Theo coming out of a yoga pose

Getting a handle on things

I’ve been interested for a long time now in the links between our physical and conceptual worlds. One of the most well-known theorists to talk about this was Merleau-Ponty. He said that human beings are always seeking to ‘grasp’ the world – to find the ‘perfect fit’ between their hands and the things they grasp. And he said that the ways in which we understand the world are just the same. It’s as if we try to find the perfect fit between our understanding and the reality around us, and that is an ever-changing, ever-adjusting work in process. Ever noticed how you make holding and grasping motions when you’re trying to explain getting hold of an idea?

When I’m catching up with colleagues who are deep into somatic practices, I find this connection between the physical and conceptual aspects of my brain to be the most intuitive. After all, as far as science can tell, they make very similar pathways in the mind. And so it was in conversation with my dear friend Beverley of Barefoot Body that we got talking about the connections between flexibility and transformation, and between mobility and integration.

This is going to take some explaining.

There was a time when highly prominent yoga teachers, giving huge workshops, would wow participants by demonstrating incredible improvements in flexibility that they could induce in students. I remember enthusing as older women were helped back into deep backbends, and I remember the gasps from a 200-strong group of yoga teachers when John Friend took hold of my hamstrings and guided me into my only full splits.

Because that was the catch – I didn’t ask to be taken into the splits. I had asked for help getting there myself, and I didn’t get it. Over time I wasn’t the only yoga teacher who began to question those demonstrations of deep flexibility, induced by a famous teacher. They weren’t leading to actual change in what we or our students could do, long term. They often left a sense of instability, even loss of control, in the participant. In some cases they were closely followed by injury, even chronic pain. And so yoga teachers started to talk about the difference between flexibility (how far can you be moved?) and mobility (how far can you move?)

It felt like an important, and belated shift. And now many yoga teachers teach for mobility. We ask our students: what is your agency over your range of active movement? Is it safe, stable, and confident feeling? I think there’s a similar shift happening in the emotional or spiritual results of the practice. Again, it’s the big workshops, the intense and intensive trainings that are coming into question.

For a number of years I’ve become uneasy with experiences in yoga and similar events that are labelled as ‘transformative’. With a number of colleagues, we’re starting to discuss the primacy of integration over transformation.

Transformational yoga claims to be therapeutic but really is all about the momentary experience, and leaves students often ungrounded, unintegrated, unsure how to comprehend these experiences in a way that’s meaningful to the everyday. I think when we’re in the role of the student, we still tend to blame ourselves if we’re unable to integrate a spectacular tarining experience into our practice, our daily lives, or our teaching. But just as you can teach for mobility over flexibility, you can teach for integration over transformation too. After all, both leave you high and unstable, and feel powerful, but in the long run erode our agency as students, rather than increasing it.

And while it’s not clear whether Merleau-Ponty ever practiced yoga, it is interesting, and empowering, to think of human consciousness not as a function of what we can think, but of what we are able to do in the world.

So the next time you’re planning, or attending a workshop or other intensive event, I wonder, how would it change that event to think beyond the momentary experience of being there, and consider how far the teachings on offer can help students to reach into their world, and change it subtly, but profoundly, for the better?

And maybe that’s the reason why the courses and trainings I teach on for Barefoot Body, and Nourish, and Tara Fraser, and a number of others, feel more political, the quieter and the more practical they are. Teaching for real, practical change, in a world that can be very difficult to ‘grasp’.

My diary is pretty full, but get in touch if you’d like me to do the same for your TT.

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