Embodied Learning 9 May 2015

Yoga Workshop: Embodied Learning

Genevieve proposed this workshop topic, drawing on experiences at work that have led her to question the so-called mind/body split and related dualistic approaches to learning. More specifically, in working with migrant women who have experienced violent trauma, she discovered that often, before she could begin to teach them research methods and skills (ostensibly very “cognitive” things), she had to first engage them in bodily activities. As I understood it, she found that physical activity was necessary to create peace and calm, to create a safe place, before more abstract cognitive activities could be successfully undertaken.

As she was discussing this with Nina one day, she became interested in further pursuing what yoga might have to say on this topic.*

So we gathered once again to pursue another fascinating topic. And once again, we had a heartening mixture of returnees and newbies.

After Gen had shared this back-story, Nina briefly introduced a few basic concepts,

First of all, getting to the heart of the matter, she says: “All learning is bodily, beginning through the senses.” In the Yoga Sutras, the senses are called Jnanendriyas (entrance doors): smell, taste, sight, touch, and hearing. These are accompanied, or complemented by the five Karmendriyas (exit doors, or means of expression): elimination, procreation, movement, grasping, and speaking.

These ten Indriyas (means or senses) provide for our access and engagement in and to the world. Jnana means “knowing” – so the five Jnanendriyas are the means by which we can know the world. Karma means “action” – so, the five Karmendriyas are the means by which we act in / upon the world.

Between the entrance doors and the exit doors – between sensory perception and action – lies the mind. Sort of.

The mind can be thought of as a transformational tool between the incoming and the outgoing. Or, at least: the mind thinks that it is a transformational tool. More concisely, the mind thinks that it is. But of course, central to Yoga and Buddhist philosophy is the idea that the mind itself is an illusion, and believing in this illusion is one of the primary sources of ignorance (avidya).

The mind thinks that it is necessary for us to think in order to transform sensory perceptions into actions. In fact, thoughts are themselves a sixth form of sensation – but separate from the five jnanendriyas, for they do not act as an entrance door. Instead they are a wholly internal sensation, sort of an access to an inner landscape – of fantasy and delusion.

Our discussion turned to how we might attempt to close that gap between perception and action, between “mind” and body. Nina asked “what tools do we have for seeking clarity between mind and body?” People called out: breath; awareness; asana; chanting; meditation.

Meditation encompasses most of those things. Meditation is, ideally, a mode of “being within”, which through sustained practice clears away the thinking that clouds awareness. Through meditation we can assume the position of “witness” rather than of “thinking being”. As witness, we can observe thoughts as they come and go, rising and falling – or ebbing and flowing like waves on the beach (see Balancing Effort & Surrender).

As witness, we become more acutely aware of our senses, unclouded by thoughts. Among the various yoga practices available to help us to sharpen this focus are: pranayama (breathing), drishti (visual focus), mantra (vocalization), mudra (touch), and pratyahara (sense withdrawal).

At this point we turned to our first (and primary) exercise for the session: a sensory experience in which we each partnered with someone who we had not met before, and introduced ourselves through touch.

The instructions:

  • Partner with someone whose name you don’t know
  • Touch – explore
  • No verbal communication
  • Make eye contact if necessary, but only sporadically

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After a few minutes, we were told to turn around, back-to-back, and to continue touching and exploring, breathing and sensing the other. Nina asked us to start making sounds – just ujjay breathing, or humming, murmuring, chanting – experiencing the vibrations coming through the other body and merging with them.

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A few minutes later, keeping eyes closed, we turned back face-to-face, maintaining contact (whether it was knee-to-knee, or touching hands or in another way was left up to the pairs). We were then told to gradually open our eyes, and make eye contact – and to maintain that eye contact for five minutes. Observe.

Finally, we were instructed to break off – have a hug or whatever, then very briefly tell our partner our names, and to share a little something that they could share with the group when they introduced us.

After returning to our respective mats, we proceeded to introduce our partners, and to discuss our experiences. Some people took the instructions very literally, and only had a few words to share about their partner. Others had made very strong connections, and were very effusive in their descriptions. Some had found it very empowering, while others found it very awkward (someone said “excruciating” even!).

Someone observed that this was an opportunity to connect deeply with another person. She started to say that it was an opportunity that “we do not often get”, but stopped and corrected herself: it’s an opportunity that we get all the time, but almost never take. She and her partner took it, and both relished the experience.

They observed that despite stark differences in cultural dispositions, the experience – and the tendency to avoid the experience – are much the same. Contrasting stereotypical Anglo to a stereotypical Italian background to highlight differences between extreme tactile reticence and effusive touchiness, they pointed out that neither culture is very good at the kind of deep interpersonal connectedness that this exercise invited (and which invite they whole-heartedly accepted).

