Final Paper Findings

Emmy Chahal
Dr. Ilya Parkins
Directed Studies GWST 333 2015

UBC Okanagan

“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 Diversity​Classrooms.” The Journal of Contemplative Inquiry 1, no. 1 (2014).

Boler, Megan. “Discomforting Truths: The Emotional Terrain of Understanding Difference.” In​Pedagogies of Difference: Rethinking Education for Social Change, edited by Peter​Pericles 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 Continuing​Education 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 Theology​and 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.

Musial, Jennifer. 2011. “Engaged Pedagogy in the Feminist Classroom and Yoga Studio.”​Feminist Teacher 21, no. 3 (2011): 212-228.

Critical Perspectives on Yoga

This entry revolves around two articles yet again, each taking a critical perspective on yoga. The first focuses on transnational flows of yoga and the green movement  – I will begin with this piece entitled, “Consuming Yoga, Conserving the Environment:    Transcultural Discourses on Sustainable Living” by Strauss and Mandelbaum.  I appreciated this article for several reasons.  One being that it acknowledged the transnational aspects of yoga that are so often neglected in mainstream constructions.  Both authors were careful to trace the flows of yoga across countries and continents and honour all of the different ways that yoga manifests across the world.  Secondly, I liked how the research spanned many years and was quite well-rounded in its approach, it took into account qualitative measures, although I wish the authors had situated themselves more comprehensively at the beginning.

Strauss and Mandelbaum aim to make links between the green/environmental movement and transnational flows of yoga arguing that a new cosmopolitan middle class has emerged with an “ecological worldview.”  Strauss and Mandelbaum make explicit the ties between personal health through yoga and the more general planetary health through examining yoga from a more macro perspective.  They focus on three mains lineages/styles of yoga : Sivananda, Krishnamacharya, and Pathabi Jois.

The article does a really good job at describing the commodification of culture and yoga through the plethora of yoga subculture material goods (clothing, props, mats, etc) and the implications of these markets.  The authors cite Bikram Yoga specifically and how the flows of capital affect yoga and its consumption.   I loved the aspect of the article that talked about performing yoga and the bourgeoisie class identity that goes along with it.  I thought the discussion on habitus was especially pertinent and I liked how the authors drew on Foucault.  At the end of the article, the authors briefly discussed the transformative potential of yoga, its positive impact on  discipline and work ethic as well.

To me, these ideas are all applicable to teaching yoga in the university classroom.  Important links could be made between yoga and ecofeminism in particular, as well as considering the accessibility of yoga to marginalized populations.  I am really passionate about making yoga accessible for anyone who wants to try it, regardless of background and financial situations.  Yoga, in my eyes, is not about elitist spiritual wanderings, but is grounded in my every day life and how I interact with the world.  Yoga is largely relational even though the work we are doing is so internal.  Many students in the class reported feeling more connected to each other, and I think the dialogue about the practice really helped facilitate that.

Turning briefly to the other article, Nevrin Klas wrote an interesting paper entitled, ““Empowerment and Using the Body in Modern Postural Yoga.” His approach to analysis is through the body and embodiment, taking a Merleau-Ponty influenced style.  I found this article much more difficult to read due to its emphasis on detail and bodily movement and process, yet the work is still very important to me, it foregrounds the body in analysis.


Space, Bodies, Embodiment

After an unexpected hiatus from school, I am back in action.  While today was the last day of our Bodies class, my work has only just begun as I have a series of journal entries to catch up on as well as writing  my final paper.  I am hoping to use my final paper at some conferences and maybe even send it to the Journal of Contemplative Inquiry and see what happens.  It would be so nice to have something useful, tangible, and practical at the end of this work.

For this journal entry I will briefly discuss two articles.  The first is entitled, ““Embodied Pedagogy: The Body and Teaching Theology” by Sherry Gordon.  I found this article more applicable and relevant of the two.  Within the article, Gordon describes the proxemics (how space, the body, and effective communication work together) and kinesics (body language) of teaching in her theology class. The article is very self-reflective and self-reflexive, as Gordon writes about her own experiences in the classroom.  I find this useful because it grounds her work in an embodied practice.  Theorizing and abstraction are somewhat useful when it comes to embodiment, but I really value the different ways that writers reflect on their own experiences of embodiment and what it means to them personally and professionally.

