Formerly The Yoga Studio of Johnson County

“An Educator’s Perspective on Yoga”

My goal in this paper is to address Dewey’s (1997) statement that “mankind likes to think in terms of extreme opposites.  It is given to formulating its beliefs in terms of Either-Ors, between which it recognizes no intermediate possibilities.”  (p. 17)  I propose that a number of traditions throughout history have sought to bridge such dualities—to combine mind and body, subject and object, and individual and society—in a way which transcends them and presents new, often unexamined options.  Further, I assert that Dewey and Counts didn’t truly consider the components of the duality most relevant to this discussion—education and experience—as mutually exclusive, but as different aspects of life.  Indeed, Counts (1932) asserts that choosing between two extremes, especially “narrow orthodoxies,” is unwise, if at all possible.  (p. 8-9)   He (1932) states the result of dualistic thinking “is to create a wholly artificial situation:  the choice should not be limited to these two extremes.  Indeed today neither extreme is possible.” (p. 9) Seventy five years later this statement is echoed by Pink (2007) who writes:

Human beings somehow seem naturally inclined to see life in contrasting pairs.  East versus West.  Mars versus Venus.  Logic versus emotion.  Left versus right.  Yet, in most realms we usually don’t have to pick sides—and it’s often dangerous if we do.  For instance, logic without emotion is a chilly, Spock-like existence.  Emotion without logic is a weepy, hysterical world where the clocks are never right and the buses always late.  In the end, yin always needs yang.  (p. 25) 

The last sentence of this quote refers to one concept (yin-yang) common to many “eastern” traditions such as yoga and meditation which, in a way similar to Dewey and Counts, treat experience as relevant, emergent, dynamic, vibrant, and creative elements in an individual’s education, rather than something irrelevant, unnecessary, or static.  Before progressing further, I acknowledge that, by contrasting “eastern” (as compared to “western”) methods of viewing and understanding the world, I’ve reverted to using opposites or dualities.   I beg your patience; I will explain some of these differences, then try to connect their common themes. 
One goal of my yoga practice is to work, however imperfectly, toward a holistic, complete, or authentic conception of my own thoughts, abilities, and actions.  In a word, I am working on my self.  As Scholtes (2008) says, “yoga is a vehicle for living at all levels of body/mind/spirit/emotion at one time.”  Further, “yoga is about accepting the human condition.”  This echoes Dewey (1997) when he asserts “the problem for progressive education is:  What is the place and meaning of subject matter and of organization within experience?” (p.20)  Similarly, Chaudhuri (1979) suggests that many “eastern” traditions assume experience and education occur simultaneously.  He states:

Some fundamental yogic concepts are no doubt trans-empirical in so far as they go beyond external perception, sensuous observation, and ordinary introspection.  But they are not trans-experiential… They are empirical in the broader sense of the term because they are verifiable in the context of direct personal experience by anybody who cares to verify them by following appropriate methods of investigation.  (p. 25) 

Like yoga practice, education must be experiential in order for students to get the most out of their lives.  In other words, in order for a student’s sense of self to develop fully, their own experiences must serve as a basis for growth, instead of relying on externally crafted and imposed standards.  If this isn’t done, any educational efforts will not have the intended effect (unintended consequences might arise, but I’ll discuss these in more detail later).  Further, as implied by Dewey’s quote above, I interpret that much of his writing strongly suggests that providing an education nested within or arising from a student’s own experience, instead of opposed to it, is the pinnacle of a teacher’s efforts and, thus should be pursued relentlessly.  As Dewey (1997) suggests, “personality must be educated, and personality cannot be educated by confining its operations to technical and specialized things, or to the less important relationships of life.”  Likewise, Chaudhuri (1979) again asserts that yoga can be a valuable perspective with which to view the science of psychology and the art of teaching when he states that:

Yoga is the science of human personality in respect of its inner growth and creative self-fulfillment.  It may be regarded both as a science and an art in so far as it includes in its approach both theoretical and practical motivations.  As a science it is knowledge of the self in its totality.  As an art it is the way of achieving the free growth and total fulfillment of the self.  (p. 25)

