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Composition Forum 34, Summer 2016

Review of Christy Wenger’s Yoga Minds, Writing Bodies: Contemplative Writing Pedagogy

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Roxanne Rashedi

Wenger, Christy. Yoga Minds, Writing Bodies: Contemplative Writing Pedagogy. Fort Collins, CO and Anderson, SC: WAC Clearinghouse and Parlor Press, 2015. 199 pp.

Over the years, contemplative practices (CPs) such as yoga and meditation have gained popularity in the West. Even though modern-day yoga tends to be synonymous with exercise, yoga has caught the attention of writing instructors. In fact, the past two conferences at CCCC featured panels on the promise of incorporating CPs into writing courses. One such panel, titled “Breathe, Move, and Write: Embodied Thinking Creates Engaged Writers,” focused on how contemplative pedagogies help writers engage with their breath, mind, and body. This type of engagement enables students to connect to texts, the world, and others. Interest in CPs extends into special interest groups (SIGs), as evidenced by Julie Reiser’s query to the WPA listserv for conference collaborators who use mindfulness techniques in writing courses. Due to an overwhelmingly positive response, Reiser and colleagues started a SIG on contemplative practices and writing.

It is within this context that Yoga Minds, Writing Bodies finds itself in writing studies. Here, Christy Wenger argues that our field has conducted insufficient work on bodies in classrooms. She calls for the integration of contemplative practices into traditional curricula and posits that these practices help students become somatically aware. In turn, this leads to more emotionally aware, resilient writers, as students better relate to emotions rather than dismiss them. Wenger asserts that this emotional awareness informs how we approach writing and teaching. Mundane routines such as taking roll evolve into contemplative moments; for example, instructors can use this time to have students engage in breathing exercises. Further, Wenger posits that feminism enhances contemplative practices and develops an embodied imagination—one that affords a new heuristic of inquiry in writing studies. Such an approach draws upon feminist materialist epistemology in its critique of the mind/body binary.

For Wenger, yoga shows writers how emotions are an important facet of the writing process. By attending to emotions, writers sensitize themselves to others and the external world of matter. Matter, or prakrti, encompasses mind and body; it complicates traditional binaries of self/other. She argues that yoga cultivates the writer’s awareness of their emotions and others’ situated feelings. Thus, yoga creates an understanding of “intersubjectivity and connected beingness”; it enacts the function of our singular and shared materiality (169). Situated feeling proposes an understanding based not on cerebral activity exclusively, but on the materiality of the mind, body, and environment. Materiality challenges what Wenger calls detachment, which essentializes materiality at the discursive level. As Wenger highlights, inserting materiality in education consists of both conceptualizing and living embodiment. By practicing yoga poses, students use “the imagination as a source of intentional doing … as in writing, it is the process that becomes the focus” (32). Wenger promotes multiple ways of knowing and highlights the role that emotions play in creating a more intentional, relational writing process. Contemplative pedagogies inspire an emotional awareness on content and process levels and nurture embodying the spaces in-between drafts—the process.

Wenger addresses the body as a site of meaning-making through three chapters and three interchapters. The chapters delve into theories from yoga, feminism, and writing studies, and the interchapters focus on qualitative case studies from first-year composition courses. The compositional structure of her book, I argue, figuratively enacts embodiment. Wenger does not merely theorize about embodiment, as have previous feminists (see her endnote #23 for a critique of Judith Butler’s work). Instead, her interchapters “speak back” to the chapters’ theories and, through her analysis of students’ body blogs (a topic we will explore later), voice students’ and instructors’ lived realities (33). Moreover, Wenger expresses her own “slow development” as a yogi and her intentions in exposing students to yoga (3). These reflections provide writing instructors with insight into experimenting with contemplative practices. Wenger expresses her concerns about incorporating yoga into her pedagogy. These include disrupting students’ preconceptions of a composition class and student resistance to sharing information about their bodies. Much to her surprise, she found students “eager to discuss and analyze their bodies,” presumably because this opportunity rarely exists in other courses (68). Writing instructors do not need to be certified yoga teachers, but they must “be willing to show their vulnerability as learners in the classroom, alongside their students” (20). Wenger emphasizes how a humble attitude is needed for contemplative educators to hold the space and meaningfully participate in CPs with students.

As a yoga and writing instructor, I corroborate Wenger’s point. She raises important questions: As writing instructors, to what extent are we mindful of the ways we hold space for contemplation? How do students’ roles evolve in these contemplative spaces, and are we receptive to these shifts? These questions require self-reflection, and this reflection involves a willingness to rethink our own habits of teaching and to do so from an orientation of openness.

Before exploring these questions, it is helpful to discuss Wenger’s interweaving chapters. Chapter One summarizes works by feminist theorists ranging from Jane Tompkins and Jane Hindman to Kristie Fleckenstein. Wenger adds to this conversation and coins the term “writing yogi” to examine three parts of embodiment: (1) flesh carries intelligence, as consciousness is spread throughout the body; (2) embodiment is felt and situated differently in bodies; and (3) humans share a material nature and the writer’s process evolves into a self- and other-awareness. In dialogue with Donna Haraway’s work on embodiment, Wenger suggests that feminism’s emphasis on bodily awareness as a way to root into greater self-reflexivity and perspective-taking strengthens contemplative pedagogies. She shares how students can view themselves as writing yogis and argues that this language of rituals provides students a feminist, embodied method to evaluate their writing processes.

