White Fragility in Yoga: Privilege, Power, and Posts

Today I’m breaking off from my usual blog, and sharing a post I wrote for a social media group. I’ve only recently (within the last year or so) discovered the use of facebook groups in the yoga world. I think on a whole they can serve as excellent resources for yogis and as a way to build community. There is power in groups! But, this is also the point of this post, which is about how these groups (as things that are both made up of individuals but also bigger than individual members) can be a site of power and privilege, and how the nature of posting itself can be a learning opportunity as well as a means of oppression.

For those who aren’t on the Yoga and Movement Research group, it’s a new facebook group with the intention to share and integrate movement research into yoga practice (particularly asana practice). Over the weekend, there was apparently some serious drama as someone brought up the fact that some of this practice of integrating functional movement systems and biomechanical research into the practice was appropriating the practice and perhaps not adequately representing the roots of yoga as spiritual. The topic of privilege and cultural appropriation were brought up, names were called, all hell broke loose, and as anyone who has been on the internet long enough to imagine, it got ugly.

After this drama happened, the entire thread was deleted by the administrators and the “bully” who had originally broached these topics blocked from the group. Then there was a post from the admins that was even more epic drama, as many people hailed the “victory” over the “bully,” who had been added back into the group by a friend, ensuing discussion of how the person should be banned and any of her friends “closely watched” and potentially blocked too (for the sin of adding her back in and apparently being friendly). To see this post (which gives a good sense of what went down in the group earlier), go here. However, it turned out that not everyone was okay with the post being deleted and the few people who spoke up with concerns were pretty much either ignored, told to “go away” or “get a life.” In other words, further silenced and marginalized. Drama!

I wrote a post in response to this explaining why I was concerned about this reaction from administrators. What follows is my discussion of white fragility in the yoga world, how white fragility applies here, and why discussions of power, privilege, and cultural appropriation are important for all of us yogis, especially those interested in movement research, to have.

Even if you aren’t interested in the specifics, I think this post grapples with a dilemma every yoga should have in their practice. How do we make the practice relevant and meaningful to us, in other words, make it uniquely “ours”, authentically “ours,” while still remaining true to the heart of the practice? How can we modify the practice to be more just, equitable, and modern even as we acknowledge and honor the roots of the tradition of yoga? Read on, if you dare to. I hope you gain something from what was for me a therapeutic way to deal with the emotional disturbance and frustration I felt upon learning about what occurred.

A Plea for Dialogue

Hi y’all. So I missed the drama on this group, but feel like I should express some concerns I have about what went down, and try to explain why I have these concerns. I wish I could find the original thread to get a better understanding of what happened. I was out of town this weekend and unfortunately missed the drama, but I have read what’s around since then and have got the gist from various comments and posts since. So I want to clarify that I know I am coming to writing and responding to this experience that happened in ways that emotionally affected all involved without a perfect understanding of everything that was said. I know this. But I still think we need to reflect more deeply on what happened as a group and why it is important for all of us to reflect on and educate ourselves about these topics.

Because here’s the thing: I can no longer go back and see what happened as the post was deleted. So there is no record. Although, I understand there are screenshots (garnered from reading other posts since then). As someone who cares very much about the issues that were addressed and would have liked to learn more through the thread (if only in a “what not to do on social media to avoid drama” way), I think this it is a shame it was deleted, and am actually quite grateful there is a record somewhere. I would love to see those screenshots, because this record is important and is a testimony to us as individual people who we may be experiencing moments of challenge and difficulty and growth (one hopes, for everyone involved); these threads and moments like the one that happened are a testimony of our community, to this group, and ultimately to the yoga world as a whole, because we are a microcosm of this world even as we are unique within it. The issues that were discussed were powerful, emotional, and important. How else could they spark such reactions? Such passion? So I am saddened by the fact that the post is no longer available given that these are topics worth discussing and that this group is for and made by all of us, even though it was started by Diane (thank you!), and as such the thread was a valuable record for all of us to learn from. I’m especially concerned that it was deleted so quickly, before many people in this group even had an opportunity to view it at all, myself included.

I have some thoughts I would like to share about why I am disturbed about this situation. Please realize that this post is coming from my heart and that I have contemplated and grappled very deeply with the topics I am about to write about here for many years as an educator and researcher on these issues. I think that this group, and all of us (myself included) need to be able to think critically and deeply, and dare I say meditate in a truly yogic way (aka, deep absorption per yogic philosophy) about what we are doing in our attempt to integrate more biomechanical and movement research into our practice. And I think that part of this meditation must include critically thinking about what it is we are doing, how we are doing it, and the way in which our actions may be appropriative.

This group, Yoga and Movement Research is about integrating movement research into our yoga practice. It’s about increasing safety, and about yoga as more than asana in that integrating current movement research can help us better align with yogic philosophy, including the practices of ahimsa, non-harm, and so on. In application to the body, this means utilizing functional movement and biomechanical research to insure that we practice safely in ways that do not harm us across a lifetime. These are valuable and noble goals. But we have to recognize that what we are doing isn’t just “fun,” or “safer,” it is also political.

What we are doing is political because it ties into the yoga industry and the ways asana has become commodified, tied to a type of practice that can be potentially injurious across a lifetime for many people. Clearly many people have experienced this in this group, including Diane, whose story is a powerful reminder of why what we are doing here is important and potentially life changing for many. Ultimately what we do in many ways aligns us against an industry that is set up to sell a style of practice to people who may actually be injured by that same practice. It aligns us against the tradition, against the commodification, and against the mindless perpetuation of practices that may not be serving us. Many members in this group have talked about the push-back you have gotten from mainstream yoga. This push-back is because what we do is political. There is no denying it. It is revolutionary.

More importantly for this discussion, what we do is also rooted in and tied to issues of cultural appropriation, because in many ways the integration of functional movement research and systems into our practice is changing the practice, and is changing what we think of as yoga. So to say, “I am not particularity interested in politics as it pertains to yoga, the decolonization and appropriation of yoga,” (this is a direct quote from an admin in this group) just cannot and doesn’t make sense to me, because that’s a complete denial, purposeful ignoring, and misunderstanding of the fact that what we are potentially doing in this very group and our interest in yoga and movement research IS political and is also potentially culturally appropriative (#noshadejusttruth). We are trying to change the practice, and anytime we do this, especially when we are coming from places of privilege (which most of us in this group are, #noshadejusttruth) we are in danger of engaging in cultural appropriation. As such we have to be EXTRA careful to ensure we don’t unintentionally cause harm and engage in appropriative practices without intending to.

We have to make the extra effort to learn about these issues, especially if we want to take our practice off the mat and use it to transform our lives and our selves, which is what yoga asks of all of us. It means we must be open to difficult, challenging, and disconcerting learning opportunities. It means we must seek truth, not just in terms of research on the body, but in research on how privilege and power ARE embodied. How we enact power and privilege through our bodies, and our voices, through our language and the way our fingers type words into the keyboard. It means we have to be aware of how what we do can affect bodies in deep and emotional ways, that will then show up in the way we move, which ties back directly in a crazy and complex and profound cycle to the purpose and intention of this group, rethinking movement. The body, trauma and history are intertwined. We cannot separate these things. Separation is an illusion. Cultural appropriation is a topic we should be open to addressing in this group, and I hope that we continue to discuss. Issues of cultural appropriation are important to what this group does, because we have to be very careful as people of privilege about the ways we take this practice, reinterpret it, and change it can actually reproduce and perpetuate appropriative practices that have been very prevalent in yoga during the last 100 years as the practice began to enter the West under colonialism.

All this means we need to educate ourselves on these topics, to avoid doing harm and damage (because, hey, ahimsa). And this is where I am disturbed by this conversation thread being deleted. Because deleting this thread is, at its heart, an act of privilege, an act of power. I understand we need to regulate spam and actual, justified and legitimate threats (like real, legal harassment). But I would probably, by utilizing a more removed perspective (pratipaksha bhavanam, anyone?), call the thread that occurred a pretty typical lively social media debate from what I have garnered about what happened, although I can’t be sure, because again the thread has since been deleted, which is part of the problem. Let’s face it, it’s social media, and it’s just impossible to get our points across clearly so there is usually a heightened tension and ease of misunderstanding on the internet. This is not new, it is not surprising, and ultimately if you think someone’s comment is rude the best course of action is simply to ignore it, not try and delete every rude thing that is ever said. I think it’s illuminating that across the history of this group, and the many heated debates that have been had, it is a conversation about appropriation and privilege that is the one that is deleted. It says a lot about the underlying, likely unconscious reasons why this post in particular made people uncomfortable to the point where erasing the record seemed to be the appropriate response.

The point is that the ability and decision to remove a post is an act of power and an act of silencing, which is by definition an act of privilege. In fact, research shows that in discussions of race and/or privilege, those who are privileged often react in one of three ways. This is discussed in a piece by DiAngelo that the person who has been called a “bully,” “troll,” and so on in various comments has since then shared in another thread (you can access DiAngelo’s work here, with a more succinct summary here). I get that a lot of name-calling was from both sides, and I think that’s on both parties (in all fairness, #noshadejusttruth). But the reactions where people with privilege often feel bullied and attacked when these topics come up is one of the most common reactions DiAngelo found as part of what she termed “white fragility.” And the act of deleting the post afterwards is similarly another common reaction DiAngelo discusses (and ironically enough, a klesha, or obstacle identified by Patanjali, avoidance).

DiAngelo defines “white fragility” as “a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves. These moves include the outward display of emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and leaving the stress-inducing situation. These behaviors, in turn, function to reinstate white racial equilibrium.” And this is exactly what happened in this group. People with privilege are almost always in a position of comfort, and when they are challenged, whites “typically respond as if something is ‘wrong,’ and blame the person or event that triggered their discomfort… [resulting] in a socially-sanctioned array of counter-moved against the perceived source of the discomfort, including: penalization, retaliation, isolation, ostracization, and refusal to continue engagement” (DiAngelo 61).

If all this sounds familiar, it’s because this is exactly the response that occurred in this group, where those who were challenged to think critically and reflect on their privilege instead penalized the supposed “offender” (blocking them from the group), retaliated (by name calling, etc., by openly requesting that the person be “nicer,” and also threatening to block the friend who did nothing but add the “offender” to the group and then readd them, which honestly I think is fair considering conversations were still going on about that same person that if it were me, I would have wanted to at least be able to see). Members of this group also isolated others who brought up concerns about what happened (such as the numerous examples on the threads since where people have spoken up with concerns only to be isolated and told this isn’t the purpose of the group and that they just need to “live with it” or “get over it” or “move on”), and most obviously a complete refusal to continue engagement (by deleting the post and blocking the “offender”).

I want to make a couple more points. First, I want to make it clear that cultural appropriation is not a simple thing, and is a term that is often misunderstood and misused in our society. Please, y’all, just because you have heard this term does not mean you understand what cultural appropriation is, how it works, and how to avoid it. Just because you know the definition of the term, doesn’t mean you understand the concept.

