When Mindfulness Feels Forced
The pitfalls of teaching embodiment practices outside of yoga spaces.
Okay. It makes sense in a yoga class. Breathe. Come into the experience of the body. Become a gentle witness. Students are looking for that experience when they come to class. Or at least they’re expecting to be prompted in those ways, even if they’re only there because friends wanted them to go, or they think yoga will make them physically fit.
But hang on. Many yoga teachers, including me, have taken yogic breathing and other mindfulness techniques into the work we do outside of the yoga studio. I guide students through five minutes of conscious breathing in my university classes. I prompt participants to stand up and stretch or move in the professional workshops I facilitate. And if I’m leading a multiple-day retreat—even one that has nothing to do with yoga—there’s going to be some yoga!
We get excited about this too, don’t we? We’re taking yoga into the world, out of the studio. We’re offering people who would never come to a yoga class the chance to taste the bliss of our practice and…
Hang on. Are we forcing mindful embodiment on people in settings where they didn’t see it coming? Or worse, where they may feel unsafe?
In this article, I will discuss some of the pitfalls of taking yoga and mindfulness “outside of the studio” and three suggestions to consider if you choose to do so.
Are we forcing mindful embodiment on people in settings where they didn’t see it coming? Or worse, where they may feel unsafe?
Asking people to Om together to close a staff meeting or breathe together to start a writing activity may feel more than weirdly appropriative and out of context. Even as yoga and mindfulness practices become really comfy for some, they will feel forced for others. And for some, they may feel downright unsafe.
Let’s say everyone in the room participates in five minutes of conscious relaxation. Should everyone in the room really be relaxed? Or does it behoove some people to remain guarded in workplace or school settings, for instance? What if a participant has just started working at a company or is in the middle of a personal crisis? They might worry about crying in a relaxing setting. Choosing not to participate can give the impression that the person is not a “team player.” In settings where someone else has control over paychecks or grades, participants can also feel really angry for a host of reasons, including a sense of powerlessness. And the kind of vulnerability that comes from mindfulness practices is not what they signed up for.
A friend of mine asked me recently (because she knows I’m both a professor and a yoga teacher): “Why oh why has this sort of pseudo-spiritual group-bonding, come-into-your-body fall-de-rall become part of so many public endeavors?” She really didn’t understand it, and she wanted us to cut it out.
I found myself explaining that, well, we are more than our minds. Oftentimes, learning spaces, like college classrooms, have been constructed to leave out the body. We’re literally expected to sit in rows and not even make eye contact with each other or see each others’ faces while we’re having a conversation. There’s often an unspoken (or spoken) expectation to suspend the need to use a restroom, get some water, or have a snack until after the work of learning is done. I find that, at a minimum, putting the chairs in a circle makes it easier for people to communicate with each other. Sure, it may make some uncomfortable, but the classroom style to which most are accustomed is not a neutral set-up either; it’s just historic practice. And it inscribes very traditional norms and values about whose voices are most and least valued. It enforces passive over participatory learning.
Some of us try to take things a step further by giving participants permission to keep feeling their bodies. It’s actually helpful to know that taking a break to pee or eat a snack would help you listen better. I think it’s also helpful to know—in your body—that a particular topic is exciting, or that it produces anxiety or sadness or anger. Bringing the body back into learning is a way to right an enlightenment-era wrong about learning. Ideally, we can promote a wider range of experiences in classrooms and workplace settings if we ourselves feel embodied. We can also combat the push for conformity.
But yes, sometimes I think we’re forcing people to do something for which they didn’t bargain. For some, it alienates more than it helps.
Yoga, mindfulness culture, and body-oriented teachings have infiltrated a number of public spaces. Breathe deeply, make eye contact, give a cheerful hug, stay limber, be in your body—the list goes on. These types of expectations aren’t everywhere, of course, nor are they deeply embedded in North American culture. They’re like an overlay—an additional layer of “should”—and especially if you’re a woman under forty, not complying can feel like failing. But at least if you’re a white woman under forty, those goals are likely to feel familiar. Others may just feel left out entirely.