Interchapter One describes how Wenger uses body blogs to help students become writing yogis. An assignment in first-year composition, the body blog invites students to think about how their bodies are involved in their writing and learning processes and poses questions like, “What kind of sensory experiences do you have as a writer, and how do you feel as you write?” (69). Here, Wenger intends to undo the educational system’s long-lasting dualism of the mind and body. First, she has students practice yoga and set an intention. After practicing yoga and tuning into their bodies, students respond to the blog’s prompt. In this sense, I argue that the body blogs generate a holistic yoga-writing practice for writing instructors to use, partly because the yoga creates space for the full body’s visibility and embodiment in students’ learning and writing processes.

Chapter Two counters the pervasiveness of purely theoretical attention to the body and moves toward a lived understanding. Contemplative pedagogies “direct focus to mindfulness, an embodied intervention” that transforms college writing “and the ways that work is transferred to other writing environments” (11). Mindfulness taps into metacognition and enhances one’s awareness of bodily sensations and emotions. A mindful attitude could thereby empower a writer’s agency as a body, in addition to the singular body interacting with others. A yoga-writing practice helps writers develop habits of mind and approach the writing and learning process responsibly.

Interchapter Two examines these habits and draws from the Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing. The framework emphasizes eight habits of mind essential for college writing success: “curiosity; openness; engagement; creativity; persistence; responsibility; flexibility; and metacognition” (109). Wenger argues that yoga especially enhances openness, persistence, and metacognition. She defines openness as the willingness to consider new perspectives; persistence, the capacity to maintain interest in and attention to tasks; metacognition, the ability to reflect on one’s thinking and the systems structuring knowledge. For Wenger, the writing yogi fosters these habits and a writing process that creates rhetorical awareness. She shows how yoga allows students to develop habits of mind that facilitate their success and enable them to transfer these habits to other aspects of their lives.

The yoga-writing practices are essential to scaffolding students’ habits of mind. Appendix A outlines where students can incorporate yoga into their writing; Wenger even goes so far as to anticipate poses that respond to individual students’ needs. While supportive of Wenger’s goals, I wonder about the extent to which students embrace or resist these exercises. The different moves and variations students gravitate toward would be useful to consider, particularly if we conceptualize yoga as a practice aimed at exercising agency in the writing process. This calls into question whether students are afforded the space to select their own yogic strategies, and if students modify or extend a yoga sequence, how they are encouraged to reflect on their decisions to do so. Another question is if yoga needs to be understood as a spiritual practice in writing courses. Wenger defines spirituality as “...secular notions of the divine linked to the heart center, the feeling center” (see endnote #3 on page 185). This definition prompts us to ask what this conception of spirituality might leave out. While Wenger mentions that the yoga market is driven by capitalist-patriarchal ideals, there seems to be a gap in how yoga has been culturally appropriated and disinherited from its roots. It may be advantageous for writing instructors to create activities focusing on the rhetoric behind yoga as a secular, spiritual practice—not a religious one. For example, instructors could create space for discussing how the asanas have been discursively separated from their religious foundations. Consequently, this separation shifts one of the yogic intentions—the spiritual surrender that often accompanies the yogi’s contemplative journey toward recognition of his/her insignificance before a supreme deity.

Building off of how yoga unites practice and theory, Chapter Three highlights the ways yoga transforms students’ writing attitudes. For Wenger, pranayama, or breath regulation, helps students cultivate emotional flexibility and competently respond to negative emotions in order for them to become more resilient writers. Wenger examines her students’ accounts and illustrates how breathing facilitates students’ abilities to develop greater emotional awareness. In Interchapter Three, she shows how students use pranayama to acquire emotional flexibility throughout the writing process. This demonstrates, I think, the power in pranayama and how it fosters students’ capacities to be mindful of their emotional well-being, which enhances their compositions.

Wenger’s concept of the writing yogi invites student writers to embrace all emotions and, as such, I posit that it contributes to a more authentic compositional presence. Wenger concludes that some students enact emotional flexibility via pranayama and thus engage in global revision. They welcome the unknown; that is, they are open to opposing perspectives and feedback, whereas students who breathe shallowly tend to dismiss others’ perspectives and take less compositional risks. For Wenger, yoga-writing practices encourage writing instructors and students to take those risks, and thereby to expand the boundaries of knowledge generation mentally, physically, and emotionally.

Works Cited

Butler, Judith. Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex.” New York: Routledge, 1993. Print.

Council of Writing Program Administrators, National Council of Teachers of English, and National Writing Project. Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing. Council of Writing Program Administrators. Jan. 2011. Web.24 July 2016.

Fleckenstein, Kristie S. Writing Bodies: Somatic Mind in Composition Studies. College English 61.3 (1999): 281-306. Print.

Hindman, Jane E. Making Writing Matter: Using ‘the Personal’ to Recover[y] an Essential[ist] Tension in Academic Discourse. College English 64.1 (2001): 88-108.

---. Writing an Important Body of Scholarship: A Proposal for an Embodied Rhetoric of Professional Practice. JAC 22.1 (2002): 93-118. Print.

Reiser, Julie. Re: Looking for Mindfulness Colleagues for an AWP Panel. Message to the WPA-listserv. 6 April 2016. E-mail.

---. Re: Mindfulness + The AWP Panel. Message to the WPA-listserv. 15 April 2016. E-mail.

Tompkins, Jane. Me and My Shadow. New Literary History 19.1 (1987): 169-178. Print.

Wenger, Christy. Yoga Minds, Writing Bodies: Contemplative Writing Pedagogy. Fort Collins, CO and Anderson, SC: WAC Clearinghouse and Parlor Press, 2015. Print.

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