Yoga as a Universal Language


By: Alex Sabbag

I recently spent a few weeks in Europe visiting my best friend Natalie who is living in Germany at the moment. In the recent past, my visits to Europe have involved sunny beachside destinations laced with Aperol Spritz, fresh seafood and an enviable tan. I have experienced culture through conversation, geography through gastronomy and the freedom of exploration through some of the most remote destinations. I am a self-proclaimed sun-slut and this is how I’ve gotten my fill of both Vitamin D and the incessant calling to travel. 

But this time was different. My destinations were neither beachside nor sunny, rooted in cultures that consider potatoes vegetables and have a high enough cake consumption to give even a short visitor the risk of type 2 diabetes. I embraced the local cuisine – Schnitzel anyone? And leaned into the pastries (duh), but this wasn’t anything new. I have centered my jet-setting around food and wine, but as I walked the streets of Dusseldorf (for the first time – and definitely not the last!) I felt a nudge to do something different. While familiar to me in Chicago, taking a yoga class in a foreign country — Germany, no less, of which I speak none of their language — was a complete departure from my regular routine. 

The calling came from all ways. There was clearly a noticeable yoga presence in this city, but I felt it inside. My body called for it – the poses, the movement – my shoulders were a wreck from traveling (and perhaps a bit of shopping), my digestive system was beyond confused by what I had invited into my body over the course of a week, and my mind was just craving a little stillness. 

So we found a studio called Run Dum Yoga. It was just under a mile from our hotel so Google Maps in hand, we tracked it down. From the second I walked into the courtyard my shoulders softened, my mind settled and I felt that I was undoubtedly in the right place. If I’m honest, I had that feeling about Dusseldorf in general, but entering the studio gave me an additional validation that this was a good place for me. With broken English and Natalie’s limited German, we signed waivers, stored our belongings and made our way into the studio. 

We were about to take a 60 minute Hatha Yoga class. Invited to take all of the props – which I did, everything from bolsters, straps, blocks and blankets. I’m never shy about amplifying my practice with all of the things – we settled in and awaited the experience ahead. We met the instructor, a delightful woman with such a calming, peaceful presence, who said she would happily teach partially in English. Once we began – Child’s Pose, intuitive movements in table, cat and cow, rag doll – I noticed that not one English word was coming out of her mouth. 

Despite the obvious language barrier, I knew where to go. I quickly learned the German phrase for “one more breath” and let that prompt guide my body into the next posture. I had zero concern for if I was with the class or doing what the instructor asked. I simply moved, breathed and listened to what I’m assuming was a marriage of muscle memory and intuition. 

The pace of a Hatha class is slower. The breath is taken to the edge. Fully in, fully out. It is not one breath per movement, poses are typically held, settled into and embraced by both grace and strength. Just when it feels easy, or the work isn’t present, it kicks in. And I felt it… for days.  Each transition was fluid and filled me to the brim with breath and power, allowing me to release the physical and emotional tension I had been carrying. 

The structure of the class was very traditional and poses followed suit. Nothing more advanced than an Extended Side Angle or Warrior 2, it showed that while the flare of a power class is equal parts invigorating and inspirational, getting down to the roots and the basics is incredibly grounding and comforting. My takeaway: I need both, the balance completes me. 

I felt at home – in my body and in my mind – and it wasn’t because I knew what was going on or had any control over the situation. It was quite the opposite. I let go and I listened to my body (maybe peaking over to the gal next to me to make sure I was somewhat resembling the called post). I just flowed. Nowhere to be. Nothing to do. Just breathe. 

Nothing quite puts you in the present moment like the unknown. Instead of fearing it, can we embrace it? Easy for me to lean into that notion in a yoga studio – clearly no safer place on Earth than that – but is it a lesson I can take off the mat, outside of the darling studio in Dusseldorf, Germany and apply to my everyday life here in Chicago?

I have known deep within that yoga is a universal language. It can be as simple as a shared understanding of Sanskrit – which, if I’m honest, my basic knowledge of those terms helped a great deal during the German experience – but it goes way beyond than that. I call it Big Yoga–the feeling after a practice–the moments where your intentions show up off your mat, the blind epiphanies that we’ve all experienced, but perhaps we haven’t noticed them yet. We will, and it might not come in an expected way. In fact, I can guarantee it won’t. I had no idea yoga’s higher power would strike again — in Germany no less, stuffed full of Schnitzel, Alt Beer and cake — but alas, I was reminded of how incredibly transformational the yogic journey really is. I was reminded how connected we are as human beings. I experienced the open arms welcome that so many newcomers get to experience at Bare Feet. I had the pleasure of being totally lost in my mind and feeling my body because I didn’t know the language. Heck, that’s probably how most of the beginners feel, right? Warrior what? I feel you guys! Stick with it. 

The German Hatha Yoga class was arguably the highlight of my trip. An ancient practice that has evolved and united millions over the course of time… How special to be able to experience this half-way around the world? I am incredibly grateful for the impact and positive ripple effect that hour has had on my life. It goes as a constant reminder of how powerful yoga really is when we turn in, tune out — or as we at Bare Feet like to call it, just Shut up and Flow.

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