Dr. Ilya Parkins
Directed Studies GWST 333 2015
“In looking at our individual classroom pedagogies and our isolated artistic endeavors, we must broaden the frame of analysis to consider historical, contextual and institutional assumptions. This means a constant awareness of how the micro-practices of interpersonal dialogue and embodied ways of knowing each other can provide an impetus for structural change.”
― Ann Elizabeth Armstrong
Integrating embodied practices such as yoga or mindfulness into a university classroom offers a tangible way of challenging the institutional assumption of the Cartesian mind/body split and can be especially useful in diversity classrooms (gender and women’s studies, ethnicity studies, LGBTQ studies, sociology, peace and conflict studies). The dichotomy of mind and body (and the privileging of the mind) is often present in post-secondary environments, and is encapsulated perfectly in the University of British Columbia’s logo, “a place of mind.” Is there a role for the body within “a place of mind?” The implications for ignoring the body and embodied experiences in educational institutions can be extremely detrimental to the health and well-being of all who participate in the system. I believe that the body can be considered a site for the production of knowledge, a means of understanding relationality, and can complement and deepen cognition and new understandings.
This paper is informed by the direct experience of teaching yoga and other embodied practices in a Gender and Women’s Studies classroom. I hope to provide perspectives and resources for educators who are interested to incorporate embodiment exercises in their own learning environments. Over the course of two months, as a registered yoga teacher, I helped facilitate embodied practices for a Gender and Women’s Studies class focusing on Gendered Perspectives on Bodies.
Introducing embodied practices into the university classroom can be considered part of many different pedagogical frameworks such as integrated student learning (a term coined by the University of Massachusetts), holistic education, transformational education (Nepo 2010 vii), and what bell hooks would describe as “engaged pedagogy.” (Berila 2014). Jennifer Musial writes, “hooks’s engaged pedagogy similarly disrupts what is perceived to be a traditional way of knowing in academia because it “emphasizes well-being” (Teaching to Transgress 15) and “requires discernment” (Teaching Critical Thinking 8) and “radical openness” (Teaching Critical Thinking 10). It is concerned with emotional and spiritual growth as well as intellectual growth.” (2011, 214). The importance of these different pedagogical approaches lie in their common interest in educating the whole person, and recognizing that the mind, body, and heart are all connected. The philosophy of yoga fits seamlessly with this common interest. The word “yoga” can be traced in Sanskrit etymology back to the root yuj which means to join, connect, or unite.
Furthermore, understanding the role and meaning of embodiment is critical before engaging with embodiment exercises. Tammy J. Freiler describes embodiment as, “a way to construct through direct engagement with bodily experiences and inhabiting through a felt sense of being-in-the-world…involves being attentive to the body and its experiences as a way of knowing.” (2008, 40). Embodiment refers to the experience of being in a body, instead of merely having a body and is concerned with the experiences, internal and external, related to being in a body. Much of the abstract thinking and theory within the university classroom is concerned with the mind only, so bring bodies into the equation can be quite a transgressive or subversive move.
Andrea Hyde, in her article “The Yoga of Critical Discourse” describes three ways of knowing: the rational, the sensory empirical and the contemplative (2013, 115). Yoga, mindfulness, and other embodiment exercises fall within the category of contemplative ways of knowing. The contemplative ways of knowing emphasize critically questioning the self-evident, shifting consciousness away from ideology, and focusing on self-reflexivity (Hyde 2013, 115-116). There are of courses risks to engaging with embodiment exercises, as they can sometimes challenge one’s self-concept (Hyde 2013, 116) and being in one’s body is not a comfortable experience for all, especially if trauma is involved. Therefore preparation for embodiment practices is crucial to the success of the program.
Emerson et al in their article “Trauma Sensitive Yoga: Principles, Practice, and Research” describe the ubiquity of trauma, “Over half the general population report having had exposure to at least one traumatic event over their lifetime, with 5% of men and 10.4% of women developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).” (2009, 123). Trauma exposure significantly alters the way that embodiment can be experienced, and for some, the body may be an extremely uncomfortable and painful place to inhabit. Beth Berila suggests five main guideline when preparing for embodiment practice: assume that someone in the room has experienced trauma, prepare these students for the possible reactions beforehand, offer the option of opting out, provide support resources, and hold the space (2013, 65-66). These are invaluable guidelines to follow as they take steps before, during, and after to mitigate the experience of re-traumatization and negative experiences for participants.