Remember, when yoga and mindfulness practices arrive from their original cultural contexts, they change, based on the people teaching them in their new cultural homes. There’s a good reason why yoga magazines with more content focused on advertising and fashion than on yoga are among the biggest selling yoga publications in the U.S. Culturally, we value appearance and products more than we value yoga. And the “perfect combination” is one that’s heavy on beauty and light on spirituality.
We also value being right. We value knowing the best way. So when a facilitator at a work meeting tells you to stand up, hold hands with the person next to you and take three deep breaths, although that might feel a little creepy, what are your choices in that very moment? You’re at work; it’s not really an invitation but a requirement.
There are good reasons why people might not want to get “embodied” and all deep in their feelings in public places like work and school. For many, those are not places of comfort. They are places where it makes sense to stay emotionally guarded, stay in the mind. Even yoga studios, for some, are places to remain on guard at first. For instance, maybe you’re not sure the teacher is going to welcome your gender ambiguity or racial non-conformity. Or maybe they just don't know how to deal with your fat or disabled body and their discomfort is going to become your burden. There are good reasons why telling someone to relax entirely and do nothing but observe the breath is a pretty audacious thing to do.
There are good reasons why people might not want to get “embodied” and all deep in their feelings in public places like work and school. For many, those are not places of comfort.
Does that mean I’m going to stop using mindfulness practices and small servings of yoga outside of the yoga studio? Absolutely not. I believe I’m offering useful tools, and I’ve seen these practices work for many. I still believe that integrating one’s mental, physical, and emotional wisdom leads to better learning and more respect as well as better discussions with others.
I suggest being careful though, in the following ways.
1. Pay attention to your own embodiment
A tool disconnected from compassionate purpose can become a weapon. Are you actually in your own body, emotions, and breath when you’re guiding others into mindfulness? Teaching, facilitating, and speaking publicly are hard jobs, and we sometimes default to the authority of our roles, rather than “being with” the people we are guiding in the pursuit of mindfulness. Focusing on your own embodiment can yield greater awareness.You don’t have to be perfect at this, but awareness will help you to share a tool, rather than forcing compliance with the activity or judging those who don’t seem to like the instructions. Remember, there is information in non-participation too. If you aren’t witnessing the group from your own awareness, you could miss percolations of tensions relating to power imbalance, oppression, and cultural anxiety.
2. Name and acknowledge the wisdom of exits
In all of my non-yoga classes and retreats, I let people know that I use a varied pedagogy because different approaches work better for different people. Some learn better by talking, others by reading. Some have a hard time sitting still; others prefer silent contemplation. I say, “I might offer you new approaches, so try to be open to variety. Still though, if something’s not right for you, don’t do it.” I say this, and I mean it. That means no sideways judgments about participants or comments about non-participation later.
My friend’s abusive stepfather was a fan of mindfulness-language, casual touching, and telling people to relax. It took her a long time to get comfortable in yoga classes because the language itself was triggering. Of course it was. Some people will never be comfortable with yoga and mindfulness practices and for them, that makes sense. Myriad personal and cultural reasons cause people to guard their presence and image among others. Give examples of how to play along and still feel safe. “Don’t go deep, if you don’t want to right now.” Or “Just make your grocery list in your head while our eyes are closed (or lowered), if you prefer.” Or “No one needs to read your freewrite—write a letter to your cat rather than following the prompt!”
3. Offer the practice as refuge
Ideally, the practices we’re offering can be picked up again anywhere, at any time. They don’t have to be useful today, in this setting, with these people. If we stay focused on offering tools that have served many, we free ourselves from the outcome in the moment.
The person who hates the idea of taking a deeper breath in her hardest class might find one later when she’s walking her dog, or might sense her feet on the floor and her butt in the chair when she’s having a good conversation with friends. And that’ll be useful too—a refuge of her own making, in her own time.