Monday, April 7, 2014

Yoga Skills

This weekend I was invited to teach yoga at the Yale Symposium on Skills and Practices.  The thought was that I could offer some respite from the long hours of sitting and keep the audience and speakers awake, engaged and feeling well during the course of the workshop.  I had concerns about participation, but these intellectuals were enthusiastic about participating and even requested additional short yoga sessions from their chairs between talks.  It was great to see them so responsive.

In addition to leading the yoga session I was welcome to attended the conference which I did.  I heard seven talks over the course of two days, all on the topic of skill.  Six were from philosophers and one was given by a neuroscientist.  Exhausted themselves from the rigor of such detailed thinking, they were all surprised that I elected to attend.  For me it was an incredibly stimulating and fulfilling experience which taught me a ton and reaffirmed many of my previously established positions on skill gained through my own analytic process of my work as a yoga instructor.

One of the most interesting talks for me was by John Krakauer, the neuroscientist from Johns Hopkins University.  John shared studies which demonstrated the futility of verbal instruction in correcting human behavior, at least in cases of motor control.  What was found through various studies is that the  most affective method for a human to correct her aim is simply to practice making her own adjustments to achieve the goal.  John also spoke briefly about there being an optimal and necessary rest period between trials in order for the subject to cognate what she has learned.  These two findings are exactly what I have witnessed as an Ashtanga Yoga teacher. There is nothing that can beat daily practice for learning and there is most definitely rest needed between practices.  We can see that during this rest period some work has been done and when the student returns the next day, she is able to do poses that she would not have been able to achieve had she practiced any more the day before.

The other talk I found relevant and affirming was given by Tamar Gendler, Deputy Provost at Yale University.  Tamar spoke about Alief, a false belief that we know is false but are still unable to talk ourself out of. She gave numerous accounts, such as a study of people told to smash a plastic doll against a table, knowing that it is plastic and not a real baby, who still wince or refuse to do it.  She gave us as another example of Alief the false fear we have when we watch a scary movie.  The finding that most interested me is that we are unable to talk ourselves out of false belief (alief) using any intellectualizing. In fact it is the main component of Alief that no amount of "logic" about statistics will override our fear of flying if we have that deeply rooted fear.  This can be applied in cases of prejudice and in all sorts of instances where we hold things to be true about the world even though all evidence proves otherwise.

If intellectualizing won't remedy the phenomenon of Alief, what will?  We must find a way eliminate the unwarranted feelings that we can't seem to shake.  I believe this is the work we are doing in our yoga practice.  Through breath, eye focus, and posture, we become more mindful and self-aware and we are able to dig into deeply rooted misconceptions and dispel the fear feeling that keeps them present.  This powerful result of the yoga practice is only just beginning to be studied but has been experienced by many daily practitioners through the years including myself.  With more and more interest directed toward yoga and its benefits, I predict we will be hearing about this soon.  I am so grateful to Yale for having me thanks to my good friend and Professor Jason Stanley, and I look forward to more opportunities to be included in the conversation.