Let me explain. I teach sociology at the university level, and cultural sociology is my particular expertise and area of study. So I teach about cultural appropriation in my college courses. It takes me a whole week of lecture to adequately introduce this topic. Which means it takes me a good three hour lecture just to barely scratch the surface of this concept. My students often still struggle to understand this topic even with the lecture and additional reading assigned. And note that this is three hours of a lecture that I have carefully compiled and concisely organized to allow my students a general overview of this concept, and that pulls from material based on untold hours I have spent studying, reading, and researching these topics (e.g., I have a peer-review paper coming out on cultural appropriation of body positivity in yoga within the next month that has literally been in the works for almost two years). I am not saying this to brag, or to try and make you all feel like this topic is unapproachable. With a good teacher and when you take some time to do that reading and studying it is completely possible to understand, apply, and begin to overcome cultural appropriation in our lives and practice. It is my sincere hope that you all will seek out this knowledge, as again, it is very relevant for this group and all concerned with integrating movement research into yoga, even if you aren’t actively dealing with issues of racial diversity, etc. in yoga. But know that this topic is complex, and takes time to learn about, and we have to be willing to be students and to say “I don’t know” and to listen to those who are trying to educate us on these things. If you all are interested I’d be willing to put together an online course on cultural appropriation in yoga, PM me if you are interested. I have had a few requests in the past to do so, but never enough people to justify the time/energy/work on my end, but if there are enough people who may be interested I’m open to doing so despite how busy I am because I do care deeply on these issues and feel they are important.

Also, I think it is ironic that the person who was blocked is an expert on the very issues discussed, but can no longer serve as a resource if she is blocked. So not only is deleting the thread problematic, but so is blocking the person as there aren’t as many people out there who study and teach on these topics. I get that the debate got heated to the point of being irrelevant. That doesn’t mean the entire thread was. It doesn’t mean other conversations with that person can’t be educational. We all need to be able to see things from multiple perspectives, and please realize that anti-oppression work can be exhausting, frustrating, depressing, angering, and overwhelming because we see this type of thing everywhere, all the time. It drains our energy. It leaves us depleted. And many of us engaged in this work are coming to the practice to heal, and we come to it only to find that we see the same things and end up engaging in the same work in spaces where we hope to feel supported and listened to. This can be double hurtful, as we are often made to feel unwelcome in the yoga world as well, called “unyogic” for being critical, and that this is a constant, constant battle we face in a practice where all we want is to find peace.

Sometimes when we say things nicely, no one listens. Sometimes the only way to be heard is to be loud, is to be rude. Niceness is not a requirement of yoga, although many people misinterpret ahimsa as being “nice.” Ahimsa is “do no harm,” not “be nice”. Sure we should strive to be respectful and kind in all our interactions to avoid doing harm, but we are human, and sometimes we mess up. In fact, the requirement of being “nice” that many people of privilege try to require when talking about these topics often serves to reinforce the status quo and silence marginalized voices. The requirement to “be nice” puts your own comfort before the lived experiences of others. It is denying the upsetting reality of oppression. And if you want to learn more, please see this article on “White Niceness as the Enemy of Black Liberation”. The claim to “be nice” is good, and we should all strive toward that, and I’m sorry that thread became a crap shoot (hello social media! No surprise there, in all honesty), but now we have potentially lost a critical voice who has a great deal of expertise in these areas and who could have served as an educational resource for many in the future (after tempers died down on both sides, cause we are human).

Finally, one of the things that disturbs me the most is the way in which these acts of power (deleting threads, blocking people, etc.) are likely to make others feel silenced and less likely to speak up on these topics. I know personally that I’m less inclined to talk about these things on this group now because I’m not sure what will happen if I do. I’m honestly a little leery of sharing resources now, because god knows what responses I’ll get when I bring these topics up. If I call someone out on privilege, even with the best of intentions and even making an effort to be “nice” (though as I mentioned that whole idea of niceness can also be deconstructed), what will happen to me? Will I be blocked too? Will I be called names? Will my threads and resources be deleted? Why should I bother spending time and energy to try and educate when I’m not sure anyone is even open to listening? And this is the real root of the issue I have with what happened, because it speaks to a larger issue of privilege and power going on in this group that frankly makes me think of just giving up and leaving the group entirely, because at a certain point it’s just angering, frustrating, and depressing for me to see these topics being met with defensiveness and white fragility (per DiAngelo’s work). Who knows! Maybe this post will be deleted later this day, and if you don’t hear from me again, maybe it’s because I was blocked from the group. (Joke, I think?)

I am curious why the thread was deleted so quickly (including comments that were not rude) and why the person was blocked. Did admins make an effort to reach out privately to discuss their concerns with that person? Did they let emotions cool down before trying to do so? Because from what I gather of the situation, that decision was done in the heat of the emotional reaction without trying to dialogue with anyone privately, and without a thought for how that decision itself is representative of privilege and power dynamics ongoing in the group, or how that decision might be seen by other members of the group who may already be marginalized in the yoga world at large. And that’s problematic. Because ultimately, who is deciding to do this? And based on what? It’s one thing to be rude and a completely other thing to threaten to kill someone, folks, and we shouldn’t be silencing people just for rudeness.

I’m not sure where to go from here. All I know is that voices are people, not just words on a screen, and our habits and defenses are deeply ingrained; from the time we are born we are taught to lean into privilege, and to ignore oppression. These habits become rooted in our bodies, our brains; literally our physiology contains our cultural bias and predispositions. As DiAngelo notes, “fragility and privilege result in responses that function to restore equilibrium and return the resources ‘lost’ via the challenge–resistance towards the trigger, shutting down and/or tuning out, indulgence in emotional incapacitation such as guilt or ‘hurt feelings,’ exiting, or a combination of these responses.” And I’m sad to say that this is what I saw in what happened, and rather than learn from the experience, there has been a continuation of the very privilege and practices that the “offender” was likely trying to draw attention to (even if it did devolve into a crap shoot).

Ultimately the art and act of yoga is to uproot these samskara, to see beyond bias, to uncover how this bias influences our actions, reactions, and defenses in ways we may not even be aware. Yoga challenges us to find truth, to use our pain to learn and grow and fuel our selfless devotion and service, to eliminate suffering. And we can’t do this if we avoid what makes us uncomfortable. I’m not saying don’t monitor. But please, please, please consider how the way in which this group is monitored reflects larger issues of privilege and power. Please don’t delete things that can be education and meaningful and learning opportunities unless they are actually dangerous and harassment. And please let’s continue talking about these things, because they are important and relevant to the mission of this group.

Love, light, and… yoga❤

And to end on some humor, here’s a Letter to My Yoga Teacher.

 

LAUNCHED: Survey for Yoga Teachers

Hi everyone! As many of you may be aware, I am a PhD student at the University of California, Davis, in the department of sociology. My dissertation research investigates the popularization and professionalization of yoga within the last fifty years in the United States, with a special interest in issues of access and inequality within yoga. I have finally finished putting together and testing an online survey for yoga teachers discussing these topics, and am currently recruiting participants! If you are a yoga teacher or have gone through a yoga certification program, please consider taking my survey. I really appreciate your help, and your responses will contribute to an interesting project that will eventually become a book on the modern history of yoga, including teacher training systems.

The survey takes around 30 minutes to complete and will ask teachers about their motivations for pursuing a yoga teacher training, experiences getting certified (if relevant), experiences working in the yoga industry (if relevant), and any trials or difficulties they have faced teaching yoga. Participants do not have to currently be teaching yoga to participate.

The survey link: Yoga Teacher Survey

 

Here is a little information more about my project: The purpose of my dissertation research is to uncover the socially constructed nature of an “authentic” yoga body within the field of yoga in the United States. What exactly does being a “yogi” entail, and how have practitioners and the yoga industry constructed this identity at various social and historical moments? In what ways are these constructions institutionalized within the field, contributing to inequality and inaccessibility for select populations? The first aim of this study is to explore how self-identified yogis understand the practice of yoga and the identity of a “yogi” at different historical moments and among unique demographic populations of yoga users, or yoga producers, particularly instructors and those who train teachers. The second aim of this study is to explore the processes that led to these constructions and their relation to the professionalization, commercialization, and popularization of the practice since the diffusion of yoga to the West after the 1960s.

Survey Photo ad

Thank you all for your help! If you have further questions, please feel free to contact me. And of course, feel free to share at will!

Love, light, and… yoga❤

Inequality, Manners, and the Gross Yoga Body

Today I want to explore some thoughts about elitism and class privilege in the yoga world, and how this connects to constructions of the yoga body in terms of manners, size, and race (because really, these three tend to be interconnected). There is a great deal of discussion about how yoga is primarily practiced by and accessible to a high-class, highly educated, thin, white, female demographic, and that it is this body that is overwhelmingly featured in (stereotypical) cultural representations of the yoga body. Often, discussions of inequality in yoga focus on race or size (or gender) rather than on social class per se. But in this post I want to center the discussion on class, and see how we can think about inequality/exclusion in yoga in a different way by using class as an underlying lens to focus in on issues of race, size, and even gender. Watch out folks, we’re about to discuss the gross yoga body!

Bodies as Social Signals

In addition to being a very intimate and personal part of our everyday experiences, bodies are also inherently social as they signal others around us, signifying and representing identities to others in ways that allow us to interact more effectively within the world. For example, Goffman’s theory of dramaturgy discusses how bodies can serve as props in the performance of social scripts; what we wear, how we carry ourselves (our body language), and (ultimately) how our bodies are interpreted by others (including race, class, gender, sexuality, and/or size, all of which are embodied to various degrees) provide a framework for us and others to interact in predicable (but unique) ways, what Bourdieu calls “regulated improvisation.” Bodies are a part of our social scripts, and help us interpret and interact with the world as they can help us anticipate what is appropriate behavior in different settings with different people.

We learn to interpret bodies through our personal interactions but also through media (which is a profoundly powerful agent of socialization in today’s world). Bodies, in this sense, are interpreted and framed by cultural processes that ascribe meaning and moral distinction to various individuals depending on what they look like. Because we often develop split second impressions of people based on appearance, bodies shape our experiences in life as they can affect how others treat us, and because of the looking glass self, bodies also come to shape how we think about ourselves as we imagine what others see when they look at our fleshy being and learn to internalize that (as if we see through a looking glass to develop our sense of self).

Class is ultimately an embodied experience and signal. Our social class is written in the body in ways that are often invisible, naturalized, and normalized even as we socially construct them. This happens in numerous ways. For example, poverty contributes to increased rates of diseases and illnesses that can define and shape our bodily experiences in the world. All those in poverty have bodies shaped by less access to quality health care, both medical and dental, across a lifetime. Those who are poor generally live in worse areas that have higher rates of pollution and exposure to dangerous substances (such as lead paint) all of which can impact health in profound and lasting ways. Those who are poor have shorter lifespans as well; the wealth-health connection is strong and lasting, and ultimately a connection that plays out in and on the bodies of real people, in real life. So class is written in the body and signaled through the body in terms of health, illness, disease. Class is also written into the body through the type of work done by different classes (e.g., blue collar vs. white collar) or in the type of fashion worn by different classes.

