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Conversation #67: Laura Biagi on Performance and Contemplation

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Laura Biagi
A conversation between Laura Biagi of DePaul University and Ross Louis of Xavier University of Louisiana on contemplative technology and performance.

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Ross Louis: I’m Ross Louis. I teach Communications Studies and I’m a member of Performance Studies Laboratory here at Xavier University of Louisiana and I’m having a conversation with Dr. Laura Biagi, who is a multicultural faculty member in the Theatre School at DePaul University. Hi Laura.

Laura Biagi: Hi.

RL: I’d like to have a conversation with you about contemplative pedagogy, how you define it and use it, and how I do the same. Then also because we both have backgrounds in performance studies and- I think that we use our backgrounds in performance studies in different ways in various classes- maybe we can talk about how we do that?

LB: Yes.

RL: So for you, what is contemplative pedagogy in a personal, practical definition? How do you define it for your work and classes?

LB: So contemplative- in the meaning of personal reflection- as in to contemplate how I react to certain topics, how I choose certain topics for the classes, and also how I present them, right? So contemplative pedagogy is an awareness of the way that I present myself as a teacher: the impact, the material that I teach. First of all, in all honesty, it’s an assessment on what is the relationship between my intentions as a teacher and the result. But then I also use contemplative exercises, such as a moment of self-gathering and deep breathing at the beginning of class-

RL: You do that for every class?

LB: Pretty much. In the Theatre School at DePaul, I have a position that allows me to experiment with my students-

RL: Is that because you’re in the Theatre School or is it because of your position?

LB: Because of the position. The multicultural falculty’s one-year to two-year term position and the faculty can bring multiculturalism at the level of the content of the syllabi, but also in approaches, and so I’m allowed to experiment with contemplative exercises at the beginning and/or during a class. So I do it in a lot of contexts and I also do it in the jail, at Cook County Jail, I bring in a moment where the students sit in a circle. I mostly teach in a circle- that’s what’s a part of contemplative pedagogy: that it’s not a lecture-style, in rows, but it’s a more inclusive from of teaching- when it’s possible. It would be harder in a lab, for example.

RL: Do you think the shape of the space and the arrangement of the bodies in the space has something to do with contemplative pedagogy?

LB: Yes it does. It does because a reflection of self-awareness is very rarely an in rows, linear process. It’s very circular, spiraling, you know? It’s softer as a shape than it is a square or lines. Self-awareness and meditation are unpredictable: they zig-zag, they spiral out of control sometimes and what we find about ourselves is that there’s a cycle in the breath, but outside of that, things don’t make sense a lot of times, right? So we have something in a circle where we all are in an equal position of power. And the reason: a leader speaking to others creates a softer environment where people can relax a little more and be vulnerable to breathing and allowing certain feelings to come up. So that’s how I think about it. And in the exercises are deep-listening, so listening exercises, and visualizations, tapping back into the memories. What about you? How do you define it?

RL: I appreciate that you talked about your design and intent for a class, because often times when I think contemplative pedagogy, I’m thinking technique, and not philosophy or motivation. I’m think like “Oh, what can I do? What exercises can I use and to what function?” Which for me always raises some ethical questions relative to “Should I be using an exercise if it’s not reflected in my own personal, daily practice?” Could you say a few things about your background? Your own contemplative background, you have a background in yoga.

LB: Yes, for sure. Before we do that, I want to catch the ball you just threw at me. Imagine the workshop that we just did- the listeners don’t know necessarily- where you’re talking about inclusion, but the setting of the class is that people give each others’ backs.

RL: Yes.

LB: And even though people’s talking about it, and there’s an empathy in the discussion, the people in the last row- I don’t know- it’s just interesting how our animal bodies react to inputs depending-

RL: This is my background- as yours- in studying performance, and for me performance studies is as simple as those two words. It’s the study of performance, which for me implies both the theoretical study but also the practical studies so that there’s practices that I learn by doing this physical corporeal. So when you talk about the importance of these bodies facing each other and the importance of the shapes, for me, thinking about that from an aesthetic performance or theatrical perspective is important, as you said, if we’re sharing stories or doing deep-listening: we’re talking about diversity, inclusion, privilege, microaggression, whatever that topic might be, and I see someone’s back- intentional or not- if nothing else, it changes my corporeal, my physical, as well as my emotional and psychological reactions to what story is being shared. So I completely agree that we should be aware of bodies in space. I find, for someone who even studies and practices performance as well as studying communication, still I have this sort of body bias as this classroom spaces- in some ways- violently remove the body. This is all an intellectual exercise traditionally in our Western academic spaces. So for me, one of the possible successes of doing contemplative exercises or having contemplative pedagogical theory or body-based performance exercises, even if it’s not a class that focuses on that, is simply the recovering of the body that is often times ignored in a way that, to me, is kind of revolutionary. It is for me. I don’t know if it is for students, but it is for me.