Gordon begins with acknowledging and recognizing the importance of the body when it comes to teaching and pedagogical inquiry. I wholeheartedly agree. Obviously we are not all “floating heads” and cannot ignore the implications of being in a body and functioning within a body.  I think everyone’s experience of being in their body is different, and sometimes it is hard to find the words to describe an embodied experience -but to make the effort to get to know the body holds many potentially positive outcomes (which I will describe later on).

Sherry Gordon does a great job at acknowledging and paying attention to space and bodies.  She describes how she tries to create a “U-shape” classroom so that students can see each other and therefore be more engaged with each other as knowledge-makers.  Gordon outlines 3 main types of spaces theorized by Dr. Edward T. Hall:

  • fixed feature space (the building and unmovable walls)
  • semi-fixed (furniture is movable, shaped by furniture)
  • informal (personal space carried by the individual) (Hall  1969, 103±112).

Gordon bases her classroom on a semi-fixed model.  She argues that community and group dynamics are facilitated by space and therefore thought needs to be put towards how a classroom looks.  Earlier in the semester, some students in our bodies class suggested changing the physical space of our class to be more conducive to learning.  However, not everyone was comfortable with this suggestion and it would have required significant preparation and physical labour to move the space.  Further, we wanted to create a classroom that felt comfortable to be in, and due to the social, known conventions of an institution like UBC, it was perhaps more settling to continue the way we had started.  Sometimes we need to walk that “line of risk” in pedagogy very carefully.

Gordon also describes how lack of sleep, nutrition, and exercise detrimentally affect classroom spaces and universities as a whole.  I can say first hand that sleep deprivation can cause a host of issues and I wish we had an educational system that did not pressure students to stay up all night working, or at least provided us with better time management skills.

Tina Kazan wrote the second article that I will discuss today.  I did not like this article as much as Gordon’s due to its lengthy anecdotal examples and theory that seemed to not flow very well with the rest of the paper.  Kazan draws primarily on Bakhtain, by focusing on “the surplus of seeing.”   She begins the article by talking about teaching is often about instilling authority through space and other means.  Kazan argues that embodiment is closely related to epistemology, dynamism, and must honour difference.   She also states that institutions like universities can inscribe ideas of the mind-body split.  To be honest, I found Kazan’s article hard to understand  in places and found Gordon more useful and easier to read.

Preparing for Embodiment Exercises

Sometimes things unfold in ways you never expected. I would like to devote an entire post to Beth Berila’s thought provoking article, “Contemplating the Effects of Oppression: Integrating Mindfulness into Diversity         Classrooms.” This article hit very close to home as it describes how important it is to carefully integrate embodiment exercises in an academic setting.  Part of me wishes I had read this article before the course began, as it provides some incredibly useful points about how embodiment and mindfulness exercises can evoke traumatic memory and difficult experiences for survivors of various oppressions. Part of me wishes that what happened a few weeks ago could have been avoided, had I been more informed about how mindfulness can be so challenging in this particular setting.

Berila begins her article by discussing the benefits of embodied learning and how important it is in diversity classrooms (sociology, gender and women’s studies, ethnicity studies, peace studies, etc). Basically, she states that by focusing on “holistic learning” “transformational education” and “critical first person inquiry” students learn that engagement and knowledge production can be an internal as well as an external process (56).  Berila argues that these skills of embodied learning are critical in settings where we are dissecting social systems and learning about inequities and oppression.   She also states that contemplative practices aid the flow of discussion in these classrooms.  The article describes how each student brings their complex histories to the context of contemplation in academic settings, including survivors of trauma and/or oppression.

Since feminism and women’s studies focuses on gender “within  its intersectional matrix of race, class, sexual identity, and nation” Berila acknowledges that social location is key to these understandings.  When I have learned about oppression and patriarchy over the past 4 years, I have often tried to locate myself within these systems of privilege.  I think part of the reason that why what happened in class a few weeks ago was so difficult, was because meditation has never come easy for me, and has triggered me in the past as well.  As a person who has survived trauma and various forms of institution inequity, I have noticed that going deeper into my body is an uncomfortable experience at times, and I have resisted going too deep because I simply wasn’t ready to heal that radically.  That refusal to do the practice sometimes has been a form of self-protection. I have undertaken a vast array of yoga and meditational inquiry but it hasn’t been without hazard.  I think my willingness to go very deep without proper preparation has led to some very unfortunate circumstances.  It is my wish that as a teacher, I can keep everyone safe.  I also know that this wish is unrealistic.