Manners, Size, and the Gross Body

More importantly to our discussion, class is also embodied in terms of manners. Norbert Elias researched how during the industrial revolution when people began moving to cities en masse, a civilizing process took place where the new experience of living in close quarters with so many people created a system of self-imposed restraint, especially regarding bodily management, or manners. It became necessary to construct a divide between “private life” and “public life” to preserve personal boundaries in new urban environments, and bodily processes that were once relatively open and shared (particularly sex and the processes of elimination) became unacceptable, taboo, inappropriate, controlled through laws (like “no defecating in public spaces” or even “no sleeping in public places”), and relegated to the privacy of the home, preferably kep private even from those you share your home with.

This civilizing process, this private/public divide, wasn’t an accident. Levine and DiMaggio have both researched how elite groups in cities actively worked to impose manners on the lower classes as a means of combating and controlling class tensions. Not to mention the fact that this process was directly related to elite desire to maintain racial differences between elite whites and newly freed black slaves after the end of the civil war in 1965. What did elites do when there was no more legal distinction based on race? Not a problem when they could utilize the adherence of manners to justify the exact same practices and beliefs. So the construction of manners was intimately connected to maintaining class and racial inequality by elite white men, but in a way that seemed “natural” as it took place through bodily controls learned from a very early age, becoming habitual over time.

Farrell discusses in her book Fat Shame (which I can’t recommend enough) how this civilizing process was also connected to body size. Prior to industrialization, fatness was considered a sign of wealth, status, and prestige. But as the civilizing process took place, beliefs about fatness changed. Fatness becomes associated with gluttony and non-white racial identities, particularly the “primitive” or “uncivilized” body. Thin bodies were considered “closer to God,” and thinness became physical evidence of the control/restraint one presumably had to demonstrate to maintain that body (and faith, presumably) (60). “Fat became clearly identified as a physical trait that marked its bearers as people lower on the evolutionary and racial scale— Africans, ‘native’ peoples, immigrants, criminals, and prostitutes. All women were also considered to be more at risk of fatness, another sign of their status lower on the evolutionary scale than men. Thin, in contrast, became identified as a physical trait marking those who were higher on the evolutionary and racial scale—aristocrats, white people, men. Fatness, then, served as yet another attribute demarcating the divide between civilization and primitive cultures, whiteness and blackness, good and bad” (64).

So during this time elite (white, male) groups constructed a cultural divide between the elite, “high” body and the “lower” body. (By the by, interesting side note: the terms “high” and “low” culture derive from racist terms “highbrow” and “lowbrow” which were based on the pseudo-scientific eugenic study of craniometry, which argued that white people were inherently more intelligent because they had “higher brows”, aka skulls, than other groups. This study has since been found to be complete codswallop, the very definition of (pseudo-)scientific racism).

The “high” culture body was well-mannered, a body in control at all times, associated with intellect rather than emotion, and as such associated with the upper half of the body, especially the brain (rather than the lower half that engages in activities like sex, processes of elimination, and for women also menstruation, child birth, and so on). The “high” culture body was as such a male body, a white body, and higher-class. The “low” culture body had no manners, was a body out of control, was presumably subject to the whims of emotion and instinct, and as such was associated with the lower half of the body (e.g., sexual urges). It was (and is) a body associated with women, people of color, and those who are poor (also people of “deviant” sexual identities). Kipnis (in her excellent study of Hustler magazine) discusses how this “body is often a gaseous, fluid-emitting, embarrassing body, one continually defying the strictures of social manners and mores and instead governed by its lower intestinal tract: a body threatening to erupt at any moment… [It] devotes itself to what we might call grossness: an obsessive focus on the lower half of the body, and on the processes (and products) of elimination.” (132)

This bodily distinction took on a moral quality, with “high” cultured bodies considered more moral, “better,” “good,” and “normal.” As Bordo argues, “The moral—and, as we shall see, economic—coding of the fat/slender body in terms of its capacity for self-containment and the control of impulse and desire represents the culmination of a developing historical change in the social symbolism of body weight and size… [Under capitalism,] social power has come to be less dependent on the sheer accumulation of material wealth and more connected to the ability to control and manage the labor and resources of others. At the same time, excess body weight came to be seen as reflecting moral or personal inadequacy, or lack of will “ (Unbearable Weight: 192).

But how laughable all this is when we dig deeper! Because manners, bodily difference, and moralizing this difference is based on a false construction of elite bodies as somehow inherently different than those who are “Othered,” than “lower” bodies. And it is a false distinction! It is an illusion! It is not truth! Because all bodies eat, spit, piss, fart, poop, have sex (here’s hoping, at least!), and are ultimately at a basic level out of our control. Most of our body processes, and even mental processes for that matter, happen outside our conscious awareness. And that’s a good thing, because if we had to remember to breathe all the time we’d be in trouble, folks, let alone if we had to remember to make our hearts beat. All bodies are gross bodies. All bodies are flesh, and blood, and fluids, all bodies are messy–and thank god for that too because otherwise we’d be robots, unable to feel or truly experience anything. Denying the human nature of our bodies, hiding processes that are “undesirable” according to cultural norms just to take on, maintain, or enforce elite status can actually be incredibly damaging, not just in terms of the inequality it helps support and reproduce but also physically and mentally for those who adhere to it.

Class Privilege, Elitism, and Yoga

So let’s bring this back to yoga and class privilege. Of course class privilege in yoga is partially tied to the way the industry developed, the creation of yoga studio systems and teacher training programs, their marketing that primarily targets and caters to middle-class, highly educated white women (and to a lesser degree, men), and their locations, which are often in high end, white neighborhoods. (That’s a whole other post, though.) It’s also in some sense tied to fashion and consumption patterns. But right now I want to draw your attention to the way class privilege in yoga also has to do with the social construction of the yoga body, which is ultimately a classed (and raced, and gendered) body.

The yoga body is constructed as a “high,” elite body. It is a body constructed as completely in control (look at the force of will required to achieve and maintain some of those intense arm balances and inversions!), a body that is thin, “absolutely tight, contained, ‘bolted down,’ firm: in other words, a body that is protected against eruption within, whose internal processes are under control” (Bordo: 192). It is a body that does not burp, fart, or defecate (that we hear about), that is associated with the mind and upper half of the body, a body that is white, a body that is not messy. It is a body that is elegantly photographed, in a way that is associated with high-end, high-class production (think: Playboy, not Hustler). It is the sexualized body, not the body having sex. It is a bodied that is well mannered at all times, not the embarrassing body. And in saying these things, I’m not trying to say these things are bad; they simply are, and I am simply trying to acknowledge the way the yoga body is constructed as a classed body. But this construction is also limiting; at its very essence it is classed in profound ways and tied to forms of oppression and privilege that are inscribed in and read off bodies and their representations. The representations we see of this yoga body are not truth; they are manufactured and present a particular classed reality that is not shared by most people, that hides the underlying, inevitable gross body.

Perhaps more interestingly, the yoga body has not always been constructed in this way. The classical hatha yogic body was originally a gross body, a messy body. As discussed by Singleton, traditional hatha practice bodily practices were often distinct from the use of asanas, and a great deal of traditional hatha yoga practice aimed at purifying the body would today seem incredibly unorthodox, downright alarming, and, well, gross. Singleton summarizes some these practices as follows: “A preliminary stage of the hahta discipline is the six purifications (satkarmas), which are (with some variation between texts) (1) dhauti, or the cleansing of the stomach by means of swallowing a long, narrow strip of cloth; (2) basti, or ‘yoga enema’ effected by sucking water into the colon by means of an abdominal vacuum technique (uddiana bandha); (3) neti, or the cleaning of the nasal passages with water and/or cloth; (4) trataka, or staring at a small mark or candle until the eyes water; (5) nauli or lauliki, in which the abdomen is massaged by forcibly moving the rectus abdominus muscles in a circular motion; and (6) kapalabhati, where air is repeatedly and forcefully expelled via the nose by contraction of the abdominal muscles” (28). One of the many aims of these practices was to stimulate proper digestion (remember, that whole burping, farting, pissing, pooing messy body?), which is essential to good health.

The hatha yoga body was sanitized when it became appropriated by highly educated, upper-class Indians and later by the West, and this sanitizing process has continued today through studio systems where the practice is removed from the fleshy, gross body (god forbid you fart or burp in your class!) even as we are encouraged to “drop in” to our body through asana–but that “dropping in” takes place in classed ways that tie to race, size, and also gender, and seek to construct our bodies, and shape them, according to class boundaries and privilege.

This is a huge problem, because if we are only encouraged to connect to the “high,” elite body we marginalize many groups from practicing yoga who may feel uncomfortable as their bodies may not fit as easily within this construction (recall: people of color and larger bodies as well as a number of other groups are often are associated with the body out of control, the “lower” body, experiencing greater body monitoring by others as a result). Focusing only on the elite, “high” yoga body also means we lose sight of our connection to our own bodies, which are ultimately not classed, and are all gross. All yoga bodies are gross bodies, just as all bodies are gross bodies. Denying this is denying truth. Embracing our gross yoga bodies is pivotal to deepening a better understanding of ourselves and others as well as improving our health and well-being, both physically and mentally. Only by embracing the entirety of ourselves, including our gross bodies, will we be able to learn to love ourselves, improve our health, and reduce inequality.

Embracing the Gross Yoga Body

I think it’s high time we reclaim the gross yoga body, not only as a means of combating class privilege and inequality in yoga, but also because it’s important for our own health and well-being. Reconstructing the yoga body as a real, gross, fleshy, messy body is necessary if we want to change the classed nature of the practice. And this entails changing the practice to encourage and embrace the gross body. By all means, burp and fart in class! Why not? In fact, why wouldn’t you? What does it say about yoga today when we discourage people from expressing natural bodily practices that are a by-product of a deep, real, felt practice? Because honestly, if your yoga practice isn’t encouraging proper digestion, including healthy burps and farts, why are you even practicing in the first place? If we aren’t practicing asana to become healthier, then what are we practicing for?

In fact, it can be bad for your health to suppress a burp or fart. As this excellent post discusses: “burp when your body wants to burp, and pass gas when your body wants to pass gas; both mechanisms are in place to keep you comfortable and healthy, and suppressing these mechanisms can lead to trouble… The bottom line: For less abdominal discomfort and better overall health, chew well, don’t suppress the release of gas from your body, and strive to avoid foods that don’t agree with your digestive tract.” Here’s another post that identifies how “holding in gas leads to bloating, stomach cramps, and even devastatingly serious pain.” So why is something that is actually good for our health actively discouraged? (Oh right; I guess class oppression, because always?)

And if this discussion about bodily processes is making you uncomfortable, maybe you need to be asking yourself: why? Why do bodily processes that are natural and vital for our health and well-being make us ashamed, embarrassed, or uneasy? Who has taught us this is the “proper” reaction? How do feelings of shame and embarrassment control us and help to maintain unequal power systems?

