What: A multimedia restorative yoga session
Who: Individuals interested in tangible empathy
Where: Products of Design class “Design Delight” under the guidance of Emilie Baltz
When: Products of Design, Semester 4
Why: One insight that I uncovered during interviews with subject matter experts was that the felt experience of paralysis can differ quite drastically from individual to individual. As an abled [read: able-bodied; for more on the decision behind that specific term, click here] designer designing for a disabled population, this fact surprised me because I had assumed that paralysis was merely the absence of sensation. Interested in understanding what the actual experience of paralysis was like for people with SCI/D, I began to ask people with SCI/D to tell me what their paralysis actually felt like — a question that felt at once intimate and intrusive.
Listening to these descriptions made me react viscerally — I felt like I was physically empathizing with these stories. Wanting to push this feeling further, I paired these recordings with yoga, a practice that teaches mindfulness, fosters a deeper mind-body connection, and creates a truly deep contemplation of one’s body and sensation within its practice. I was also intrigued by yoga’s role in the SCI/D community - and how some of its adherents described yoga’s effect on their mind-body connection as enabling them to somehow feel their limbs in a holistic and energetic sense, below their level of injury.
What: Partnering with yoga instructor Rebecca Ketchum to develop the event, I collected audio recordings from five different people — three of whom described their sensations of SCI/D. The structure of the event borrowed concepts from Matthew Sanford’s autobiography, Waking: A Memoir of Trauma and Transcendence, about paralysis and yoga. In it, Matthew, an adaptive yoga instructor with a spinal cord injury, frames silences and healing stories as essential for the healing of the body and the creation of the mind-body connection. He writes, “Silence is the word I use to describe the empty presence we experience within our experience—between our thoughts, between each other, between ourselves and the world. It is the feeling of emptiness and fullness at the same time. Healing Story is a term for the stories we have come to believe that shape how we think about the world, ourselves, and our place in it.”
In my experience design, spoken-word recordings of people’s reflections on their bodies — their healing stories — were played in between yoga poses and periods of drawn out silence, heightening the mindfulness of all participants and fostering a deeper mind-body connection. (The emphasis of restorative yoga is on the development of the mind-body connection through the thoughtful contemplation of the body in stillness and in silence, and is of benefit to both abled and disabled people.)
The sequence of poses that participants completed were the result of a dialogue between myself and Rebecca, and were designed to mimic the sensations described in the audio clips. The pacing and the sequence of the yoga class included silences to go along with the healing stories in the recordings—giving participants time for the personal contemplation that was necessary after hearing the stories around someone else’s body.
The physical elements of the event - primarily the yoga mats and the event lighting - were purposefully kept dichromatic. The yoga mats were either purple or blue, the colors associated with the crown and throat chakras. The crown chakra is physically associated with the central nervous system, the cerebral cortex and the upper spine. Emotionally, it’s associated with spirituality, consciousness and thought. The throat chakra is physically associated with the respiratory system and the ears — chosen for Silent’s focus on deliberate breathing and mindful listening. Communication, openness and ideas are the various emotional components of the throat chakra.
The lights, white prior to the yoga session, turned to blue after its conclusion, a physical manifestation of the the sharing of ideas of lived experiences, and the increased consciousness and new ideas about others’ experiences that participants contemplated by the end of Silent. A booklet was designed with these principles in mind as well — just as the event featured healing stories and silences, so too did the booklet, with its explanatory prose bookended by deliberate negative space.
The event was intentionally designed to engage in all of the participants’ senses in order to engage with the body in as many ways as possible. Restorative yoga directed participants’ attention to specific sensations of touch and awareness of their bodies; the healing stories of the recordings engaged their sense of hearing. The lighting change of the studio and the starkness of the studio in which the event was held engaged participants’ sense of sight. During the event, participants were given the option to have essential oils massaged into their skin, engaging the participants’ sense of smell. To engage with their sense of taste, they were served tea at the close of the yoga session, during a share back session.
At the close of the event, one participant noted that he entered a liminal space between consciousness and sleep during the session, and from within this space, it was difficult for him to differentiate between his own thoughts and the recordings that he heard during the yoga session. As a result, he felt as though the stories that he was hearing were his own — which dramatically increased both the empathy that he felt for the author of those stories, along with his awareness of his own body.
Science backs up the experience - the visceral empathy - that participants felt during the event. Mirror neurons — nerve cells that fire in the brain when a person observes or listens to an action that they aren’t actually doing—serve a kind of biological empathy. Recent studies indicate that mirror neurons respond to sound, and that they are but the “best understood example of a wider class of vicarious neural responses encompassing the domains of actions, sensations, and emotions."