Sticks and Stones May Break Some Bones But Words Will Change the World
Part 1: Do you Speak Yoga?
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:
“The cause of securing our country is not complete, but 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 _________).