An American Yoga Teacher in Asia

Category: Culture, Language

Before he devoted his life to tree, dolphin and lotus poses, and chanting to the elephant god Ganesha, one of my yoga teachers, Les Leventhal, was a jet engine salesperson. He traveled extensively throughout Latin America and beyond and was no stranger to cultural miscommunication and language barriers.

However, he discovered on a recent trip to China and Japan that teaching his style of spiritual and physical yoga in two cultures very different from his own, created some interesting challenges — and insights.


In China, Les taught in the city of Shenzhen. Classes were a mix of locals and Western expatriates. As in the States, Les emphasized breathing in his class and repeatedly said, “Breathe, inhale, and exhale”. Early in his first class, he heard his students repeatedly ask “Who’s she?, Who’s She?”

His mind immediately started analyzing the situation: Was this a subtle joke or an honorific? Did they know something about him as a person he didn’t? Was there a sneaky women teaching behind him? None of the above. “Who’s she?” happens to be the English phonetic equivalent to the Chinese word huxi (呼吸), meaning “breathe”. His students just wanted to verbalize to Les that they were doing exactly what he was asking them to do — breathing.

Also while in China, Les quickly learned about asking for personal information. In the States, yoga teachers ask at the beginning of class if anyone is pregnant so that they can help the student modify poses to protect the baby. Often this is done by asking at the beginning of class while everyone has their eyes closed — thereby ensuring some privacy (however, baby bump gossip in yoga class is worse than in People magazine since as soon as you see a woman modifying poses, you assume she’s pregnant).

In China, Les asked the “pregnant question” and immediately sensed that he broke a social taboo. There was prodigious laughing and no hands raised. He learned that the laughter was actually a way of dealing with the uncomfortable situation he had created. In China, pregnancy is a touchy subject. If a woman is past her mid-20s and unmarried and childless, she is thought of differently than other women and may be openly criticized, even by her friends.

While teaching in Japan, Les was surprised to have classes where all the students were interested in was technique. A large percentage could fly right into full splits, yet they didn’t want to learn about yogic philosophy. Yoga, to them, was a competitive sport: “I can do this, what can you do?” Or to take it a step further: “You are this. I am that.”

Generally, when Americans begin to do yoga, competition is one of the main motivators (if I can get into full splits, I’ll be a better person and I’ll beat my neighbor at this “sport”). However, this usually (not always) subsides and yoga becomes an acceptance of the current state of the mind and body, non-competitive in every sense of the word.

This didn’t appear to be the case in Japan. Here, yoga is a pure sport with five story buildings in downtown Tokyo devoted to it and other fitness classes such as pilates and dance. Les made the assumption that Japan, with its deep history of Buddhism, would gladly want to hear about yogic philosophy. He quickly learned that you can’t assume that! In Japan, extracurricular activities are not just for fun, they are done to achieve very physical goals and to become the best practitioner among their peers.

Sensei Les is back in the States and integrating the lessons he learned into his classes. Now, a large handful of San Francisco yoginis know how to say “breathe” in Chinese. A nice little language lesson without even leaving the yoga mat!