I remember asking Ilya one day in second year about why some Gender and Women’s Studies instructors refuse to call their classroom a safe space.  I think I now understand why.  It is because the content and exploration of these classes is inherently about problematizing what is harmful in our societies and envisioning other possibilities.  We have to understand what is not working before we can dismantle the destruction and create something anew.  Oppression, misogyny, patriarchy, and intersectional identity politics are places of difficulty and pain for many people.  They are perhaps the darkest forms of abuse that humans can enact toward each other.  Learning about these topics at UBCO has been cathartic, shocking, painful, beautiful, relieving, eye-opening, and thought provoking.  This education has the been one of the best decisions I have ever made for myself.

Turning back to Berila for a moment, she writes an incredibly useful paper as she gives practical tools for educators to incorporate mindfulness and contemplation into their classrooms in a safe way.  She gives an overview of 5 main guidelines:

1. “Assume that someone in the room has suffered from trauma” (pg 65)

2. “Prepare these students for these possible reactions beforehand” (pg 65)

3. “Offer the option of opting out” (pg 66)

4. “Provide support resources” (pg 66)

5. “Hold the space” (pg. 66)

When I look back and reflect on what happened, it seems that we offered support resources and I tried to hold the space, but the other three may not have been adequately fulfilled. Of course, perhaps we can only learn through our “mistakes” but in the future I will do things differently. I’d like to begin the discussion about how what we are learning in the embodiment exercises is linked to what we are learning about oppression, in the context that by sitting with ourselves we begin to face what is actually happening – internally and externally.  I think this is why I still believe in things like meditation and yoga therapy, even though they have the potential to re-traumatize  and even cause psychological distress for some people.  I believe in it because in the long term, by addressing these issues in whatever way (graceful or not), we don’t hold it in any more.  We actually get to see what is there, under our skin and we have options on how we choose to deal with it.

That is what I find hopeful and interesting about this course.  And that is what I hope to explore deeper in my final paper.

The Body and Difference

The readings for this week focus on difference and the body. I am currently unable to access the article  by Beth Berila, “Contemplating the Effects of Oppression: Integrating Mindfulness into Diversity Classrooms” as our library does not have a subscription to The Journal of Contemplative Inquiry, but hopefully I will be able to access it soon and update this post. In the mean time I will analyze the other two articles assigned for this week.

The first article I read is entitled, “Learning, Difference, Embodiment: Personal and Collective Transformations”  and is written by Ann Mathew, Roxana Ng, Mary Patton, Lesia Waschuk and Joanne Wong.  The article is collectively written as a result of a Master’s class in education at the University of Toronto.  It is a deeply reflective piece as each student describes the most important ideas that they have explored in this class about equity, critical pedagogy, and embodied learning.  What is particularly interesting about this article are the diverse and varied ways that the course material is interpreted by each person.  The article explores each person’s perspective in the body of the paper and features a collectively written introduction and conclusion.  The authors all remark (directly or indirectly) on how their interpretation of the course material is shaped by their personal lives.

The article reminds me that each student in our Bodies class here at UBCO is interpreting the material and embodied exercise differently.  The lens that we bring to class is coloured by our conditioning, prior academic experience, life experiences, relationships.  In this way, the knowledge that we gather is individual and collective.  We build on the ideas of others and we come to see things differently as we express our views in class.  I love this aspect of formal education, the chance to bring together so many different perspectives and share them in a classroom.  The day that we had a dialogue about how the exercises were going is relevant here, as many of the points raised by students are things that I had not considered, and many students were nodding in agreement when a particular idea about embodiment was expressed (such as the effect of closing one’s eyes and the institutional power-laden physical set up of the classroom).

I am interested in discovering how doing the embodied exercises can be considered a collective process.  Although the work we are doing is often deeply internal and personal, it would be super interesting to observe the effects of the embodiment practices on our daily life and relationships.  This is a question I will ask my peers at our next opportunity to discuss the embodiment exercises.

