Unlocked: Reflections on Teaching Yoga Abroad

February 16, 2016    BY David E. Moreno

Teaching yoga in Germany, I am more immigrant than tourist. I have flown from the dock of the San Francisco Bay to the canals of Amsterdam, where I taught one workshop before taking a train to Cologne to give another. Everything in Cologne seems surprisingly familiar, as in other European cities where I’ve taught on previous teaching trips, with grey Gothic architecture butting up against tawdry, 1960's glass modern buildings. To this working foreigner, Cologne is both as common and as intriguing as any European city.

For the next four days I am living on Rothhausstrasse—a narrow lane paved with irregularly shaped stones and patches of machine-manufactured bricks. The lane is a modernist quilt shaded and cooled by a canopy of green deciduous trees. Herds of bicycles chained to black iron tree guards line the lane, silently awaiting their next outing. Each bike has a distinct personality—a tangible history, a welcoming kindness, telling stories about its owner without a word or movement. My carry-on luggage rolls loudly across the cobblestones like flamenco dancers stomping out different rhythms. I search the addresses for my new numbers, my temporary home.    

My flat is recently refurbished and up three flights of narrow, smooth wooden steps, designed in a different era for smaller feet. I walk up sideways, hauling tired luggage up what feels more like a librarian’s ladder than a stairwell. Where the tiny steps end, a tall ominous door halts my climb, requiring a skeleton key as its secret password. The brass key must be jiggled several times before it reveals the crisp white walls of a modern flat. Both door and lock are all that remain of the original 1900's interior. Inside, high ceilings soar over shiny butterscotch-paneled floors, like a perfect miniature yoga studio—ideal for practice.

I walk from my flat to Vishnu’s Couch yoga studio and back to my flat. This is my world, my life for four short-lived, jet-lagged days. Still, it only takes a few trips up and down Rothhausstrasse before my senses befriend the cobblestones and parked bicycles—making me feel less a stranger (even though I am) and more like someone who belongs (even though I don't). On a block where all the houses are attached, with the sidewalk as their front yard, and it’s sometimes hard to distinguish one house from the next, it’s necessary to have these kinds of friends as landmarks. The gruff Turkish men who huddle on my new corner, chomping cigarettes and drinking beer for breakfast, have also rapidly become landmarks and imaginary neighbors. Within 24 hours I begin to anticipate them the same way I have adapted to the cathedral bells that ring for five loud, extended minutes at five of noon and again at five of six in the evening—hollow bells clanging proclamations of both emptiness and importance down the thin, urban canyon lane.

I walk from my flat to Vishnu’s Couch yoga studio and back to my flat. This is my world, my life for four short-lived, jet-lagged days.

I, a 60-something yoga instructor from California, disappear into the fashionable ambiance of a hipster cafe, indistinguishable from the locals. I fancy myself blending in as a local until the Deutsch menu arrives, when I sheepishly ask the waiter what it all means. Together we navigate the possibilities for a meal I am desperate to eat.

My first day of teaching requires that I go to the yoga studio for a pre-workshop sound check and technical run-through. I plan to do this early, knowing that anything that can go wrong with technical stuff usually does. My intention is to deal with this potential challenge early in the morning so that I can then return to the apartment for asana practice and a hearty breakfast. Once those things are accomplished, I am teaching pretty much the rest of the weekend. Everything is in order. I am ready and eager to start. But first, I sit facing the door chanting to Ganesha to remove all obstacles from the day, from the workshops, from the students, and from myself. As I sit quietly in meditation, I experience everything settling into stillness, and the the stress of everything being new and different dissolves.   

When the meditation bells on my iPhone chime, I stand up and walk to the door where the skeleton key is resting in its lock. I give the key a turn. It needs a jiggle, which I give. Then again. And again. And still…nothing happens. I start pulling, rattling, tugging…it doesn’t turn. I am trapped. The windows don’t open onto a ledge but to the tops of cars and bicycles straight below. I text the studio manager who tries reaching the landlord, but he isn’t home. A half hour later a locksmith arrives. He begins by spraying oil into the lock as I try turning from the other side—nothing. Then he hammers and pounds—still no luck. By now the other tenants in the apartment complex have come up to see what’s going on. The landlord has arrived with his precocious kids; smooth-skinned yoga gals have arrived with their young husbands and rosy-cheeked boyfriends, as have the curious neighbors from across the street. Together they huddle into a now crowded stairwell, a stairwell that was already narrow to begin with (of course, I can’t actually see from the other side of the door, but I can hear their clamor and feel them energetically).

What I can see is that as the locksmith pounds the lock, the wood around it starts to crack. I cringe, thinking this is my fault and wondering how many euros it costs to replace a door in Germany. Will I be deported?! I wince at the thought of what my Jungian therapist friends will have to say about this situation (you see, my housekeeper accidentally locked me out of my flat back in San Francisco the day before leaving for this trip). “What is it that you’re wanting to lock out, or lock in... ?” “Who holds the key to both of these experiences…?” I grimace, too, thinking about what New Agey spin some yogis might put on it…”Just breathe...” Really? There’s a jackhammer pounding the door down and I am on the other side of it. I fear being late for or missing the sold-out workshops that students have paid for in advance. Forty-five minutes later, the locksmith bangs through. The door flies open and the crowd cheers as they try to glimpse the hostage yoga instructor. All that’s missing are flashing camera bulbs and news reporter Geraldo Rivera—“Visiting Yoga Instructor Freed from Apartment!”

I cringe, thinking this is my fault and wondering how many euros it costs to replace a door in Germany. Will I be deported?!

I get to the studio 30 minutes before the first workshop starts and teach the next four hours without breakfast—the students’ enthusiasm is my meal, and teaching is my grace. Fortunately, the Cologne students are welcoming and playful, enjoying both my American sense of humor and the variety of workshops I am offering. They are even more noticeably outgoing than my students in the north—in Berlin, where students tend to be more reserved. Turns out that Cologne is known for its accepting, chill vibe, and, oh, how this kindness is especially appreciated today. When I return to the flat in between courses, the locksmith is still there but now replacing all the locks on the other apartments—their potential obstacles now removed as well. With great embarrassment, the landlord apologizes and gives me my stay for free. The deity of threshold, Ganesha, has kept his promise, as I feel less a stranger and more like I belong—more immigrant than tourist. 

David E. Moreno
David Moreno teaches in the Bay Area and has taught yoga at international conferences, universities, and retreats worldwide. For more information, visit moryoga.com.