If we want to adequately develop self awareness, we need to become aware not just of our “high,” elite bodies but also the aspects of our bodies that are “low” class. We need to embrace our gross yoga bodies as a path to self-love and healing, both physical and emotional. And we need to encourage a culture where the gross yoga body is not shamed or “Othered” but is considered normal and welcomed, so that everyone can live in a body that burps and farts without fear! Ultimately, we need to become comfortable talking about these things; and hey, a little laughter doesn’t hurt either.

Love, light, and… yoga❤

poop-infographic-healthworks

Healthism, Yoga and the Body as Machine

As some of you may know if you follow me on social media, I’ve been dealing with a minor shoulder injury. When I was around ten, I fell through a metal jungle gym, fractured my left wrist during the ten foot drop, and landed on my left side while at school. After going to the nurse and then having my parents take me to the ER, my wrist was treated and healed. But I didn’t realize until much later after I had became a more dedicated yoga practitioner that my shoulder had also experienced impact trauma and hadn’t healed properly, leading to over a decade of compensatory movement patterns. This is actually very common with impact trauma, as the instinctual reaction is to protect the area of the injury, often leading to postural habits that imbalance the body; for me, my instinct was to protect my left side even if I didn’t realize I was doing so.

Part of the lingering problem included an ability to slightly dislocate my shoulder, allowing my clasped arms to wrap around, up, and over my shoulders all the way to the back (yes, crazy I know). Yet for years, not understanding why I could do this and its connection to my lingering shoulder injury, I would dislocate my shoulders. It often felt like a great stretch through my upper back (even while I wasn’t learning to utilize my muscles to stretch the back). Admittedly, there was also some part of me that enjoyed the novel identity it brought, being able to do something so many people couldn’t do, especially considering I was never very athletic (book worm much?). Obviously, I have since stopped doing this.

As I have been going through my teacher training, I found that my practice was beginning to aggravate my shoulder. I’ve been practicing asana more than I ever have, and between the activity, weight bearing, long holds, and adjustments I’ve had to back off my asana practice for a bit and seek some medical and therapeutic help to let it heal properly, finally, after nearly twenty years. I am getting a variety of bodywork done to realign my left shoulder to proper placement, and am now trying to relearn proper postural habits to overcome over a decade of compensatory movement patterns. For me, this minor injury has actually been a profound learning experience in my own personal practice and has helped me think more deeply about my research, about what we are doing in asana, and about how we learn and think about yoga and the body in the Western yoga world.

Why do we think of yoga as only asana? In what ways have Western modalities of thinking influenced our understanding of the body as machine, and prevented us from a holistic connection and proprioceptive understanding of the body? What does it mean to have a deep yoga practice? How do certification programs reproduce and perpetuate limited views of yoga and the yoga body? And ultimately, how can we teach yoga as more than asana?

In sociology, we talk about how our ideas of health are socially constructed. What a healthy body looks like and the practices it engages in are socially determined through culture, socialization experiences, and medical practices. In the last century, western medicine has become a primary driver in our determination of “health,” often in ways that moralize the division between healthy/unhealthy, normal/pathological, pure/impure, such that marginalized populations are typically ascribed the status of “unhealthy.” In sociology, we call this approach healthism, and it is equally common in the yoga world where ideas of health, asana, and the body as machine mix in often dangerous and unanticipated ways.

Let’s look at an example of healthism in action. Women’s natural health systems, including pregnancy, menstruation, and menopause have been medicalized and pathologized for centuries. This is what I like to call (pseudo-)scientific sexism, and in the past included ideas that a woman’s uterus could travel through the body disrupting normal functioning (a “pathology” called female hysteria among Western psychology that wasn’t removed from their list of diseases until 1959), that a women who was menstruating was impure and dangerous, and (during the height of eugenics) that mental or physical exertion could actually damage future unborn children, an idea that was used to restrict access to higher education for women as it might “tax the brain” and damage our capacity for reproduction. And it’s important to note that these type of myths are not dead and gone! They survive in popular culture ideas that women are more emotional, that we experience PMS that interferes with our judgement (for which there is NO sound medical evidence), and misnomers like the popular “women shouldn’t lift weights” adage. In yoga, we often hear outdated ideas about not practicing certain poses while during our periods, despite the complete lack of scientific evidence as to why this might be necessary.

We could take this further to discuss (pseudo-)scientific racism, as well as popular ideas of size as a determinant of health that are similarly problematic and rooted in cultural and social myth rather than fact, but I think you get the idea. The point I’m trying to make here is that, especially in the Western world, we often like to think we understand what “health” means and how to practice it. But sociology teaches us that these ideas, like all knowledge, are socially constructed, historically situated, constantly changing, and can often lead to flawed understandings about the body, especially bodies of marginalized groups like women, people of color, larger bodies, queer bodies, and so on.

And if you are feeling reactive in light of this information, and want to proclaim, “Amara, how can you say that health is constructed? That PMS is a myth? WHAT?! *mind blown*,” know you are not alone. When I teach medicalization in my classes, my students often have similar reactions. This is because we are taught from infanthood to accept these ideas as absolute, indisputable “natural,” “truth.” It’s very uncomfortable to challenge something we have internalized and believed in for most of our lives. In fact, a great deal of social psychological research shows that people who are confronted with their own biases become defensive and reactive. But ultimately, confronting deeply ingrained misperceptions is the art and practice of yoga: to acknowledge the biases that we have internalized that drive our actions, and to overcome these illusions to get at a more accurate and pure understanding of our Selves and the world around us so that we can act from a place of knowledge and intention, with mindful awareness (which we can think of as a practice of vinyasa krama).

In yoga philosophy, we refer to the biases of the mind as maya, illusion, or avidya, incorrect comprehension or ignorance that clouds our perception, that is the “accumulated result of our many unconscious actions, the actions and ways of perceiving that we have been mechanically carrying out for years” (Desikachar’s Heart of Yoga). Such habitual bias colors the mind, obscuring our clarity of perception and preventing us from achieving true understanding of our Selves and world. The art of yoga is about overcoming this ignorance and illusion to foster a deeper understanding, so that we can avoid and alleviate suffering in our lives and others.

Healthism, Yoga, and the Body as Machine

During the past century our understandings and ideas about the body within yoga have been heavily influenced by Western medical practices and healthism. Historically, the incorporation of anatomy into yoga was driven by an interest in eugenics in the early 1900s (a topic thoroughly researched by Joseph Alter) and by the cross-cultural transmission by yoga gurus like B.K.S. Iyengar, who often utilized medical science to appeal to a Western audience and to legitimize yoga in the modern world. In this process of transformation yoga increasingly became defined as asana, which was more accessible and easier for Westerners to understand as it corresponded to already existing ideas of fitness practices and provided a tangible path of progress to follow. It was also easier to teach in group class settings than the more classical understanding of yoga as a philosophical practice.

What this meant is that yoga became synonymous with asana, disconnected from philosophical practices, and tied to medical science, particularly the use of anatomy, predicated on dividing the body into separate parts and systems rather than viewing the body as a holistic physical, emotive, and mental being. So we now take classes, solely teaching yoga as asana, that “focus” on specific parts of the body: a class to work your hamstrings, a class to open the hips, a class to work the core abdominal muscles, a class to work the butt muscles, and so on. We learn that this pose is good for this ailment, this muscle, this system. And in teacher training systems we teach the body as consisting of seemingly separate parts: poses that work the legs, poses that twist the spine, the separation of the muscular, skeletal, and nervous systems, a division between structural and functional movement patterns. We divide the body up into parts of a machine, that work together but are presented as separable. And “health” becomes constructed as purely physical and as something that we achieve by isolating and maximizing the utility of seemingly disparate parts of the physical body without a clear end point (something illustrated clearly by the creation of numerous sequences in the Ashtanga method beyond the primary series; there used to be just one until the practice was Westernized and the later series were added on to meet the demand and expectations of students).

This view of the body and of health in yoga is flawed; the body is not divisible, and all the parts of our body are interconnected. The organs are not separate from the muscular and skeletal systems, but are intimately tied together into a functioning whole. The muscular and skeletal systems are interconnected, and alive; habitual functional movement patterns can actually change our skeletal structures over time. We cannot isolate the core muscles from other parts of the body, or target particular body areas to work on in isolation and when we try to do so we disconnect from the sense of the body as whole, the body as holistic, the body as flesh and blood rather than the body as machine. We also potentially increase the risk of injury. Not to mention that the body is not simply physical but also a mental and emotive being. Emotional and mental states can change the physical body, which, for example, is at the heart of current research on the psychology of eating. In asana, ideally, every pose is a entire body practice, not just of the entire physical body, but also of the mental and emotive body.

And these aspects of the body are not separate from the world around us, either. We are not contained in an isolated bag of flesh; as Stacy Alaimo argues in Bodily Natures, the body is transcorporeal and interconnected to the world around us. What we put on the body, like body products, enters into us through the pores of our skin. The toxins we are exposed to become a part of us as we breathe, and the social, cultural, and institutional influences on our lives have a profound effect on the physical, emotive, and mental practices of the flesh. For example, research has shown that poverty affects our mental behaviors and attitudes, as well as the physical being as those who are poor are more likely to suffer from a variety of health concerns like obesity, mental illness, or toxic exposure. Gendered socialization can actually change the way the brain works. The body is ultimately permeable and porous, and as yoga philosophy teaches us all of these things are constantly in change, constantly in flux (even our bones).

This holistic, transcorporeal approach to health is gaining ground in Western science, and is being corroborated with recent biomechanical research on movement and stretching, on the new science of pain, on the psychology of eating and weight loss, on the existence of the microbiome, and in bodywork circles on the way emotional and physical trauma is held in the body across time. But most of the Western yoga world is woefully behind the times, as the regulations for teacher training systems have not been updated in decades and most certification programs primarily teach yoga as asana according to the body as machine approach to “health.”

In this “yoga as asana” approach, yoga becomes constructed as the achievement of various positions of the body, rather than a way or method of moving the body to prepare for the deeper, more meditative practice. Rather than think about how we practice asana, as a methodology of moving meditation and philosophical application practiced through the physical body, where the physical is joined with the emotive and mental and whose movement takes place in the world, we focus on disjointed poses or positions of the body and rarely pay attention to the transitions between postures. We focus on staying bounded on a mat, restricted in space, stuck in a box, rather than recognizing the movement in every moment, in every transition and position, as an extension and engagement with the world around us, wherever we are.

I like the term “chasing asana” to describe how we have become focused on chasing the sensation or achievement of individual postures, without a clear reflection or understanding (self-study, anyone?) of why and how we seek to attain these positions. What is the purpose of posture? In the Western yoga world, we teach students, and train teachers to teach, that the focus is on achieving the 2-d pose we see rather than feel, typically on social media and through popular culture (produced by the yoga industrial complex that profits often of this consumption-focus). And don’t be fooled! We are taught yoga is something to consume. To buy. To sell. To practice in small quantities in ritualistic and disparate spaces (studios), to keep on the mat, or to take asana off the mat, rather than as a way of living life throughout every moment, for a lifetime. And as a form of consumption, we can also think of this interpretation of yoga practice as a type of indulgence, because chasing asana is ultimately a practice of stroking the ego rather than non-attachment. Frustration that may come through injury demonstrates this, as we are attached to chasing asana, to yoga as asana, so that when we are unable to practice this interpretation of yoga we lose sight of the path, we lose sight of the practice entirely (although personally I haven’t been frustrated with my injury, I know many many yogis who have been with their own, and I have experienced this myself in the past when I was younger and did not understand yoga as deeply.)