The second article I read is entitled, “Somaesthetics and Racism: Toward an Embodied Pedagogy of Difference” by David A. Granger.  Granger begins the paper with a review of the literature surrounding the mind-body split and recounts how “cannonical Western philosophy has a long and storied history of rejecting, ignoring, or degrading the human body – that most formative part of our being and connection to the world and to others” (pg 69).  He overviews many important ideas surrounding the body  (that it is static, something to be transcended, etc).  He then goes on to name many theorists that are exploring the potentiality of the body as a site of knowledge and self-awareness.  Further, Granger describes the relationship between somatic norms and ideologies of domination. In this way he argues that racism is deeply embedded within ideas of the body and embodiment.  He draws on Dewey when he describes that habits (presumably including bodily habits) are deeply informed and shaped by social influences.  Granger states “It should now be clear that embodiedness pervades every facet of our mental lives; it can never be entirely circumvented or eliminated. Our minds simply cannot function independently from our bodies” (pg 73).  As a result, culture becomes inscribed onto the  body.

Thus, hierarchies can be inscribed onto the body too.  Granger believes that by cultivating contemplative inquiry practices, these hierarchies can be faced and understood through the body.  I think this is partially why the embodiment practice can be very unsettling and disturbing for some people; it can bring many issues to the surface.  One of my yoga teachers would always say “we store our issues in our tissues” meaning that trauma, memory, and culture is embedded within the body and can be released through the practice of meditation and yoga (among other things).  Granger assert that awareness of ourselves can lead to awareness of our cultural and social world. He writes, ” …somatic mindfulness looks to reconstruct tose habits that disrupt or inhibit our experience both individually and interpersonally. For our purposes, this means bringing racist bodily habits and norms into ‘conscious critical reflection (if only for a limited time) so [they] can be grasped and worked on more precisely.'” (pg 76).

The links between social justice and yoga are becoming more clear to me, especially after reading works like Granger’s.  I am coming to see that the body can be used as a way to understand complex social issues, simply by expanding our awareness to our bodily habits and ways of being.  It is interesting how our bodies change in different contexts and circumstances, and how the presence of others triggers our internal policing system of what is acceptable behavior and what is not.

Some ideas that I am excited to try with the class soon are: alternate nostril breathing and a walking meditation. I think both of these practices help us to become aware of the internal space of our bodies while staying tuned in to our surroundings.

“Learning Through the Body”

It has been far too long since I last wrote, and for that I apologize!  There’s a host of reasons why that I could get into, but that is not the point of this blog.  After my last post, I thought it would be helpful to get back to basics with our embodied practice in the classroom, so I returned to postural adjustment, body awareness, breathing, and grounding.  All of these are essential to doing any further embodiment work as they set the stage and aim to create a sense of awareness in the body.  This week I have combined some physical yoga poses with gratitude and loving-kindness meditations.

In terms of reading, I read Tammy J. Freiler’s excellent article, “Learning through the Body” which defines 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.” (pg 40).  Why is embodiment useful in the classroom?  Well if we are expanding different ways of knowing and different forms of knowledge making, we cannot ignore the body as a locus of knowledge.  Freiler gives the example of mine workers and intercollegiate basketball players as creating knowledge through keen sensory awareness, social information, and being connected to their environment.  Clearly, the body is essential for all three ways of knowing.

Freiler later states that embodiment is also a social process.  There is a link that Freiler draws between embodiment and sensitivity to others.  I witness this as I lead the embodiment exercises each week.  When students are participating in the exercises, they need to be mindful of the space and of others, also many times I lead us in flowing type movements we move as a collective.  One student mentioned to me after class that even though there is no direct verbal communication, she feels connected to everyone as she does the embodiment exercises.

In Freiler’s paper she remarks on an project she undertook teaching embodiment type exercises with a post-secondary nursing class.  She mentions that embodiment was difficult to communicate verbally for the students, and the first time I asked for feedback on our exercises I noted the same. It’s almost as if we don’t often use or have the vocabulary to describe embodiment in our every day lives. However, the second time I asked for feedback, the responses were so thoughtful, engaged, and interesting.  Students noticed how the space affected their sense of embodiment and the exercises (the traditional set up of rows and chairs), they noted how it was hard to sit still for an extended period of time, some felt some sense of relaxation, for others the exercises were often a triggering experience.  Closing the eyes was difficult for several people as that boundary between internal and external changed, and perhaps some people felt increased vulnerability and almost forced to go inward.  Vulnerability was also a key theme in understanding the impact of the exercises, as it sometimes required people to be vulnerable in the classroom (I know that I have certainly felt vulnerable leading the exercises). It became clear to me that there was no unified response to the exercises, they meant different things to different people.  This points to the highly personal, private nature of the body for some individuals, Freiler points this out as well.

