I planned a social experiment in which I would teach yoga to foreigners.
The past two weeks I was fortunate enough to travel throughout Italy for a travel and food writing course through Slippery Rock University. Naturally, traveling to Italy was not enough for me; I was hungry for more and wanted to give back to the beautiful country that granted me so much joy and splendor. I saw my travel excursion as an opportunity to extend my yoga practice to a global level and embrace the joys of outdoor yoga in a foreign country.
Before leaving I planned a social experiment that I titled “Random Acts of Yoga” in which I would teach a class in the city of Florence. Eventually the practice extended to three of the four cities I visited because I was so inspired by the beauty of the country, the history, the people, the language, the food, and the passion that lived so vibrantly in all of the city walls.
I knew that this would be both a rewarding and challenging task. Rewarding because I knew in my heart that I could share something beautiful with people that showed me so much magnificence, challenging due to a language barrier and space limitations. Each experience teaching provided a diverse response from the locals and fellow tourists. My journey began spontaneously in Venice, made its way to two locations in Florence and eventually to Bologna.
Since this was only a day trip I did not bring all of my belongings; my yoga mat resided with the rest of my bags in Florence. However, I was so inspired in one of the small squares tucked away along the streets of water that I decided to extend my practice in this glorious city. Something about the water lapping the shore calms the mind and body in a manner that isn’t replicable. There is an immense amount of lightness in the city of Venice; I don’t know if it’s the sun reflecting vibrantly off the water or merely because the city is literally floating on wood on top of a lagoon.
I ran to my hotel room and grabbed a towel, a great makeshift yoga mat. Passing the concierge desk I politely asked a strapping Italian gentleman how to say “free yoga” in Italian; after a few looks of confusion he translated it for me. I vigorously wrote the phrase in both English and Italian and was on my way. I set up my towel next to the water to feel Venice’s full embrace.
The square was filled with lovers enjoying an early evening dinner, children playing soccer and tourists wandering aimlessly. I began my practice slowly, setting my dedication to extend my passion for yoga to others. A friend, Rachel, accompanied me to take photos and for her own amusement of watching an American girl practicing yoga in the middle of Venice. I was mostly surrounded by locals who did not pay any mind to my practice.
A few police officers even observed some asanas and then walked onward, I assume in confusion.
After about half an hour of my class, which I dictated aloud, I noticed a young girl and boy watching me. They sat cross-legged with large curiosity-filled smiles. I motioned for my spectators to come join me and the girl eagerly did so. I greeted her with, “Mi dispiace ma non parlano italiano, parla inglese?” which means “I am sorry I don’t speak italian, do you speak english?” She shook her ‘no’ head at me.
We practiced with a few sun salutes as she mirrored my motions and eventually made our way to tree pose. It was absolutely amazing to experience the difficulty of a language barrier during a yoga class, something that was as foreign to me as my language was to her. I worked to touch specific parts of my body to show the movement as she mirrored me. Her brother joined us after a few minutes and was not as responsive to my physical directions.
I didn’t want to physically change either of their postures because I did not know how to ask for permission and obviously in this situation there was no parental consent. Our session was cut short when a Gondolier returned to his station and passionately told me that I was in way of his business.
Apparently the police will not kick you out but the Gondoliers will.
After my first visit to Italy a year ago I deemed Florence one of the most appropriate places to teach yoga due to the atmosphere of the city and lightheartedness of the locals. I first practiced on the rooftop of our apartment, which overlooked the San Lorenzo Rotunda and was adjacent to the Duomo. The view was spectacular and instilled a sense of elevation both physically and spiritually.
I shared this practice with one of the girls on the trip with me. We had discussed the difficulty of the language barrier in my class in Venice and both decided it would be an exciting challenge to teach the class without any verbal instruction. She watched my movement and flowed with me. It produced a great connection between the two of us. That night I made a more improved sign to offer others to join in my class.
My second class in Florence was at gardens near Piazza Michelangelo, a square that overlooks all of Italy. My friends Karter and Rachel decided they would join in my class in hopes that their participation would spark an interest in those who pass by. Rachel, Karter, and I began our practice among the rose bushes that were silhouetted by the city of Florence. The smell of the flowers was intoxicating and filled my lungs so deeply that it still resides in the pool of my soul. The city hugged us from all sides in the garden.
It was warm and inviting in every sense.
We practiced together for an hour while crowds of people made their way through the gardens. Some sat and watched, others went on without question. One thing I will say for Italian culture is that locals respect what others are doing. I very seldom received looks of judgment during my practice. At one point there was a group of six college students from the University of Florence observing Rachel, Karter, and me. I invited them to join my class but they kindly refused and said they would be more content watching. That day we all stopped to smell the roses.
Bologna provided the most authentic local experience of all the cities I visited. It does not have as many tourist attractions and therefore houses locals, family owned restaurants, and a slower pace of life.
One day while lost and attempting to find our way back from the Medieval Towers, we stumbled upon a park, the Giardini Margherita which means the Margarita Gardens. This is Bologna’s main park and I would equate it with something like Central Park in New York City. The park is lined with avenues of trees, large grassy knolls, a lake that inhabits countless turtles, and small cafes and restaurants.
Upon entrance to the park my friend Cori exclaimed, “Hippies exist in Italy too!” Surrounded by groups of men playing soccer, musicians with guitars, drum circles, lovers cuddling on the warm grass and parents chasing children, I set up for class with three of my peers. We practiced for quite some time before a few locals became intrigued and approached me to talk.
They asked why I was teaching in the park and if I would be there again for them to join me at a later date. I explained that I was only visiting Bologna and it was my way of giving something back to a country that shared so much beauty with me. After our short conversation the three joyfully joined my class and we shared a beautiful practice. All of my new friends spoke English almost fluently, however I still relied on physical alignment through my nonverbal cues.
The group was so generous at the end of our practice that not only did we exchange emails and phone numbers, but they extended an invitation to stay with them if I find myself in Bologna again.
Our practice united us across countries.
“Let the love you take be equal to the love you make.” ~ The Beatles
Julie Strittmatter is a life long adventure seeker! She enjoys the journey of life so much because she is never quite sure of her exact destination.
Editor: Jennifer Townsend
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Photos: [Julie Strittmatter]