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Sharing Breath: Embodied Learning and Decolonization


Embodied Learning and Decolonization

edited by Sheila Batacharya and Yuk-Lin Renita Wong

Athabasca University Press logo

Copyright © 2018 Sheila Batacharya and Yuk-Lin Renita Wong

Published by AU Press, Athabasca University

1200, 10011 – 109 Street, Edmonton, AB T5J 3S8

ISBN 978-1-77199-191-9 (pbk.)     9-781-77199-192-6 (PDF)     978-1-77199-193-3 (epub)

doi: 10.15215/aupress/9781771991919.01

Chapter 1, by Roxana Ng, originally appeared in Valences of Interdisciplinarity: Theory, Practice, Pedagogy, edited by Raphael Foshay, 343–65 (Edmonton: Athabasca University Press, 2011). It is reprinted here with minor revisions.

Cover image: Still from Lisa Myers, Through Surface Tension (2013)

Cover design by Martyn Schmoll

Interior design by Sergiy Kozakov

Printed and bound in Canada

Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication

Sharing breath : embodied learning and decolonization / edited by Sheila Batacharya and Yuk-Lin Renita Wong.

(Cultural dialectics)

Includes bibliographical references and index.

Issued in print and electronic formats.

1. Critical pedagogy.  I. Batacharya, Sheila, 1969-, editor  II. Wong, Yuk-Lin Renita, 1962-, editor  III. Series: Cultural dialectics

LC196.S53 2018






This book has been published with the help of a grant from the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences, through the Awards to Scholarly Publications Program, using funds provided by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

We acknowledge the financial support of the Government of Canada through the Canada Book Fund (CBF) for our publishing activities and the assistance provided by the Government of Alberta through the Alberta Media Fund.

Government of Canada and Government of Alberta logos

Please contact AU Press, Athabasca University at aupress@athabascau.ca for permissions and copyright information.




1    Decolonizing Teaching and Learning Through Embodied Learning: Toward an Integrated Approach

Roxana Ng

2    Embodying Indigenous Resurgence: “All Our Relations” Pedagogy

Alannah Young Leon and Denise Nadeau

3    The Journey to You, Baba

Devi Dee Mucina

4    Being Moved to Action: Micropolitics, Affect, and Embodied Understanding

Randelle Nixon and Katie MacDonald

5    Volatile Bodies and Vulnerable Researchers: Ethical Risks of Embodiment Research

Carla Rice

6    Resistance and Remedy Through Embodied Learning: Yoga Cultural Appropriation and Culturally Appropriate Services

Sheila Batacharya

7    From Subjugation to Embodied Self-in-Relation: An Indigenous Pedagogy for Decolonization

Candace Brunette-Debassige

8    Integrating Body, Mind, and Spirit Through the Yoruba Concept of Ori: Critical Contributions to a Decolonizing Pedagogy

Temitope Adefarakan

9    “Please Call Me by My True Names”: A Decolonizing Pedagogy of Mindfulness and Interbeing in Critical Social Work Education

Yuk-Lin Renita Wong

10  Poetry: Learning Through Embodied Language

Sheila Stewart

11  Patient Stories: Renarrating Illness and Valuing the Rejected Body

Wendy Peters

12  Embodied Writing and the Social Production of Pain

Susan Ferguson

13  Class and Embodiment: Making Space for Complex Capacity

Stephanie Moynagh

14  Fighting Out: Fractious Bodies and Rebel Streets

Jamie Magnusson


Sheila Batacharya and Yuk-Lin Renita Wong

List of Contributors


We are indebted beyond measure to the contributors to this collection. Thank you for sharing your important scholarship and for your patience with the editorial process. We deeply value your work and have truly enjoyed our collaboration throughout this project. A special thanks to Lisa Myers for her beautiful artwork that graces the cover of the book.