Near the end of Freiler’s article she describes practical implications for teaching embodiment.  She describes the importance of context, how embodiment relates to a more holistic, integrative type of learning, the social processes at work during embodiment, carefully providing choices and opportunities for observation (pg 44-45).  All of these have been key as I have been thinking about how to improve and fine-tune the exercises.  How can I give people lots of choices during the exercises?  What cues are most helpful in creating a space so people can go inward?  What is our connection to each other as we practice?

This week I also read Tara Fenwick’s “Reclaiming and Re-Embodying Experiential Learning through Complexity Science.”  Within the article, Fenwick describes how discourses around experiential learning perpetuate the Cartesian split of mind/body, privileging “knowledge-making” in the mind through emphasizing reflective work.  Fenwick writes, “Experience focuses on the messy problems and tedious practices of everyday life, which continue to run counter to the logic, language and disciplines of the academy, particularly those privileging the rational and, increasingly, the linguistic and discursive.”  Along with this, she notes how experiential learning has the potential to be embodied, collective, and focused on the “every day.”  The article describes indigenous ways of knowing that focus on the connections and interrelations between the individual and the collective, between the body, mind, and spirit.

Furthermore, Fenwick states, “The difference here from mentalist or reflection-dependent understandings of experiential learning is accepting the moment of experiential learning as occurring within action, within and among bodies.  An embodied approach understands the sensual body as a site of learning itself, rather than as a raw producer of data that the mind will fashion into knowledge formations.”  This reminds me of the mindfulness practice that we sometimes do in class, the knowledge in mindfulness is created through the act of observation.  While the GWST 333 class does require reflection in the form of journal entries, by connecting our readings to the embodied practice we are inherently creating a more holistic form of learning.  Whereas if there was nothing connecting the embodied practice to our “intellectual work” it would be more dualistic.  Also, since we do the embodied practice at different times during the class (sometimes at the beginning, or at the middle or end) we try to embed the embodied work into the class instead of keeping it as a separate activity.

Holding Space

I feel exhausted.  Today was another hard day – one where I went through many emotions, sensations, thought forms, places, faces, and things.  Part of me wants to retreat into the bathtub and just breathe in some lavender, yet I know I must write. I have to write. I have to let this go somehow into the cyberworld- etheric regions of unknown space. Who knows who will read this. It’s a mystery, just like my life sometimes.  I am focussing on a purely reflective piece today as I need to get this off my chest.

Today someone left our class.

I don’t mean they just walked out to the bathroom.  They left with a kind of visceral urgency and I can use those words because I remember them.  Not that I know what they were feeling in that moment – because I don’t. I don’t know why this person left the class, I don’t even know their name.  I don’t know their past, their history, their family, their joys, their traumas, their wonders, their fears, their highs and lows. All I know is that in life there are highs and lows and everything in between and I’ve had my fair share of lows too.

In second year, I took GWST 333 Perspectives on Gendered Bodies. I never fully completed the course.  Part of the reason why I didn’t is because I experienced a “break” (down, through, whatever you want to call it) around this time of year.  I received a text during class that shattered my world and I ran out.  I ran out with a kind of visceral urgency that I cannot explain.  I couldn’t be in that classroom.  I ran and I locked myself in a bathroom stall and cried. I cried until I heard a voice call my name.  I walked out of the stall, wiping my face and there was my kind-hearted lovely professor ready to be there for me.  I will never forget that act of kindness.  It changed my life.

The reason why today was so difficult is because I don’t know if there was anyone there for this person who left class.  I don’t know where they went, what they did, how they were feeling.  All I know is that the class held space for this person, even though they weren’t there to know it.  The class sat in silence, absorbing what had just happened for at least a minute.  We sat there not quite ready to absorb what really happened.  We sat in a weird space, a liminal phase.  Of course this is all my interpretation.  Yet there was a palpable collective energy as we all took in what had just happened.  Maybe our hearts went out to this person, not out of fear, but out of love.  I’ve heard that you can’t exist in fear and love at the same time. So today perhaps we chose compassion…in some way, in some form.  We had to keep learning and keep teaching and the class went on, with strength and guidance from our professor.  We couldn’t go after this person.  For many reasons.  My hope is that they found some kind of support for themselves.

If there’s anything I could tell my 20 year old self, the one in the bathroom after that frightful day – it would be, to breathe. Exhale. To place your feet on the ground.  To know that you are loved.  You are not alone.  You are never alone.  There is always a way to figure out what is going on.  You are not alone.

