When is yoga not pure yoga? When it’s a Cantonese lesson. At Hong Kong’s Yoga Bam Bam studio, instructor Matina Cheung gently repeats and repeats Canto vocab until you’re thinking kap pei, fu hei instead of inhale, exhaaale…
We started with some basic bends, lunges and stretches, so far so yoga. But then as we stretched our hands up to the ceiling then folded ourselves towards the floor she added kap pei and the longer, more drawn out, fuuuu heiiiii. After some repetition she chanted kap pei soeng and fu hei lok (soeng is up, lok is down). And we were encouraged to chant with her.
As we stuck our legs back into lunges she added zo or jau, which I already knew as left and right, although I tend to mix them up (in English as well as Cantonese). She also added maan maan, (slow) which I had never used before, although I am a big fan of faai di faai di in a taxi (faster faster). And there were longer phrases, which lost me completely, for the students who have attended a number of classes. Later she added gau (dog – downward dog is haa gau sik), and towards the end wu dip (butterfly) and gaap zi (pigeon).
Then came my favourite – fong sung (relax). And we settled into shavasana.
And as I melted into the floor it struck me that we were actually learning yoga in three languages, if you include Sanskrit. And also that at this moment in time perhaps I know more Sanskrit than Cantonese. Hmm…
The Yoga with Basic Cantonese for Expats class, to give it its full name, is one of Yoga Bam Bam owner Melanie B’s favourites, who says, “Canto pride is everywhere in Hong Kong these days.”
When she arrived in Hong Kong she was shocked to learn that most expats know very little Cantonese and was determined to learn, but after three months of lessons she gave it up as it just wasn’t enjoyable.
So when she opened Yoga Bam Bam she immediately added this course. “It is a proven fact that we learn more easily when we are relaxed,” she says. “Yoga Canto is a gem of a class. It is a two-in-one for those of us too busy to learn Canto the traditional way.”
“I think it’s a fun and creative way to teach and learn Cantonese,” agrees Matina. “Also it’s easier to learn and remember the words without books but though moving your body and speaking the words together. Language is the key to culture. If you can speak some simple Cantonese here, you are actively breaking the ice with the locals and making your stay more interesting.”
What was fascinating was how it transformed the psychology of the class for me. I realized how intuitive language is when you don’t need conscious thought processes to understand it. Adding Cantonese and the ‘learning’ element took away a little from the focus on my breathing, bodily sensations and other more meditative thoughts. I found myself searching for memory hooks to latch these new words onto. Soeng sounds like the sun so it must be up, while lok is a little like low…
It created a whole new inner dialogue that shifted my focus from the actual yoga to the Cantonese, something I’m sure will balance back when I’ve learned more, while adding a wonderful inner glow for having finally taken that first stretch into the language.
I will be back! Or rather ngo wui zoi fawn lai!
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