Listening to Yesterday: Two Bells

Yoga's hidden curriculum

  1. two bells on a string
  2. a bird landing
  3. the piano that isn’t in another room
  4. an elbow popping

At the start of yoga yesterday, the instructor rang two bells. The action was functional as well as ritual. That is, the salvo of her practice was functional beyond the function of ritual. There was a plan, an approach, a hidden curriculum. In an effort to direct people toward silence, it can be counterproductive to employ anything too verbal, too explicit, too overt — that is, anything other than silence.

The two bells hung at the ends of a single string. She rang them to draw the collective attention of the class. Then she directed us into a proper seated position: legs crossed, back high, face forward, arms at rest. Then she initiated a few minutes of silence. Just before the silence began she instructed us to listen to the silence. At the end of the silent period she passed the bells around the room. Each person rang the bells in turn and named, at the instructor’s request, something we’d heard in the silence. One person mentioned a bird landing. I’d heard it, too: large wings flapping in a strong breeze. Another person mentioned her belly grumbling. Another mentioned the piano. I’d heard the piano, too, but not the grumbling.

The piano was prerecorded. Earlier, just as the class was about to start, the instructor had turned down a CD of classical music, and as we took our seats an orchestral track gave way to this solo piano piece. The change in volume, the change between tracks, and the change in the room, which had quickly gone from chatty to quiet upon the instructor’s entrance, nearly convinced me that the piano was playing from another room entirely.

When the two bells on a string had run the full circle, when everyone had spoken about what they’d heard when the room had been silent, they were returned to the instructor. She explained that the listening exercise had several purposes, one of them quite practical. She wanted us to listen to our bodies as we proceeded. The instructor wanted to us to listen for if and when our bodies — a crack in the back, a pop in the elbow, a more nuanced signal somewhere else — asked us to be cautious. We had exercised external listening to focus the mind toward internal listening. If she had told us this point from the start, it wouldn’t have been half as effective.

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