Why is holding space so important?  What does it mean to hold space?  How can we do it effectively?

These are questions I ponder as a yoga “teacher.” I wonder if I actually teach anything.  I think all I do is help people remember.

A Pedagogy of Discomfort

I will take some time to reflect on the last 2 weeks of embodiment exercises first, and then move to applying the readings to my experience. I have now taught 5 embodiment exercises over three weeks and if I am completely honest, it has been more challenging that anticipated. In the last few classes I have done some 7-10 minute guided meditations (mindfulness, body scans, inner oasis) alongside some easy shoulder and neck exercises.  I have tried to keep a focus on belly breathing.

First of all, I am so glad that we are moving to another classroom with more space as often the room felt slightly claustrophobic and I worried about people feeling uncomfortable with such little personal space.  Secondly, it has been difficult at times to pair the exercise with the reading.  Thirdly, it has been hard to lead an embodiment exercise without much feedback, so it would be good to prioritize some conversation about the work we have been doing together within the classroom.  Fourthly, when I am self-reflexive I often turn to being self-critical and it is a practice for me to observe my teaching from a place of non-judgment.  And finally, I worry that some of the exercises may be triggering for some, and may actually re-traumatize instead of relax.  With all of this said and done, it has been super cool watching the energy in the classroom change before and after the exercise and having a few moments in my day to collect myself.  At times, it can be hard to lead an embodiment exercise when I myself am feeling stressed, tired, out of body, etc. but often as I sit there and do the exercise I feel so much better after.

The first article I read for last week entitled “Discomforting Truths: The Emotional Terrain of Understanding Difference” by Megan Boler and Michalinos Zembylas is particularly salient.  Boler and Zembylas write, “To engage in critical inquiry often means asking students to radically reevaluate their worldviews.  This process can incur feelings of anger, grief, disappointment and resistance…” (107-108).  This seems very relevant to the course since many of the ideas we are working with challenge social norms and conventional ways of thinking.  How do the embodiment exercises relate to this discomfort?  Since many of us feel emotions in our body, by drawing our attention to our bodies, do we exacerbate or ease this discomfort?  What is the value in discomfort? Boler and Zembylas argue for a pedagogy of discomfort and examining our emotional stances in regards to constructing difference and identities.

The article begins with pointing out the problems with “benign multiculturalism” (it fails to address power structures) and the emotions related to understanding difference – celebration, denial, and retreating to the safety of biology and therefore avoiding the emotional terrain altogether (110).  It is much easier to simply avoid conversations that require us to critically examine our own privilege and complicity, but perhaps by taking that leap and challenging our worldview, we are more engaged in our educational process and the outcome is different.   Boler and Zembylas are concerned with education that acknowledges (and challenges) hegemony and recognizes the political influences of all forms of education (112). They describe “emotional labour” as crucial in social justice education, especially in terms of deconstructing hegemony and critically examining the dominant ways of understanding the world (113).  I like the way that Boler and Zembylas incorporate an emotional perspective on difference.  They write on page 120, “Benjamin’s title The Bonds of Love and Freire’s emphasis on “the fear of freedom” indicates the extent to which domination and constructions of difference are rooted in emotional habits and perceptions.  We find it striking that the critical traditions that inform radical pedagogies rarely analyze the educational importance of attending to the emotional habits that accompany values, beliefs, and knowledge.”

It seems to me that there are direct links between yoga’s emphasis on self-inquiry and self-awareness and social justice education’s focus on understanding oneself and the contextual framework within which we exist.  Yoga asks us to interrogate who we really are and how we relate to others and can forge new pathways of understanding.  Similarly, radical pedagogy aims to question why hegemony is constantly being reproduced and assimilated and to question our own belief systems.  One of my mentors asked me recently how going into a yoga pose can elicit self-awareness and cultivate a different state of being.  Initially, I had no idea how twisting my body into a certain shape could change my consciousness.  Upon thinking about it deeper, I realized that moving my body in a certain way can bring up certain emotions, thoughts, and sensations that can all be brought to my awareness.  This presents an opportunity to understand myself better.  The hope is, once I understand myself better I am perhaps more open to understanding others and the structures within which we all live.

