Teaching and Breathing

Teaching and Breathing June 10, 2017

Even as a fast-paced lecturer, I have to pause for breath. But am I really utilizing breathing to its fullest extent in my teaching, whether academic or dance?

Me in my office at Berkeley.
Me in my office at Berkeley.

This Chronicle Vitae article, Let It Breathe, really resonates with me. In it, Aimée Morrison reflects on the disconnect between her breathing practice in yoga and in the academic classroom. Literally remembering to pause to breathe is, of course, important, but Morrison also extends breathing into a metaphor for allowing space to process, reflect, be.

Much like Morrison, I’m guilty of over-exerting myself in the classroom in order to appear more prepared and professional. I feel as though I could’ve written these paragraphs:

I had students write research papers and exams and bibliographies and presentations and blog posts and quizzes — just so that it would be clear that I had a plan, and I was in charge, and I was well-prepared, and I knew what I was doing.

It didn’t work. I was exhausted and tense, and my students were baffled and overwhelmed. In class, they just checked out. No one had room to breathe. The quick shallow panting of my own fears about teaching sucked all the air out of the room, leaving nothing left for learning.

Taking time to breathe in the university classroom meant acknowledging that much of my pedagogy — however well-intentioned — was arising from a desire to ease my own anxieties. I was fighting off negative inner voices by throwing readings and assignments and lectures at them.

As much as I like packing my courses with material that’s both rigorous and juicy, I need the reminder to slow down, to give students time to process, and to give both them and myself time to breathe.

I’m reminded of a belly dance class I took with tribal fusion dancer Ariellah while in the Bay Area (she’s a fantastic teacher and performer; if you’ve not seen her before, I particularly like this piece of hers).

While we were executing rigorous isolation drills, Ariellah kept saying, “Keep breathing dancers. Are you breathing? Check your breath.” She said these phrases whether she was walking around to give feedback or demonstrating the drills and doing them with us. She was both making space for herself to breathe, and for us as learners to see her as a teacher/expert doing so.

The connection here is that teaching – whether in the academic or dance classroom – requires a level of meta awareness beyond simply learning or doing. You have to be aware of your body’s workings, where you are in space, what you’re doing kinesthetically at the moment, how you look (when dancing) and how you sound (when speaking). You have to do this while imparting knowledge. You have to do it not only for yourself, but to model it for your students. It’s a lot.

I hope to incorporate more room for breathing – both literal inhalation/exhalation and spacious moments of processing – in my teaching back here in the Midwest. It might take some practice, but I can always slow down and remind myself: breathe.

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