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Joseph Mata Teaches Mathematics Through Yoga

I still wake, at times, sweaty in bed, from nightmares ridden with binomials. I’ve never liked math, but my yogi ears perked when I heard about Joseph Mata and his Mtheory101–an educational umbrella that combines mathematics with mind/body practices. Could Mata be a beacon of hope for us math-phobes? Possibly.

Born and raised in the Bronx by Latin immigrants, Mata, 32, was always good at math. He studied it at SUNY Stony Brook and received a master’s from CUNY City College.

“’Math teaches you to embrace the struggle,’ one of my professors told me, and that pretty much sums it up,” Mata said. “In math class, all we do is solve problems, and the same is true for life. It taught me to work through my problems instead of running away from them.”

In addition to math, Mata grew up loving martial arts, specifically Wing Chun–an interest that would later lead to other holistic practices. After college, he studied Reiki with Grandmaster Jorge Enriquez, trained to be a yoga teacher, and later became a certified health coach through the Institute of Integrative Nutrition.

He teaches high school math in the Bronx, has taught for the Young Adult Borough Center Program, and also directs his Yoga Math curriculum–the perfect point where all of his coordinates intersect.

“I wanted to show students that math is more than numbers,” he said. A few years ago, as an extra credit assignment, he started asking his students to create mathematical meaning from verbal quotes he would give them. “For instance, I might write something like ‘he who angers you, conquers you’ on the board and ask them to find how the phrase related to math,” he said. One of his students replied: “If you’re trying to find the answer to a complicated or confusing question, becoming irritated or angry will just cloud your ability to compute, and finding the answer will become even harder for you.” His style became known as “Matamatics” and “I knew I was on to something,” he said.

Two summers ago, while hanging with some frat bros, it dawned on Mata to build an after-school yoga program, “but I knew that the school system didn’t like to spend money on things that don’t have any academic value.” His thoughts percolated, and bingo; a light went of. He ran home and started sketching a syllabus. “Yoga tries to solve the problems of the inner world, while traditional math tries to solve the problems of the outer world,” he said. “It just made sense to unite the two.”

Mata is currently launching his Yoga Math course at the Broome Street Ganesh Temple. The course, held on various Monday nights, began in February and continues into June. (As of now, the Department of Education won’t let him teach the course in the school systems as it is considered to be a conflict of interest–a teacher cannot also be hired as a vendor. In the meantime, 430 Broome St. will suffice.)

In Yoga Math, students observe the interplay of body and breath through a mathematical lens; they physically create geometric figures, angles and slopes, and each asana is explained using mathematical parlance.

“From tadasana, step your left foot behind you, making sure your heels are collinear,” he told me. “Raise your arms overhead, keeping fingers equidistant from each other. As you breathe, make sure your inhalations and exhalations are congruent. Then bend your front leg into an obtuse angle, trying to bring it to 90 degrees with every successive exhale. Notice how a change in angles create a change in difficulty…”

It’s a clever idea. Even a number numskull like me had always found asanas to be geometric and architectural, and I wondered when a math Olympiad would notice the same.

In a traditional math class, according to Mata, “math anxiety” can be caused by a combination of things, such asan imposing authority, public exposure–afraid of potentially being wrong in front of others–and deadlines. “But in Yoga Math, lessons are student-centered,” he assured me. “You work independently and together in the form of a Socratic dialogue…and there’s something for every kind of learner.”

Logical thinkers solve problems comprised of algebra and geometry to facilitate critical thinking. Kinesthetic learners “become the math” by using the motions of an asana practice to internalize math vocabulary. And verbal learners explain the daily activities with mathematical terminology. “I’m not interested in turning students into mathematicians,” Mata said. “Rather, I want to show them that they are already mathematicians!”

–Michael Laskaris

Remaining class dates at the Broome Street Ganesh Temple: (tonight!) 3/30, 4/13, 4/20, 4/27, 5/4, 5/11, 5/18, 6/1, 6/8, 5:15pm-6:30pm. Drop-ins welcome. Email for more info.

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