Vulnerability has been a key word in many of our classroom conversations so far. I think vulnerability applies to the embodied practice.  For some students it may require a huge amount of vulnerability to engage in the exercises within the group, yet perhaps there are enormous possibilities when we are willing to be vulnerable.  Perhaps the wall of protection that we build up around ourselves starts to crumble a little bit and we are more able to feel.   Ultimately, I think the embodied practice is an incredible adjunct to the critical thinking that we have been engaging in, in GWST 333.  It has allowed us time to digest and process what is happening so far, and maybe understand the material we are reading in a different way.

Boler and Zembylas end the article by tying notions of difference to creative energy, and write “In the context of pedagogy, the question is not so much how one can break these conventions [privilege] and replace them with new ones but how much risk, emotional labor one can take in allowing one’s practices and discourses to modify and be modified by the world.  It means that such pedagogy looks for the sources of invention and creativity that have been missed while being attuned to the best that previous conventions have to offer.” (128). Difference is seen as an asset in a pedagogy of discomfort, leading to increased creativity and interconnection, and extending our personal comfort zones, critical thinking (and I’ll add, embodied practice) may destabilize our emotional stances can spur our ethical responsibilities  (129) – to ourselves, others, and the environment.

Decolonizing Pedagogies

Last Thursday I attended the first class of GWST 333 of the semester.  It was a great class of introductions and fruitful discussion about the logo of UBC (“a place of mind”).  I was reminded of a question I asked Stephen Toope at the President’s Town Hall nearly 3 years ago, when I was taking GWST 333 for the first time. I asked a seemingly random question about the role of the body at the university considering our logo only addresses the mind.  Toope replied about how it was not the intention of the administration to make a logo about “floating heads,” but instead to focus on branding a stimulating place and environment for learning. Regardless, the body is political in so many ways on a university campus, and therefore a statement like “a place of mind” certainly has political repercussions.

The classroom in which GWST 333 is situated this year is a bit intimidating due to its 5 or 6 rows of chairs and long tables, grey concrete pillars, and blank sterile white walls.  At least there’s a window!  We managed to do a little bit of yoga at the end of the class.  I underestimated how many students would be in the class (there was not a lot of space to move around) and my shoulder exercises were not quite appropriate as people did not have adequate space.  I was aware of a lot of nerves and anticipatory anxiety/excitement before I presented my 15 minute embodiment exercise, I think this was due to the fact I have never taught in an academic setting and I wasn’t sure how open everyone would be.  I was pleasantly surprised when it seemed like a generally positive response to the exercise.  It was interesting to hear how grateful people were for a chance to inhabit their own bodies at the university.  Likewise, in my class with campus recreation, we had to turn people away because the demand for yoga was so high and we simply did not have room for everyone in the studio.  It reminds me of the importance of “reclaiming the body” which was discussed by Emerson in my trauma sensitive yoga training manual.

Last Thursday I started off with a brief introduction to yoga, followed by explaining my background with yoga.  I then did a brief grounding and belly breathing exercise.  After that, we did a few neck and shoulder exercises and closed with a counted breath exercise.  I wanted to make yoga seem accessible and not at all frightening for the participants.

Turning to the readings for this week, I read “Toward a Decolonizing Pedagogy: Social Justice Reconsidered” by Carlos Tejeda, Manual Espinoza, and Kris Gutierrez.  The paper argues that  “an anticapitalist decolonizing pedagogical praxis is a concrete way to struggle for a social justice that serves the interests of a working class indigenous and nonwhite peoples in the internal neocolonial contexts of the contemporary United States.” (10).  Drawing on postcolonial, feminist, critical race, and spatial theory ideas, the authors write about pedagogy as holding opportunity for decolonization since ideas of colonization and capitalism are deeply embedded within North American society today and should be addressed instead of ignored.

Since an important aspect of this directed studies revolves around social justice, this paper was incredibly helpful in theorizing the ideologies that underpin ideas of social justice and the ways in which social justice endeavours are inherently political. I agree with the authors in terms of how many of the ideas surrounding social justice (and social justice teaching) ignore and neglect to acknowledge racial, cultural, and class aspects of our colonial and capitalist past.  Social justice endeavours, at times, can even serve to reinforce the existing power structures in place that keep marginalized populations oppressed.

