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John’s Letter ~ Summer 2017: Sensitivity and Fragility

Earlier this year, the UC Berkeley campus erupted in violent protests objecting to the speaking appearances of cultural firebrand Milo Yannopoulis and right wing provocateuse Ann Coulter. Isn’t it ironic that UC Berkeley is attempting to censor speakers whom they find offensive and/or with whom they disagree. This campus was the birthplace of the Free Speech Movement in 1964-65 during my early college years.

Also, uncomfortably close to the realm of censorship is the use of “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” on many campuses around the country. “Safe spaces”, according to Judith Shulevitch in the New York Times Sunday Review, March 21, 2015, “are an expression of the conviction, increasingly prevalent among college students, that their schools should keep them from being ‘bombarded’ by discomfiting or distressing points of view. Think of the safe space as a live-action version of the better-known trigger warning, a notice put on top of a syllabus or an assigned reading to alert students to the presence of potentially disturbing material.”

I thought that colleges and universities existed to expand the horizons of their students and expose them to previously unfamiliar, even exotic ideas, which inevitably involve confrontation with “disturbing material” and “discomfiting points of view”.  And although many universities are now really job training schools, I thought that one of their jobs was to prepare students for the challenges and vicissitudes with which life invariably presents us.

I wonder how these students who protest “distressing points of view” and who need to be warned that “potentially disturbing material” lies ahead became so fragile?  (fragile: easily broken or destroyed; constitutionally delicate – Merriam-Webster online dictionary. All subsequent quoted definitions in this piece are from this source.). Helicopter parents? Social media? Enabling educational institutions? Nanny state government?

This may look like it’s going to be another politically oriented piece following on the heels of  the spring newsletter’s discussion of satya,  post-truth society, and alternative facts, and while it would be interesting to explore the issues surrounding academic censorship and shifting cultural norms, I’m actually going to steer clear of them. Instead, the campus turmoil at Berkeley prompted me to ponder questions about sensitivity and fragility and how they relate to yoga.

In the first class of a new Level I session, I talk for about fifteen minutes to orient the students. I give them a brief overview of what yoga is, what Iyengar Yoga is, and how we teach at Unity Woods. Among other things, I tell them that the assistants and I will correct them in the poses and that we may touch them in the process. I also say that their bodies are their own and that if they don’t want to be touched to please let us know, and we will honor that; otherwise, they can expect that we will adjust them.

Most everyone is fine with that, but every now and then, I encounter someone who finds the idea of being corrected offensive, an insult, an intrusion. Not that their being touched is offensive necessarily, but the idea that they need to be corrected seems to make them feel that they are being judged, singled out, or denigrated when we adjust them. If you’re learning to play a musical instrument, and you make a mistake, it is the teacher’s duty to correct you, isn’t it? Otherwise, you won’t play very well. Why shouldn’t this be true in yoga as well? If you are going to take the time to do yoga, and you want to gain the full benefits, it seems to me that you would want to know the ways that you could improve. I’m not talking about instances where teachers use abusive language, personal insults, or harsh physical adjustments. I mean verbal or physical corrections with the students’ well-being and progress in mind.

I make a point of telling the beginning students that when we correct their poses, that it isn’t about them. They are, after all, sparks of the Divine, and so they are perfectly fine. Their poses, however, may need a little tending to and that my job is to help them practice more safely and effectively by showing them a better way.

There is a vast art as to whether to adjust someone or not, when, and how. That’s not my focus here. I’m more concerned with why someone doesn’t want to be corrected when they are heading in the wrong direction. The possibilities are numerous, but at this point, let’s go back to the issue of sensitivity.

You have no doubt heard someone being described as a sensitive person. “Be careful with him. He’s very sensitive.” One of the definitions of sensitivity is “the capacity of being easily hurt”. This is fairly synonymous with the definition of fragile stated above: “easily broken or destroyed; constitutionally delicate.”

Another definition of sensitivity, however, is “the capacity of an organism or sense organ to respond to stimulation”; and still another is “the degree to which a radio set responds to incoming radio waves.”

It seems to me that our yoga practice should make us increasingly sensitive human beings, but not in the “easily hurt” sense.

When most of us began our practice of yoga postures or asanas, we felt the movements of our arms and legs and the position of our body. Nearly everyone is aware of themselves on that level simply in order to get through life. But as we go more deeply into our practice, we become more refined in our awareness of the ways in which we function and exist. Minute muscular actions, subtle shifts of our breath, the focusing and diffusion of consciousness: through dedicated, prolonged practice we become increasingly more sensitive to sensations and states occurring within us. And we become capable of responding to the stimulation of these states by adjusting our actions to bring equilibrium and a deeper state of awareness of ourselves.

This process of becoming more sensitive in our practice is not unlike tuning your radio dial (if your radio still has dials) to get a better signal. Tuning in to the signals our body, our breath, our brain send also tunes us in to the ways in which what we do off the mat affects what happens on the mat. We also become more sensitive to what we eat, to the people with whom we spend time, to the feel of the clothes we wear, and to the things we watch and read. We see that our state of mind is profoundly affected by our actions and that our actions affect our state of mind – not theoretically, but tangibly, palpably. This hypersensitivity opens us up to the world around us, and this opening can make us vulnerable.  Vulnerable  is defined as “the quality or state of being exposed to the possibility of being attacked or harmed, either physically or emotionally”.

If we are fragile, this sensitivity driven vulnerability can be very disturbing and scary. But fragility and sensitivity in the sense of heightened awareness are not the same thing. While yoga has the power to make us hypersensitive, it also has the power to build us up in such a way as to be able to recognize, accept, and/or withstand forces that otherwise might be harmful or disturbing.  It gives us the curiosity and the courage to want to explore ourselves and the world around us.

Our practice can give us increased physical fortitude and energy, emotional equilibrium, mental strength, and spiritual stability. As we become more and more established in these qualities, we are much less likely to be overwhelmed by the disturbances and discomforts that are an inevitable part of life, less likely to feel “bombarded”. We can be sensitive to the world around us, tuned in to the people we encounter, the flow of life, and the currents that swirl around us. And we can respond with compassion and sensitivity, but we are not fragile.

“The highest form of sensitivity is the highest form of intellect.”  – B.K.S. Iyengar, Iyengar: His Life and Work

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