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Over the next six months I will keep a blog on why I am becoming a yoga teacher at Yoga North, in Duluth Minnesota.

As many people have asked me why I, a “successful” middle-aged academic, am getting certified to teach yoga, I feel compelled to put the question to myself and to follow, through the process of writing as inquiry, where question and response take me. I trust in this process.

Working for change is all about relationship. This is what I learned in the 1990s from my mentor Michael Morris, a community activist/leader and reluctant academic who created change in multiple communities in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where I did my graduate work. I keep a framed photo of Michael in the office of the Centre for Place and Sustainability Studies. He is standing in the street with a wide smile and an aging body full of energy. He is holding a protest sign.

The top-layer strand of the tangled web of my surprising journey (it is surprising to me) toward yoga teacher certification leads me to my friend and colleague Jocelyn Burkhart, with whom I taught Lakehead University’s first seminar in Holistic and Contemplative Education during the spring of 2013. Ideas around holism are central to discourses of place and sustainability, but questions around the meaning of whole selves or whole communities are often neglected in approaches that privilege political over personal learning. For our course, I had sought out Jocelyn’s participation as a co-facilitator because of her experience and passion around experiential education, holistic learning, and also because she herself is a certified yoga instructor (as well as a true seeker of wisdom). I knew that with Jocelyn’s expertise leading embodiment practices, which she had been doing with the Centre for Place and Sustainability Studies and in many other contexts for some months, our course would be enlivened with a wide variety of somatic and contemplative experiences. The course was enriched in this way, to my benefit, and I believe also to the benefit of students who universally expressed that this was among the most powerful courses (if not the most powerful) of their educational journey. Reflecting together on the course at its conclusion, I told Jocelyn that I really wanted to be able to offer students what we called “embodiment and mindfulness practices” with more authenticity myself. I usually deferred this kind of leadership to her, but through the course of our experience saw that if I truly wanted to teach holistically, I needed to develop a non-traditional academic skill that others outside of academe had, and that few of us inside had bothered to learn.

When I told her of this gut feeling, Jocelyn’s eyes lit up and she immediately replied, “You should become certified to teach yoga at my ashram!” In that moment what had been a gut feeling began to shift into intention and resolve.

Yoga teachers do not normally go around telling others what they should do. But as soon as Jocelyn told me I should become a yoga teacher, an unequivocal yes began stirring me. While the intensive residency requirement of Jocelyn’s ashram was not possible given family and work responsibilities, that same week I discovered a teacher training opportunity at Yoga North in Duluth, Minnesota. Instead of a three or four month residency, I learned that I could earn my certification in six weekend intensives over the course of six months. So I called up one of the owner/instructors at Yoga North, and was delighted to learn that their philosophy was a good fit for me, a forty-eight-year-old man who is more tight than flexible, and who has had some serious aches and pains that come from too many years of sit time at the computer. So I enrolled in the course, in part to gain greater authenticity as a professor of Holistic and Contemplative Education. I have just completed my first weekend. It was exhausting and challenging physically, emotionally, spiritually, and intellectually. I am convinced that this training is exactly where I need to be.

But of course there are deeper layers of the story behind this journey, layers that explain why I am committed to holism in my approach to education for sustainability.

The deeper story, and the source of my readiness to respond to Jocelyn’s challenge/invitation, has to do with my lifelong struggle to become more fully myself in an institution that I believe distorts the very meaning of life while reinforcing cultural norms that continue to reproduce every kind of social, ecological, and personal problem that plague human beings and the ecosystems of our terrestrial home. In other words, the deeper story surrounds my heartfelt conviction that conventional education—despite its good intentions and despite the noble commitments of those committed individuals who enact it—is deeply flawed and that it must be changed. My career as an academic has been committed to developing theories, models, and practices that enact change at various scales. While I may be best known for my contributions developing new educational theories, these theories have always emerged from my own direct experiences, and from my own personal longing for what the great mythologist Joseph Campbell called “the experience of being alive.”

I have championed critical, place-based environmental and sustainability education because I believe that this educational movement toward cultural and ecological renewal offers a necessary counterpoint to a centuries-long project of cultural and ecological colonization, otherwise known as progress. Our formal educational institutions, both schools and universities, have been primary instruments of this dubious progress, and my work as a teacher and scholar has tried to create space within these institutions for big questions concerning our purposes and the relation between education and the wellbeing of people, place, and planet. 

This, as any of the many people who are doing it will tell you, is difficult work. Making space for change within institutions resistant to change challenges one’s patience and abilities on every level: intellectual, emotional, spiritual and physical. And it is doubly difficult because despite a fierce longing for change, as participants within the system we inescapably embody aspects of it in our everyday thoughts and actions. While we want things to change, we go along and make tacit agreements to support and even defend the very practices that we might find incredibly troubling if we were to stop and think about them. We do this because if we stopped and questioned everything, we wouldn’t be able to do our jobs, we might even lose them, and worse, we would constantly be getting in the way of others trying to do theirs. This dilemma of complicity is exactly the same dilemma around climate change. We want a different energy system, but because it’s so hard to function without fossil fuels, we continue using them, thereby supporting the very cause of our concern. Fortunately we have alternatives—both alternative energy sources, and alternative approaches to education. But embracing these alternatives will always be challenging work as long dominant approaches remain dominant, especially because it is difficult to escape the paradox of both wanting change, and supporting through our complicity that which we want to change.

The next instalment of Why I am Becoming a Yoga Teacher will address how personal challenges can motivate us to respond to inner places of deep knowing within ourselves so that we can make the outer changes that allow us to act with more authenticity.