The language of yoga (part II): Repetition and variation
I wrote The language of yoga (part I) over a year ago, and meant to follow it shortly with a “part II”. I’ve said it before, and will say it again (appropriately, for a post about repetition): better late than never! Part I was a historical and etymological dive into Sanskrit. This post takes an entirely different tack – which is a discourse analytic kind of reflection on repetition and variation in the verbal instructions of yoga teachers. (LSA and ThoughtCo. have summaries of discourse analysis, if you want some quick background on the field.)
A disclosure: One of my final master’s papers was on repetition in interactional discourse; the subject has enticed me for a decade now. It is a longstanding point of contention between me and my husband – a hyper-direct, impatient programmer – who finds (what I consider to be a normal amount of) repetition in everyday conversation, deeply annoying. Indeed, repetition in speech (and in writing, when unintentional) is generally disliked in Western culture, especially among white, middle-class Americans. When people “repeat themselves” it’s seen as “tedious”, “redundant”, etc. And yet, especially in informal conversation, we repeat constantly, and also do it spontaneously and automatically.
I’d like to argue that the beauty and uses of this phenomenon are misunderstood, and that repetition is actually remarkably valuable.
The meat and potatoes of linguistic analysis involves the interaction of language form, or structure, and function, or purpose/use. Forms of repetition range from the exact repetition of words and expressions (lexical), to syntactic parallelism (ex. Neil Armstrong’s “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”), to even longer chunks of speech (discourse-level).
Repetition serves a wide variety of purposes – these are only a few:
- As a discourse-cohesive device, or the conversational “glue”, in informal talk
- Ex. Someone repeating the high point of their story for emphasis and listener engagement
- Ex. Someone reiterating an address to the speaker who uttered it, to confirm they heard it correctly
- As a rhetorical device
- Ex. In ads, speeches, essays, and other persuasive communication
- Self-repetition as a way for the speaker to “hold the conversational floor” 
- In language learning, teaching, and socialization
Alright! Please forgive my quick tumble down the repetition rabbit-hole. Back to the main topic…
With yoga classes, as with any recurrent activity where an instructor is narrating, there will be some proportion of the instructor’s speech that is duplicated across class instances (repetition), and some proportion of speech that is new (variation). By ‘repetition’ in this context, I mean longer speech segments that the teacher utters verbatim or nearly verbatim from one class to the next.
As a rough guess, I’d estimate a ratio of 90% repetition to 10% variation for my current yoga instructor / class. Some examples to give you the flavor –
Speech repeated every class
“…Find stillness here”
“…And soften the (right/left) heel down”
“…Downward-facing dog, walk it out”
“Instead of cranking, try to find length across the shoulders”
[At session’s end] “…Feeling the strength that you’ve built…and with strength comes confidence…and with confidence comes clarity, fewer distractions…and with clarity, we make better decisions.”
Most of the variation comes at the beginning and end of the instruction.
Since our class is outside in the park, my teacher usually has some comment about the weather – “the sun finally came out”, or “what a beautiful day”. (Although this could even count as thematic repetition.)
The Bay Area has been uncharacteristically rainy over the last couple months, so several of our park yoga classes switched to at-home zoom practices. From last week: “Just a moment, can everyone hear me okay? Audio’s fine?”
“We’re going to do something a little different…it seemed to work for Thursday’s class.”
I would love to conduct a study on this topic. Basic questions I would investigate:
- How many and what kinds of discourse segments get repeated each yoga session?
- How many discourse segments are new each session?
- From (1) and (2), what is the repetition-to-variation ratio?
- What are the contexts of repeated versus varied segments? How do they differ?
- How does the yoga class ratio compare to other instructional activities?
Thoughts for discussion:
- To my mind, the key to successful instruction in something like a yoga class is a good ratio of repetition to variation – you want enough repetition to feel comfortable, to feel the ease of doing something semi-automatic, but enough variation to keep your attention and interest.
- The ratio probably also has something to do with participants – in yoga classes etc., there will be some participants who are regulars, who have heard and followed the instruction (maybe many times) before, and some participants who are newer. It’s useful to mix it up a bit for the regulars, but be repetitive for the newcomers, so that they have an easier time catching on.
- There are many narrated/instructional activities like yoga which rely on similar scripts of repetition with variation. What would an analysis of repetition-to-variation ratios tell us about how much our language capacities rely on expressions and sequences which have become almost hard-coded through reuse, and how much we adlib in the moment? Could this provide insights about human cognition vis-à-vis habit and creativity?
- Other narrated activities: Gym or dance classes, religious sermons or ceremonies, guided meditation, city/museum/university tours, guided wine tastings at wineries
- Feel free to add more ideas in the comments!
 Johnstone (1987), Repetition in Discourse.
 Tannen (1987), Repetition in Conversation: Toward a Poetics of Talk.
 Rieger (2003), quoted in Tannen (2007), Talking Voices.
* Header photo attribution: Yoga class