We chase a construction of asana as individual positions, regardless of whether we have to force the body beyond its ability to get there, regardless of whether we are capable of muscular stability to prevent injury and ensure proper alignment. We don’t develop proprioception through deep self-reflection, mindfulness, and meditation on what we are doing, in every second, in every transition, as well as in every “end-point.” We are told to “listen to the body,” but never how to do so, or why. We are encouraged to “feel” but never taught how to interpret what we sense within the context of the lifetime, in the context of sustainability in our practice across time. We are encouraged to chase poses that biomechanically speaking often require us to go beyond a safe range of movement in the joints. We are encouraged to seek ego and pleasure through asana instead of practicing vairagya, non-attachment, in order to understand what is best for us and avoid being clouded by bias, illusion, avidya. We are encouraged to want to practice, rather than utilize practice to achieve what we need and encourage functionality.

We don’t teach asana within the context of yama and niyama, within the context of yoga philosophy. We don’t learn the classical purpose of asana as a means of learning to sense, understand, and master the body in conjunction with pranayama for the purpose of self-realization and elimination of suffering. Traditionally speaking, asana was one part of a larger practice of yama, niyama, pranayama and meditation, all of which allowed the yogi to, in a simplified sense, control the instinctual flight or fight response that leads to reactivity, instead developing a constant practice of acting with intentionality, knowledge, and purpose. The path of yoga is the path of learning how to act with intention through the development of self-realization, so that we may be a stable balance point in the sea of constant change, enabling us act from this anchor.

The construction of yoga as asana is exacerbated by the Westernized, militarized format of classes, which have changed from the individualized, one-on-one instruction between a student and teacher to drill-style group classes geared towards the average individual. This is based on the factory-style educational program that began after industrialization in the West which was also incorporated into the military, and subsequently spread to the rest of the world, including India.

In one-on-one instruction the teacher would create and gear lessons to the students’ individual needs and level of understanding. Lecture and discussion of philosophy and readings were common, and asana was taught according the individual student’s ability in conjunction with other yogic practices. But in the drill-style, group class setting there are time restrictions, we can’t assign homework or reading, there isn’t the degree of student-teacher contact, discussion of philosophy is limited to the brief moments of stillness in the midst of chasing asana. And even if teachers want to break free from this mold it can be extremely difficult, as many make a living teaching and in order to earn their income must meet the expectations of paying, student consumers who learn about yoga through popular culture and come to class with prior expectations of what they are paying for that put pressure on teachers to present yoga as only asana. While there are some ways around this, such as offering teacher trainings where trainers can teach yoga as more than asana (to a very limited degree), private classes, reading groups, and the like, these are more difficult to achieve and to find strong student support for.

So I’d like to leave this post with a few questions for myself and everyone out there to think deeply on. What is the purpose of asana, and why do we chase it? What are we really gaining by achieving more complex postures, or practicing 108 sun salutations (which, really, no one should do if they want to avoid repetitive stress injuries)? At what point do these practices become a practice of ego, and devoid of the deeper aspects of yoga? To what extent do we consume yoga, rather than practice or study it, because of industry expectations and encouragement? If the body is transcorporeal and holistic, rather than a machine, then how can we transform our asana practices to reflect this? How can we utilize asana as a tool to gain self-knowledge and self-realization, a tool to practice the deeper philosophy of yoga? (Because a tool is only as useful as how it is wielded; a hammer can just as easily injury you as build a roof to sleep under.) What are we teaching about the body and self if we are not reflecting on the bodily habits (physical, emotional, and mental) in our everyday lives, both on and off the mat? In what ways do we compensate physically, emotionally, and mentally in our practice, why do we do so, and how is this written in flesh?

Love, light, and… yoga❤

Yoga : Magic : Meaning Making

One of my previous posts, Yoga, Magical Thinking, and Satya explored what it means to be truthful. Today I want to talk about the nature of magic, because I think digging deeply into what we mean by “magic” reveals a great deal about the nature of yoga.

Yoga has been associated with the magical for a long time. During British colonization of India, Singleton (2010:35) notes that “yogins were more likely to be identified by their critics (both Indian and European) with black magic, perverse sexuality, and alimentary impurity” than with yoga as we think of it now. Tantric yogis were similarly associated with occult powers. Samuel (2011:311) notes that: “If we want to understand what early Śaiva Tantrics were doing, for example, it is surely relevant that they were probably doing it, much of the time, in the context of being employed as official sorcerers, healers and magical practitioners by local rulers and ‘big men’… we have to see similar contexts for much Buddhist and Jaina Tantric practice as well.”

The association of yoga, tantra, and magic only grew stronger in interactions with the West, where such affiliations were stereotyped and reproduced in various forms of popular culture, including literature and movies. Ultimately, “the fakir-yogi was the object of an intense fascination for European occultists, who naturally emphasized the wondrous magical powers that such figures could acquire through yoga” such that “the supposed siddhis or magical powers of some such yogis resulted in the association of hatha yoga with occult magic” (Singleton 2010:64-66).

But can we dig deeper into this connection between yoga and occult powers? Why is yoga associated with magic?

What is magic all about?

The heart of magic is the art of knowing the true essence of something. This is the root of folklore about the power of knowing something’s “true name,” the idea of a sacred language that captures the true essence of the referent. The most common example of this is the tale of Rumplestiltskin, a story pattern common across many cultures. In the tale, the woman can defeat Rumplestiltskin only by learning his true name. Miyazaki’s film Spirited Away also utilizes this same story pattern, as the young girl can only win her freedom when she is able to remember her true name (for those Miyazaki fans out there).

 

My favorite author, Patricia A. McKillip, utilizes these ideas of magic throughout her corpus of award-winning fantasy books (of which I’d highly recommend The Riddle-Master of Hed trilogy, The Book of Atrix Wolfe, The Forgotten Beasts of Eld, and The Song for the Basilisk). She describes magic as the power of naming, and the gaining of magical power as developing a deep understanding of something such that by knowing it’s true essence one can become it, or manipulate it.

“There are no simple words. I don’t know why I thought I could hide anything behind language.”
Patricia A. McKillip, The Book of Atrix Wolfe

Words, for McKillip, hold tremendous power, not because of the word itself, but rather because words can become powerful when one comes to understand what the word truly means. Magic entails a recognition that enables a replication or manipulation, and is thus a way of doing something, not something itself. It is how we do things that produces magic. Anyone can say “fire,” but those with magic (at least in McKillip’s books) will say “fire” and, understanding the true essence of fire, the word itself will burn. So magic is the power to name, to come to know the true nature or essence of the world, and by doing so gain the knowledge to predict what may yet come, reproduce what already is, or manipulate the world around us.

Magic is thus not something distinct from us that we draw on, but rather a viewpoint, something internal to us that shifts and morphs and changes in a way that changes the way we see, and by doing so grants us power, or magic. By changing the way we look at things, the things we look at change. It is a way of looking at things so as to understand them deeply, and ultimately a way of doing (of acting) with knowledge and reverence, so that every action we engage in is done with mindful devotion. We can think of magic, then, as a form of wisdom, a way of seeing what has always been before you in a new and never-before-thought-of way and then acting based on this knowledge (with control and mindfulness).

“A riddle is a tale so familiar you no longer see it; it’s simply there, like the air you breathe… until one day you look at it and something shapeless, voiceless in you opens a third eye and sees it as you have never seen it before. Then you are left with the knowledge of the nameless question in you, and the tale that is no longer meaningless but the one thing in the world that has meaning any more.”
Patricia A. McKillip

Magic requires mindfulness, in that, like Sherlock Holmes, with mindfulness we are able to detect how things work in ways that seem magical, genius, or supernormal. This is the way we are able to, like the turning on of a light, see and know the true essence of things (including situations). It is also the way we are able to exert force upon things or situations by understanding and identifying pressure points so that we can change or manipulate the situation or thing to actualize a specific orientation or goal, in the process moving the course of the world around us in a concerted direction reflecting our will.

This wisdom is thus magic, and grants power (understanding the true essence of something gives you power over it). With it you can affect change along a predetermined path; with it you can manipulate a path; with it you can forge your own path. As with all power, without ethical guidelines it can be abused. But it can also represent the power to understand problems and to find solutions. With it you can affect changes that might seem impossible to someone who does not understand as deeply. Magic makes the impossible, possible. This can frighten people at times. But it can also inspire or be used toward positive ends.

So what does magic have to do with yoga?

Knowing the true essence of something is the art and magic of yoga. This is the nature of the eight limbs of yoga; as we practice them in concert, as we practice yoga as more than asana and journey on the eightfold path we are able to attain a higher state of consciousness. This is particularly true regarding our engagement with the final four limbs of yoga: pratyahara, the service of the senses to the mind; dharana, holding focused concentration in one direction; dhyana, the movement of the mind in continuous communication with the object of our attention; and ultimately samadhi, becoming one with the object of our attention, or the merging with the object of meditation. Desikachar teaches that “when dharana, dhyana, and samadhi are concentrated on one object, the resulting state is samyama… when a person is constantly focusing on one particular object [such that] he or she will come to understand it progressively more deeply” (Heart of Yoga: 110). By doing so we are able to empathize and understand the true essence of whatever we turn our concentration to. And this is yoga. Yoga is the art of meaning making. It yokes our senses and enhances them and our ability to interpret the world; it provides us with knowledge that can seem magical, supernormal, and that is powerful.

Many yogis refer to such powers as siddhis, supernormal perceptual states that are beyond what is typically within the purview of the normal range of perception. Now, regardless of whether you believe it’s possible to defy gravity, as with all myths there is truth embedded in the tales. While some recorded siddhis are likely exaggerated, such as being able to reduce one’s body to the size of an atom (because really, that’s an anachronistic interpretation anyway),  others are obviously quite real and many instances of supernormal feats have been recorded and are undeniable. For example, other siddhis include: knowing the past, present and future; tolerance of heat, cold and other dualities; being undisturbed by hunger, thirst, and other bodily appetites; dying when one desires; checking the influence of poison; perfect accomplishment of one’s determination; or orders or commands being unimpeded.

Ultimately, then, the practice of yoga is a practice of magic, of acting with mindful devotion, with knowledge and reverence. And when we understand something someone else does not understand, the conclusions we can draw and the action we can take can seem magical. What is magic, but an understanding deeper than what is normal, so that it seems extraordinary? What seems like magic is ultimately a trick, as with all magic shows, but in the case of yoga is a trick of awareness and understanding the true essence of the world around us so that we are able to act in ways that appear, to all intents and purposes, like magic.

