Here I sit, listening to the warm rain in beautiful Roanoke, VA, about to begin my 2nd year of graduate school at Hollins University. I pride myself on being an eternal student, especially since starting on this journey to my MFA in Dance, and the past year has been especially enlightening for me. But some of my most valuable lessons didn’t come in any higher education or master class, but from my own students… two in particular.
A dancer in my youth company asked me to serve as the mentor for her high school senior thesis project. Bryana’s thesis proposed that meditation be incorporated into the school day (like the Pledge of Allegiance) as a method of calming anxiety and increasing focus, among other things. She asked that we hold periodic meditation sessions and I serve as her guide, ultimately preparing her to teach meditation. I was a little surprised when she asked me to serve as her mentor in this project, as she knew I taught yoga, but we had not spoken specifically about meditation before. While I (try to) meditate on a regular daily basis, I haven’t really taught the practice at length, and not in a private setting. Flattered and a little intimidated by her request, I suggested that we invite some other dancers and friends in joining us in in our classes. Bryana enthusiastically agreed this was a great idea, and so we began.
In our first session we had a mix of dancers from our youth company and their parents. As I sat on my cushion to start the class I could feel my heart pounding, for some reason nervous to share this practice that I was so comfortable with in my own life. But meditating and teaching meditation are very different methods. Meditation is personal and intimate; it is a silent conversation with oneself. In my training I have learned many techniques and guided meditations, and try to incorporate at least a little into my asana classes. To guide a handful of young, absorbent, antsy teenagers through a 10-20-30 minute meditation, this was a new challenge. But that was just it… they soaked it UP. After a short introduction and some instruction, they sat still and silently, and afterwards spoke about their experience with honesty and maturity. Impressed and inspired by their willingness to practice as well as their hunger to learn more, I looked forward to teaching further.
Our sessions continued; some days we had a group of dancers their school friends; others it was just Bryana and I. No matter who was sitting in the group, I felt honored and energized to be leading these thirsty minds through meditation. I am so grateful to Bryana for asking me to take on this role in her developing life. She obviously foresees the hazards of subscribing to the MORE / BIGGER / LOUDER / FASTER mindset of Western society and the invaluable benefits of a consistent meditation habit. Calm and insightful beyond her years, this young woman is not only interested in practicing, but also sharing her discoveries about meditation with her friends and classmates. Bryana inspired me to deepen my own meditation practice, as well as get over my ridiculous fear of teaching something so personal, vital, and integral in my life. I bow to your light, girl.
I taught three classes at UNC Charlotte this past semester – Tap, Modern I, and Yoga. I was super excited to teach all three, but especially interested to teach yoga in a collegiate environment. I had about 20 students, a mix of Dance and Exercise Science majors. Even though they were all involved in the movement arts to varying degrees, generally they had a non-existent to basic understanding of yoga. This was going to be fun! (Insert maniacal laugh here.)
First thing on the first day, one student came up to me to introduce himself. Davian, or DJ, let me know that he is nearly entirely blind; he could see the overall shape of something very close to him, say, a person he is talking to, but that was it. He would need very clear verbal instructions in class and wanted to sit and listen the first day to see if this was going to work. I was intrigued and intimidated. Could I be a good enough teacher for this young man? I generally do not practice but rely on solely on vocal cues when I teach, but were my words descriptive and direct enough so that a non-sighted person would know what the hell I am talking about? If I did demonstrate something, could I effectively explain what I was doing for him to have the same experience as his peers? After that first class DJ said he could understand everything I said and what I meant. And so he practiced.
And practiced. And practiced. I think he only missed one day towards the end of the semester; he was always early to class and completely invested. He navigated through each practice, albeit not always perfectly posed or aligned, and I gave him a lot of personal cues and assists. Revolution-style practices were particularly challenging for him, but to be fair, everyone struggled. Moving 360 degrees around the mat is hard enough for a sighted person, so I tended to keep the class facing forward. Given everyone’s beginner status, confusing them with intricate mandala sequences was perhaps not always the best choice, but it was sure fun to watch them flounder around, trying to figure out who was REALLY facing the right way.
The thing is, most of the time it was DJ; he was the most in-tune with his body, because he had to be. His poses were not always textbook, but I could tell he was feeling something deep within himself that other students perhaps had a harder time discovering with the distraction of sight. We covered the mirrors in the studio, but resisting the temptation to look around and compare in any yoga class is a practice unto itself. The whole class was blown away by DJ’s willingness and strength – literally. The boy could do virtually any arm balance with ease and was not afraid to try and fall and try again. The midterm assignment was to write a personal reflection paper on their experience with yoga thus far. We took one day to share our thoughts and observations, and DJ spoke first. His words touched me as well as the rest of the class; he showed extreme intuitiveness and demonstrated an understanding of yoga that the other students had perhaps not been able to reach. DJ spoke openly about what it is like to practice as a non-sighted person, and I think everyone, for a second, wanted to know how he felt and admired his internal experience.
For the last class we did some fun arm balances and I showed them some Instagram-worthy stupid human tricks and let them try (with care). But I wanted to leave them with something more than just “how to do Astavakrasana”, and certainly did not want them to walk away with the notion that yoga is all about doing cool shit that your friends can gawk at. Seeking the experience they needed, I cut up some K-tape into small squares, enough for everyone to have two. I had them cover their eyes and they practiced blindfolded. Doing yoga, or any physical activity, without sight can be scary and disorienting, but it can also be enlightening and highly experiential, as they soon discovered. While most of the class stumbled and tried to gather their bearings, DJ widely grinned, knowing that his friends were finally experiencing an iota of what his daily life is like. Everyone came out of the practice with a higher appreciation and admiration for people like DJ, and also for their own senses. Yoga is not about doing handstands and splits (although one might believe it is if you are on any form of social media); it teaches us to use our own abilities AND disabilities to navigate our mats and our lives. Yoga tells us to breathe through what life throws at us, and find that inner place of balance, knowledge, and peace. Through yoga, we find our INsight.
Thank you Bryana. Thank you DJ. Thank you to all my students who teach me big and little lessons everyday. Our teachers are EVERYWHERE if we know where to look and are open to learning, to being an eternal student. If we are not growing, we’re dying, so get out there, on your mat, or in your classroom, and keep living.
PS – This will be my last post for a while, as I will be focused (drowning) in grad school for the next few months (year). I was able to juggle schooling and the occasional post last year, but I think it is time to put my head down and tune my academic drishti a little finer. So bloggy blog, it’s been fun, but as I dive back into the world of higher learning I need to save more brain space for questioning how my multiplicitous identity as an artist impacts marginalized individuals and populations, and how can I incorporate more awkward nudity and gratuitous stillness into my work, all working towards a utopian ideal of society, among other things. Namaste kiddos!