Friday, November 1, 2013

Whole Body Listening

I love school. As a yoga student and yoga teacher, I have found an ongoing way to continue the experience of school.  Right now I get to play the role of the teacher, but I know that each of us are teachers, no matter our jobs or our age. Some of my greatest teachers are my family members. I learn from my family each and every day. 

Last week my kindergarten-aged son Rhys brought home an award he received from his teacher: it was a Whole Body Listener certificate, and attached to it was a poster illustrating what it means to be a Whole Body Listener, with pictures of the eyes, mouth, hands, feet, brain and heart. Here is what I read from the poster:

Whole Body Listening is more than just “hearing” with the ears. It includes:
  • listening with the eyes (looking at the speaker)
  • listening with the mouth (closed and quiet - no talking or making sounds)
  • listening with the body (facing the speaker)
  • listening with the hands (quietly at the side of the body or in the lap)
  • listening with the feet (standing still or quietly on the floor)
  • listening with the brain (thinking about what the speaker is saying)
  • and listening with the heart (caring about what the speaker is saying)
Rhys was so proud to get this award. I know he has worked on his listening skills in kindergarten. While he was telling me about his award, he said, "Mommy, you're not listening with your whole body right now," because I was distracted by the dog and my other son, and we were sitting on a bench so my body was turned partly away from him. Even more importantly, I know that I am not a Whole Body Listener most of the time. I told him I was sorry and that I want to listen better. 

The next day, my Mom arrived from Missouri to visit us for a week. Obviously, she is another one of my teachers. Just this morning, as I was thinking about what to say to yoga students about Whole Body Listening, she said, "I need to talk to you. I am asking for just ten minutes of your time so that you can sit and really listen to me. I need you to listen to me about how I feel left out of your life." I sat and truly listened to her. Listening with my eyes was easiest. Facing her with my body was also pretty easy. Listening with my heart was a conscious choice, and it was hard because it hurt a little. I had to let down my usual defenses. Listening with my brain turned out to be even harder, because when she asked me questions or needed feedback, my brain jumped in with all sorts of ideas and words I wanted to say to her, and in turn I stopped listening with my mouth. Then I came back to my intention of Whole Body Listening and became quiet again. At the end of that ten minutes, which had turned into half an hour, my Mom and I worked through something that had been troubling our relationship. We found a good solution to serve us both: so that we can both practice speaking and being heard, giving and in turn receiving communication, we will schedule bi-weekly phone calls, one with just me and one with my boys present as well. 

In the context of Yoga, my teacher Al Bingham has been instructing a group of yoga teachers in how to best listen to our students. As a teacher, I need to be a good Whole Body Listener. Students listen to the yoga teacher, but they also need to be heard. If I am listening to you instead of just up here giving cues and doing postures, then I'll be able to respond to you effectively. Sometimes I will make mistakes, and other times, because it's a group setting, I won't be able to listen simultaneously to every person. At those times, keep listening to yourself and move from your own wisdom, not always in the way I guide you to move. 

Through Yoga, we learn, practice and teach the art of the listening. What are we doing when we get quiet and centered and focus on the breath? We are listening. Listening to what? We are intently listening to ourselves, our own bodies, our own minds, our own hearts and souls. If we have spiritual beliefs, we can expand this idea to listening to the Divine, however we may call it. As we move through postures we move with consciousness, focusing our attention and listening to what our hands, feet, hips, shoulders, knees and heart have to say to us. If we mindlessly force ourselves into pretzel poses, we are not listening, but instead talking over our own body's wisdom--we want to do the opposite of that. If our body, our breath and our heart tell us to slow down, then we slow down. If our chests and hearts soar in a certain posture, then we open up freely and deeply and we go for it. If we listen to our heart in savasana, sometimes we shed a few tears. That's a beautiful thing because it shows we are listening. 

The art of Whole Body Listening is always at the foundation of our practice, but we will set this as our whole intention today. The chakra system, Yoga's metaphorical map of our energetic body, has a particular area devoted to communication: the throat. Vishuddha is the name for the throat chakra, which is responsible for speaking, hearing and listening; located at the throat, vishuddha also covers the area of the ears. Many postures we will go through today are traditionally associated with vishuddha. We will use both sound and movement to channel our energy towards listening. This will help us listen to our own bodies and our inner voice, so that we can hear what we need to hear. In our lives off of the mat, this will help us in our relationships with ourselves and others, so we can listen when we need to listen and say what we need to say, at the right time and in the right way. 

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