We have at least two certified yoga instructors in the English department, Associate Professor Aimée Morrison and PhD student Danielle Stock. Both have brought yoga to campus, with Danielle running a class for English graduate students. Here they talk a bit about its place in their academic life. –JLH
AM: What kind of yoga do you study, and when did you become a teacher?
DS: I study vinyasa flow yoga and I’ve been practicing for about five years. This is a style that focuses on connecting breath with movement, intelligently sequencing poses in a fluid progression, and tailoring sequences to individual needs. I really felt at home when I started practicing vinyasa flow yoga with my current mentor. I decided to pursue yoga teacher training in March of this year and received my certification just last month from Mandorla Yoga Institute.
Right back at you: what kind of yoga do you study / how long / when did you become a teacher?
AM: I have studied Anusara yoga for nearly seven years—it’s a kind of hatha yoga that emphasizes careful postural alignment, and linking yoga practices to mood and well-being. My main teacher was actually a student here at Waterloo when I started with her! I’m in the ending stretch of my yoga teacher training right now, which I started in January this year.
What are some of the links between yoga and studying for the PhD? Either similarities or … contrasts?
DS: Yoga is a nice complement to any line of work that is very sedentary or very cerebral, such as working on a PhD or being an academic researcher. After spending a few hours hunched in front of my computer, typing furiously, or (more often than not) staring with a scrunched brow at the screen, a half-hour yoga break is an amazing way to clear it all out and reset. It’s a chance to get back into my body and just move intuitively, without too much thought or analysis. The meditation and introspection that yoga facilitates have also helped me to manage many of the less positive aspects of PhD work–the self-doubt, tendencies toward perfectionism, egotism, and needless stress that can sometimes assert too much control over one’s work (at least in my experience!).
I’m sure many people ask you, “How do you have time for it all?” How does yoga fit into your life, or into one of your many roles?
AM: My husband got me started — by buying me yoga lessons for Christmas, so that it was a scheduled, paid-for thing that I had to go to. I was always saying I wanted to do it, but then never managing to find the time with a then 18-month old toddler at home, and a demanding job. But once I started going to yoga regularly, I found that the time I spent on my practice made all my other hours more effective: I can focus better, sleep better, calm myself down more effectively, find the energy to fully engage. So I feel like I don’t have time NOT to do yoga anymore. I attend two to three classes a week, and do some meditation at home as well.
What teaching tricks can you transfer from the classroom to the studio, or vice versa?
DS: For me, as a very inexperienced teacher, learning to be a good graduate instructor has been a process of getting comfortable in my own skin and learning to believe that I have something valuable to offer my students. As odd as it sounds, the act of teaching requires a great deal of self-love. To put oneself in front of a crowd of people and share your expertise can feel quite vulnerable. Over the past few years, I’ve had to let go of fears and anxieties surrounding judgment and criticism—all fears connected to protecting the ego—and replace those negative thought patterns with more affirmative ones. It’s been a long process, and it’s something I still struggle with! Yoga has helped me to uncover my confidence and find that inner flame of courage and self-love. When I enter a new classroom now, or prepare to teach a difficult lecture, I focus on my role as a facilitator of learning. Drawing my attention away from the fear of failing and towards the awesome experience of getting to share my passion with others allows me to really step into the role of the teacher. This goes for both classroom and studio.
How has yoga found its way into your university classroom?
AM: Sometimes very directly! When I see students lagging, particularly in a longer class session, I will have them do some easy postures, like standing up to do some sun breaths, or even doing some simple seated twists and side stretches in their chairs if the room is small. Of course, even just paying attention to the energy of the room enough to know that students are getting tired is something I learned from yoga. So, indirectly, recognizing that in the university classroom as well as the yoga studio, my students have bodies and attention spans that have limits is part of how yoga comes into my classroom. Sometimes, we’ll do two minute breath meditation to help us focus, particularly later in the term when everyone is feeling really stressed.
What’s the most useful pose for grad students, if you could just pick one?
DS: For grad students, if you only have a few minutes to do one yoga pose, I would probably suggest a restorative pose, such as a supported bridge or legs-up-the-wall. Restorative poses can be some of the most therapeutic ones, particularly where stress and anxiety are present. If you want to do a supported bridge pose at home, all you need is a yoga block (I find that Norton anthologies work equally well!) and a blanket/towel fold for beneath your head. If you have stiffness or a limited range of motion in your back (especially if you haven’t warmed up at all), I would suggest using the block on its shortest height. Laying on your back on the mat, with a blanket fold under your head for comfort and your arms comfortably at your sides, bend your knees so that the knees are stacked over the ankles, the heels about touching the backs of the thighs. With your block(s) nearby, begin to lift your pelvis, bringing the block to rest under you (around your sacrum–the flat, hard surface at the base of your spine). You can also place a beanbag or eye cover over your eyes to make this extra relaxing. Stay here for two or three minutes, bringing awareness to your breath, making each inhale and exhale long and even. When it’s time to come out of the pose, make sure to do so very gradually, slowly sliding the block out from beneath you, and giving yourself a few minutes lying on the mat. With legs bent, you can windshield-wiper your legs back and forth, and then lay for a minute with your legs outstretched to neutralize the spine, before getting back to that dissertation chapter.
What is your favourite stress-reducing pose?
AM: In a pinch, my best pose is one I can do against my closed office door: facing the door, I move into a simple forward fold. (This works if you have quite open hamstrings; if you don’t, reverse the pose, so that your butt is toward the wall, instead). Begin a short distance away from the door or wall. Hinge at your hips and fold forward, with a soft bend in your knees—you may need to cheat out a little sideways to avoid hitting your head on the way down. Extend your sitting bones up toward the ceiling and counter this action by drawing your tailbone down towards your heels as you fold more deeply in. Skooch closer toward the wall or door and then lean forward so that your back is pressing against the door. Inhale to feel your back body expand into the pressure of the wall; exhale and lean into that support, allowing your head to hang heavy. I find this extremely soothing.
Image credit: Ragdoll pose, Darrin Zeer