5 Things I Learned From Taking Yoga In A Foreign Language For A Month

Will the benefits translate even if I have no idea what the instructor’s saying? I found out.

August 31, 2016
gina doing yoga
Anush Sridharan

My Instagram looked amazing.

It was filled with shots like a stunning aerial view of Vatican City from the dome of St. Peter’s Cathedral; plates of spaghetti and glasses of red wine resting on a classic checked tablecloth on a candlelit Trastevere evening; me laughing behind Ray-bans on a boat off Capri Island in glimmering sunlight.

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vatican city
Gina Tomaine

Of course, it’s Instagram. So what it didn’t show was the truth: that I was feeling a little sick and sluggish. I was wiped out from the constant travel, daily planning, organizing itineraries, and sightseeing—combined with eating heaps of mozzarella and an ungodly amount of prosciutto.

Enter my saving grace: yoga. It turns out, mozzarella aside, travel is no excuse to abandon good practices. Living in Italy for a month for a job coordinating a student study abroad program seemed like a dream—and it was—but I had to find a necessary balance. Yoga was something that, for the past eight years of practicing, had consistently kept me grounded, peaceful, and grateful. 

So, yoga classes in Italian for the month? Yes.

gina in italy
Gina Tomaine

Despite my concerns about taking yoga classes in a language in which I was still fumbling with “Hi, how are you?” in everyday conversations, I quickly found a haven: RYoga Trastevere, an airy yoga studio with skylights and bamboo floors, minimal décor, and a simplistic purple lotus logo. Despite the language barrier, I felt right at home. People were chatty in the alcove outside of class in degrees of mellifluous Italian, classes often mingled English into the instruction, and through introductions that were a fumbling blend of English and Italian, I made friends with Daniele the lawyer and Francesca the bartender, who said I was simpatica.

 

Related: 10 Things A Yoga Teacher Learns About You Within The First 5 Minutes Of Class

Over the month, these few moments of kind words and friendship with yoga-loving Roman locals, connected me to Italy in a way sightseeing hadn’t. This feeling of unification was underscored by the reflection that yoga poses derive from Sanskrit, the primary sacred language of Hinduism. That meant that whether Italian or English, we were really all approaching yoga as our own study in a foreign, beautiful, language and philosophy.

italy
Gina Tomaine

 

After doing a month of yoga in a different language, I learned:

Drop the checklist.
Taking time on the mat, or in any kind of everyday circumstance, as opposed to a tourist one, allowed me to reflect and experience gratitude instead of checking off famous site after famous site, Instagramming all the while. Taking time for health and mindfulness while traveling can actually enhance your experience of St. Peter’s Cathedral or the Borghese Gallery, rather than take away from it, and processing time while traveling can be just as important as time “in action” sightseeing.

Related: The Compelling Case For Ditching The Itinerary On Your Next Vacation

Be humble.
People didn’t mind that I spoke very limited Italian anywhere in Italy or on the yoga mat, as long as I was humble and, well, nice, about it. This goes for any country you're visiting. I would always say, “I’m sorry. I only speak a little Italian, but I’m learning. I like Italian very much.” Those simple phrases opened doors everywhere—they showed respect for the language and acknowledgement about my deficiencies in it—plus the goal of fixing that in the long run.

Connect.
My favorite part of travel, I’ve learned, is to make connections with the people living in the city, from my yoga teacher to the guy at the café who made my daily espresso. Having funny and awkward conversations in half-English, half-Italian helped me feel involved with the community and more immersed in Italian culture, and connecting with others also helped when I was feeling homesick.

Gina in Italy
Gina Tomaine

Don’t be afraid to look silly.
I had been afraid to take yoga in a different language. What if I did the wrong pose? What if I disrupted the class? What if everyone made fun of me behind my back? None of this happened. Most people didn’t notice me at all. The classes were often supplemented in English, but even when the class was mostly Italian, it didn’t make much of a difference. I could pick up on subtle cues from the other people in the class, plus once I had a flow down, it was easy to continue. There was something calming about going through a vinyasa flow with people around me who spoke different languages, yet who were all seeking the same peace and mindfulness that come from practicing yoga.

Related: A 15-Second Breath Exercise To Center Yourself

Respiro, or, Breathe.
One of my biggest flaws as a yogi (and a human) is that I get so caught up in the poses and in my attention to detail (read: the travel plan, the itinerary, checking sightseeing items off my list) that I forget to breathe. But, being in a class in Italian, I was able to focus on my breath, in part because my teacher for many of the classes, Jennifer Ursillo, emphasized alignment and breath, and in part because even when I didn’t understand the words, I could always focus on my breath. Point taken, universe. 

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