Emerson et al discuss the importance of invitatory language, which I find very useful when leading yoga sessions. They state, “Invitatory Language involves phrases such as “when you are ready,” “if you like,” and “as you like.” Students are invited to try something, but are not required, coerced, or pushed. We do not place value so much on students doing exactly what we say or pleasing us, but in being willing to listen to their own bodies and acting accordingly.” (2009, 127).
There are some other practical considerations that should be taken into account before one begins doing embodiment work in the classroom. We found that the timing of the exercise (which in our case usually lasted about 15 minutes of each 80 minute class) changed the experience of doing the work. For example, many students reported feeling more ready to learn and more relaxed during class if the exercise was done at the beginning of the class. The space is another crucial factor to the success of the exercises. In our classroom, we had a traditional configuration of rows of desks and chairs facing the front whiteboards. Some educators report success using the U-shaped model, where desks and chairs configure to create a half circle so that students can see each other (Jordon 2001). While this space may be more conducive, it also has risks as some students may feel more exposed while doing potentially triggering exercises. In our class, we attempted to change the configuration of the room a few weeks in, and unfortunately, this was indeed triggering for one student, so we decided to keep the room as-is. While sitting in the traditional rows made it more challenging to do physical stretching, we managed to do a variety of mind-body exercises while co-existing with the formal structure of a classroom.
The first exercises that we did in our Gender and Women’s Studies class were very basic and foundational. As a yoga teacher, one of the pivotal teachings that was shared with me, is to focus on grounding first. Grounding can be described as feeling one’s connection to the ground, floor, or support of the chair, and beginning to settle into the body. When beginning a grounding exercise, I would say something along the lines of, “I invite you to come towards the edge of your seat so you can find a tall spine, reaching the crown of your head towards the ceiling while feeling your seat on the chair. Now turn your attention to your feet and press down into the floor through your shoes. Feel the support of the ground.” This simple action of grounding helps to bring us out of our heads and into our bodies.
After grounding, we worked on becoming aware of our breath – a central tenet of yoga. Sometimes breathing with a group can feel forced or uncomfortable for some, so as usual, I will give an option to opt out. At first, counted breathing provides a simple way to gain awareness of the breath. A straightforward count to four on the inhale, and a count to four on the exhale can be a good place to start. Gradually, as students become more aware of their breath, we can extend our exhale to six, while continuing to inhale to four. I may also invite students to place one hand on their stomach to feel the expansion of the breath on the inhale and the contraction of the belly on the exhale. “Feeling into the breath” can help foster awareness of the breath, also.
Belly breathing and extending the exhale longer than the inhale is well known to help activate the parasympathetic nervous system (the rest and digest response).
Thirdly, I introduced some basic mindfulness exercises, including a brief breathing meditation, a body scan, an inner oasis exercise, and a loving-kindness (metta) meditation. These exercises would be introduced slowly and I would be careful with my language while guiding the students. Many students reported feeling more vulnerable with their eyes closed, so it is important to use invitatory language and emphasize choice when it comes to opening and closing the eyes. I might say, “Feel free to close your eyes if that is comfortable for you, or keep a soft gaze with your eyes open.”
Finally I led some gentle physical stretches and movement oriented exercises, such as shoulder rolls, neck rolls, reaching up to the ceiling, seated twists, wrist stretches, and modified yoga poses such as eagle arms and standing warrior poses. These were all adapted to the physical space that the class occupied, so we were not always able to execute each stretch perfectly due to being in a relatively confined space with lots of furniture.
Besides the actual embodiment exercises, students were required to keep a journal connecting their experience of the exercises to the readings of theory within the course. While this was challenging for some, our professor noted a lot of major learning breakthroughs in these journals. In addition, we held three classes that focused on conversation and feedback for how the embodiment exercises were going and what could be done to improve or better the experience. These conversations led to many interesting links between the embodiment work and anti-oppressive, social justice oriented education. Several students spoke of how the embodiment exercises could lead to a better understanding of their own body, and their own body in relation to others. We discussed the possibility of the embodiment exercises leading to empathy and how they require increased vulnerability. These conversations were also nuanced in terms of we began to notice how certain ways of knowing (speaking, writing) are privileged in Canadian academia above others.