LB: Yes, the student’s need it. I think that before anything else, they need it, then they may appreciate and us late or immediately, I don’t know, it depends. People are very different, but I think it’s needed in learning and it’s very helpful to relax. And also it brings up things that if people don’t want to look at each other because they have conflict, it forces them to share that space of tension and confrontation and to show up. Because otherwise, who’s always sitting at the back of the class? Who’s always sitting in the front of the class? Also that is interesting. And then the habit: “I’m always sitting here, I’m always sitting there.” So even in the circle I ask student to change the location of the circle, because then who’s sitting by the door and why? Who’s sitting by the board and why? That’s really fascinating and a lot of it is self-conscious.

RL: How has your yoga background influenced the sorts of exercises you do in classes? And related to that, what adjustments, if any, do you make for students who are not in theater, or not in performance, or not in the creative realm in your courses?

LB: I studied yoga in India for two years. I went a few years ago and lived there and studied in a traditional ashram in the south of India. It was organized and hosted by a traditional Brahmin family, so it was a bit shocking at first- the cultural shock is great. We were sitting on a straw mat on the hard floor and we didn’t have any props or things like that. So when yoga was brought to the west with props and yoga pants and all this fancy stuff, and therefore who’s able to go to yoga class, and what are the demographics- that didn’t exist there. So I was very lucky that way, that I was able to learn with other people from India of all ages, all abilities in their bodies. Plus, if you’re a woman practicing in a sari, you can’t really do certain poses, so it was really beautiful to see how you adapt. And yoga is a processing tool. It’s not the goal, which instead happens in the west, where you want to become this yoga teacher and have that as your goal, which is honorable. But sometimes people get fixated and create their personality around that, which is exactly what you’re trying to avoid or overcome when you practice yoga. So to become more flexible and inclusive, first of all of your own body, where you’re at, so learning that way put me in a great position to then bring it back to the west to teach the US and Italy where I teach it, and to adapt it easily. It wasn’t very hard because I was trained to do it. When I teach in a jail- where there’s no contact- and also in the programs that I am a part of, the Inside Out Program, I bring in students from the university. So I am not allowed to have people on the floor or to have people bend over in front of others, or to be in vulnerable positions that could create tensions between the inside students and the population in the jail. So we do a lot of the practices on a chair or standing up, and you can do a lot on a chair. You can do a lot of relaxation of the shoulders and neck, and breathing, and you can move your arms, you can do the twists. People are nervous a lot of the times in populations where the body has been traumatized, people are very nervous- that’s already quite a lot, let alone bringing in a mat and having people do a downward facing dog. Even just breathing together, if you have to do that with people who otherwise don’t see you do that outside of the class, that’s already a lot cause it puts you in a vulnerable spot. In other words, to make this a little shorter, yoga has taught me how to be vulnerable. Yoga has taught me how to stay aware, and awareness is vulnerable because it’s porous; awareness is constantly changing and shifting with the natural elements, the color of the sunlight and all that. So if you go into awareness and you go into contemplative pedagogy, everything starts to be less solid, less angular, less dogmatic. So performance studies, especially that is born out of that need in the artist trying in the 60s and 70s, lends itself with it really well. The challenge is when you bring these practices to the STEM or to a CEO meeting in a big company because the system relies on structure and relies on how things have been done for years. Do to bring these practices that require people to open up and be vulnerable and be willing to change, that’s where it’s the hardest.

RL: When you say that, it makes me think about the transitions in my classroom spaces, and I’m thinking of these windows or these containers of time. I tech in 50 minute windows or 75 minute windows, and so yes, I can very easily justify and include and strategically think about what I call warm-up or a check-in. Warm-ups are usually more physical exercises, and sometimes they’ll just get people on their feet to stretch and to find tension in their bodies. Sometimes it’s rolls of the neck and collective inhales and exhales and become aware of one’s body or check-in might be one minute of sitting meditation, usually unguided in my case. But my point is as this sort of traditional professor who has content to cover- whether that happens through an exercise, through discussion, through lecture, student presentations, media, videos, et cetera- it’s like “Okay. So this contemplative thing happened, but I think it’s important.” And then we do this other thing, which is probably more familiar and traditional. And I don’t necessarily have a problem with it, but my question to you is-- and I have often wondered about these contemplative practices repopulating, resurfacing in a class, and/or the transitions between them and how true, because right now I just feel like I do these little moments, and I’m not opposed to it- I think it has value in and of itself. But what else do you do or do you do anything else outside of these kind of bookends? Do you know what I mean?