Athabasca University Press has provided tremendous support for this book project. We are sincerely grateful to Pamela Holway, senior editor, who championed the collection from the start and who took time to give each chapter of the book the benefits of her editorial expertise and scholarly training. Her constructively critical attention resulted in significant improvements to the collection as a whole. We also thank Joyce Hildebrand for her reflective engagement with the text during the copyediting process. Our heartfelt thanks as well to Megan Hall and Karyn Wisselink for their collaborative approach to creating the cover design and promoting the book. We were thrilled to receive an Awards to Scholarly Publications Program (ASPP) grant for this book, and we thank the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences for their support.

Sheila. Renita, I am grateful for your scholarly expertise, administrative finesse, and deep commitment to our project. Your wise guidance throughout Roxana’s illness and death, and then your support during my pregnancy the following year, made it possible for me to continue this work. Thank you for our many conversations about lived experience and being present with body, breath, emotions, and spirit with respect to writing, loss, babies, animals, photography, walks, and, academic work. Editing this collection with you has been an honour and a pleasure.

I studied with exceptional OISE/UT scholars at a time when critical race, anticolonial, and decolonizing scholarship faced particular forms of institutional opposition, many of which persist and continue to be resisted. I am indebted to my teachers Roxana Ng, George J. Sefa Dei, and Sherene Razack and to my peers who have made invaluable contributions to critical scholarship: I write with you all in mind and do my best to keep up!

My gratitude to Roxana is multifold. She was a challenging and supportive doctoral supervisor and a trusted mentor. She was also a delightful person with whom to collaborate on a book project, and I’m sure that she would be as overjoyed as I am now that it has come to fruition. I remember the two of us sitting in Roxana’s backyard, working together on the book and laughing when she suddenly exclaimed, “This is fun!” Working with Roxana was fun: she approached her scholarly and community work with meticulous concentration as well as enthusiasm and curiosity. I miss her dearly.

Soraya, thank you for writing and phone tea.

Prasad, Soumil, and Rushil: love and thanks every day.

Renita. My deep gratitude goes to Roxana Ng for her support, mentorship, and friendship throughout my doctoral years and subsequent academic career. Her move to reclaim Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), a system of knowledge from her (and my own) cultural roots, affirmed my way of being and of knowing, which likewise insists on the fundamental integration of the body-heart-mind-spirit. Her courage in bringing TCM from the margins into the academy and placing it at the centre of her teaching and scholarship inspired me to push the boundaries of critical scholarship as I pursued my research into mindfulness as a decolonizing embodied pedagogy rooted in Buddhist onto-epistemology.

Sheila, my heartfelt thanks to you for inviting me to join this book project following Roxana’s untimely passing. Your thorough knowledge of the literature on embodiment and your vigorous engagement with Indigenous scholarship have brought my own work in these areas to a new level. At every stage of this project, your insightful input always moved the book toward greater depth and complexity, while your thoughtful idea of gathering the contributors together in conversation made the process of editing this book a concrete experience of embodiment in relations.

A lotus bow and hugs to my dharma-sister, Marisela Gomez, for our sharing in heart and spirit over the years about our mindfulness practice in social justice work. Thank you for your clear observation in your reading of my chapter in this book. My gratitude and love to Mino and Mudita, my feline family, for their calming companionship and for showing me the power of being grounded in the body and the grace of life in unison with nature, a state from which we humans have grown distant and to which we must return.


1      Decolonizing Teaching and Learning Through Embodied Learning

Toward an Integrated Approach

Roxana Ng

This essay is, first and foremost, about teaching and learning. It is both a critique of current modes of teaching that do not treat the learner as an embodied subject and an exploration of a more holistic pedagogical endeavour that explicitly acknowledges the interconnectedness of mind, body, emotion, and spirit in the construction and pursuit of knowledge. To explore this interconnection, I argue, we need to disturb the existing boundaries of educational discourse and turn to and incorporate other epistemological and philosophical traditions. But the present essay also forms part of a volume on interdisciplinary studies. Thus, in beginning, I pose the questions: What are the boundaries of interdisciplinary studies, and can an integrative approach to pedagogy be considered interdisciplinary? I invite the reader to keep these questions in mind, and I will return to them in closing.

