I have practiced yoga for about 10 years and become more serious about it in the last few years. I belong to the Marsh Fitness Center in Minnetonka and take a range of classes there: Iyengar, Vinyasa, Hatha, etc. Below is an article I wrote about how yoga has influenced my work as a history professor at the College of St. Catherine. It originally appeared in the on-campus publication, COLLEAGUES,(February 2008).Making History More like Yoga Class
For the past year or so, I have begun to approach my work in the classroom more as a yogi and less as an academician. This technique evolved partly out of desperation as I contracted to teach three courses a year in Weekend College. The WEC format takes a standard semester-long class and condenses it into eight lessons that each last three and a half hours. The old school model of history education would dictate a lecture-based course that would be deadly long and tiring for professor and students alike.
I do not ask the class members to balance on one leg and to assume the “tree” posture or stick their backsides in the air with “downward dog.” Yoga enhances my teaching style more in terms of the meaning behind the class activities and the attitude that I bring to the lesson.
These days, I attend two to five yoga classes a week, which help me function in the rest of my life as a professor, as a parent, as a person. I have studied yoga –intermittently-- for the past ten years, and gradually I have become more serious and meditative in my practice. Nonetheless, when it comes to yoga I am, first and foremost, a student. This experience reminds me regularly what it is like to learn something difficult and worthwhile in a classroom setting. This is especially true now that I am more than ten years out of graduate school and have become accustomed to enjoying some expertise in my field.
I appreciate that my yoga instructors are engaged in teaching and consider them in collegial terms. While the subject matter is different, their example offers me lessons on pedagogy which I now consciously appropriate and adapt for my history classes. Instead of a series of physical postures and breathing exercises, I take my students through a multi-sensory exploration of a given class topic. The technique invites them to engage, actively and passively, with the past through consideration of demographic data, visual and literary records, music, court cases, and whatever other means I find to add flesh and blood to history’s names and dates.
A typical yoga class leads students through a process that involves four main elements: 1) a period of meditation to quiet the mind; 2) a series of sun salutations, a sequence of movements to warm up the body and loosen the muscles and joints; 3) a few asana (special postures) that are the focal point for that specific lesson; and 4) a final meditation. This way of guiding the class along a series of experiences and sensations leaves me and my classmates energized rather than spent. Feeling renewed after the class is something I treasure about yoga and part of what I seek for my students.
So, when my Twentieth Century U.S. history course studied the Great Depression, for example, the above elements from yoga translated into the following. For the opening exercise (meditation), students are shown a half dozen Dorothea Lange photographs documenting the Dust Bowl migration from Oklahoma to California. Quietly, they study the black and white images and write informally about what they reveal about this time period (1930s) and the people who experienced it (migrant farm laborers). The exercise offers an entry point into the topic that is visual and emotional and unfiltered by historians. It asks students to settle in for class and to focus on the topic at hand. After about ten minutes, I ask if anyone wants to share their observations. Several volunteer eloquent, poignant remarks about the desolation and abject poverty depicted.
The second element (sun salutations) is the lecture. This is the callisthenic part of the class, which provides a coherent context of what took place during this time. The lecture explains why the stock market crashed in 1929 and offers statistics on bank closures, unemployment figures, information on FDR and the New Deal. There are moving quotations from Meridel LeSueur and Studs Terkel interviews. The lecture tells of the hardships and the resourcefulness and resiliency of the Greatest Generation. I offer the class the case my great aunt who forever saved string and would never waste food, habits she wore as scars from her experiences in the Depression. After the lecture, there is a short break.
The third element, (the asanas), provide a deeper look at some aspects of the lesson’s topic and takes the form of class discussion on readings and upcoming writing assignments. In the above example, students read the relevant chapter from their Howard Zinn text and the novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, which is set during the 1930s. We talk about the novel, which the American Library Association voted as the best of the twentieth century. We consider especially how the issues of the Great Depression played out in Harper Lee’s story. Students explain how fiction can be a powerful tool for learning about the past. By this time, we are three-quarters the way into class period; we downshift into the final segment (meditation), an episode of the PBS documentary series on the Depression entitled “Arsenal for Democracy.” With extensive archival footage, news reels and oral history interviews, the film offers a view of how the era of economic crisis was resolved ultimately by the start of World War II and the full employment it brought Americans.
The Sanskrit word “yoga” means unity; yoga practice is about unifying the mind, body and spirit through attention to breathing and the present moment. In my class, the unity is in created through a textured and nuanced understanding of a lesson topic by investigating it from various perspectives. Part of the alchemy of this technique is to harness students’ interests and diverse learning styles. There are multiple points of entry --aesthetic, quantitative, and emotional-- into the lesson topic.
Much as I believe that my teaching is enhanced by this approach, if a passerby looked through my classroom window a few years ago and again today, both would appear to be taught in the same format. Even before yoga, my background as a liberal, feminist social historian went against the traditional model of a top-down learning that revolved around lectures. My courses emphasized a mix of activities to foster “active learning.”
Now, instead of tossing the class elements (lecture, discussion, exercises with primary sources, films) into the air and juggling them to keep things lively and interesting, I approach my teaching with greater intentionality. I choose the order and tone and progression of activities to shepherd the class through the complexities of the day’s lesson topic. What is called “mindfulness” in yoga, a heightened awareness of one’s priorities is incorporated into the structure of the lesson. Also, I am now more attuned to the classroom environment: the lighting, the ventilation, the tone of my voice, and other outside factors that affect the learning process.
Judging from course evaluations, students are responding favorably to my more yogic teaching style. Time and again, they say that they appreciate the way in which we study the past, and some confess that they never before enjoyed studying history.
Trying to make my history class more like yoga has given a new life to my work in the classroom. I am newly excited and engaged in my teaching. And this enthusiasm may be contagious; I have talked about the technique with friends who teach their own lengthy courses in fields as diverse as International Marketing and 3-D Animation. They are intrigued by the method and are willing to try what one referred to as “Zen and the art of teaching” in their classes.
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