Another idea which seems to be a very “eastern” idea is suggested by Dewey (1997) when he states “an experience is always what it is because of a transaction taking place between an individual and what, at the time, constitutes his environment, whether the latter consists of persons with whom he is talking about some topic or event.” (pg. )  I suggest this idea of education as part of the experiential process has many similarities to the Buddhist concept of “mindfulness.”  By acknowledging the validity of one’s own experiences (and one’s own control over such experiences, at least their interpretation), we strengthen our ability to be “mindful” and to be educated in a Deweyan sense.  This is supported when Dewey (1997) asserts “the ideal aim of education is creation of power of self-control.” (pg. 67)  Further, the value of this power is “to frame purposes and to execute or carry into effect purposes so framed.” (p. 67).   
Let’s look at the idea of “mindfulness,” as well as a related idea, more closely.  Mihaly Czikmenthaly (1993) describes yoga, meditation, and martial arts as activities which stimulate “flow” experiences.  Characteristics of flow activities (or environments which favor flow experiences) are situations in which:

  1. Goals are Clear
  2. Feedback is Immediate
  3. A Balance Exists between Opportunity and Capacity
  4. Concentration Deepens
  5. The Present is What Matters
  6. Control is No Problem
  7. A Person's Sense of Time is Altered
  8. A Person exhibits loss of Ego

Flow activities require, and help an individual to sustain mindfulness, or what may be describes as perceiving and understanding the needs of each situation at each moment.  This brings a question:  Is mindfulness the same as intelligence?  Intelligence means using our mind but is this the same thing?  Do Buddhists mean something else when they speak of mindfulness?  An answer might be suggested by Czikmenthalyi (1993) when he describes yoga as an activity in which people are able to control their own experiences, to some degree.  More specifically, one benefit of yoga, meditation, and martial arts is that a person is able, at least to some degree, to control the circumstances or conditions of their own thought and action.  This is important because some flow states, such as dreams, are unintentional, and subconsciously generated.  This is echoed by Dewey’s recognition that an individual’s ability to frame their own options and visualize or create the conditions for their own success is a unique and potentially very powerful skill.  Further, Czikmenthaly (1993) suggests that such an internal locus of control is crucial to building and sustaining an autotelic personality, or one which asks questions, seeks answers, and is able to visualize solutions to problems which arise in every day life.

Of course, such a statement indicates another interesting duality:  authentic vs. inauthentic behavior.  As Counts (1932) asserts, “authentic leaders are never found breathing that rarified atmosphere lying above the dust and smoke of battle.”  (p. 2)  More specifically, I think Dewey’s initial statement in this paper, that experience must occur within education strongly suggests a need for a sense of authenticity by students, teachers, administrators, etc.  I believe that students know when teachers go through the motions of teaching, without feeling a sense of passion or excitement for what, where, and whom they are teaching.  Further, I would assert that the tone of Counts’ writing similar to that of other philosophers such as Camus and Heidegger, who (based on my very limited interpretation) propose a conception of authenticity, in which cognitive and emotional, spiritual and material, personal and social, moral and technical issues converge.  Finally, I believe that the value of education may be seen in weaving a person’s experience—the totality of their thoughts and action—into an integrated, unique, greater whole.  Dewey and Counts certainly seem to suggest that experience and education must combine to create a sense of authenticity in educators and give form to an authentic existence or a worthwhile life for students.  At heart, the core question for education, as well as for yoga practice, might be this:  is humanity better served by each person striving to live a united, integrated, connected life compared with one that splits or fragments a person’s experience?        

Wouldn’t many teachers like to see a classroom exhibiting the flow traits listed above?  I believe they would.  Given the assumption that human experience flows, what’s the importance for educators?  I believe that teachers have a great effect on the flow of classrooms.  One reason for this is that many teachers I’ve worked with during the last 3-4 years, especially those new to the teaching profession, cite “classroom management,” or the ability to structure and schedule activities with effective flow, as the greatest challenge they face.  So,one question for teachers might be: How can the classroom environment or classroom procedures be changed to increase flow behaviors such as providing immediate feedback and increasing concentration?  Other questions might be:

  1. What effect does physical exercise or other flow activities have on student achievement, concentration, and focus?
  2. What effect does yoga practice have on student achievement in the general education classroom?
  3. Do students who practice yoga or meditate perform better on tests and essays or set more effective and realistic goals, or set them more often?
  4. How can these questions be measured?  