Yoga as Controlled Folly

Yoga is also the recognition that the world is inherently unpredictable, that there is always an element of chance, and thus we are always playing the odds, playing with risk. This knowledge allows us to be detached to the outcome, because we know that all paths are disrupted at some point. This detachment allows the yogi to act without fear, as part of what Castaneda calls controlled folly in his book, A Separate Reality. Thus, recognizing that: “nothing being more important than anything else, a man of knowledge chooses any act, and acts it out as if it matters to him. His controlled folly makes him say that what he does matters and makes him act as if it did, and yet he knows that it doesn’t; so when he fulfills his acts, he retreats in peace, and whether his acts were good or bad, or worked or didn’t, is in no way part of his concern.”

“When you put your hands and mind and heart into the knowing of a thing … there is no room in you for fear.”
Patricia A. McKillip

Those who practice the magic of yoga are able to minimize the risks,  minimize the chance of disruption, and when it does occur (because it will, inevitably, at some point) it becomes possible to focus to make these disruptions as small as possible, to ride the wave of the storm, to submit to and thereby influence the outcome. As in martial arts, the yogi is able to turn the power of an opponent in on itself; the yogi harnesses the powers of the world to accomplish seemingly impossible feats.

With love, light, and… yoga❤

4555bc6d113caa158a81a5d239225c1b
Castaneda by Nicolas Rosenfeld

Ottawa, Yoga, and Cultural Appropriation

Response to: No, Westerners Practicing Yoga Are Not Guilty of “Cultural Appropriation”

Today I want to write about the recent viral news story regarding the cancellation of a free yoga classes offered in Ottawa. The story has been met by a great deal of debate and discussion on the nature of cultural appropriation, how cultural appropriation relates to yoga, and concerns of “reverse racism” and “over-sensitivity” by marginalized populations. I feel many responses I’ve seen on the story have ignored some very important points about cultural appropriation and yoga that are relevant to the conversation.

The Ottawa Incident: What Happened?

The incident involved a free yoga class offered at the University of Ottawa through the Centre for Students with Disabilities that was cancelled because of administrative concerns regarding inclusivity and cultural sensitivity, namely that the class was culturally appropriating yoga from a historically oppressed population (India under colonialism and imperialism). Center staff originally explained the decision to cancel the class was a response to complaints from several students and volunteers about issues of cultural sensitivity and appropriation, as well as the fact that the center were short on staff and didn’t have the capacity to continue the programming.

The yoga teacher attempted to bargain with the university to continue the classes, including discussing the removal of references to yoga philosophy (which were already sparse to begin with),  focusing on “stretching” and “fitness”, and refraining from using Sanskrit (which she hadn’t really been using much anyway), all strategies that have been used successfully to integrate yoga into schools in California, for example. However, the center ultimately admitted there were no direct complaints about the class, and that they decided to drop the courses because the university was concerned about issues of cultural sensitivity and because “they couldn’t get a French name and nobody wants to do it.” The student federation president also added that “they suspended the class as part of a review of all their programs to make them more interesting, accessible, inclusive and responsive to the needs of students.”

A recent post by the disabilities center clarifying the situation is worth sharing, as I think draws attention to some of the miscommunication that has developed around the details of the events:

Never did the Student Federation at the University of Ottawa, or the Centre for Students with Disabilities, release the statements around cultural appropriation to the Ottawa Sun in the interview that we had with them on November 19th. The Ottawa Sun received emails exchanged between the Centre for Students with Disabilities and yoga Instructor. These emails, we would like to highlight, are outdated and have led to a lot of miscommunication about our program. [In other words, the quotes regarding concerns about cultural appropriation are from email exchanges between the center and teacher that were given to the news agencies, and were from several months ago during the review process.]…

The consultation process has been going on since the beginning of summer 2015 and because of that, the CSD has had a lot a feedback on how to improve the program to better accommodate their members. The statements quoted by the Ottawa Sun were a small-misrepresented message out of a larger conversation around the program. For example, the following concerns needed to be addressed.

First, the attendance of the Yoga classes was declining, this program has been running for the past 8 years without any re-evaluation and we wanted to ensure that students’ money and resources was being used in a responsible and efficient way to better promote the centre. There were some real concerns about how yoga was not meeting the mandate of the centre, and serving the needs of students with disabilities namely, students with physical disabilities and mobility issues. As the primary goal in the mandate of the CSD is to ensure that activities put on for the service users are accessible, it is our responsibility to address the issues and act upon them.

It is important to stress that the Student Federation at the University of Ottawa is very disheartened by the rhetoric being used around our due process to evaluate our service centres as we all take our jobs very seriously and work tirelessly to represent and support our students.

We do not condone and are very disappointed by the harassment and violence some of our staff experienced, due to the misrepresentation of our process. Acknowledging that many students are not given access to safe spaces in and around their campuses, the CSD in no way thought that suspending this program for the semester with the intention of improving it for a January return would cause this much uproar. Let us please revaluate this conversation and have a more conducive dialogue around how to make our campuses more accessible to those who do not feel safe.

So clearly there is a lot going on here in this case. Before I talk about whether or not this was actually cultural appropriation, I want to clarify some problematic arguments that have arisen regarding what cultural appropriation is, whether or not it’s possible to culturally appropriate yoga, and ultimately come back to this particular Ottawa case to demonstrate why it is not a case of cultural appropriation (but why we should still care about the possibility of appropriation in yoga).

Defining Cultural Appropriation

Appropriation is defined as a process where one group takes intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from another group’s culture without permission or understanding of the original history, meaning, or use of the appropriated good (adapted from Ziff and Rao 1997). The process is characterized by a power difference, where members of a dominant group have more power, taking from a culture that has often been systematically oppressed. Cultural appropriation is always a transaction that goes on between two groups, and as such is a process that always should acknowledge the agency of both groups, including that of the group being appropriated.

For example, Buyukokutan (2011) notes that particular outcomes, such as exploitation or equitable exchange, are more likely depending on the “whether the would-be appropriators and legitimate owners of the appropriated resource can strike a mutually beneficial bargain” (620). In this way, he draws attention to the way appropriation is not simply a one-way process, but often serves to benefit both groups (if unequally). As such, appropriation is best understood as reciprocal “exchange,” if an unequal one. Appropriation is a transaction where the dominant group has substantially more power to control that process and ultimately benefits much more as a result. As a consequence of the power differential involved in appropriation, the process can be harmful, whether that damage is cultural, emotional, economic, or intellectual, and is a cause for concern for this reason, since (regardless of the intentions of the taker) it may negatively impact the culture, identity, or life course of those experiencing appropriation.

Typically only members of the dominant group profit from appropriation, often through commodification of the appropriated cultural good that simplifies the meaning or history, utilizes stereotypical representations, or results in the symbolic annihilation of the original culture—when the original culture is marginalized, misrepresented, or ignored entirely, including when the origins of the appropriated cultural object are erased or when historical oppression experienced by the non-dominant group is trivialized (see Gerbner 1972; Gerbner and Gross 1976; Coleman and Yochim 2008). It is thus by culturally appropriating “that one asserts power and privilege” because the act of appropriation is largely driven and controlled by the more powerful, dominant group (Hooks 1992: 36). Thus, the terms of “exchange” take place according to the needs and desires of the taker in ways that benefit the dominant group. Often, the taker is also able to engage in the politics of self-serving distinction, utilizing the appropriated culture to garner higher prestige or status unavailable to members of the nondominant group.

Can Westerners Culturally Appropriate Yoga? (Hint: Yes, and so can Indians)

Michelle Goldberg has responded to this event with an article that claims Westerners practicing yoga are not guilty of cultural appropriation. She argues the Ottawa case is part of a larger trend where certain groups who she claims “know very little of the cultures they purport to protect” are overly-sensitive about appropriation, and fail to understand the historical case of cultural diffusion of yoga to the West. (She cites the website Decolonizing Yoga as a example of such groups, which is incredibly problematic considering she claims such people know “little” about yoga or cultural appropriation, and this is definitely not the case for those involved with this site.) In general, her article argues westerners practicing yoga are somehow incapable of engaging in cultural appropriation because claims of appropriation “completely ignore the agency of Indians themselves who have been making a concerted effort to export yoga to the West since the late 19th century.” Thus, it’s somehow impossible for westerners to culturally appropriate yoga because Indian gurus have been engaged in exporting yoga for centuries, with the implication being that the Ottawa case is an overreaction and misapplication of the term cultural appropriation and is, in fact, people just being “overly sensitive.”

First, there are some serious problems with her brief vignette of the history of diffusion of yoga to the West by Indian gurus, and her argument that Indians have been exporting yoga to the West willingly over the last century and as a unified group. Goldberg rightly identifies that “Indians saw getting Westerners interested in yoga as a way of undermining British colonialism.” But what is left out of this discussion is how practices of hatha yoga, in particular, were actually reconceptualized (cough, appropriated) by educated, middle-class Indian intellectuals like Vivekananda in order to create a new formulation of “yoga” that was more acceptable to Westerns, Indian elites, and Indian nationalists. This newly formulated “modern” yoga was aligned with nationalistic projects to distance the developing independent Indian state from Orientalist stereotypes that portrayed India as “superstitious” and “traditional,” and instead sought to portray India, through a reconceptualization of yoga, as “modern” in order to gain support for India’s independence. Sri Yogendra and Swami Kuvalayananda, for example, started the Kaivalyadhama Health and Yoga Research Center in 1928 to study yoga as a modern science (based in Western practices of medicine).

So we have to understand that yoga, even in India, was a fractured, multiple, and diverse practice historically, and did not reflect a unified group of individuals or a unified ideology (which Goldberg implies). We also have to acknowledge that certain styles of yoga (such as hatha yoga) were themselves appropriated by wealthier Indian intellectuals from subordinated, oppressed, and poor Indian populations. In this appropriation process, practices and conceptualizations of yoga changed. For example, Singleton notes yoga became more focused on physical postures as gurus like Krishnamacharya incorporated Western practices like bodybuilding (physical culture), gymnastics, and military-style drill systems into their teachings as part of nationalistic projects that promoted yoga as a “traditional” way to build stronger Indian men (to counteract Orientalist portrayals of Indian men as effeminate) and to build a stronger nation state (ideas based in eugenics, which was popular at the time but lost credibility after the horrors of WWII and the Nazi regime).

Goldberg also argues that “nationalists sent the Hindu monk Swami Vivekananda as a sort of missionary to America, where he introduced yoga philosophy in the 1890s.” But we have to problematize this, too, because at the time Vivekananda’s travels to the West were seen by many Indians as blasphemous, attention-seeking, and potentially damaging. That’s not to say all Indians felt this way and in general Vivekananda did have a great deal of support from those back in India, but again, this points out how we cannot assume any one Indian guru (like Vivekananda) spoke for all yogis or Indians.

