons stayed with me upon my return to New York; through sharing the practice of yoga, I formed beautiful connections with people I could barely communicate with and got to experience something I had previously only conceptualized…the true oneness of humanity.
Yoga truly transcends differences among culture, race and language and reminds us that inside we are all one.
A powerful realization that I will hold and cherish in my heart forever.
Thank you, Mother India.
Sarah Walsh is a native of Vancouver. She lives and teaches yoga in New York City, as well as internationally. She runs a private practice, teaches at Sangha Yoga Shala in Williamsburg and is the Co-founder of Drishti Yoga International Teacher Training. This fall, Sarah will be conducting a Yoga Teacher Training, in the jungles of San Pancho, Mexico. Follow her on Twitter.
Editor: Sara McKeown