The Language of Yoga Therapy: What makes it different from other types of Yoga?

After taking a fitness yoga class yesterday and waking up in pain, I realized that I really need to focus on restorative classes. I thought that they didn't have any therapeutic yoga classes in Mexico City yet, but luckily I was proven wrong.

A friend of mine suggested that I check out the Centro de Budismo studio in the neighborhood of Roma. I looked online and found a class entitled restorative yoga taught by Ana Marti. When I got to the class, she asked me in Spanish whether I had taken any yoga therapy classes before. Immediately I realized I was in the right place.

 The centro de budismo in the neighborhood of Roma, Mexico City

The centro de budismo in the neighborhood of Roma, Mexico City

She started using a particular type of language in describing how to move my body and how to focus the mind. This language was way more specific and detail-oriented than the language I heard in the fitness yoga class I took yesterday. It was based on a biomechanically sound understanding of how the body works devoid of any unnecessary fluff which is so common and distracting in many yoga classes. And it was all in Spanish. My dream has come true!

When teaching yoga, the type of language makes a huge difference in what a student gets out of the class. When I first started taking yoga classes in English, particularly in Bikram yoga and in Vinyasa flow yoga, the language was a pseudo-scientific type of language that was devoid of much practical meaning. I don't think science has all the answers and I'm not sure it ever will. That being said, the language of yoga needs to be practical and science is rigorously practical so it helps to use its models for describing the world.

For example, yoga teachers often say that twists in yoga squeeze out toxins from your liver. This is something a few yoga teachers started saying 30 years ago and became common for a lot of yoga teachers to say without any understanding of what is actually going on. This phrase can actually be harmful because it subtly suggests that more twisting in the pose equals more detoxification. This is not true and if a beginner student hears this they could injure themselves by going past the range of motion which is healthy for their body. In reality, twisting probably promotes blood flow to the organs, but it's better to be specific about what is actually happening with the organs when we twist our thoracic spine.

 The teacher, Ana Marti, helped me to find downward dog using the wall. So much easier than on the floor!

The teacher, Ana Marti, helped me to find downward dog using the wall. So much easier than on the floor!

As a yoga practitioner, it becomes quite apparent that the language of Sanskrit has amazing ways of describing mind states and different obstacles that a practitioner will encounter along the way. Most of these words do not have equivalent words in Engish or Spanish and Sanskrit is a very effective tool for helping people to understand meditation and the more subtle aspects of yoga. Where it fails is describing what is going on in the body when we move it or when it is in a state of dis-ease. This makes sense because the yogis of the past were not involved in dissecting dead bodies nor did they have machinery for peering into the inner workings of a living human being. These all came about in the last 300 years. The practice of yoga therapy is aimed at bridging the gap between this more ancient understanding and the modern one we have access to today.

The problem with language becomes visible once a practitioner starts to share their knowledge with beginner yoga students, particularly if the practitioner has studied the anatomical language of western science. The anatomical language, which includes terms such as transverse processes and cervical vertebrae, is not well known to most beginner yoga students. It thus becomes the responsibility of the informed yoga teacher to do a good amount of memorization of terms on their own in the hope that they can effectively teach these terms to their students without overloading them. I was lucky enough to learn this language from Harvey Deutch, a physical therapist who sees himself as an eternal student of yoga.

Without this anatomical language, the only language available to teachers is the everyday language we use to talk to each other about the body and how it moves. Terms like arms, legs, head, sits bones, etc. There are also English or Spanish translations of the Sanskrit names of certain stationary poses which are rapidly becoming well known around the world, such as Downward Dog or Warrior II. This language is really important because it establishes a platform for communication which is immediately available to any native speaker. It is the language I came to Mexico to learn. The anatomical language is pretty much the same anywhere in the western world, just pronounced slightly differently.

With the delineation of language described above, it becomes important for the advanced yoga teacher to doggedly pursue a more detailed-oriented and specific language when educating people how to move their bodies in a safe and healthy manner. If our teaching is not grounded both in the non-violent attitude of yogis of yore, and the modern language of biomechanics, we have a very real risk of injuring our students in ways that might not be immediately apparent in our classes. The path of yoga teaching is one of continuous education and study of the Self! 

Can you focus on enjoying this learning journey as opposed to reaching some destination as a master yoga teacher or practitioner? Do you have any thoughts on the importance of language in Yoga Therapy?