A teaching moment can appear when you least expect it. If you had told me I could use yoga to teach ESL, I would never have believed you, but then it happened while I was studying in India.
It’s another sweltering, brilliantly sunny day in Kovalam, India, a small seaside community in the southern state of Kerala; a haven for surfers, yoga enthusiasts and Ayurvedic treatment seekers. The village sits in a shallow valley of lush emerald jungle, boasting giant swaying coconut trees, whose large green coconuts fall randomly, often crashing loudly into tin rooftops. The village sits as a labyrinth of narrow lanes, lined with small shops and restaurants, vendors, tailors, and compact Ayurvedic treatment centres, among various other small businesses. Certain laneways wind their way out onto the bustling main boardwalk, which overlooks the beach and the playful turquoise waves of the warm Arabian Sea. This laid back little corner of southern India is a magnet for travelers from all over the world, who mesh seamlessly with local residents. It is a hub where east and west come together to share cultural existence.
I have been in Kovalam since January 31st, taking a yoga teacher training course, from which I successfully graduated 4 days ago. While in the program, I wanted to gain hands-on practical experience, so about 4 weeks ago, I started offering free night-time yoga classes in an intimate rooftop space at my friend’s cafe/hotel. I was ready to face the challenge of finding my groove as a beginning yoga instructor, and guiding people to understand and execute different poses; what I hadn’t anticipated was an actual language barrier that made understanding the poses secondary to understanding basic English instructions, as well as general Yoga vocabulary. I had no idea working as a yoga instructor would give me a chance to use my ESL teaching background to not only enhance my yoga lessons, but to teach my students some English at the same time.
How I used Yoga to teach English in India
Among the participants in my first few sessions were a Hungarian couple and a young Indian man, all with extremely limited understanding of English. After the very first class I taught, having watched the three of them struggle to simply comprehend what body movements to move into, I decided that before even going into yoga poses, these folks needed to understand the basic English yoga terms. So, I approached the next session as ESL yoga. I started the class with a mini English lesson on basic terms.
My yoga teaching is centered on deep rhythmic breathing, so our first vocabulary set was: “inhale, fill, exhale, push, belly, rib cage and chest”. I spoke each term out loud and explained the vocabulary by either mimicking the action or demonstrating on my own body. Then I had them repeat the expressions out loud and also physically demonstrate the vocabulary, so as to anchor it in their repertoire of English language. My goal was for any struggle they had to be mainly with the poses and not with the language.
The next language set was specific body parts and actions: fingers, toes, legs, knees, feet, bend, and stretch. Again, I explained these words in the same way as with the first vocabulary set. And then, we were ready to do some yoga!
Once my three new friends had a stronger grasp of these more frequently used words, they were able to more easily move in and out of poses, independently, without looking around to see what others were doing. They appeared to have more confidence, and in ensuing classes — hence repetition and reinforcement of the target language– they were able to effectively follow my instructions at the same pace as the rest of the participants.
Vary Your Lessons and Enhance Your Students’ Learning
This experience reaffirms for me that auditory retention of a new language can be incredibly difficult for language learners. We can often be misled into assuming that a non-native English speaker has a solid command of English based on their writing skills or their ability to express themselves verbally.
However, these skills may not at all be congruent with that speaker’s ability to actually comprehend spoken English. I have been in India for two months now, and I have found this to be the case in many interactions I’ve had. I have conversed with several people who I assumed were fluent in English, until their responses to my questions or conversation “lead-ins” were so unrelated to what we were talking about, that I finally realized it was because these particular people were not actually understanding what I was saying. This was quite an enlightening discovery for me.
As a full-time public school teacher, which includes second language instruction, this experience shows how important it is to find effective, if unconventional, ways of training and reinforcing students’ auditory comprehension skills. This is essential in order to set them up for success in mastering a new language. There are many different teaching methods out there, and it’s a great idea to vary your lessons for your students, regardless of what you are teaching. Not all instruction can be rote learning and textbook exercises. The same goes for teaching English in India, or anywhere else. Try to create activities in your lessons that will not only teach and reinforce material effectively, but be interactive and interesting for your students as well.
Written by Camelia Marks
Camelia Marks is a Primary French Immersion teacher with the Toronto District School Board. She is also a TESOL/TESL/TEFL instructor with Oxford Seminars. She is currently spending part of a sabbatical year studying yoga in India.