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Asana as a Common Language
Engaging the dialogue – spoken and unspoken – about the particular topography of our bodies.
BY MAGAZINE COLUMNIST ANNA GUEST-JELLEY
When I was between careers, I spent a couple years teaching adult and family literacy. For those who are new to that scene, it’s a wild and inspiring place. One of my favorite students was a former meth dealer who had literally just gotten out of prison. (I’m not sure what that says about me, but there it is.)
Adult literacy teaching techniques have evolved out of some fascinating work around critical literacy (especially the incredible work of Paulo Freire) and adult education, both of which focus on including the student in the development of the teaching process.
In other words, while teaching to adults (and, really, anyone) whose literacy skills could use some polishing is nearly impossible, teaching with them in an iterative process is often hugely successful. Including the students’ unique needs in teaching? Who woulda thunk it.
Self observation as education: my life as my study
I once had a student in class who just could not think of a topic for her research paper. When we sat down to talk about it, she was distracted because of some trouble in her life, so we ended up talking about that instead.
She was a single mother of three kids, and she was working part-time and going to school full-time. Due to a variety of issues, she was about to get evicted from her Section 8 housing. I casually mentioned that she could write about that, and she guffawed–that wasn’t research; it was her life!
Somewhat begrudgingly, though, she did begin to look into government housing. Her final paper was a passionate argument that was framed by research of her own experience, others’ experience, and outside texts.
By the time she left the class, she was an advocate for a more just approach to Section 8.
Yoga is communication
Literacy gives us the tools to translate our experience to others. Part of our experience always seems to remain beyond words, though, which is why we say things like I’m speechless or (my fav) I’m not sure how to explain it, but you know what I mean.
Similarly, asana can give us a common language for communicating with others about yoga.
Alignment points and pose names help us practice together safely. However, we still bring a part (or many parts) of us to the mat that are past the bounds of discussion in a typical yoga class.
Silence and silencing
I recently had a woman write to me about her experience at a three-day yoga retreat. She shared that during the entire retreat, she didn’t receive any modifications or adjustments from the teacher. None—zip, zilch, zero.
She confessed that while it was possible she’d done all the poses perfectly (which is usually true for me; I don’t know about you), she suspected that wasn’t the case. She wondered if her teacher just didn’t know or wasn’t sure how to work with a curvy practitioner.
After blurting out a few expletives in my head, I quickly wrote her back and agreed. Unfamiliar bodies can bring up some serious fear for yoga teachers: What if I hurt someone? Why is this person here? What if I offend someone?
What if someone figures out how many questions I’m now asking myself?
The woman with whom I corresponded wasn’t looking for someone who was highly knowledgeable about modifications for curvy bodies (although I assume that wouldn’t have hurt!). Instead, she was looking for someone who would engage in dialogue—both spoken and unspoken—about the particular topography of her body.
Baggage, image, language
Regardless of style, yoga teachers usually talk quite a bit about the body. It’s sort of hard to avoid. But one thing we don’t often talk about (at least in my experience) is the baggage the body brings up for many of us.
Many of us swing between the pendulums of loving/loathing, embracing/punishing. Many of us have a distorted body image but don’t know how to process that in relation to our lives as yoga students and teachers.
Body image is a great example of how yoga students and teachers can come into conversation. Offering curvy (and, really, any) students modifications is a way to make them safe and comfortable during their asana practice.
Creating a space where people can process–internally and even externally–the myriad ways they understand and experience their body is another.
As Freire lovingly points out
- apart from inquiry, apart from the praxis, individuals cannot be truly human. Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other.
A literacy of curves
When I come to the mat, I bring with me a history of disordered eating and a body image that fluctuates (sometimes extremely) between positive and negative. Some people may say yoga helps us transcend that, which in some abstract way may be true.
However, what is for sure concretely true for me is that these things inform my practice on a daily basis.
When I’m in class and all I can think about is how big I am compared to my neighbor, I can’t experience the benefits of the class. And when my teacher reinforces that idea implicitly, by not offering me adjustments when needed, or by advising me to just go into Child’s Pose rather than try a new or hard pose in a way that works for me, my belief gets re-inscribed.
A literacy of curves meets people where they are. It offers modifications but also creates a safe space with welcoming and body-affirming language.
It celebrates difference.
It chooses the curvy gal to demonstrate a pose–and not just an “easy” modification. It makes modification a norm and not an exception–in fact, it doesn’t even focus on “modifying” poses in the traditional sense of inferior alternatives to the desired outcome of “full expression.” Instead, it focuses on individual expression, which is always changing.
It never says “it’s totally okay to not do fill in the blank hard thing” because it knows that this is exactly the kind of saying that pushes people right over their edge into injury–emotionally and physically.
The real work of real life yoga
A literacy of curves doesn’t have to be about being a particular body type or shape. Rather, it’s an opportunity for teacher and student to share both their unique and similar experiences around what it’s like to really live in our bodies.
It can unpack that body baggage and invite us to stay awhile, to really dig into the messages we carry and sort through them to the freedom of self-acceptance (or, at least, the mile markers along the way).
Anna Guest-Jelley is an advocate for women’s rights by day, a yoga teacher by night, and a puppies’ mama all the time. She is making her way through life with joy, curves and all. Visit her at her website Curvy Yoga and on Facebook and Twitter.
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© 2011, The Magazine of Yoga, LLC.