Let me just start by saying that I have the utmost respect for yoga's Indian roots and belief systems. Yoga is a beautiful way to coordinate physical health with mental and spiritual health. But in my experience, it feels like some yoga instructors expect too much from their American students when they solely use foreign names to lead group practices without offering the occasional English translation.
My last yoga instructor pretty much turned me off to group yoga practices. Granted, it was an Iyengar yoga class, so I should've known she'd be a little persnickety since that mode of practice is known for its minute attention to detail. To make matters worse, though, this teacher was a firm believer in using only the Sanskrit names for the yoga poses, which made class more frustrating than relaxing for me.
I wasn't a total yoga newbie when I signed up for the Iyengar class since I'd taken beginning yoga classes and stretched along at home with instructional DVDs. I even knew the names of the more common yoga poses — the English translations, anyway.
But when the Iyengar instructor started telling the class to do Adho Mukha Śvānāsana, I was thoroughly confused — until I saw the other students doing what I knew as a Downward Facing Dog.
And the instructor didn't casually mention the Sanskrit name and translate it to the English version for those of us in the class who weren't fluent in Sanskrit. She smugly stuck to the Indian phrases, so I spent more time watching the other students to see how to do things than following her lead.
In group yoga classes, it's often hard to clearly see what the instructor is doing anyway, so it helps a lot if you recognize the pose she's calling out. There's nothing worse than straining your neck to see the instructor (especially from an inverted position) to know whether or not you're doing a pose correctly. Using the Sanskrit names for poses just added another layer of difficulty for me.
Plus, some teachers only lead from the front of the class, rather than walking around and spot correcting students as they go. Instructors who circulate in the classroom can help with a tricky pose — something that's key to preventing injuries since some of the poses can cause strained muscles if done incorrectly. I learned this the hard way by hurting my back in more than one yoga class.
The instructor also spent half the class teaching inverted headstand poses. If she would have explained how headstands improve circulation and help your organs, I might have been more interested in learning how to do them. Instead, she had us practice Sālamba Śir āsanas until the Sanskrit started oozing from my poor, disoriented mind.
But then that's part of the issue with group yoga classes for me: every student has different expectations and ability levels. An effective instructor should check in with students before class starts to find out their skill levels and interests, then adjust the class accordingly.
And although I personally like ending each class with the group saying “Namaste,” the phrase might bother some students, depending on their religious beliefs and their interpretation of the word's meaning. I was always told the word means “The God in me greets the God in you.”
At the end of yoga class, saying “Namaste” and putting your hands together in front of your heart chakra is a way to reinforce the idea that we are all one spirit and on equal ground as divine beings. But to some people, that idea might seem a little foreign, especially if they've been addressed in nothing but Sanskrit for the past hour.