The Argument for an Embodied Pedagogy

As I have argued elsewhere (for example, Ng 1998, 2005), contemporary Western liberal and critical education is built on a profound division: the privileging of the mind-intellect over the body-spirit.1 By and large, educators, including critical educators, have focused their educational efforts on developing students’ intellect and capacity for critical reasoning. The body is relevant only as a vessel that houses the brain, which is regarded as the organ responsible for the mind-intellect. Although some have attempted to rescue the body and restore its agency, both in social theory (see, for example, Shilling 1993; Turner 1991) and in cultural theory (McLaren 1995, for example), most of these writings focus on how the body is represented and instrumentalized in postmodernity (what I call the outside-in approach). This attempt to incorporate the body into social and cultural theories, however, does not include the spirit, which is relegated to the domain of religion. The spirit “belongs” to theology and religious studies, not to other disciplines; this indicates the depth to which our thinking is circumscribed by existing disciplinary boundaries. Much of critical teaching is implicated in the mind-intellect versus body-spirit divide.

When I talk about the spirit, which I call the body-spirit, I do not mean “spiritual” in the common, Western, religious sense. I use this hyphenated term to indicate that we cannot talk about body, mind, and spirit (which includes our emotion and psyche) as if they were separate entities. I am aware that this topic has provided both Western and Eastern philosophical traditions with a long history of intellectual and theoretical debates too complicated to discuss here. In contrast to the other contributions in this volume, I am invoking an understanding, based in Chinese medical theory, that treats the mind, spirit or soul, and body as completely interrelated. Thus, nothing can happen in one sphere without having an effect on the others. I came to the realization of this inextricable connectedness during my doctoral studies. The pains, discomfort, and other persistent, though not serious, ailments I experienced during this intense period of intellectual concentration not only reminded me of the body’s inevitable presence in our every endeavour; it also awakened me to the fact that if we ignore its presence, there can be consequences. However, it wasn’t until I began teaching that a drastic shift in my consciousness occurred, informed by my experience as a minority in the professoriate. This, in turn, led to my subsequent journey toward discovering and incorporating the connection between body, mind, and spirit in my teaching and praxis.

It is not easy to be a minority, a woman, and an immigrant living in a society that upholds white male supremacy. As a nation colonized by Europeans, notably the English and the French, we live with the legacy of colonialism in Canada, which began with the subordination of Aboriginal peoples. This subordination is extended to other groups that are seen to be different—physically, linguistically, culturally, ideologically—and hence inferior. As we move up in the power hierarchy, this inferiorization of the “other” becomes much more entrenched and difficult to disrupt. As part of the institutional structure created historically to preserve the privilege of certain classes of men, the academy is no exception to the entrenchment of white male privilege, values, and knowledge based on men’s experience of the world. The fact that women and racial minorities have made inroads into this bastion of patriarchal power does not mean that they are now fully accepted within the academy. Indeed, there is a burgeoning literature that exposes the barriers that minorities encounter in the university, be they teachers or students, both because their presence challenges the once homogeneous makeup of the university and because they challenge the process of knowledge production based on white, male assumptions (see, for example, de Castell and Bryson 1997; Roman and Eyre 1997).

The exercise and maintenance of power takes multiple and complicated forms. Elsewhere (Ng 1993, 1995), I have identified three major power axes in the university: that between the classroom and the larger academic institution, that between the teacher and the students, and that among the students. Thus, although a faculty member has formal authority as a representative of the university, this authority can be challenged by students in the classroom. For example, a minority woman faculty member may be challenged more often than her (white) male colleagues simply because she is relatively powerless in the larger society. Faculty members whose teaching does not conform to the expected conventions in terms of content and style are likewise apt to be challenged more often. Sexism, racism, a sense of class privilege, and other such biased attitudes are operative in interactions among students as well.

