feel "it"- whatever "it" is with compassion
What is Your Intention?
Several years ago, I signed up for a workshop on “intentions” and did not think twice about it. A five hour workshop wasn’t going to churn the thoughts already churning in my mind about yoga instruction. But I was wrong. Sadly, (but not so sadly because I never became too invested in the emoticon lingo), this message wasn’t a text, a tweet, or a FB comment. The message was posed as an actual question to a room full of yoga instructors.
What do we, as yoga instructors, hope to share with our students? What is our intention?
Geared towards instructors ranging from 0 to 20 years of experience, I assumed that this question would have ignited a strong response from workshop participants, but I was wrong. The room went stone silent. Participants flipped through their notebooks or adjusted their ponytails. Once the awkward moment of silence subsided, a couple of hands rose up, and I was one of them. The facilitator didn’t seem to see me at first until another participant waved in my direction.
“Compassion,” I said quickly. “Compassion is my intention."
After roughly 7 seconds, the obvious question of what “is compassion” was posed. After 6 seconds, a subsequent question was posed: why did I choose to study writing and work in the field of Writing Studies? I could have probably talked for hours about the challenges I faced throughout my teenage years and how persevering and overcoming those challenges inspired me to pursue a vocation in education and facilitate the growth of others, but I did not. The question was so broad yet so intimate. Sometimes the most basic questions are the ones that probe into our slightly discomforting but exciting creative potential. It is in this space where no “borders” or dualistic thinking, as the great poet and theorist Gloria Anzaldúa describes, exist. It is where we meet ourselves at the “crossroads” of our intricate and sometimes (though not always) conflicting states. I just paused and mumbled:
“Seeing people grow and helping them grow, is um, amazing.”
As I reflect on this workshop, I will admit that I was rather restless, especially since we had sat and listened to the facilitator talk about her experiences for about an hour — most of which were insightful and reinforced how I already felt about how to approach challenging situations in the yogic classroom. In response to my mumbled response, something along the lines of a nod or “fair enough” was expressed, but the response is not what I wish to discuss here.
To be frank, I did not have a response to share on the spot. I am not the best at answering conceptual questions in less than 20 seconds. (As a sidenote, many educational psychologists recommend that instructors wait 20 seconds for students to respond to a question before the instructor asks another question. However, I do not believe that this facilitator took formal workshops or trainings on how to educate instructors but was experienced more in the actual practice of yoga and drew upon personal experience for this particular event.)
Usually, when I pose a question in my writing class that pulls at students’ affective modes or present a challenging concept, such as an analytical thesis, I give my students a moment or two to engage in metacognitive tasks. Some students think their feelings aloud in clusters of three or four, while others prefer to quietly free write on the issue or question. Keeping activities dynamic and fluid, I like to switch things up and allow space for a flexible, hybrid agenda. A flexible agenda invites students to express themselves across a wide range of reading and writing tasks. Regardless of whether or not students engage in reflective, free writing, or small group discussions, we almost always come full circle and share our thoughts as a collective. Sometimes, a student or two will even volunteer to record the notes in a mind map or web cluster.
Based on daily reflections, many students report that these activities were useful. Students can both discuss and visually see the connections between their feelings and thoughts and those of their peers. Depending on how the initial data was contributed (anonymous or not), the mind map might be more or less revealing and lessen the edge off students’ self-critical doubts and worries. Feeling self-critical is typical in “traditional” classrooms like the academy, right?
I do not know what planet you are living on, but we all experience emotions ranging from utter joy to self-doubt and feelings of anxiety. The objective (if there is a clear objective for students of writing, and I’ll get to the yoga part too, but we might notice the crossing point of the two expressions here) is how we (as students and instructors) react (or not react to) these emotions. You may have noticed that my pedagogy in the aforementioned, generic scenario was three-fold. First, I introduced the topic of the analytical thesis. Then, I gave students space to “ground” and think about the topic in their preferred medium. Lastly, students shared their thoughts in the learning community.
But I am digressing. Perhaps my lack of a “quick” response in the workshop was due to what I admired and sought out to simulate in my own way through my years in school (and also what I dreaded and made a priority to not integrate into my pedagogy.) I really do not know, but perhaps I do. Perhaps it is the continual doubting of my own word (or “intention”) that stifles my voice, much like I have seen in many of the students I have worked with in yogic and non-yogic settings. Someone quite wise in the academy once told me:
“There is a difference between an opinion and an informed opinion. An informed opinion isn’t just any opinion. It’s informed.”
Seems like a self-explanatory quote, right? But this quote says so much with such precision and concision. An informed opinion is a conscious opinion. The facilitator of this yogic education workshop claimed that the emotionally mature individual arrives at an informed opinion. But the term “emotional maturity” reinforces dualisms of good/bad, because the antonym of maturity is immaturity, and this word is sometimes associated with negative connotations in American society. I prefer to use the term “emotionally aware,” because I believe emotional awareness is more of an emotionally neutral description. (You could also argue that a high level of emotional awareness implies a higher level of emotional maturity.)
