Teaching: Multicultural individuals, relationship, and radical presence!


Learning is an active experiential process, and it springs forth from experiences, cultural contexts, beliefs, interactions, and relationships. It is not a unilateral experience, even when the structure or context for learning may imply or suggest that it is. There is mutuality in relationship. Teachers are inevitably influenced by students and students by teachers. Each student and teacher comes to any given learning environment with “important experiences, attitudes, and behaviors that they bring to the process of education” (Nieto, p, 6, 1999); that a student enters into a learning establishment changes the nuances of the educational process altogether in subtle and less than subtle ways.

So how do we  create space for diverse individuals with their diverse cultures in the classroom–yoga or otherwise?  It is clear that it is the responsibility of a teacher to disseminate knowledge, and that in that dissemination, he/she may be preparing a student to pass a test or certification. However, this can be done with sensitivity to and respect for differing perspectives on what is of value and importance. As More (2000,p. 111) writes:

Certainly, the students will all still be expected to sit public examinations, which are likely to prioritise the cultural preferences, skills and knowledge of the ‘majority culture’. However, the teachers [who seek to create a learning environment that values individual students’ cultures] have devised ways of saying to their students that their ‘heritage’ languages and cultures are both valid and welcomed in the classroom. Such teachers will want to help their students develop the ‘additional’ cultural skills and knowledge— and of course an enjoyment in the cultural forms and practices— that will be needed for success in the public examination system: however, this will not be at the expense of existing cultural forms and practices— including existing languages— already owned by the students. The adoption of pedagogic practice such as this inevitably takes full account of the nature of culturism itself in schools, classrooms and educational systems, and the way this may be experienced by minoritised students.


It is critical to understand that just integrating changes that create more sensitivity to more definable “isms” does not insure a truly humanistic pedagogy. It is a step in the right direction. However, in order to create an expansive, spacious learning environment and community, there must be a very real sense of the human-ness of both the teachers and students and of the inherent relationship that nuances the learning process.

As More (2000, p.104-105) writes, “if teachers seriously want to challenge symbolic violence, they need to look outwards to the deeper structures within which their practice is located as well as inwards to their own practice within the classroom, in particular, they may wish to develop ways of challenging as fundamentally culturalist, classist, or racist, the very criteria by which their students are assessed.”

In looking at Taber’s work, More suggest that this requires a move on the teacher’s part away from perceiving the classroom as multicultural to perceiving its students as multicultured. The term multicultured is a useful one for teachers, “since it acts as a permanent reminder that we are all ‘cultured people’, many of us living our lives within— and exhibiting in our produce and behavior the skills, preferences and etiquettes of— a number of different metacultures.” (More, 2000, p.108).

Two important points need to be made. If all students bring knowledge and culture with them, then what they bring with them should be given space in the educational process. Students should not be asked, in particular without conscious decision/awareness, to utilize the cultural capital of the dominant group represented in (or by) the institution. Teachers (and training boards and institutions) should be held accountable to their perspectives, biases, and opinions about their own and others’ cultural capital (Nieto, 1999, p.7). Our own cultural capital can lead us to see those with whom we relate in ways that says more about our own perception than it does about the person with whom we are interacting. This is complicated in a teaching environment by the fact that there is often a hierarchical setting: someone has the knowledge and someone else is being given that knowledge.

Behind the principles of learning that I am recommending here, and behind my plea for enhanced sensitivity to issues of power and voice in the yoga community is the notion that learning is dependant upon relationship. As Parker Palmer puts it, “what scholars now say—and what good teachers have always known—is that real learning does not happen until students are brought into relationship with the teacher, with each other, and with the subject” (p. xvi, 1993). Neither teaching nor learning can exist without the other. And they exist in an interdependent way that can sustain those in relationship or can exclude or diminish them.

O’Reilley refers to the sort of teaching that sees and hears students as they are (from day to day) as teaching that requires radical presence. This is what I am advocating for yoga teachers, and also for related yoga institutions. If there were more space for student voices, then I believe that the institutions that seek to disseminate teachings about a profound practice/technology might be afforded the chance to reflect that profundity in their structures as well. And while adding lists of supposed or general cultural tendencies in minority groups to the pedagogical toolbox is a valuable and necessary component of this work, I am advocating for something more profound. I am advocating that institutions and teachers work to create a deeper awareness of the evolving reality of lived experience, our own and that of those we come in contact with. Above all else, this requires that we seek to make space for the experiences of those we teach and train, especially those who think, look, or believe differently than we do.

Part of this process involves, very simply, learning to listen, to see, and to hear. This requires space for voices. Again, to quote O’Reilley: “If we allow enough quiet, a diversity of voices begins to be heard. Of course, this may be reason enough for some teachers [or institutions of learning] to avoid allowing their students [or members] any reflective time. Reflection is the enemy of authoritarian conditioning” (p.7, 1998). When we begin to seek feedback from students and members about their experiences, we may indeed hear things that we don’t want to hear or that we feel unable to deal with. However, if the goal of our institutions of training (and of our teaching) is to elicit learning, then we must create a setting in which real learning can occur, and in which it can occur for all involved, not just a select group that shares the dominant or majority’s perspective and culture.

Essentially, as Howard points out (1999), inner work is a necessary component of transformation. If an institution is to illicit real transformation and become more accessible, if it is to do “this inner work of multicultural growth,” it must “listen carefully to the perceptions others have of [it], particularly [its] students and colleagues from other racial and cultural groups. They can help us see ourselves in a clearer light” (p.4). Ignorance of the experiences of those involved should not be an excuse, and is, essentially a privilege of being a member of a dominant group (Howard, 1999; Nieto, 1999; Mc Intosh, 2002).  Howard writes, “the luxury of nonengagement is not available to members of negative reference groups, whose ‘lives demand expertise in translation and transition’ between their own culture and the culture of dominance (Griffin, 1995, p7).”

Creating space for individuals and their unique cultures in yoga classrooms and teacher training programs means starting and continuing a dialogue about cultures that come together in any given setting. I will focus on five principles of learning set forth by Sonia Nieto as ways of creating a more spacious learning environment.

The five principles of learning are:


  • Learning is actively constructed;
  • Learning emerges from and builds on experience;
  • Learning is influenced by cultural difference;
    • Learning is influenced by the context in which it occurs, and
    • Learning is socially mediated and develops within a culture and community (p.3, 1999).

More to come soon on how to engage these principals in the classroom and yoga room!

To read about how reflection in the life of the teacher supports this read: Creating a safe classroom; engaging reflection and response and How do we create more equitable and sensitive classroom settings?



Howard, G.R. (1999). We cants teach what we don’t know: White teachers, multiracial schools. Teachers College Press, New York.

More, A. (2000). Teaching and learning: Pedagogy, curriculum, and culture. London, UK: Routledge Falmer.

Nieto, S. (1999). The light in their eyes: Creating multicultural learning communities. Teachers College Press, New York.

O’Reilley, M.R. (1998). Radical presence : Teaching as contemplative practice. Boynton/Cook Publishers, Portsmouth, NH.

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