Monday, May 04, 2009

Cultural Competency

I am deep in the wilds of a new culture. And, slowly, I am having to learn a new language for teaching yoga.

My daughter tells me that this is cultural competency: that, in order to communicate, you need to figure out the language that the natives are speaking. This refers not only to spoken language, but to all the many ways in which we communicate: through our physical habits, through our clothing and cars and houses and all the other material goods that say - this is who I am, or at least want to be thought of -, through the expressions on our face and whether or not we display the inner emotions for others to see. Even, or especially, behavior within a group can be a strong mode of communicating who we want to be seen as.

My daughter explained this to me over the phone Sunday, as I was telling her about my new students. They do not breathe. Or, if they are, and I am still doubtful despite the physical impossibility of going an hour and fifteen minutes without taking a breath, they are the quietest breathers that I have ever taught. And even having given up being able to hear that quiet whisper sound of ujayii breathing, I still thought I might be able to see a chest rise and fall. Nada.

Why is this important? Because the breath is a potent tool. Using the exhale as our example: the breath resets the nervous system from sympathetic to parasympathetic - and thus from stress to relaxation mode; it provides a barometer for measuring whether the practice is too challenging (the breath becomes ragged) or too easy; it gives the teacher a sense of how the class is responding (deep sighs, short breaths can indicate that students need a rest or an easier sequence); and the breath is the connection between mind and body, so as you control the breath more effectively, you begin to feel more awareness of the habits of your mind.

But I need a new way to communicate this, and it seems that practical examples do work in this culture. As does a wry aside. Now I'm talking about Tadasana, or mountain pose, not as a pose of stillness from the outside and energy and work from the inside, but as what the guards at Buckingham Palace do for hours at a time. (Wry aside: Do you think that the Queen knows that they are doing yoga?) That brief pause at the end of the inhale and after the exhale? Not as a moment of emptiness or silence that contains much, but like that moment, when you're driving stick shift, and you push the clutch in and the car hesitates for a moment before changing gears - nothing is happening, but you can feel that something is about to happen.

It's a challenge for me. I'm spoiled by students who laugh or groan at my jokes, talk occasionally during class, try chanting if I ask them to, and occasionally make a face to let me know that they are hating or loving the class. It seems that, with my new students, I'll have to rely much more on face-to-face conversation. At the end of class, several thanked me and said that it was a wonderful class.

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