Productive discomfort was another topic that emerged out of these dialogues. Boler praises education that acknowledges (and challenges) hegemony and recognizes the political influences of all forms of education (2003, 112). She describes “emotional labour” as crucial in social justice education, especially in terms of deconstructing hegemony and critically examining the dominant ways of understanding the world (Boler 2003, 113). The embodiment exercises provide an avenue to explore hegemony and break up the usual state of affairs within a university classroom. Some of the benefits of participating in something uncomfortable initially, is the growth and learning that happens as a result. Many social justice educators or educators in diversity classrooms do not aim to create safe spaces, as they acknowledge many of the topics they cover are not safe. Musial refers to this in her paper, “Educational spaces are not 100 percent safe, particularly when people are asked to confront the affect, values, morals, memories, and past traumas. Sometimes spaces are not safe for the teacher either. Often, we do not feel intellectually, emotionally, or spiritually safe. bell hooks advises that this place of insecurity may be beneficial, “By making ourselves vulnerable we show our students that they can take risks, that they can be vulnerable, that they can have confidence that their thoughts, their ideas will be given appropriate consideration and respect” (Teaching Critical Thinking 57). (2011, 216).
Embodiment exercises such as yoga and mindfulness can also serve to counterbalance the enormous amount of social and personal regulation of our bodies. There are many influences, groups, media sources, and internalized notions that seek to criticize and change the way we look and feel about our bodies. The yamas and niyamas of yoga are key ethical guidelines that guide the practice that focus on non-violence, compassion for self and others, contentment, non-stealing, truthfulness, non-excess, non-greed (Matson, 2013). Many of the exercises I led for the class focused on a state of non-judgement and self-acceptance. These two qualities can lead to better self-care and mental wellness.
While some students stated that they had many concerns when first starting the embodiment exercises (since it was new and unfamiliar) such as wondering whether they were doing it correctly, I believe that some students began to look forward to the embodiment work as time passed on. Of course, a few students were not able to or chose not to participate, but I believe that the class as a whole benefitted from the embodiment exercises. Many people began to contribute verbally to the class as time went on, our conversations were deep and fruitful, and many of us felt positively challenged by the level of thinking that the class required.
Incorporating embodiment exercises into the university classroom offers a different way of learning for students, it challenges the Cartesian dualism of mind and body (and the privileging of the mind over the body) and it can lead to deeper understandings and major learning breakthroughs. Completing two months of exercises (15 minutes twice a week) in our Gender and Women’s Studies classroom provided us with rich learning experiences and the trials and tribulations that go along with doing something new and unfamiliar. Many students said that the learning they experienced was not limited to the classroom and affected their lives outside of the classroom, also. Acknowledging and honouring the body in the university classroom would not only lead to increased health and wellness for students, but also can complement the course material in diversity classrooms in a very useful way. It would be very counterproductive to be learning about bodies and to never engage them directly in the learning- if all we did was abstract thinking it would defeat the purpose of much of what we were learning about.
Preparing for embodiment exercises is integral to the success of the class, and understanding trauma and its potential effects when doing yoga or any kind of mind/body work is essential before undertaking any project. While the embodiment exercises did not work for everybody, we tried to make them as accessible as possible and gave students the option of opting out. Of course, the pressure of being in a university classroom may not allow for students to feel comfortable opting out, which is an important consideration, also. Ultimately, for most students the embodiment work was an important component of a Gender and Women’s Studies class and presented learning opportunities that would not have existed otherwise. While for some, doing the exercises was a radically different way of learning, the embodiment exercises proved to be a transgressive method of integrating many concepts we cover in an anti-oppressive, social justice oriented classroom.
Berila, Beth. “Contemplating the Effects of Oppression: Integrating Mindfulness into DiversityClassrooms.” The Journal of Contemplative Inquiry 1, no. 1 (2014).
Boler, Megan. “Discomforting Truths: The Emotional Terrain of Understanding Difference.” InPedagogies of Difference: Rethinking Education for Social Change, edited by PeterPericles Trifonas, 110-36. New York: Routledge Falmer, 2003.
Emerson, David et al. “Trauma-Sensitive Yoga: Principles, Practice, and Research.”International Journal of Yoga Therapy 19 (2009): 123-8.
Freiler, Tammy J. “Learning through the Body.” New Directions for Adult and ContinuingEducation 119 (2008): 37–47.
Hyde, Andrea M. “The Yoga of Critical Discourse.” Journal of Transformative Education 11,no. 2 (2013): 114-126.
Jordon, Sherry. “Embodied Pedagogy: The Body and Teaching Theology.” Teaching Theologyand Religion 4, no. 2 (2001): 98-101.
Mattson, Jennifer. “Yoga’s Ethical Guide to Living: The Yamas and Niyamas” Kripalu Thrive Blog. July 1, 2013. http://kripalu.org/blog/thrive/2013/07/01/yogas-ethical-guide-to-living-the-yamas-and-niyamas/
Musial, Jennifer. 2011. “Engaged Pedagogy in the Feminist Classroom and Yoga Studio.”Feminist Teacher 21, no. 3 (2011): 212-228.