Do You Speak Yoga?

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 _________).

Posted by:

- who has written 43 posts on Yoga Modern.

Chelsea Roff is a writer by day and yoga teacher by night, a weaver of words as well as of asanas. She is Managing Editor at YogaModern.com, and her writing has been featured by Yoga Journal, Elephant Journal, Wanderlust Festival and the Hanuman Festival. Chelsea is passionate about using online media to inspire action that serves a greater cause -- whether it be the expansion of knowledge, support of our global community, or improvement of planetary and personal health. She travels the country teaching yoga in the most non-traditional of spaces, from cocktail parties to public protests to centers for at-risk youth. In Dallas, Chelsea helped start a yoga service organization that brings yoga classes to people in homeless shelters, juvenile detention centers, and prisons. Chelsea currently lives in Santa Monica, CA, where she can be found cartwheeling across the beach, hiking in the mountains, and practicing yoga poses on her little pink scooter.

21 Responses

  • Verusca Costenaro says:

    This is absolutely wonderful. Thank you Chelsea for your sensitivity! :)

  • Kristen says:

    The subtleties of language… I was reminded of an article by one of my favorite teachers, Tias Little, and I have included the link below. He talks of the poetic of asana, the ability of our words as teachers to draw students into an elemental place of self. He is daoist, and his metaphors paint beautiful images of natural forces at work in our practice, as they exist in our ecosystems. Your article is also a reminder, not only that the adaptability of yoga language is powerful, but also that yoga speak can access the current under all language and all beliefs. I think maybe the community connection you mention is about realizing we are all manifestations and representations of the same source. Yoga represents the elemental and the universal, nourishing and nurturing a diversity of beliefs, faiths and sciences.

  • Bob Sunde says:

    Great thoughts, Chelsea. It's a quibble, but 21.4% of America is closer to 65,000,000!

    • Chelsea Roff says:

      Oh my goodness, Bob! How funny. Left off a few zeroes there. Thanks for catching that!

      That'll teach me not to do quick math on a calculator. Never was my best subject… :P

  • Susan says:

    I don't see anything wrong with the President using the word "God." God is not a Christian term, just English. If he'd said "Jesus," that would have been a Christian reference. In fact, you said so yourself in your own article, "God, Life Force, Ishvar, Yahweh… to me, those words are all just linguistic symbols that point toward a gloriously Mysterious experience we all share." What makes you think that 21% don't get that too? Just because they didn't identify themselves as "Christian" does not mean they'd be alienated by the use of the English word "God." BTW: how would you have completed that sentence if you were addressing everyone in America? If spirit is truly being expressed at any moment, you don't need yoga babble for people to get it.

    • Chelsea Roff says:

      Hi Susan.

      I really appreciate your feedback. That was one thing I had in the back of my mind as I was writing this… if you're truly speaking from your PERSONAL experience, your words are never going to resonate with everyone, especially if you're speaking to an entire country… because we all have different experiences. That said, I feel like it's so important to be aware of the perspective of the people we're speaking to. My personal belief is that God, Ishvar, Allah, Yahweh, etc all point to the same concept, but many people listening to that speech (including many non-American Muslims) would vehemently disagree. God does not = Allah to orthodox Muslims. The atheists I know would roll their eyes at Obama alluding to a "supernatural deity". To be honest, I don't know why it was necessary for Obama to allude to our nation's religious roots at all.

      To me, the "one nation under God" comment seemed to lend very little to the substance of Obama's speech. It felt irrelevant to the overall message he was conveying (remember he was talking an assassination, which should have nothing to do with our nation's religious history), and it seemed careless given the fact that the US just assassinated the leader of a terrorist group that uses Islam to justify it's actions. My personal opinion is that in this context the language he used was unnecessarily divisive not just for US citizens but for all those watching in other countries as well.

      • Susan says:

        Hey Chelsea. Can anyone on this planet can open their mouths, in any language available, and resonate with everyone, and what does that mean anyway. If someone does not speak from their PERSONAL experience, they are not speaking from their heart or any real knowledge-base, so what on earth are they speaking from? Most of us can tell if someone is not speaking from their PERSONAL experience and only talking some sort of ubiquitous babble. The president was addressing the people of this nation and cited our pledge of allegiance. He can't control for how that is taken in, or out, of context. I don't believe his intention was to justify that assassination on any national religious "right." I don't believe his statement really bore any resemblance to the basis of Jihad. If anyone takes it that way, they will. People will do what they do, think what they think, based on what they wish. No one can control for that. Thanks for your commentaries !!

  • Dave says:

    "I'm a uniter, not a divider…"

    -George W. Bush