Tejeda et al. introduce the term “internalized neocolonialism” as one of the integral shaping forces of domination in the 21st century, acknowledging that the present is informed and affected by the past.  The authors are clear to distinguish between sweeping understandings and notions of colonialism and clearly describe the ways that colonialism and neocolonialism do not affect all people and groups equally or in the same way.  Tejeda et al. also outline the ways that praxis can be fundamentally transformative and can lead to further action; their understanding of praxis is influenced by Marx, Engles, and Freire.

I really enjoyed reading this article due to its focus on multiplicity, context specific claims, and intersectional approach.  The article was largely self-reflexive and continually questioned the assumptions that underlie many social justice claims.  This was refreshing to read.  I also loved the part of the article where Tejeda et al write that domination and exploitation do not only live at centers of power in American society, but also within our bodies, and within the “processes and practices of our every day lives – especially those related to securing the basic necessities of life.”  This statement seems to directly relate to the embodied practice that I am leading in the classroom.  It occurred to me that I had neglected to acknowledge the unceded territory of the Sylix people upon which the university is situated, I reflect now that this acknowledgement is very important.

It also became clear to me that everyone’s body would interpret, feel, and experience the exercise different depending on their many identity factors (gender, class, race, dis/ability, etc).  How can I teach something that would fit everyone’s needs?  This is a question I have pondered over a lot as a yoga instructor.  I guess the answer is that I do my best to keep everyone safe and stay attentive and aware during the practice. There is a tendency for me when I am teaching to tune so deeply into my own body that I forget that I am teaching and forget to be acutely aware of the rest of the room.  I suppose that is something I will focus on this week – staying aware of not only what is happening internally for me, but simultaneously being aware of everyone else in the room, too.

I wonder if yoga could fit into Tejeda’s conception of decolonizing pedagogy.  If all the historical factors and social stereotypes were properly addressed, perhaps yoga and embodiment serve as an empowering practice for individuals of different backgrounds.  By being more in touch with ourselves perhaps it is easier to be in touch with others.  I am inspired by the conclusion of the paper: “We seek to reposition to the center of this discourse those who have been silenced in the classroom – those who endure and have endured the necolonial condition.  We seek to reclaim our intellectual heritage and argue that any notion of social justice that informs education in the United States must be derivative of and informed by the experiences and interpretations of those living an internal neocolonial experience.” (33).  Ultimately, this makes me reflect on how to incorporate the experiences of those who have been silenced when it comes to yoga and the classroom, and to recognize and respect the diversity of lenses that are present during the embodiment exercise each class.

Introduction and Searching for Yoga Photos

Welcome!  This blog will be a record of my learning journey through GWST 491 (Embodied Pedagogies: Yoga) at UBC Okanagan.  Ilya (my awesome supervising professor) and I came up with a wonderful reading list together and will embark on the course this week.  Here is a brief excerpt from the course description, written by Ilya:

“This course will provide an introduction to the intersections of social justice pedagogies and critical approaches to embodiment and embodied learning…central to the course will be a practical component: the student (a certified yoga instructor with much experience teaching yoga on the UBC campus) will attend GWST 333 (Perspectives on Gendered Bodies) for every class meeting to facilitate a 15 minute exercise that engages students’ bodies.”

I am super excited!  Having the opportunity to blend two of my passions (yoga and feminism) during my university career is incredible, and I am so grateful that our university supports endeavours such as this.  I have been practising yoga for the past 12 years and have taught for the last 3.5 years in various capacities. My background is in primarily kundalini, restorative, and hatha yoga.

While I was searching for a background photo for this blog it was very difficult to find a photo that was not of a very lean, young, typically white female practising yoga whilst in an advanced pose.  I deliberately chose this photo as it demonstrates tree pose – a pose that is accessible for most beginners.  Tree pose is a grounding balancing pose, engaging the leg muscles and invites extension through the spine and depending on how the arms are placed, can facilitate opening through the heart as well.  Tree pose is one of my favourites as I often feel a nice sense of peace while in the pose.  Yoga marketing tends to proliferate an image of a particular type of body – one that can be perceived to be privileged above another.  This privileging, of a certain type of body and person, has large ramifications for the yoga industry and those who practise yoga.

I will write on this blog weekly, tying together the readings and the practical component of the course.  It will be so interesting to see how incorporating yoga into the class impacts the learning environment for everybody.  I feel so lucky to be sharing yoga, it is something very close to my heart and something I believe in to help relieve stress on the university campus.  Now I get to investigate how embodiment, how embodied pedagogy can affect  learning within a university classroom and finally, how it all relates to social justice!  Super exciting.