LB: Yes, actually that’s where the pedagogy idea comes in, right, because you can have contemplative practices in traditional pedagogy, and that’s great. If you bring in a little bowl for the listeners, you know like this little bowl that you can get at this great store where they sell musical instruments or objects from India and Tibet. You strike the bowl, breathe in, breathe out a couple of times, and that’s already something. You can start with that. But the idea is that- and we talked about this before, you and I- if you allow these practices to become part of who you are, then as a teacher you bring that in. And the students will feel it, or your colleagues will feel it, or the CEOs, or the board, or the trustees, you know, whomever you’re sharing this work with, will feel it in the way you approach things- the way you move, the way you move around the room, the way you present your PowerPoints, the way you talk about dark matter and the universe. I mean there are things that are metaphors, that are symbols that can be transformed into a key to unlock archetypes inside us, even if you’re an astrophysicist, even if you’re a pharmacist. The way to do it is you do it first, you do the work first. If you don’t practice meditation and you want to bring meditation in your classroom, it’s going to feel pretty awkward. So you bring something that you’re comfortable with, it could be drumming; if you’re a drummer, do some drumming at the beginning of class to get people- it needs to be courageous, it’s a courageous pedagogy. That’s why awareness is vulnerable and courageous at the same time: you need to be courageous because you need to bring in things that are a little “weird” and a lot of humor. So there’s this idea that contemplation and meditation in yoga are super serious and if you don’t have a blond ponytail- and I love you all, ladies with blond ponytails, and guys, but you know there is a little bit of that stereotype of the perfect shaped body, that’s not it. That’s great, but it’s not all of it. Bring who you are, don’t bring in the idea of the yoga journal or whatever image you have in your mind. So when you do that, you practice that, then your approach becomes contemplative, so you study how the students sit, you start to observe “How are my students sitting? How are they moving their hands? What do they need? We need to talk about their acting today,” for example. “How about I talk about how we direct our energy today, because I see they’re scattered.” So you become compassionate like that, you become aware that the students are here to learn about themselves as well as much as they’re here to learn about any topic we’re teaching them. That’s my goal in education.

RL: That statement, I think, can be seen as both super obvious, but super radical: that my goal is to let students learn this content and learn about themselves. And I think every educator at every level will say, “Oh of course we learn about ourselves as we gain knowledge. But I have 50 minutes and 75 minutes, and so many units, and et cetera, so any self-learning is for student services or outside of academic affairs and student affairs.” So to me, that is a radical claim.

LB: Hooray!

RL: Yes, I agree that the act of knowing one’s self can be physical and problematic and challenging and uncomfortable and weird, but that it results data-driven, kind of Western-academic space in universities: “What’s your assessment? Did you get better results on assessment A or B?” I think that that claim- that the aim of education is both to learn about yourself as well as content- becomes challenging, and I’ve always struggled between, say “Oh, we do have…” Often times, I think, social-psychological research, et cetera, or education research that suggest the memory benefits of these things, or the critical thinking benefits of doing these contemplative exercises or engaging in contemplative practice or being part of a contemplative community. To me that instrumentalizes that this is just another tool by which we can get at knowledge or content, rather than a more full rethinking of what it means to be fully human. And as you said, education is about knowing yourself as well.

LB: And remember where academia comes from. It comes from this old, ancient, Greek form of learning and teaching in which walking and meandering- they actually took walks. One of the contemplative practices is slow walk from zen Buddhism, but actually, yes, this was done as part and partial of learning in the original academic institution created in Greece and, before then, Egypt, et cetera. You would take, as part of the teaching and learning, walks and just lose yourself in the thoughts of what you just learned; you wouldn’t need to have that moment of relaxation. And this goes back to yoga. In yoga philosophy, there’s this concept called shpanda and nishpanda, and shpanda is action and nishpanda is rest, so your savasana at the end of a practice. For the listeners who don’t know, it’s when you lie down and allow the body to rest. Athletes notice all the time that if you take a day off training, you come back stronger. So there doesn’t seem to be that space in academia, for some strange reason, except for winter break, or whatever system you’re on. We don’t have to take three days off every two weeks, but at least a couple of segments a week in which the students can pull back a moment, but not go on their phones. That’s the risk: now we have students who, as soon as you’re giving them two minutes off, they check their social media; and faculty do that too, so it’s fun. So if you can incorporate that in the class- where it’s time off, but still engaged- that’s very helpful because it creates community, first of all, because people are confronted to just be there, breathe together, or have these exercises in couples where they get to know each other. A lot of students in our classes don’t know each other outside of the class- well I don’t know about at Xavier, but DePaul, it’s the case. They would come together for a class, then go to another class, and some of them don’t speak to each other. So all of these together, I think, help with health- with mental health, emotional health.

