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Sunday, June 26, 2016

Teaching English, Yoga, and Mindfulness in Indonesia (interview)

photo courtesy Alicia Brill

Alicia Brill is a mindfulness practitioner and ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) educator from the United States. From September 2015-June 2016, she served as an English Language Fellow in Padang, West Sumatra, Indonesia. In her free time, she likes to practice yoga, meditate, travel, and climb mountains.  She will participate in a 10-day silent meditation retreat before returning to the United States.

You introduced your ESOL students to yoga. How did you tie that in with their language learning? What advice would you give to other language teachers who might want to try yoga and/or mindfulness practices with their students?

I've practiced yoga off and on for around 10 years, but I had never made it a consistent practice. Over the New Year, I attended a yoga and meditation retreat on Lombok Island in Indonesia. The retreat reinvigorated my yoga practice, was my first introduction to meditation, and reenergized my life.

Shortly after the retreat concluded in January, I helped to co-facilitate a pre-service teacher training camp in West Sumatra, Indonesia. The facilitators were asked to lead an “American Moment” activity where we introduced the campers to a particular aspect of life in the United States. 

I decided to teach a yoga class. It was the students’ first experience trying yoga and my first experience teaching yoga. The students were engaged with it, asking a lot of questions (e.g., what is the history of yoga, what’s the meaning of Namaste). They seemed sponge-like in their desire to learn about yoga and Gumby-like in their ability to try unfamiliar poses!

Once people found out I practiced yoga and had taught one class of it (i.e., noticing my yoga photos on social media), they started asking me to teach them also. 

  • I held a weekly yoga class for female Language Center staff. 
  • I taught yoga to English Club students during a “Sports” lesson. 
  • I also led a “Yoga and Everyday Mindfulness” class at the American Corner to promote relaxation and mindfulness before the students began their final exam schedule. 
  • Finally, I was asked to teach a yoga class before beginning a volunteer community beach clean up. 
In teaching yoga, I realized I am more experienced than I thought but I am less familiar with how to teach it. Also, when introducing yoga to true beginners, I had to intentionally slow down my instructions. Finally, I found that even the beginner poses (e.g., plank position, downward facing dog) were not so easy for my students.

For ESOL teachers, practicing yoga with your students is a form of Total Physical Response. (This is a language-instruction method where the teacher gives directions and the students respond through bodily movement.)

It was energizing and fun for them, while allowing all of the students to equally participate. It seemed like the students felt very accomplished for having tried it (even if they couldn’t do all of the poses). 

Indonesian students are so used to sitting in their desks most of the time, rarely moving around, and in hot classrooms. Asking them to leave their seats and be active was a great way to exercise, reenergize their brains, and still practice their language skills in the process.

You also shared mindfulness in teacher training sessions. Is this type of teaching common in Indonesian schools? What kind of reaction did you get when you introduced mindfulness in a school setting?

The idea of “mindfulness” is not a common feature of teacher training programs in Indonesia. Current teacher training programs are largely theory-based. Indonesians will impress you with the amount of knowledge they have about the latest research in the field. However, at times, it is difficult to see how the theory will help teachers face the real and challenging demands of their classrooms. 

I think that Indonesian teachers are beginning to realize that changes are needed across the educational system, including revamping teacher-training programs. However, and comparable to the US, Indonesia struggles with a government-mandated curriculum and standards that do not necessarily reflect the individuality of humans and how people learn most effectively.

One mindfulness activity I introduced here was using a Zendala (mandala-like drawing) for the students’ daily reflection. I gave the students a blank Zendala 
coloring page and asked them to write on the four corners of the page: 
1) what they liked about today's lesson 
2) what they learned in today's lesson;  
3) suggestions about how to improve the lesson; and 
4) any questions about the lesson.

After they finished responding to the four reflection questions, they could start coloring their Zendalas. An additional rationale for using the Zendala coloring activity was to have them slow down, concentrate, unleash their creativity, and be reflective.

Some of the students were initially skeptical of this activity. They laughed at the idea of coloring, as they were university students and not children. However, most students grew to enjoy the activity and several of the students have now adapted my idea, using it in their own teaching practice. It was empowering to try out a new idea and have the students be so receptive to it.

What most surprised you when you moved to Indonesia? How is it similar to/different from living in the United States?

The biggest surprise in moving to Indonesia has been the amount of attention I receive as a foreign (white) female traveling alone. It is common to be asked for many “selfies” and friend requests on social media. It still makes me uncomfortable to garner so much unwanted attention. 