What is important to point out is that relationships of power are never enacted merely in the form of intellectual encounters. Most intellectual encounters entail a confrontation of bodies, which are differently inscribed. Power plays are both enacted and absorbed by people physically, as they assert or challenge authority, and the marks of such confrontations are stored in the body. Each time I stand in front of a classroom, I embody the historical sexualization and racialization of an Asian female, who is thought to be docile, subservient, and sexually compliant, even as my class privilege, formal authority, and academic qualifications ameliorate some of the effects of this stereotype. My presence is a moment in the crystallization of the historical and contemporary contestation of ideas and practices that are constantly changing. That is, my physical presence in the academy in turn challenges the sexist and racist construction of the archetype of an Asian female.2 It is indeed the encounter of bodies, not only of intellect, that gives dynamism to the process of teaching and learning. As we engage in critical teaching and bring our activism to the university and to our classrooms, this dynamism is what excites us. At the same time, going against the grain can make us physically ill (Ng 1998).

Yet, despite feminist scholarship’s insistence that “the personal is political,” we have no language to speak of how we embody our political and intellectual struggles. We wage these struggles in our professional and public lives, but when we get sick, we see and treat our illness as a personal and private problem that is not to be openly discussed. This bifurcation points to how fundamentally we have been influenced by Cartesian thinking, which posits a separation between the body and the mind (Bordo 1987, esp. chap. 5), and by the privileging of mental over manual labour (Marx and Engels 1970). It goes beyond compartmentalizing our lives into two spheres, the public/professional and the private/personal; it also extends beyond a simple theory-practice split and the contradiction between what we think and how we act. It has to do with the more fundamental way in which ruling ideas have become taken-for-granted practices, and it affects how we are—our being—in the world. These practices are embodied; they have become habitual ways in which we conduct our business and, more importantly, ourselves.

The opportunity for me to integrate my personal explorations of health and illness and my teaching, and thereby develop a mode of teaching that honours both the mind and body-spirit, came in 1991. I took over a colleague’s course, “Health, Illness, and Knowledge of the Body: Education and Self-Learning Processes,” when he moved into another field of study. (My experience developing this course was documented in Ng [2000].) Since that time, I have experimented with different ways of (a) insisting that embodiment be an essential part of my classroom encounters with students and (b) remaining truthful to the traditions of critical education central to my training and writing. The method of teaching, which I will describe later, has gone through numerous iterations and name changes, from “Health and Illness” to “Integrative Approach to Equity.” The present iteration is reflected in the title of this essay—an integrative critical embodied pedagogy, or embodied learning, for short. I incorporate embodied learning into most of my teaching at a graduate program of education, with different degrees of success and popularity. Notably, starting in 2001, I developed a course called “Embodied Learning and Qi Gong” that places embodied learning front and centre. Central to embodied learning are two interconnected elements: I insist that physical and contemplative activities are part not only of the course content but also of the students’ everyday life. Qigong, a meditative and breathing practice that originated in ancient China as early as five thousand years ago, is the primary tool I use to promote the interconnection of the body, mind, and spirit.

Disrupting the Body-Mind Binary Through Qigong

Simply translated, qigong is a generic term for any exercises that involve the breath—the art of cultivating qi, with qi in this context referring to the breath. It is one of the healing and martial arts. According to scholars of qigong, this form of exercise was developed by people of an agrarian society who watched and mimicked the movements of animals in relation to cycles of planting and harvesting, life and death. It was practiced originally as a form of therapeutic dance to cure rheumatism and ward off other symptoms of excess Damp Evil in the flood-prone Yellow River basin (Reid 1994, chap. 13). It has been known by many different names throughout Chinese history. In fact, the term qigong is fairly recent. According to Ken Cohen, a scholar and practitioner of qigong, while the term was first mentioned in Taoist (or Daoist) texts during the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), it was not used in its present specialized sense until the twentieth century (Cohen 1997, chap. 2).3 While there are many forms of qigong, developed and guarded by families who practiced Chinese healing arts, most are based on Taoist principles and theory similar to those of Chinese medicine.

Chinese medical theory, or TCM (traditional Chinese medicine), is based on the central Taoist principle of the unity of opposites—yin and yang. According to Chinese creation myths, the universe was an undifferentiated whole in the beginning. Out of this emerged yin-yang: the world in its infinite forms. In both Taoism and TCM, yin-yang is a symbolic representation of universal process (including health, in the case of TCM), and it portrays a changing rather than a static process (Kaptchuk 2000, chap. 1).

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