I was in Tokyo last weekend and went to yoga classes at two different studios. I wanted to know what yoga was like in a foreign place. A japanese friend in Hong Kong had given me a list of studios with classes given in english. As it turns out, an English class is still conducted IN JAPANESE. Both teachers asked, "so you don't speak ANY Japanese at all?" I guess it's unusual for a visitor to spend part of a long weekend trip trudging around doing yoga classes, so they probably assumed I lived there, and like all expats, had no choice but to learn the language. I shook my head sheepishly. They seemed worried, and not for me.
One place was fancy with nice lights and new floors, and the other was…er…vintage. Everyone was welcoming. In one class, EACH STUDENT introduced themself to me. The familiarity of the studio setting was incongruous with the fact that my 'comfort language' did not exist. I have so little understanding of Japanese that I didn't even know when someone was asking me a question or making a statement. But I felt so included that it didn't occur to me that my nod-smile response might not have been to a greeting, but to "you stink".
What I learned: Yoga is not owned by anyone; we all share it and barriers are erased when a class starts. It's one of the few activities that bears a universal language (the actual language, sanskrit, of course, but also the tone and intent of the class) supported by MANY years of history and understanding. When I did the classes in unfamiliar surroundings with new people, I still felt like I was tapping into the same thing. I imagine this happens with soccer players, swimmers, and wrestlers too, but it's really the only one that strikes a balance of individual AND shared familiarity.
On a more superficial level, the experience got me thinking about 'style of yoga' vs teaching style. One of the classes was Jivamukti, which I had never tried before. Apart from having China Gel rubbed on my back and shoulders by the instructor while I was in a posture (which was nice! mind you, I'm such a sucker for any form of attention that she could have rubbed me with manure and I would have felt special) everything was familiar. A fellow student asked me after class what style of yoga I practice. I really wanted to say Hatha because that's the correct answer, but I found myself stumbling to mutter a few varieties that I've tried over the years. I think it's important for teachers and practitioners to remember the distinction between style of yoga and teaching style; Jivamukti, or Anusara, or Vinyasa are not styles of Yoga. They're styles of teaching, and they're all just different ways of getting to the same thing. The fact that I couldn't understand what was being said in the japanese classes made this even more clear, since the opening dialogue and spoken adjustments generally are the things that separate one style from another.
The only down side to yoga in a foreign place: starting within about a minute of one of the classes, I had to pee; the prospect of rudely disappearing OR of trying to announce to what would become the whole, foreign-to-me class that I was not adult enough to go before the session and that I needed to know where the toilet was, if there even was one, encouraged me to stay put. And I was fine. From this I learned yoga takes your mind off peeing, whether you're in Tokyo, Berlin, or possibly even Niagara Falls.