However, I have come to accept that it’s the nature of my being here. Despite the unwanted attention, Indonesians will impress you with their friendliness, good humor and smiles. I have always felt safe at my placement site and in my travels throughout Indonesia.

It’s different from living in the US in numerous ways. I was initially overwhelmed by the noise, heat, pollution, language barrier, transportation, and pace of life. Also, Mother Nature shows herself quite forcefully here in the form of volcanic explosions, earthquakes, floods or tsunamis. I felt a sense of chaos. I had to learn to find the silence in noise and calm in seeming chaos. I’ve also had to let go of illusive perfection and control, by accepting what’s in front of me now. Daily meditations have helped me a lot with this.

It’s similar to the US in that Indonesia is a country with a very diverse people and landscape. 

I studied abroad in a predominantly Muslim country before (Morocco), but this has been a more immersive experience. Living and teaching in Indonesia has allowed me to learn more about Islam. 

I now have many new friends, who happen to be Muslim. I understand we are more similar than different. We value family and a good, peaceful life. And we need to cross that bridge to greater understanding.

Some Muslims are concerned about yoga and mindfulness because of their historical connection to Hindu and Buddhist teachings. Did any of the students or teachers you worked with express those concerns?

It’s a good question. I took a yoga class in Padang where the teacher did not say Namaste at the end of class or place her hands in prayer position. I later asked her about it and she said it was because it was haram, or taboo, according to Islam. She, herself, was being respectful of the local beliefs. 

I like sharing with others about yoga and mindfulness, but I do keep it separate from religion. In my experience here, I think most students viewed yoga as a form of "sport" or "exercise," or merely as a way to diet or lose weight. I did not personally hear anyone other than my yoga teacher mention any potential discord with Islam.

What does “mindful teaching” mean to you?

My definition of “mindful teaching” has expanded after my experience with teaching English in Indonesia. I have come to realize that mindful teaching is only possible when educators first treat themselves mindfully. 

Essentially, educators cannot pour from an empty cup. As an educator myself, I feel that we give so much of ourselves in our dedicated service to our students. Yet, and I can only speak for myself here, I often do not prioritize myself. I always see value in my students (and others), but 

  • Do I always see value in myself? 
  • Do I dedicate time for my own holistic wellbeing? 
  • Do I treat myself with kindness? 
  • Do I show myself compassion and forgiveness? 
  • Can I let go of perfection? 
  • Are my ambitions getting in the way of the quality of my life? 
  • Do I prioritize my mental, physical, emotional, and or/spiritual wellbeing everyday? 

For me, mindful teaching includes self-awareness, daily gratitude, and holistic wellbeing. 

To be a mindful educator requires reflection, willingness to change, and genuine listening. This is true for us both personally and professionally. Part of this reflective process is opening yourself up to vulnerability. It’s also about dialogue, sharing, learning, and growth.

What do you do in your own personal mindfulness practice, and how does it help you with your work?

I had some unexpected, albeit minor, health issues come up for me here in Indonesia. These minor health issues could have just as easily become major health issues. 

Halfway through my fellowship in December/January, I arrived at a juncture in my fellowship—and in my life—where I had a choice to make. One option was to speak up, voice vulnerability, take action, make changes, and prioritize my health and wellbeing above all else. My second option was to continue to suffer in silence, not ask for help, feel mentally defeated, or even quit my fellowship.

I chose option one. I told others about my health problems, sought medical care locally, and eventually got moved to newer housing with better air quality, which improved my sleep and renewed my health. Additionally, as I mentioned earlier, I attended a yoga and meditation retreat on Lombok Island, Indonesia over the New Year. 

The retreat was transformative enough for me personally that it has enriched me professionally. I am now meditating daily. This meditation practice has opened up a space within me that feels a greater capacity for silence, compassion, love, patience, stillness, energy, joy, and peace.

When I experienced poor health in Indonesia, I felt completely vulnerable, scared, and alone. It was a poignant enough lesson for me that I view life in a way I never have before. I am open to change and a new way of living my life. I am actively and daily reprioritizing my health and overall wellbeing. 

This health scare impressed upon me how critical health is to everything else. It’s an obvious lesson, but one that cannot be fully appreciated until it is experienced. 

Health is just one of a dozen or more taken-for-granted aspects of my life that I am more mindful of and grateful for after completing my teaching fellowship in Indonesia.