Would these questions or hypotheses effectively operationalize the concerns about selfhood, flow, mindfulness, and authenticity discussed above?  Possibly.  I do think such questions would contribute to the goal of developing student potential for the greater human good, which is what I believe educators are called ultimately called to do. 

Likewise, in terms of administration, assessment, curriculum, and teacher hiring/training, shouldn’t these ideas be considered important?  If so, another question for school administrators might be:  How can I create flow opportunities in my district or school and/or maintain a balance between opportunity and capacity for students and staff members?   Of course, finding such a balance is crucial because individual actions occur within a structure of social and political wants, needs, and expectations (what Counts called “culture”).  As Dewey (1997) says: 

But when self-hood is perceived to be an active process it is also seen that social modifications are the only means of the creation of changed personalities.  Institutions are viewed by their educative effect:--with reference to the types of individuals they foster.  The interest in individual moral improvement and the social interest in objective reform of economic and political conditions are [dually] identified.  And inquiry into the meaning of social arrangements gets definite point and direction.  We are led to ask what the specific social arrangement may be. 

Administrators have a large effect on flow, because they create the environment in which teachers act.  Further, if the expectations that the community has of the school board are not clear, how can expectations be clear for superintendents and senior administrators?  Thus, how can building principals receive clear guidance and pass clear signals along to teachers and how can teachers understand clearly what they should pass along to students?  I will explore such connections in the next paper.   

In this paper I have tried to address a number of dualities—mind and body, education and experience, authenticity and deceit—identified and discussed by Dewey and Counts (and James to a degree).  As suggested, I believe methods exist with which to more deeply understand and transcend dualities, and which can provide alternate (and hopefully better) options than those proposed by either/or focused questions and solutions.  Whereas in this paper I focused primarily on individual and psychological issues, such as a person’s sense of self, in the next paper I will write more about the social forces and relationships which contribute to an individual’s education and experience.    


References

Chaudhury, M. (1979).  Integrative Yoga:  The Concept of Harmonious and Creative Living.
 Wheaton, IL: The Theosophical Publishing House.
Counts, G. (1932).  Dare the School Build a New Social Order? Carbondale and Edwardsville,
      IL. Southern Illinois University Press.
Czikmenthaly, M. (1993).  Flow:  The Optimization of Experience
Dewey, J. (1997). Experience and Education. New York: Touchstone.
Dewey, J. (1948). Reconstruction in Philosophy. In J. Somerville and R. Santoni (Eds.), Social
   and Political Philosophy. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc.
James, W. (1970). What Makes a Life Meaningful? In Pragmatism and Other Essays. NY: Simon
    and Schuster, Inc.
James, W. (1962). Talks to Teachers on Psychology and to Students on Some of Life’s Ideals.
    Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, Inc.
Pink, D.  A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future.
Scholtes, Suzette. (2004). Understanding the Chakras in Yoga. Retrieved March 11, 2009, from   Enlightened Practice Web site.

Writer’s Biography:
As a life long lover of learning, Paul embraces his role as both student and teacher.  As a kid he watched his dad practice yoga and visited The Center for Higher Consciousness in Minneapolis many times.  After getting a bachelor’s and master’s degree in sociology, Paul worked for many years in the U.S. Department of Education’s Upward Bound and GEAR UP programs, assisting students to finish high school and enroll in college.  He is now in the doctorate program at KU for teaching and curriculum.  For many years Paul’s job duties and yoga practice ran on parallel paths but, more recently, they’ve begun to merge, blend, or combine.  Further, as the father of a young son, he wishes to teach, mentor, and educate in the most holistic way possible.  This article is a step on that path.”