Theory and Practice

After flexing their intellectual muscles during a rousing discussion of ancient cultures, the students in Stuart Sarbacker’s philosophy class take out their yoga mats and demonstrate a different type of flexibility in the form of Ujjayi Pranayama breath control and sun salutations.

This combination of theory and practice makes for one of the more unusual classes offered in higher education today, and is the brainchild of Sarbacker, an Oregon State University philosopher and an expert on the historical context for the development of modern yoga.

Sarbacker said he first developed the idea for a class that blended the academic study of the historical context of modern yoga with the practice of the exercise when he was at Northwestern University in Illinois. When he came to OSU, he was excited to further develop and expand the concept.

“This is a class that really challenges traditional modes of scholarly activity,” said Sarbacker, an assistant professor of philosophy at OSU. “Most students don’t engage their bodies at all in the classroom, unless they are enrolled in dance or theater.”

The academic class, “The Theory and Practice of Modern Yoga,” blends a traditional lecture-format where students learn about the historical context of yoga as a culture and philosophy with practical instruction of modern yoga techniques. The OSU class is just another example of the growing popularity of yoga. About 14.3 million people in the United States practiced yoga in 2010, up from 4.3 million in 2001, according to market research.

Gathering on a Tuesday evening in Spring term, the class of about 15 students discusses their experiences so far learning about yoga in theory and practice. Sarbacker stands at the front of the class with hands clasped and nods as students share their experiences.

“There is something profound about an activity that can make you hurt so much, but also provides the tools to heal that same pain,” said Amy Fletcher, a senior in human development and family sciences.

Sophomore Kiel Williams later interjected, saying, “I am pretty sure I am the only frat guy [on campus] who does yoga.”

To move the discussion along, Sarbacker lectures on societal acceptance of yoga while using examples from scholarly research done on the subject. After 90 minutes of lecture and discussion, it’s time for the class to change and break out their yoga mats.

On this particular day, the students are going through the Surya Namaskara, or “Sun Salutation,” two series of poses, one with nine movements and the other with 17 movements. They also are instructed by Sarbacker on a range of poses, from Utthita Trikonasana (Triangle Pose) and Utthita Parshvakonasana (Side Angle Pose) to the Rajakapotasana (King of Pigeons Pose).

Sarbacker, a formally registered instructor with the Yoga Alliance, quietly moves among the students, correcting hand movements and calling out positions. Taking a break, the students – who range from natural resources to public health majors – remark on how they came to enroll in the class.

“I wanted to do something outside my comfort zone,” said Emily Morris, a senior in speech communications.

Williams, a history and English major, said he already practiced yoga, but wanted to learn more about the theory behind it.

“It’s really as much of a mental activity as a physical one,” he said. “I am learning a lot about the philosophy and the history behind the practice.”

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