Academic research shows that one of the main motivations for Vivekananda’s trip to the West was actually to raise money. He was broke, unable to find stable employment, and it was his financial struggles and difficulty dealing with the new responsibilities he faced upon the death of his father that initially drove him to connect with his guru, Ramakrishna (who Vivekananda had actually disliked when he initially met him prior to his father’s passing). In fact, the entire “official” narrative of how Vivekananda was petitioned by Ramakrishna to continue his spiritual transmission after his death by starting the Ramakrishna order is likely over-exaggerated, as evidence actually shows Ramakrishna did not wish Vivekananda to become a sannyasi, a form of religious ascetic, while his mother lived (most likely because, with the death of his father, Ramakrishna felt Vivekananda was needed to help support his family, meaning he could not renounce material desires and completely detach himself from material life; he did so regardless of Ramakrishna’s concerns, a decision that ended up changing India, Hinduism, and yoga forever). Similarly, evidence indicates that “Ramakrishna never formally initiated the future Vivekananda and the other young devotees,” as the renunciation undergone by Vivekananda took place several months after Ramakrishna died in a very unorthodox initiation that featured strong Christian content and was likely self-administered by Vivekananda and his followers (De Michelis: 105-107).

It was only after traveling for several years in India spreading his teachings and struggling with poverty that Vivekananda “hit upon a plan” to “raise the masses,” but recognized that he needed two things to do so, men and money. Because he had a difficult time raising funds in India (in part because there were so many sanyassins, or religious aesthetics, “wandering about teaching the people metaphysics”), he went to America to “earn money myself, and then return to my country and devote the rest of my days to the realization of this one aim in my life… I give them [Americans] spirituality and they give me money” (Vivekananda, quoted in De Michelis: 109). So Vivekananda traveled to America of his own accord, primarily as a means of earning funds for his religious projects, and contrary to Goldberg’s claims he was not sent as a spiritual emissary representing all Indians or all yogis.

In fact, Vivekananda ran out of money soon after arriving in New York but was “adopted” by prominent members of the occult religious organizations in the USA, including the recently formed Theosophical Society in New York and other new age religious groups such as metaphysics, harmonial religions, and mesmerism, whose members were “impressed by the handsome monk in the orange robe” and his “perfect English.” It’s worth noting that Vivekananda only started wearing orange robes during his time with Ramakrishna, who actually found the attire worrisome. Regardless, this apparel lent Vivekananda credibility in his new role as spiritual guru both back in India and especially in the West; he was able to start earning money almost immediately by giving talks and classes to wealthy white American occultists and by receiving donations.

De Michelis notes that “he acted as a wise counselor and teacher, as a friend and as a ‘soiree ornament… entertaining the wealthy and curious'” and that his popularity was partly due to “the fascination exercised in cultic milieus by Oriental teachers” who were romanticized by Westerners as “providers of genuine teachings, whatever their credentials” (111). Vivekananda applied to present at the Chicago Parliament of Religions as a “representative of the Hindu monastic order,” but this was a self-ascribed title and didn’t reflect any actual diplomatic representative status he possessed. So we have to understand that Vivekananda’s trips to the USA were self-motivated, even if it was for a good cause that he believed in, and that the formulations of yoga he disseminated to the West did not represent all Indians or all yogis (in fact, De Michelis recounts how his formulations of yoga were modified as a result of his interactions with new age spirituality in the West, which he adopted into his own understandings of the practice and then brought back to India). So Goldberg’s claim that it’s impossible to appropriate yoga is based on a misunderstanding of Vivekananda’s “mission” that ignores the ways his travels to the West were self-induced as a means of raising money for his spiritual projects, and not a reflection of some common approval of Western transmission by all Indians or all yogis.

Goldberg also claims that appropriation by Westerners is impossible because another prominent Indian guru, Krishnamacharya, gave teachers like Indra Devi “permission” to share yogic teachings with the West as some sort of “go forth and teach” missionary venture. But again, this is problematic as it ignores concerns Krishnamacharya actually had regarding Western appropriation of yoga, and is based on claims by Devi that such an interaction and conversation occurred. In fact, evidence actually indicates Krishnamacharya didn’t want to teach Westerners originally, especially women. Devi was a Russian noblewoman who adopted the stage name of Indra Devi to sound more Hindi during her involvement in several Indian films, and it was only after the Maharaja of Mysore, who funded Krishnamacharya’s yoga school, spoke on her behalf in 1938 that he even accepted her as a student of yoga. In fact, this revealing and prophetic quote from Krishnamacharya indicates that he was concerned about Western appropriation of yoga, contrary to Goldberg’s claims (thanks, Sri, for drawing my attention to this in your latest blog post):

The foreigners have stolen all the skills and knowledge and treasure of mother India, either right in front of us of in a hidden way. They pretend that they have discovered all this by themselves, bundle it together, and then bring it back here as though doing us a favor and in exchange take all the money and things we have saved up for our family’s welfare. After some time passes, they will try and do the same thing with Yogavidya. We can clearly state that the blame for this is that while we have read books required for the knowledge of yoga to shine, we have not understood or studied the concepts or brought them into our experience. If we still sleep and keep our eyes close, then the foreigners will become our gurus in Yogavidya.

In fact, while Krishnamacharya did teach Westerners this mostly occurred later in his life, and was related to changes in funding as his school stopped being funded by wealthy donors like the Maharaja in the decades following Devi’s study with him and instead became funded privately through fees charged to students. This meant that Westerners, who often were more able/willing to pay to learn yoga from such a renowned teacher, became a prime target market for Krishnamacharya even in India. It’s also worth noting that many Westerners actually trained with Krishnamacharya’s Indian students who then went on to teach, such as Pattabhi Jois, not with Krishnamacharya himself, and it’s likely he had little control of who his students taught even if he was concerned about Western appropriation of yoga.

I realize all of this history can be a bit overwhelming, but what I’m trying to point out is that cultural appropriation by Westerners was in fact a concern of many Indian gurus, even those who did end up teaching non-Indian students. Ultimately, we can’t argue (as Goldberg does) that cultural appropriation is impossible because “confident, outward-looking men who established modern yoga were eager to bring their system to the wider world” and as such charges of cultural appropriation are “invalid” because they “completely ignore the agency of Indians themselves, who have been making a concerted effort to export yoga to the West since the late 19th century.” Goldberg’s argument is flawed because she doesn’t understand that cultural appropriation is always a process characterized by an unequal power relationship between two parties, and as such always takes into account (or should) the agency of the party being appropriated from. Also, her argument lumps all Indians into one group, although it is clear that no Indian yoga guru spoke for all Indians, or all yogis, and as such no guru could “give permission” for yoga to be disseminated to the West, since there is no group that has this authority. Just because a few Indian gurus actively worked to export yoga does not mean they wanted that export to be appropriated by the Westerners they taught. It also does not mean that Westerners can do whatever they want with the practice because cultural appropriation is somehow “impossible” or “doesn’t exist.”

Ultimately, anyone can appropriate a cultural object like yoga, including Westerners but also Indians. The idea that because a handful of Indian yoga gurus actively worked to export yoga to the West somehow it is impossible for any Westerner (or anyone) to appropriate yoga is incredibly problematic and potentially damaging, and ignores research on what cultural appropriation is and how it works. While I would argue on the whole most applications, adoptions, and variations of yoga in the West are not culturally appropriative, just because most of the time it’s not appropriation doesn’t rule out the possibility that it could be cultural appropriation. We should still discuss the possibility of appropriation on a case by case basis to ensure our actions do not inadvertently, adversely harm others. We need to better understand what cultural appropriation entails, something Goldberg does not adequately address in her article.

Bringing it Back to Yoga: Was the Ottawa Case Culturally Appropriative?

Now, in applying this definition of cultural appropriation to yoga, I think it’s clear that some extremely commodified versions of Western yoga that ignore yoga’s roots, do not acknowledge the practice’s rich history, use stereotypical and simplified versions of the practice, profit off a romanticized and orientalist image of yoga, and transform yoga into a power fitness activity reminiscent of Jane Fonda aerobics set to the soundtracks of pop music and featuring scantily clad thin white women can be culturally appropriative. Such formulations profit only wealthy Westerners who own such corporations, and do marginalize, misrepresent, or ignore entirely the origins of the practice. With that said, these culturally appropriative representations of yoga are actually few and far between if we look at the everyday practices of yogis in the West and the great diversity of yoga classes and studio systems. They are more common in the media, sure, but that’s often because the media gives a skewed representation of yoga in the West.

Most of the time, the variation we see in yoga in the West is a natural product of cultural diffusion as cultural objects, like yoga, change and evolve slightly with each iteration of diffusion as each teacher or student puts their own interpretation of meaning and use on the cultural good in order to make the cultural object more relevant for their lives and needs. For example, even power yoga classes can and do train teachers on yoga philosophy and history and acknowledge the practice is more than just physical fitness, implying that it is not cultural appropriation that is happening. Many studios, even those that seem the most “Westernized,” can and do provide workshops for students that go deeper than more surface-level (but still yogic) asana classes.

Sure, yoga has changed in ways that are sometimes hard to reconcile. And yes, there are obviously some aspects of yoga culture (like industries producing fashion “yoga” clothes) that are highly problematic, as such industries can often support unsustainable, exploitative systems of inequality. The fact that yoga is often used as a form of self-distinction to signal high-class status is similarly troublesome. But what I’m trying to get at is that most yogis do not use yoga in this way, or passively absorb and reproduced this culture. These problems (when they do exist in yoga) are often part of larger problems of corporate power, consumerism, and capitalist global exploitation that are not just present in yoga in the West today but in the Western world more generally. We should continue to talk about them, but it doesn’t mean we need to stop practicing yoga. For example, this interesting article from Vice on the Ottawa case discusses some of the ways we can still practice without culturally appropriating yoga.

While it can be hard to disseminate the more philosophical or meditative aspects of the practice in group classes, this doesn’t mean teachers aren’t aware of the deeper aspects of yoga. In fact, the lack of these type of yoga teachings in Western yoga has more to do with the corporate nature of mainstream yoga publications (which, again, present a skewed picture of yoga in the West removed from the everyday practices of yogis) as well as limitations in the standardized format for teaching group asana classes (which have become the staple cash flow for studios) than because teachers are culturally appropriating yoga. In fact, I would argue that most yoga as it is practiced in the West is not culturally appropriative in the sociological sense of the word. In general the evolution of yoga in the West is a complex phenomenon that has many factors, and reflects a more general cultural diffusion as yoga was adapted to meet the needs of a different audience (both geographically, but also temporally as modern society evolved and changed over time).

As for the Ottawa case, I think it’s clear that this, similarly, was not a case of cultural appropriation. First, there were many other reasons the classes were cancelled, such as low enrollment and concerns about accessibility for differently abled students. The teacher obviously did have a deeper understanding of yoga practice and the history and origins of the practice, but was seeking to create an entry level class for students of all levels that focused on overall health and well-being, a goal that is not contradictory to a broader understanding of the practice of yoga but rather reflects a particular type and level of class given the interests of students and constraints of the university system.

