Do you speak “yoga”?

Via Chelsea Roff
on May 17, 2011
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Sticks and Stones May Break Some Bones But Words Will Change the World.

Part 1: Do you Speak Yoga?

Image here.

God, Allah, Krishna, Universe… I’ve long been fascinated by the many  words we use to describe that oh-so-elusive category of our experience many refer to as “spiritual”. Ask a priest, he’ll call it Christ. Ask a scientist, she’ll call it nature. Ask a yogi… well, you tell me. Our names for the divine certainly run the gamut.

Recently, I’ve noticed a tendency I have to change up my words depending on who I’m speaking to. When chatting with a Christian friend about a profoundly moving experience, my language is threaded with words like “faith”, “higher power”, and “miraculous.” In conversation with more scientifically-minded folks, I notice myself describing the very same experience with words like “nature”, “force”, and “universe”. It’s not that I think my non-religious friends would sneer at me for describing the birth of a puppy as something of a miracle. I’m just intently aware that if I want my words to land, to affect, to be relevant… they have to resonate with their experience.
I guess some might see my behavior as somewhat hypocritical. Am I switching up my words just to avoid judgment from the person I’m talking to? Am I being “fake” or inconsistent with my beliefs? Honestly, I don’t think so. God, Life Force, Ishvar, Yahweh… to me, those words are all just linguistic symbols that point toward a gloriously mysterious experience we all share. And I feel like in today’s globalized world it’s enormously important for us to be fluent in many different dialects. Not just Mandarin, French, and English, but more subtle languages too– the languages of human experience.

As a yoga teacher especially, I’m learning to speak TO and not AT students in my class.

You won’t hear me telling first time practitioners to “activate jalandhara bandha” or feel their psoas lengthen as they extend their leg. Don’t get me wrong, I love the sultry sound of Sanskrit and the exploring more subtle aspects of anatomy, but most of my first time yogis are still trying to get comfortable responding to the language of their bodies– left, right, inner, outer, thigh, forearm, etc.  Sometimes, I think yoga teachers unconsciously alienate and create separation between themselves and their students just by speaking to them with words that don’t resonate with their experience.

And yoga teachers aren’t alone in this. I couldn’t help but cringe as I heard our President’s closing words in his recent speech on the US assassination of Osama Bin Ladin:

“Tonight we are once again reminded that America can do whatever we set our mind to. ..we can do these things not just because of wealth or power, but because of who we are, one nation under God.”

According to the Pew Forum on Religion, 21.4% of Americans do not identify as Christian. That’s over 65,000,000 people who the President just alienated by suggesting that what makes America great is its being blessed by a God they do not believe in. How would you feel if as a child you recited a Pledge of Allegiance that included the words “One nation under Allah”? It’s high time we start seeing the people we walk the streets with, speaking to the people we meet on the mat, connecting with those all too often left unseen and unspoken to.

So what I want to ask you is this: Are the words we’re using as a yoga community creating a world of greater connection or separating us even further? Can we be fluent in the language of single moms, immigrants, successful businessmen, the plethora of persons we meet on the mat? Or are we spewing out sentences in an effort to appear more knowledgable, spiritually sophisticated, or invulnerable when our own insecurities arise?

If you haven’t noticed, I like to write in series (see: What Does a Yoga Body Look Like? Part 1, Part 2, & Part 3) and this post will be no different. In Part 2, I’ll respond to any comments left here and explore how the language of our culture shapes our understanding of bodies, minds, and ________.

via Yoga Modern


About Chelsea Roff

Chelsea Roff is a nationally-recognized author and speaker, and the Founder of Yoga for Eating Disorders. In September 2013, Chelsea raised $50,000 on the crowdfunding platform IndieGoGo to kickstart her non-profit, Yoga for Eating Disorders. The program is currently being offered in treatment centers and yoga studios around the country at no charge, and she is working with researchers at UC San Diego to evaluate the program’s effectiveness in treatment. Chelsea is known for her intelligent, inspiring, and tell-it-like-it-is speaking style, and for weaving together profound personal experiences with her scientific background to deliver deeply moving insights. After nearly losing her life to anorexia and a subsequent stroke when she was 15, she has became a national advocate for community-based mental health interventions. Her work was recently showcased by Sanjay Gupta on CNN, and she’s been keynote speaker at 92nd Street Y, The Omega Institute, and at various universities and conferences around the country. Chelsea currently lives in Venice, California, where she can be found cartwheeling across the beach, hiking in the mountains, and practicing yoga poses on her little pink scooter.


25 Responses to “Do you speak “yoga”?”

  1. Melanie says:

    excellent and valid article. Chelsea, you don't demonstrate hypocrisy, you demostrate rapport, listening ( not just hearing )and speaking to people in their own language as is appropriate for them. That is relationship, that is Yoga- inclusivity not exclusivity. Well said, looking forward to more from you.

  2. Chelsea says:

    🙂 Thank you, Melanie.

  3. Chelsea says:

    Amen to that, Rick! 😛

    I think it's tricky for political leaders to strike a balance between (1) being open and honest about their faith and system and (2) using language that is inclusive and non-alienating when discussing their decisions as a political leader. My issue with Obama was just that the "one nation under God" comment seemed to lend very little to the substance of his speech. It was irrelevant to the overall message he was conveying, and it seemed careless given the fact that our nation just assassinated the leader of a terrorist group that uses Islam to justify it's actions. To me, it felt unnecessarily divisive and inappropriate not just for US citizens but for all those watching in other countries as well.