Nina observed that in many respects highly tactile cultures are quite aggressive, and use their tactility to vigorously define and defend personal boundaries. In fact, there are a vast number of ways of avoiding interpersonal connection – many of them involving various forms of pretending to connect (“Hi! How are you?” when you don’t really care and certainly don’t want any answer beyond “fine thanks”.)

Someone observed that if you can drop the fear of intimacy you can move much more deeply into the exchange. Someone else – who found the exercise much more challenging – observed that the brief chat after the extended eye-contact offered an opportunity to re-establish boundaries.

Of course, Nina could not pass up this opportunity to ask “But why do you set boundaries?”

“The physical contact in the exercise crossed a lot of social boundaries.”

 “We’re so not used to looking at each other like that.”

“Compare that to the fleeting exchanges on social media.”

Moving on around our circle, we heard from one person that she was aware that she had spent much of her life trying to synchronise her breathing with others – with her parents when she was a child, then with partners, and when she became a mother, with her own child. During this exercise, especially the back-to-back bit, she had revelled in being out-of-synch.

This lead into general observation that the exercise in many respects wasn’t about looking into the other, but about witnessing your own reactions to the intensity of the other’s gaze. We spend so much of our time maintaining appearances, watching how we appear to others, how others react to us, avoiding scrutiny and so on that the other’s intense gaze can be terrifying (excruciating even!).

But the last person to share was anything but terrified – she took advantage of this opportunity to explore a stranger’s body in ways that are completely off limits due to the social boundaries that we live by. She said “I can’t just walk up to someone and feel their feet, or the back of their knees. So when I was given license to do that here…” she went for it.

Nina then observed that most people have “no-go zones”. Many people don’t like to have their feet touched, or their heads (the head makes us feel particularly vulnerable: someone asked if that’s why women have such intimate conversations with their hair-dressers, and wondered if men do too. I find that nothing is more certain to shut me up than a barber with a straight razor to my throat!)

Nina shared her personal “no-go” zones (probably awkward and uncomfortable is a better description) and said that as a massage therapist she used to get squeamish when touching her patient in a spot where she prefers to not be touched herself. Of course this kind of projection, combined with uncertainty about what the other’s sensitivities are [and whether the other will respect your own sensitivities] underpins much of the hesitation/ reservation/ reluctance/ reticence to deeply connect to others.


And all that was just the warm-up!

At this point we turned to a more in-depth discussion of the physiology of learning. Nina introduced the cerebellum, which is best described by others:

The cerebellum receives information from the sensory systems, the spinal cord, and other parts of the brain and then regulates motor movements. The cerebellum coordinates voluntary movements such as posture, balance, coordination, and speech, resulting in smooth and balanced muscular activity. It is also important for learning motor behaviors. (Healthline.com)

Apparently it only makes up about 10% of the entire brain mass, but accounts for half of all of the brain’s neurons, making it a very high intensity data processor. Referring back to our initial discussion, we might think of it as the room into which and out of which those ten doors (the indriyas) open. [I wonder; do those doors ever close? If not, is door the wrong metaphor? Maybe portals? Apertures?]

To help us get a better grasp on the functions of the cerebellum and its role in learning, Nina recounted an experience of teaching a led yoga class one day when she had lost her voice. In order to spare her vocal chords, she demonstrated a sequence, then instructed the students to replicate it four or five times. Then she added a couple of more poses to the sequence, gradually increasing the complexity; knowing that as the sequence became more complex the students would have greater difficulty replicating it. She instructed that if they forgot the precise sequence, they should make it up for themselves.

The point of this example though isn’t so much about this instance itself, but about what it reveals about the standard taught yoga class,

Students must be very good at listening and following instructions in the standard taught class. Such classes require a lot of listening and obeying. (Check out this article from Liberation Prison Yoga on NOT giving orders to your students.) In so many ways, this listening and obedience is totally contrary to our efforts to be self-determining in everyday life.

We didn’t really explore the tensions or conflict between these two modes of being. In teaching sociology at uni, I’ve encountered far too many students who react very poorly to my attempts to make them think for themselves, leading me to conclude that despite the volume of chatter dedicated to proclaiming the importance and value of self-determination and autonomous being, our education system is very effectively creating large numbers of people who need to be told what to do. The yoga community – or yoga classes – frequently feed into this, with many teachers issuing commands and expecting obedience.

Teachers who encourage self-guidance, self-determination, self-awareness frequently encounter the same obstacle that I have – some of their students are just not well-equipped for such things.

One of our participants interjected during this part of the conversation that she saw her role as a yoga teacher as being to guide students to a place where they can stop listening. Another, who has been a yoga student for about three years, but has been self-employed for fifteen, observed the contrast between her working life and her time on the mat. “I feel like I’m leading a double-life. At work, I go to great lengths to communicate clearly, to check in that the message is understood, to be in control. On the mat, I just listen and do what I’m told.”