With all this said, I want to reiterate that just because not all Western adaptations of yoga are culturally appropriative does not rule out the possibility that it could be cultural appropriation. We should still discuss the possibility of appropriation on a case by case basis to ensure our actions do not inadvertently, adversely harm others. To do so, we have to understand what cultural appropriation entails, have a dialogue with all members involved, look closely at issues of power, and remain mindful about the nature and consequences of the process.

I also think it’s worth seriously considering whether or not, in attempting to make yoga more available within school or university systems, the practice has been so de-contextualized as to make it unrecognizable. I understand the benefits of integrating yoga into schools, but institutional constraints in these sites often mean that the spiritual nature of the practice becomes impossible to even acknowledge. At this point, I think we have to ask whether or not it is even yoga anymore, or if it has been so appropriated to fit within school systems that we have symbolically annihilated the roots of the practice in this process in ways that are in fact culturally appropriative.

The Ottawa case is, I think, an example of this process, as yoga is changed dramatically to try and fit into institutions that demand a lack of spirituality. Can we still retain the essence of the practice, and can the practice still benefit students if the spiritual roots are removed to fit into school systems? Are there alternative ways to incorporate yoga into schools (say, after school programs) or make it more accessible to populations that might benefit (like children) that would still allow the roots and history of the practice to be acknowledged and taught? This is a complex topic. There is no easy answer for those interested in increasing the reach of yoga and spreading the benefits of the practice. However, in sacrificing the complexity of the practice in attempts to gain a wider audience we risk falling into McYoga and McMindfulness traps, where yoga and mindfulness practices are yoked to unsustainable systems of productivity, individualism, and consumerism in ways that ultimately culturally appropriate the practice.

Love, light, and… yoga❤

Oneness, Seva, and the White Savior Complex

“The White Savior Industrial Complex is not about justice. It is about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege.” – Teju Cole

I recently saw two articles posted on Yoganonymous, and immediately something felt off. What I read was so troublesome that I want to clarify some things about the Western perspective of “oneness” in yoga that not only romanticizes the idea based on orientalism, but also appropriates it to adhere to ideas of individualism popular in the West (neoliberalism, anyone?). Often, these ideas of “oneness” are tied to the idea of seva, or selfless service, a practice that has become increasingly popular in the yoga world during the last decade but that is often inadequately understood, becoming a form of white savior complex for many privileged yogis. Frankly, this is also regularly tied up in some essentializing and problematic gendered expectations of what “service” means; in other words, in the West we often have very gendered ideas of service practices that equate service to caring for others, when these two things are not always the same.

The two articles I saw were “Why Oneness is the Key to Happiness and Ethics in Yoga” and part III of a series titled “Seva: Healing through Giving.” The first article was about the idea of oneness, what the author claimed was an idea of common origin, nature, or being that unites everything (not just people, but all the universe). She claims, “oneness can improve our social, political, and professional environments, helping create a more enlightened society. A society where we recognize that, as human beings, we are all cells of a larger organism.” In a similar vein, the article on seva is about how seva can lead us to love, and therefore connection with those around us: “the more you connect with your sense of love and devotion the more you will see those around you as part of your very Self.” What bothered me most about both these articles is that other than some of these fancy feel-good let’s-connect love-everyone sentiments expressed at the beginning of each article, these were largely written in ways that were, frankly, egoistic, and ultimately about feeling better about your self rather than about connecting with others or with something larger than “you.”

This can be seen by a simple discourse analysis of these articles. Both are meant to be about oneness, connecting with those around us, about becoming part of the “we”, so how many times to they actually use the words “we,” “us,” or refer to something other than “you,” the individual? Turns out, not that much. For the oneness article, “we” appears 10 times, “us” twice, and “you” or “your” a whopping 34 times. For the seva article it’s even more obvious: “we” appears 4 times, “us” never, and “you” or “your” 33 times. And these aren’t long articles, people. Seriously! What the heck is going on here? And it gets even more ridiculous when we look at some of the things these authors are actually saying with all those “you”‘s and “your”‘s. Take this quote from the oneness article: “When you live and act with the awareness of being part of a larger role, of being bigger than your small body-mind-life, than you are really contributing to this whole, and your actions matter tenfold more.” They are talking about connecting with something larger, yet ultimately what they are talking about is the individual, about “you,” the whole time. It’s about you connecting with the bigger force, about your actions, not about others or about what is happening in our world, or what our world needs to survive and improve. The entire matter of “oneness” has become, literally, isolated in one person and their individual quest for feeling something more universal, largely driven by their own individual desires and needs to feel fulfilled rather than developing a deeper connection through empathy that allows us to genuinely care about others, and to desire to build a better world for all of us because we all need it.

Let’s take some points from the seva article to demonstrate this same trend. One quote from the author explains: “When you engage seva it quiets the egoistic part of you. You shift away from the “me focus” to the “we focus.” This “we focus” is the place where you experience, through your thoughts and actions, that we are all interconnected. It is the space where you decide consciously to live in and through this interconnectedness… When you choose to engage it, you choose to stay connected with your heart, the most sacred part of you.  Seva means, you choose to live from the place of awareness of what is real, that we are all interconnected. When you work with seva you get to feel the depth of your own love and compassion by finding a way to serve another. Through seva, you experience the great value of sacrifice and the reality that one can make an enormous difference.” Holy crap! Talk about connectedness–connected to what? A whole bunch of you, apparently. I mean, this author starts out by saying seva should quiet the egoistic part of you, but then what do they do? They go off on an egoistic rant about how seva is good for, well, you. Talk about ego and being disconnected. Sure, seva is driven by our ability to love, or more accurately feel empathy, but it shouldn’t be defined as getting in touch with yourself. Seva is selfless service–key word being selfless. Yet these authors turn oneness and seva into something that is ultimately all about your self, and about feeling good about your self, which is ultimately a practice of ego.

Look, I get that what these authors are writing about is lovely and romantic and sounds great on the surface. It sounds nice to “connect to love,” have “your actions matter tenfold more,” and “find a way to serve another;” but you know what the best way to serve others is? By asking them what they need, and listening to them rather than yourself. Sure, for many people who are privileged I guess this a nice way to ease them into thinking about something other than themselves, since drawing on egoistic, individualistic, and self-centered ideas of seva and oneness (with oneself, apparently) come easier for people who are constantly encouraged to think this way. But seriously, there has to be a better way to discuss oneness and seva rather than directing these ideas back onto the benefit and experience of these practices for, well, you. Connectedness, oneness, whatever you want to call it, is about us. It’s about what we can do, and how we can mobilize to make a difference, together, not as isolated individuals trying to make our own selves feel better or as part of a personal quest to achieve what you think is the best solution. Seva should be about serving others, instead of yourself, and ultimately that requires asking others what they need from us, rather than assuming that we already know what they need. You want to make a difference? Try getting yourself out of the way.

Too often in dominant yoga culture seva is taken as an excuse to mitigate personal feelings of guilt for those with privilege, as a way of easing our own self-doubt and insecurities, and as a way of healing ourselves rather than a means of truly serving other people. This is largely because yoga, and yoga philosophy, is interpreted by Westerners through our capitalist, individualist, and neoliberal ideologies in ways that appropriate the original meanings out of context of an ethically guided spiritual practice. Since popular culture yoga has become largely devoid of spiritual traditions and disconnected from a deeper understanding of the ethical guidelines of yoga, instead taught in commodified ways that don’t provide a sound historical or, frankly, spiritual background for the practice, Westerners rarely get enough time to study these ideas in depth or to even deeply think about them (especially if they have other jobs outside of yoga). Cover them for a few hours in a teacher training, and hey, you are suddenly qualified to teach these ideas to others as a certified “expert”! (That was sarcasm, by the way.) But what often happens is that, because of the surface level study most people receive on these matters, many yogis, especially those who come from privileged locations (meaning white, middle class individuals, who are over-represented in yoga as a whole) end up using romanticized, orientalist ideas of these concepts as a means to justify their disconnection. This is exacerbated by the fact that teacher trainings often don’t provide any training on diversity awareness.

The adoption of seva and this idea of oneness by Western yogis often takes the form of a white savior complex, part of what’s been called the white savior industrial complex. The white savior complex is a trend where whites increasingly use service work (and charitable giving) as a means to justify and validate their own unwarranted privilege, thereby reinforcing it, rather than actually performing service in the interests and according to the needs of the ones they serve. Thus, the white savior supports brutal policies in the morning, founds charities in the afternoon, and receives awards in the evening. As Cole says, “there is much more to doing good work than ‘making a difference.’ There is the principle of first do no harm [ahimsa!]. There is the idea that those who are being helped ought to be consulted over the matters that concern them.” The white savior complex is all too common in yoga, where privileged yogis often utilize these practices as a means of self-service, rather than selfless service.

In popular culture yoga, oneness and seva become signals for status, a sign of an “authentic” yogi, even if they are practiced in a way that reflects more about Western ideas of individualism and capitalism than a deeper connection to others. Seva becomes commodified, interpreted as “gifting” free yoga classes to at risk populations, often on a limited one-time basis in ways that don’t actually help the community served and ultimately are done as a marketing ploy for new teachers to gain a student “following” and thereby increase their own incomes. Which means most seva in the yoga world isn’t actually selfless, but is often all about the self, about you and not about others. It’s used as a means of personal gain, or personal appeasement (making you feel better), or personal healing, or really anything except a way to remove the egoistic self. Instead of taking our yoga off the mat, we use a few hours of self-motivated volunteering on our mats to justify our status as “authentic” yogis and as “good” people, all while consistently ignoring larger systemic inequalities relating to class, race, gender, sexuality, and so on and our own roles in sustaining these systems. Instead of listening to what the populations we serve actually need, we listen to and serve ourselves. We volunteer in prisons, rather than fighting and advocating for a better system that won’t imprison so many people in the first place. We provide asana classes to poor urban youth (often of color), rather than addressing the issues of poverty, segregation, and crime they have to deal with. We help our own sense of self-worth by alleviating our personal guilt in the short term, rather than using our yogic practice to listen to others, understand their struggles, and fight against, larger inequities, which would ultimately be a better, more selfless, and more yogic service.

A great deal of our ideas on how to serve stem from gendered notions of “service” in the West, where service work has historically been tied to the work of women, especially care work (meaning, caring for others). Sure, this type of service is lovely, but it’s flawed, because the myth of the selfless mother is a social construction and frankly an unhealthy and unequal one. All genders are equally capable of love and empathy. And love and empathy, while these are the root of what allows us to serve, are not always the best way to serve. Can we frame service in a different way? Can we flip this gender script and instead think of service in the sense of serving in, say, the military? While obviously there are some serious problems with this analogy as the military is not an institution reflecting the paragon of virtue, I think it’s important we recognize that service isn’t just about love and caring and holding hands and all these other essentialized and outdated gendered notions. These are great, but they aren’t enough, and they aren’t the whole story. Selfless service is about digging into some uncomfortable truths about our selves so that we can abandon our self-bias and self-orientation and truly listen to others’ needs. Selfless service is about fighting for justice and equity for others in ways driven by empathy and love, but that won’t always take the form of hand holding and care work; sometimes it will be oppositional.

Love, light, and… yoga❤

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 741 other followers