  4. Great article, Chelsea. Look forward to the next in the series.

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  5. Ashlee says:

    Such a great point! Words are so incredibly powerful. Something that always gets me thinking is how words can be inspirational, uplifting, or devastating depending on both the speaker and the listener. Like you, many of us change our words depending on our audience. A well-educated, well-intentioned speaker can inspire and motivate us to positive action. An angry, opinionated speaker can inspire fear and distrust. But, what about the words that come out of the less-than-thoughtful speaker? A careless speaker can have a great impact on an uninformed listener, for better or for worse. How often do we speak without considering our audience? Who knows what impact our words have on someone aching to hear what they want?

  6. Ramesh Ramloll says:

    My problem with teachers, want to specify, it's mine not theirs… is that as a student I always start investing limitless trust in a teacher. Unfortunately, almost every teacher I have come across seem to have an off-the-mat life which is really the anti-thesis to what they teach in class. So I do not really think words can change the world or trigger a shift within the consciousness of the speaker/teacher/guru. It took me a long time to forgive when a guru falls off the wagon … and also a very long time to realize that there is no guru out there worth the guru in here. All the best.

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  8. ARCreated says:

    beautiful. I find I do the same thing…I "added" the word "god" back to my descriptive vocabulary to not alienate people, but I tend to use "source" or the universe a lot…. I try to be authentic in the meaning of the experience and let the words fall gently on the hearer and a lot of the time I prefer my language to be open to interpretation so that people can have their own experience of it…and yes I think a beginner class should have different words just like it has different poses… If I do use sanskrit with beginners I define it clearly and sometimes make a comment about how I just like how it soudns or how fun it is to say but in no way do they have to know it… Heck I know a fair amount of sanskrit and I dont' love classes where they use it exclusively…like they are trying to show how cool they are…

  9. AMO says:

    My standard call for an Elephant Journal editor: is 21.4 of Americans really only 65,000 people? Is this post Rapture or what? So technically you did cover your mathematical ass by saying it's OVER 65,000 people, which it certainly is. It's 10 times the number you quote, you dropped 3 whole zeros. I'm a writer. I publish my writing on Internet sites. I am SO grateful for my editor. She rocks. I'm so thankful when she catches this stuff for me. Come Ele, step up, with your charging to read stuff self. Get an intern, someone who needs to rack up experience, or get 10, and get them reading this stuff before it goes out to your paying readers…

  10. Monique says:

    So true! I took a class last night with a teacher who spoke almost entirely in Sanskrit. I barely understood him, and I'm a teacher. I cringed for all his other students when they looked around confusedly as he said words like "Apanic" and "Krishnamacharya-esque." All things in moderation, people:)

  11. Linda says:

    Great and necessary article! I wonder what you make of Hindu devotional chants asked of a group that is (conservatively) 80% non-Hindu – the general American public. I wonder why the teachers who choose to forgo this specific symbology in favor of other contemplative exercises are being shunned as unauthentic. And i’m so with you on the snobbism of sanskrit (though can be hilarious when butchered as it often is) – i had an assistant once tell me she didnt understand what pose I meant when i said “pigeon”…

  12. hi chelsea
    i love this article and this inquiry.
    we are challenged to choose words that are appropriate for the listener/student and to aptly describe what we actually feel.
    for a while we have to borrow words from trusted teachers while we build our own experience and let our inner experience become words.
    i teach in my second language and it is incredibly challenging. on good days, i think it adds richness because my word choices can't be cliché. on bad days, i find it frustrating to the point of tears and feel like i am sharing 5% of what i know.

    love this and look forward to the next article.

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  14. tanya lee markul says:

    Interesting Chelsea! I live in Copenhagen, Denmark and my Danish is coming along but I teach yoga in English. I asked another teacher about this one day and she said to me – 'it doesn't matter what language you use when you teach yoga, it is the yoga that teaches.' I really appreciated this and it has resonated in me since.

    Also, I've heard someone say ' teach more, talk less.'

    I do feel that to inspire a higher consciousness in others that it isn't necessarily about what words you instill upon them but the energy you share with them.

  15. Dave says:

    "I'm a uniter, not a divider…"
    -George W. Bush

  16. Kath says:

    I give my students many choices, including no choice, when teaching symbolic aspects of meditation. This also works for meanings of words we chant in Sanskrit. I teach students from many backgrounds. Respect is key.

  17. Chelsea says:

    Thank you, Bob. And thanks for making Elephant Yoga such an opening and welcome space to share in this dialogue.

  18. Chelsea says:

    Great song.

  19. Chelsea says:

    Well said, Patience. Right with ya!

  20. fhytimes says:

    Thanks Chelsea, great article. Make me think about "Words unite or/and separate"? Just 2 sides of the same coin.

  21. monkeywithglasses says:

    Ah, yes I see what you're saying and I agree.
    Thanks for reading my blog and the nice words!
    Om shanti shanti shanti

  22. Chelsea, this is a wonderful and thought-provoking article! May it inspire all of us to think carefully as we invoke the matrika shakti – the true power of our words – and speak from a place of Love.

    Thank you!!

  23. […] This is the second part of a series of posts on the power of language. Read Part 1 here. […]

  24. JoshMPlant says:

    Thank you! Thank you, and thank you some more!