the body as medium: an interview with renee sills

Renee Sills in action (image via Facebook)

Renee Sills in action (image by Brian McDonnell

We live in a time when we have access to unfathomable amounts of information and knowledge, literally from the tips of our fingers. This can benefit our yoga practice, and our understanding our bodies and selves, as well.

With basic equipment, committed teachers with something to offer can reach potential students anywhere around the world. While this means that anyone can become a YouTube yogastar, it also means that intelligent and skilled teachers with unique insights are accessible from your computer.

Renee Sills is one such teacher. The Portland, Oregon-based yoga teacher and somatic therapist is experimenting with online platforms. In addition to weekly classes, she has two upcoming workshop series, including “Anatomy & Yoga for Female Bodies” and “Yoga for Healthy Bones & Joints.” With a background in New Media, dance and movement therapy, she has an interesting perspective on the apparent paradox of transmitting body knowledge and awareness through the online medium. Here are her responses to my questions about her work and practice.

Your work is based in anatomy studies. When we understand our anatomy, what do we understand about ourselves?

I teach anatomy through the movement. Anatomy is much more than the present state of the body because the body grew into what it is now, and it is still growing. How the anatomy looks and works is a constantly evolving process that began at conception. Yoga asana and pranayama help us to recall the formation of our existence through remembering the patterns and physiological function of how our bodies came to be where/what they are now. When we understand our anatomy in its own history (how it developed into what it is now) then we can also understand patterns that have developed due to habits and life trauma such as injury or shock (some yogis might call these patterns samskaras). When we understand the process of evolution then we also understand the key to resolving habitual patterns that aren’t helpful: we can go back to the pattern before the habit developed and rebuild from there with support and mindfulness. This is how many forms of therapy work – of course it would be the same in the physical body.

Why have you chosen to offer classes and workshops online?

I think that online learning is a huge and growing phenomena. How amazing is it that so much knowledge is available so immediately?! I grew up dancing and I had a formal apprenticeship in somatic therapy from ages 13 to 18, but then I went to college where I studied electronic art and emerging technologies, and I sat at a computer for hours on end for five years! So, just simply with that I’m interested in teaching online because I hope I can make body awareness and movement available to people who really need it. A lot of my online classes right now are specifically meant for folks who are at the computer all day, or working repetitive jobs, or parents of young kids and babies who have a hard time getting to a class.

On a more philosophical level, I’m very interested in the intersection of body-centered practice and virtual interaction. The potential to expand our knowledge as a community is huge. The fact that I can have class with people who are participating from all over the world but we are all bringing our attention to a specific level of body awareness and mindfulness practice together is amazing. I’m interested in communication and how body states or physical understanding is transmitted. If you read some of the yogic texts there are passages that talk about advanced yoga practitioners have psychic powers (siddhis) that allow them to communicate with others who aren’t in the same place, or maybe not even in the same realm. Maybe this is what the “virtual age” is preparing us for? Either way it’s true that the Internet and communication media like social networks or video chat platforms are quickly making the world smaller and people are feeling less isolated and more in tune with others whom they may never meet in person.

You have a BFA in Intermedia (I don’t even know what that is!) and you also have an art practice involving video, sound and dance. How do the body, technology and learning intersect?

All the technology can really take you “out of your body” in a lot of ways. I guess my question is how can we use these technologies to become more connected on all levels? How can we use these platforms to teach and learn from a body-centered perspective? I am personally interested in how we can use this way of relating and connecting to become more aware of our bodies and what keeps them healthy. A lot of people want movement but they are chained to their desks, or they are too shy to take a class or can’t make the time. I think that it’s important to reach out to people where they are, and for many, where they are is at the computer. So I’ll try and get them there. I’ll try and get them moving at home, then teaching it to their partners, friends and kids, then seeking out more in their community.

I am personally interested in how we can use this way of relating and connecting to become more aware of our bodies and what keeps them healthy.I don’t think online class will take the place of live interaction, I think that they offer an experience that’s actually completely different. Online learning offers us the chance to participate from where we are, when we can and how we can. We can learn from teachers that we may not otherwise have a chance of accessing and participate in groups that could potentially be so much more diverse, thus bringing about more merging of ideas, blending of knowledge, etc.

Sign up for Renee’s classes or workshops and get a discount especially for IAYB readers!

Strengthen and Stretch – weekly classes focused on building awareness of intrinsic stability and releasing extrinsic gripping and overuse patterns.
Sweet Sunday Hatha – beginner/intermediate Hatha class.
For a 50% discount on weekly 45-minute classes,  sign up here and use the code: Try-renee-sills

Anatomy & Yoga for Female Bodies (Saturdays, April 6, 13 & 20)
Yoga for Healthy Bones & Joints (Saturday, April 27 and May 4)
For a 15% discount on workshops, sign up here and use the code: IAYB_3/2013

  1. this is extremely interesting- after checking out Renée’s website I was surprised to see the functionality and potential for this type of online yoga experience IRL as opposed to pre-recorded classes like yogaglo or myyogaonline. I assume that it’s interactive as the yoga practitioner at home has a webcam so Renée can instruct virtually? The prices are also phenomenally affordable and accessible (assuming the practitioner has a webcam and a good internet connection).

    What i wonder, however, is what happens for those kinaesthetic learners?

    • good question! clearly, this medium isn’t the best for kinaesthetic learners. but it is perfect for people who, as renee noted, can’t make it to regular classes.

  2. This is a response to EcoYogini- Yes! There is a potential for interactivity, and even if the classes are pre-recorded it’s my hope that people will begin to participate by asking for certain class focus’ or subjects.

    The question of how people learn is so interesting. I hope that this format can actually provide for a lot of different learning styles. So… For example, I can start by showing you pictures of a femur bone and we can talk about how it functions, then we can do guided touch so that you have a kinesthetic sense of where it is, how it moves and how it relates in your own body. Then, if we’re doing a pose I can tell you the story of what my femur is doing, in terms of what I understand the function of the pose to be- I can try and relate the the feeling and potential movement choices to you to explore them with me, and of course you can also ask questions and offer your own experience so we work together.

    “Live” interaction is not going to be matched by screen interaction… That’s obvious. At least for now… the 3D information isn’t available- much less the subtle and energetic cues…
    But I think that for some people online classes allow for a certain safety that in-person interaction doesn’t. Especially if the class is recorded, and if the recording is one that focuses on kinesthetic awareness… One great thing about online learning is that it can be an infinitely patient environment, we can pause, stop, repeat as many times as necessary.

    Thanks for your response!

  3. Roseanne and Renee – Thanks so much for this post. Renee, I think it is absolutely fascinating what you are doing on-line. I have looked at some various live streaming approaches, but nothing has come to fruition just yet. I wonder if the on-line format would enable you to have some additional visual aids such as diagrams, especially as anatomy is being discussed. I also love the points you raise about the pros and cons of live versus on-line classes. Clearly one of the most compelling is to be able to experience a teacher we may have otherwise not been able to interact with. Thanks again!