Italian Lessons in Yoga Class

Written by Shari Hochberg

Ciao! Bella! Baci! Some of my favorite Italian words that I covet every day while strolling through the picturesque streets and alleyways of Florence. I am an American who packed up and moved to Italy over a year ago. Aside from the scrumptious pastas and enticing desserts, the language is one of my cherished things about this magnificent country. Calmly and slowly, I am learning how to properly roll the “r’s” and elongate the vowels, making exaggerated movements with my lips, not to mention gesticulating wildly with my hands. I delight in picking up new words and phrases and using it on everyone from my local grocer, my neighbor who parades around in his robe and the man who repairs my tired and tottering bike.

In my new home of Florence, I have been proudly and gleefully teaching Ashtanga yoga for over a year now. In comparison to San Francisco, yoga is a foreign concept to many of the Italians that I encounter.

And even though our studio fills up with Americans and other English-speaking students, I decided to teach my yoga classes in Italian. Partly, and let’s be frank here, because I thought it sounded cool, but more than that, out of respect for these newly interested students of Ashtanga yoga.

In the beginning, I carefully balanced a dollop of English, a bit of Italian and a sprinkling of Sanskrit. I created my own language, which surprisingly (and to my delight) the students understood, or at least when I semi-perfected my right from my left. Also, in Italian, body parts are either masculine or feminine. Why are the feet masculine and the legs feminine? The arm masculine and the shoulder feminine? And when describing how to get into a complicated pose like crow, I have to not only conjure up the names of the body parts, but whether they are in fact masculine or feminine, singular or plural. Oh wait, where did I just instruct my yogis to place their knees?

Slowly, the English began to fade from my vocabulary and the Italian became the commander. Sanskrit always has a place, nudging for a higher position, but Italian still holds the lead.

It feels wonderful to not only teach such a dynamic class, but also to have the ability to instruct in a language that is still quite foreign to my brain. Although Sanskrit is Universal, it is more enjoyable to translate asanas such as up dog, (cane su!), bird of paradise (uccello del paradiso!) and cat & cow (gatto and mukka!).

There is only one major blunder worth mentioning. Surely, I have not survived thus far unscathed. It was after about one month of teaching and numerous body part names swirling through my brain. I mistakenly combined the words for knee (ginocchio) and hips (fianchi) into one word, finocchio, which turns out, is what we commonly know as the leafy vegetable, fennel. (I was later informed that it is also a semi-offensive expression in this culture.) Good thing it was a candlelight session that evening so no one could actually detect how flushed my cheeks actually were.

Another beautiful lesson that I learned: Italians are very forgiving when you butcher their beloved language. Maybe it helps when seated joyfully in lotus, crossing your fennel.

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