American Sign Language and Its Relationship to Yoga

Lynette Taylor

American Sign Language (ASL) is a visual gestural language with linguistic features such as depicting verbs and classifiers. Some of our verbs mimic the action, and our use of classifiers is a way to indicate movement and who is making the movement. Then, we layer that with modifiers to indicate repetition and longevity of the action or movement. It is an incredibly efficient and dimensional language. I think of ASL like the New York skyline: with little real space at hand, we build in the sky. Our language uses space and movement simultaneously to depict the concepts. So if both forms are visual, the asana and the language depicting it, you want to make sure they are not in conflict with each other.

Also, the language used in yoga is not a language of daily parlance. Many of the classifiers Jennifer and I use are not what you see in everyday conversation. It is a bit "foreign" to talk about moving into warrior pose and to open your pelvis like a book.

I won't even touch that on a metaphoric level. In a regular yoga class, the idea of your muscles or bones rotating, turning out, these things may be pointed out later, but because ASL is a visual language and the subject, asana, is visual, the specificity needs to be articulated at the onset. But just because it is said does not mean it is understood, even in ASL. The learning is the same for all students: each will move to a deeper place once they understand the foundations and have the experience. Jennifer and I talk about how you "scaffold" the instruction and interpretation so that the language becomes deeper as the students progress. Each language has its own requirements for translating equivalent concepts, the use of pronouns, the use of repetition for emphasis, the use of verbs, the grammatical order, all of these will differ, and this is also true in ASL.

In some ways, teaching yoga parallels teaching sign language. When you teach sign language, students see a gesture but they don't see its discrete units or parts. Any number of things can change the meaning of a sign–your palm orientation, the direction and speed of a movement, the repetition of the movement, the origination of the sign, the placement of the sign. The same is true in yoga. Students who are new to yoga also see the asana in a gross form. They don't see all the discrete and subtle elements that make up the asana, so even when you model a sign or an asana, students need to be guided, shown what to see. That is what Jennifer began doing in her ASL yoga class. She taught students how to "see" the asanas, then how to experience them.