An Interview with Dr. Bonnie Whitener

Bonnie Whitener doing a yoga pose on a rock
Dr. Bonnie Whitener

Dr. Bonnie Whitener began teaching at The University of Alabama as a Graduate Teaching Assistant in 2003 and became an Instructor in fall 2010. Her academic interest is American Gothic Literature, and she is also known for the yoga classes she offers to faculty in the Department of English. The darkness of American Gothic Literature and the spirituality of yoga may seem like two contrasting interests. Yet, Dr. Whitener finds that both disciplines demand that the students face their fears and also access genuine emotions.

What do you find most interesting about American Gothic Literature?

Much to the dismay of my parents, I was interested in ghosts and monsters at an early age. I was the weird teenager, dressed in black in high school, who had her art portfolio in one hand and a Stephen King novel in the other.  During my masters program, I noticed patterns in gothic fiction. Certain characters were always the monsters, and other characters were always the heroes. The monsters always interested me more.

A Ph.D. in American Gothic Literature and a professional yoga instructor seem like a surprising combination. In what ways do they relate?

Both disciplines have to do with our interior lives first, and then our exterior lives. They are soul work. I think English and my particular work of study—monsters (our demons)—is about working through what we fear. This includes bodies. Monsters are ALL about bodies. English in general is the study of how we record our human condition in our culture. Yoga also puts us face to face with our bodies, our fears, but also to experience joy, exhilaration, and how we are in the world. They’ve always seemed connected to me. They’re also both labors of love in my life.

When and why did you start practicing yoga?

I started practicing yoga in 1997 after a running injury and some back issues. I enjoyed it initially as an exercise. During yoga teacher training in 2004, I found the history and philosophy of the practice meaningful. The idea of acceptance both of one’s self and others and of striving for deep empathy with people, animals, and the environment, really appealed to me.

In your own terms, what does yoga mean to you? Spiritually? Emotionally? Physically?

Yoga changed my life. Physically, it healed some injuries. It also completely reshaped my body. Emotionally, it did help me with self- acceptance. I’d always struggled with my body image.  The practice of yoga showed me what I was physically capable of, regardless of weight. Now, it shows me what I’m capable of in spite of an aging body. Spiritually, I began practicing mindfulness and non-violence towards others and myself; mindfulness goes better some days than others.

What are the benefits of practicing yoga?

I can hold my breath for two minutes. I can do things people half my age can’t. I feel that practicing yoga has kept me healthier than other people my age. I have more patience than I did as a younger person (most of the time). I also have access to breathing exercises that keep me sane when dealing with game-day traffic.

What yoga classes do you currently teach?

Currently, I teach Ashtanga, Vinyasa, and Iyengar. The class I teach for the Department of English is primarily Iyengar. This is a practice where alignment and breathing is key. It’s a great practice for beginners, older people, people who struggle with flexibility. The English Department class is an all-levels class. It’s meant to help faculty from any department, their family members, grad students, sometimes even undergrads have a chance to relax, stretch out, maybe work some muscles they haven’t moved in awhile.  

What kind of experience do you hope to provide to your students in your yoga classes?

This response will sound super corny, but I really want to help my students to heal. I think we all carry trauma of one kind or another in our bodies. I believe yoga can help us let go of some of those wounds, at least a little bit, whether they are physical or emotional. I hope to help my students let some baggage go as well.

How is teaching yoga similar or different than teaching your English classes?

The notable difference is the speed of the outcome. Teaching English, I don’t always know if I’ve made a difference for any of my students. The only way I know is if they send me an email later down the road. With yoga, I often get to see the changes and results of my students’ practice. In this way, yoga is more immediately rewarding. The similarity is that I think both English and yoga are doing the work of the soul.