Arguably, these two positions fit together, hand-in-glove. As the student’s experience and practice deepens, she will more frequently find herself dropping into the space that the teacher has guided her to, a space where she can turn into herself, listen to herself, practice what’s best for her.

In fact, many would say that this is precisely what an asana practice is for: to tune out of the multi-tasking outwardly focused concerned about everyone else busy-ness of everyday life and tune into the details and subtleties of one’s self. Intense listening and following instructions is part of this focusing – but it runs the risk of taking away from the self-determination of the student.

There are obvious links here to our last workshop (Balancing Effort & Surrender). There is a long yoga tradition in which the student must surrender to the teacher, on the way to surrendering the ego to the higher self. Yet, while this may be the ultimate objective of an intense asana practice, more immediately, the exercises seek to sharpen the practitioners’ focus on the inner world, sharpening and clarifying awareness, creating a stronger, keener witness – witnessing the bodily sensations and the associated thoughts by way of creating a space between those sensations and thoughts, such that we can gradually move this witnessing off the mat and into everyday life, and hopefully create a space between sensation / perception and action / reaction – a space in which to pause before reacting; a space from which we can assume control of our actions.

This was called “listening in” and was captured by one of the other yoga teachers in the group, who said “as a student, the best moment is when I’m totally switched on to what I’m doing; the other person [the class teacher] only helped me to get there.”

All of the teachers in the room seemed to be in agreement that their role is the facilitation of a space in which their students can get totally lost in themselves – to surrender to their own experiences; to tune out of the class and listen into themselves.

On this point, Alice shared a quote from Viktor Frankl:

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and freedom.”

From here, we turned to an even more detailed discussion of the physiology of this stimulus and response – which we can also call “embodied learning”.

I’m not going to go into the anatomy and physiology in any detail – since I can’t do any more here than reproduce material that can be easily found on-line (the link provided to the cerebellum quote above is an excellent place to start).

In short, we discussed the autonomous nervous system, which controls all of our involuntary organ functions, including heartbeat, breathing, liver, digestion, waste elimination and so on. By involuntary we mean that it works independently of what we want, and whether we’re paying attention or not.

The autonomous nervous system has two main divisions: the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous systems. The sympathetic nervous system controls our “fight or flight” responses while the parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for our “rest and digest” and “feed and breed” functions (see Wikipedia).

What’s most important in terms of learning is that repeated activity, repeated patterns of behaviour, lay down neural pathways through these nervous systems – and these pathways can be altered by changing the patterns.

One of the most accessible ways of doing this is through pranayama (breath work). Although breathing is an involuntary organ function – meaning we will breathe whether we work at it or not – our somatic system (nerves, muscles, diaphragm) controls how we breathe. And by controlling how we breathe, we provide feedback to the autonomous nervous system, such that we can interfere with, and even fundamentally alter or change our fight or flight responses (among other things).

This is important to recognize because some people maintain that the fight or flight response is pre-cognitive – that our reaction to certain stimuli is beyond our control because it happens before we have a chance to think about whether to, and how to, react to the perceived threat. It is important to understand that while this is the default action, it is not the only possibility. Martial arts training, for example, is precisely about preparing for these stimuli, and training responses to these stimuli, such that the response – although possibly remaining pre-cognitive – is a different one than before training.

More generally, becoming a witness to our thoughts, sensation and reaction provides the opportunity and the ability to step into that space between stimulus and response, and choose what response is warranted. We can’t control the stressor but we can choose our response to it.

Putting this a bit differently: on the one hand, you are not in control of your autonomous nervous system. On the other hand, you can take control of one factor: the breath.

Our body / being is highly responsive to environmental factors, to stimuli provided by the world around us (through the five jnanendriyas). And our life history is one of well-trodden paths – habitual and learned responses to these stimuli. The repetition of these responses has laid down deep neural pathways that make it highly likely that we will respond the same way again the next time we experience a familiar stimulus. If we continue living in our inherited ignorance, these responses are precognitive, and beyond our control.

But we have the capacity to change. And our yoga practice turns this capacity into an ability to change – to mindfully, consciously, knowingly change.

The repetitive actions of asana sequences lay down new neural pathways and muscle memories. They give us experiences in a safe environment in which we can explore our limits and abilities. By turning to face our fears we can work through them, learn new responses to them, and come to understand the stimuli differently.

Breath work is a strong practice for altering somatic responses, for expanding the space between stimulus and response.

Meditation is the ultimate practice of becoming a passive witness to our responses, sensations, thoughts and desires; and thus another means towards opening and holding that space between stimulus and response. Therein “lies our growth and our freedom”.

Our next workshop gets physical again: Low arm balances & their transitions, 13 June @ 1.15pm.


  • for a more concise discussion of the theoretical and philosophical aspects of this discussion check out Karl’s article in elephant journal here.