“I trek up to Bethesda once a week to attend John’s class and he has made adjustments that are so subtle no other teacher ever noticed – but that have transformed my practice.” [Kae W.]

Fostering health, serenity, and awareness since 1979

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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2 responses to this post.

  1. Clare Kelley says:

    Hi John. Thank you for your thoughts. I respectfully and vehemently disagree as a teacher, a student, and a survivor of sexual assault and daily harassment as a woman.

    I attended college before “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings”. I remember one class where the professor and students mocked me for not wanting to watch an assigned film, which had graphic depictions of sexual violence. Like you, they claimed I needed to be exposed to these discomfiting points of view.

    My childhood was full of sexual violence. I had plenty of exposure to it. What I needed were the skills and tools to cope with the physiological reactions to being triggered by the memories of those events. I find that those who dismiss safe spaces have the luxury and privilege of never having needed a safe space.

    Another student phrased this much more eloquently than I can: “Safe space: for those who “need” to be tested – life tests them every day, sometimes constantly. Then a safe space becomes a place of “no tests” where they can process, assimilate, integrate, rejuvenate, and grow. A safe place is a place of spiritual nutrition where roots strengthen and students become stronger – no fragility here. People become fragile when they are bombarded with no safe space to “escape to”.”

    I hope that as a prominent teacher and voice in the yoga community, you can reconsider your viewpoints, and consider how they can be complicit in furthering the experience of trauma and silencing the voices of victims. We need to do better for out students.

  2. suzanne says:

    On November 29, 2017:

    Hi Clare,
    Thank you for taking the time and risk to share your thoughts and concerns about my newsletter on fragility and sensitivity.

    I am sorry about the pain you suffered as a child and at college and continue to suffer as a woman. I find it abhorrent that your professor and classmates mocked you for not wanting to watch the film. Their actions were thoughtless and cruel.

    I am not advocating that you or anyone be exposed to something that would be traumatic and/or debilitating. I do make a distinction between traumatic experiences and uncomfortable ones. There is a reason that growing pains are called growing pains. Real growth almost always involves challenges and discomfort.

    You will note in the newsletter that at the beginning of class, I tell the students that I or the assistants may touch them in the process of adjusting their poses so as to make the pose safer and/or more effective. I remind them that their bodies and personal space are their own and that we will honor any request that that space not be invaded. I suppose that this is a “trigger warning” in a way, so clearly I am not opposed to warnings about actions that might be experienced as traumatic or invasive. Indeed, the Yoga Sutras say “Heyam duhkham anagatam”: “The pain that has not yet come can and should be avoided.” (II:16)

    I also recognize the need for safe spaces to process, assimilate, integrate, rejuvenate, and grow. Different people have different needs at different times in their life in that regard. A yoga class for survivors with PTSD is a very different class from an ordinary yoga class. At Unity Woods we have classes at a variety of levels and for special populations including Gentle classes with such distinctions in mind. It would again be thoughtless to push someone into a class/situation for which they are not ready or which is inappropriate. We also do private instruction when circumstances indicate it. I am not dismissing the need for safe spaces, and I have certainly needed such a space at various times in my life, sometimes finding it, sometimes not.

    The issue I attempt to address is when are safe spaces and when are trigger warnings necessary and appropriate. A public yoga class is not the same as an ashram. A yoga class for beginners or students with particular issues is not the same as a class for experienced and mature practitioners. And a public university is not the same as a therapeutic halfway house. In any situation, abuse is not acceptable.

    I also think it is the responsibility of the student or participant to choose what venues are suitable for them. Each person cannot reasonably demand that every situation be suited to their personal needs.

    My intention was not to denigrate or dismiss fragility. I think that I lent credence to that interpretation by listing some possible causes
    of fragility without including traumatic or abusive experiences. For that I am sorry. As I said, I have had times in my life when I needed
    a safe space. At those times I was fragile. I’m pretty sure that we are all fragile at some point(s).

    My intention was and is to suggest that our practice can be the tool that we use to process, assimilate, integrate, rejuvenate, and grow in
    such a way as to be less likely to be overwhelmed or bombarded by (not immune to) the harshness of the world around us, in other words to be
    less fragile, and to have the strength to be the caring, capable, compassionate people we can be and that the world needs.

    I suspect this response is not totally satisfactory for you, but I do hope that it clarifies and refines my viewpoints regarding the subjects we are discussing.

    Thanks again for sharing your viewpoints and feelings.

    Certified Iyengar Yoga Teacher (CIYT)
    Unity Woods Yoga Center

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