While I have read books on compassion and tried to integrate compassionate practices into my pedagogy in various classrooms, I still did not feel “informed” enough to answer the facilitator’s question. I felt hesitant to respond to the seemingly trivial question of “What is Compassion?” So, I thank you, as the reader, for humoring me here and giving me the space to explore how students and instructors might express compassion in educational contexts.
Often, students describe compassion as an emotion. However, emotions come and go, while moods might last longer than an hour or two. Compassion is related to our emotions but only in as much as it informs the emotion or how we react to (or not react to) the emotion. I believe that the practice of yoga allows to not necessarily train our compassionate instincts, but rather, the yogic practice invites us to be sensitive to the real-time experiences of the shapes, as they evolve breath by breath.
(Let me briefly clarify what I mean by the term “shape”: this term refers to a “yoga pose,” but you will notice that I use the word “shape” instead of “pose.” As both a writing instructor and yoga instructor, I made this decision consciously. While the origin of the word “pose” is uncertain, it is perhaps related to Middle High German phūsen which means to breathe heavily or with difficulty. Now, I will not make any comments about the etymology of the word, because I am not a linguistic specialist. However, I do not like the cultural and social associations we make to the word “pose”; it feels kind of captured or frozen in time for me, and I see the practice of yoga as continually evolving and shifting. Shapes are more malleable, spacious, and “shape” seems to be a slightly more emotionally neutral word than “pose.” But then again, this is personal and subjective. Forgive me, reader, if I have bored you with my parenthetical aside, and feel free to gloss over others! I would add a smile here, but like I expressed earlier, I am not an avid fan of the emoticon lingo.)
Compassion is not about “correcting” negative emotions or inserting the “I should” feel x, y, or z. Compassion is about learning how to fall out of a yogic shape or earn a C- on a paper and feel whatever we feel, whether the feelings stem from agitation and frustration or happiness and fulfillment. Regardless if we are in a yogic or non-yogic educational setting, the student allows himself or herself to feel whatever comes up with compassion.
But what does this all really mean? How can we apply these ideas of compassion in a yogic setting? More often than not, most flow yoga classes build up to a peak shape. Peak shapes range from an arm balance like crow, a balancing shape like warrior III, or an extended hold in a hip-opener like pigeon. Depending on the practitioner, the peak shape will be a challenge (or not a challenge.) Regardless of whether or not the shape is challenging, the shape brings up a sensation of some sort. This sensation is then translated into an emotion, and the emotion is sometimes (though not always) signified as x, y, z, or “yikes, get me out of this shape!” If the shape is unpleasant, then the practitioner might lose sight of his or her breath and/or react to the sensation in a way that amplifies the sensation. As you can imagine, if the practitioner’s original response was “yikes,” then the practitioner’s steady breath could grow fast or become shallow. The mind could come up with a list of reasons, ranging from “I shouldn’t be doing x, y, or z” and that’s why my hamstrings are not “open” enough to explore the “full” splits shape or why my arms are not “strong” to hold a high plank. But what is so great about experiencing a “full” splits shape? If your hamstrings reach the floor, then you might notice that you totally need to wash your mat or notice that your calves are prickly even though you could have sworn you shaved them just before class!
In other words, why do we strive to reach a peak shape such as the splits in a class? And is there such a thing as a “peak,” or is the practice more about exploring the ebb and flow of the stages that a shape such as the splits, high plank (and the list can go on and on) offer?
Regardless if we experience the “full” expression of any particular shape, emotions are quick to surface, especially if a shape challenges us physically, mentally, and/or both. Here is an easy solution to the “inner” critic and the ongoing stories (and novels and maybe even sagas) that the inner critic imagines as we breathe (or not breathe) through a shape: just correct the sensation and boom, you’ve reached nirvana. No, (and I am not saying that this would be an incorrect response, but I would argue that this is not what compassionate practice and/or compassionate instruction entails.)
Rather, instructors and students give themselves the space to feel comfortable to feel whatever it is they are feeling without reacting to the feeling. The idea is to feel the sensation and breathe through it — not past it. Compassion is not about filtering through the sensation or distorting the sensation to be something it is not. A compassionate yoga practice involves being engaged with our emotions and using our breath to mindfully reflect on the sensations and where the sensations stem from on (and off) our mats.
Sounds like a piece of cake, right? I cannot speak for everyone, but I believe that a compassionate practice is incredibly challenging. This is not surprising, especially since I am suggesting that the two essential parts of a compassionate practice are emotional awareness and reflection. Even one of the greatest American pioneers of educational psychology, Benjamin Bloom, argued that reflection is one of the highest levels of critical thinking.
So, if I have any advice to share, it would be to first acknowledge that identifying the sensation is palpable. Second, know that analyzing this obvious sensation could be useful but also a trap too. Your inner critic sometimes chimes in and a full-blown story about the shape could evolve as a means to avoid the sensations in real-time. Instead of engaging in cognitive tasks and analyzing the sensations, give yourself the permission to fully surrender to the unconditional support of the mat and really what lies underneath your mat — the Earth. The ideal verb to insert in the intention (if there is one) is to feel. Mindfully feel whatever it is you are feeling with care, kindness, and ultimately, compassion.