RL: Speaking of sort of time off that you’re fully engaged reminds me of whether there’s sort of the challenge of being in a classroom space with the distractions of technology, or just resistance to something new. I think you and I were both talking about, yes, this is why I do contemplative methods or I’ve rethought about my pedagogy, in your case, as a completely contemplative, philosophical, and engaged practice. But the reality is there is, at times, resistance, and I’ve experienced resistance. Could we maybe close by kind of being pragmatic and just sort of talk a little bit about maybe an example of common resistance or resistance that you’ve had and what you’ve done and then after I’ll think of the same.

LB: Yes, absolutely. I have two examples. One of them is inside Cook County jail, when I’m asking some students there- we call the DePaul students “outside students” and the inmates “inside students” to avoid othering through labeling. So when we bring those practices inside, some people have never closed their eyes in front of each other and they don’t want to breathe in and out, and that’s considered “weak”. It’s considered “weak” to breathe and relax and open up and be vulnerable, so people giggle- they laugh actually- sometimes out loud. When that happens, for example, I just allow people to laugh, and I notice what is my reaction. Am I becoming super tight about someone being nervous about being relaxed? That’s really interesting. I just stay relaxed; it’s like “okay, if giggling comes up, and if you feel stressed, you can open your eyes, but allow the others to finish the practice, and if you feel like you want to breathe in and close your eyes again, go back and forth- do your thing. I try to be really chilled about it, and eventually, it’s not the first week, it’s not the second week, or the third, but into the fourth, where everybody’s actually relaxing, they’ll be like “Okay, everybody’s doing this. Why am I not doing it? Let’s do it,” and then they love it.

RL: So it’s this act of patience and of waiting?

LB: Yes, and not being- you will find that I found when I came back from India, that I was very intransigent, like I wasn’t patient because I had trained and everybody in the ashram was now acquainted to the practices. Everybody wanted to be very holy and spiritual, and I came back and I gave my parent hell, you know, “Why do you eat this? Why do you breathe like that?” I was, like, a real pain, and it dawned on me: you do this work to be more open, you don’t do this work to impose anything; that’s the opposite of what you’re trying to do. So you have to give people the time and the ease to get acquainted to this type of work. They may never get it, but eventually, deep breathing is good for everybody- that’s a fact. You can bring in from Harvard Medical or Xavier Medical. You can be like “Okay, this is an article, breathing is good, let’s do it,” you know? It doesn’t have to be mystical.

RL: Yes, because if you stop breathing, you stop-

LB: It’s a problem, you won’t learn.

RL: I know that your examples are a more detailed version of some small acts of resistance- that was a thing that surprised me. So rather that talk about resistance, I’ll close by saying that was a thing that surprised me because, for me, not having trained for two years in a yoga practice- I have personal meditation practice and did some very small training in contemplative pedagogy- it’s essentially trying alongside my students. Having a couple of months of personal contemplation and trying a lot of things, working with various groups in the city, outside of academic spaces, and they’re just trying things. But I was surprised by not completed bracing- giggling, laughing, fidgeting. But if I set aside like “Oh, I want everyone to have this really sort of pure-” even accidentally, and think “What’s happening? Oh, what I imagined would happen was no one would want to do this; everyone would like reject.” Turns out, it’s something as simple as to start breathing, paying attention to one small thing- which is the weight of your body, standing up or sitting. For me, the resistance was in my own head as much as it was in the students’ bodies, I think. I know that these conversations for the CAT podcasts are intended to be brief, but personally I’ve enjoyed talking to you about this topic and hope to talk to you more about it.

LB: Yes, and if more questions come up, I’m available to talk and to reply email, so through this podcast, you can find my information and let me know.

RL: Great. Thanks, Laura.

LB: Thank you, Ross. Bye.

Transcribed by Ray'Breantae Tabor

About Bart Everson

Creative Generalist in the Center for the Advancement of Teaching and Faculty Development at Xavier University of Louisiana

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