Philosophy of Yoga Course Stretches Students’ Perspectives and Limbs

June 20, 2016

A professor and student had never formally co-led a Stonehill course when Anna Lännström, professor and chair of the Philosophy Department, and Rachel Santos ’17 spoke about the possibility last year. Yet the lack of precedent didn’t strike either of them as an obstacle to their idea — a reflection of Stonehill’s innovation-fostering culture.

The two are both yoga fans. So when Lännström was searching for a creative way to put the theory behind her Indian philosophy course into practice, it was natural to turn to Santos, who — with her yoga-certified peer, Hanna Brucker ’15 — had previously co-created and co-led Finding Your Inner Yogi, an Integrating Democratic Education at Stonehill (IDEAS) class.

It was a concept in which they both saw tremendous potential.

To confirm they were on the right track, Lännström first got a green light from Peter Ubertaccio, associate dean of Interdisciplinary Programs, to build a Learning Community (LC) course that combined her Indian philosophy course and Santos’ IDEAS course. Although Stonehill administration acknowledged that the idea was somewhat unconventional — and Lännström admits to concerns that students could resist the notion of a student-facilitated LC — the unanimous enthusiasm for the idea was encouragement enough.

A Community that Embraces New Ideas

“Generally, when I’ve had an idea, I’ve had the support I’ve needed at Stonehill to see it through,” says Lännström. “Although no one had proposed a student-faculty–led LC before, the community didn’t present any brick walls — only insightful questions that made the course even stronger.”

The final piece needed for the proposal was a certified yoga instructor, which they found in Kristy Kuhn, adjunct professor in the Visual & Performing Arts Department. Lännström, Santos and Kuhn built a curriculum balancing Indian philosophy, yoga practice and mindfulness, and the LC was established. The three facilitators looked forward anxiously to spring course registration to see how the idea would resonate with students. They were pleasantly surprised: The 20 openings filled quickly, with another 29 students turned away and 72 students wanting to take the course this coming fall.

Stretching Students’ Prospectives and Limbs

Divided into three sections, the course combines a theoretical and a practical component. In the theory part, Lännström leads the class in the study of Indian philosophy and its Western adoption. The class reads a variety of Indian philosophy materials, investigates our Western fascination with “the mystical East” — including the hatha yoga tradition — and considers ethical issues with adopting and adapting other people’s religious traditions. In the practice portion, Kuhn leads the class in hatha yoga. Santos then provides a bridge between the thought and action by leading her peers in a group conversation examining how the ideas of philosophy and yoga apply practically to their modern lives.

Lännström says the model is one that would win enthusiastic approval from even the most ancient philosophers they study. “This idea of uniting theory and practice is as old as philosophy itself,” she says. “Philosophers throughout history have treated philosophy as a way of life; your ideas should be expressed in your actions.”

A variety of motivations has brought students to this course. Some are philosophy majors, some are athletes interested in the stretching benefits of yoga or enthusiastic yoga practitioners, while others are simply seeking to fulfill requirements. All, she says, leave class with both a better sense of themselves and a new appreciation for the culture and meaning behind yoga as a practice.

“Students see yoga’s connection with Indian philosophical and religious traditions, and examine if and how our Western culture can adopt practices and values from this other culture in a respectful way.”
Anna Lännström, professor and chair of the Philosophy Department

In a community where decentered, or experiential, learning is a core philosophy, Lännström points to the course’s value in helping students apply learning to life. She says the experience of teaching the LC has underscored the rewards realized when learning models move from the “sage on stage” concept — a professor’s lecture before an audience of students — to approaches where teachers and students engage in learning together.

“Rather than always speaking at students you have to leave a vacuum, an empty space that gives students the power to step in and do things,” she says. “It can be nerve-wracking — when you leave silence, you have to wait for someone to fill it — but it usually leads to the really good conversations.”