A Prayer to Future Feminists

 To download:

FEMINIST RESOURCE LIST

 

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Why a Feminist Resource List?

Today I’m sharing a project I’ve been working on for a few weeks: a feminist resource list. I had originally planned to release this list with my latest blog entry, coauthored with Joanna Johnson of Red Moon Yoga: “The Misogynist On The Mat: Patriarchy, Yoga, & You.” That blog post was a response to a recent incident in the yoga world, where well-known yoga teacher and teacher trainer Eric Shaw published a misogynist, sexist, and disgusting anti-feminist rant.

Shaw’s rant was so disconnected from the truth of what is and what has been, it was frankly impossible to dissect all the things that were wrong in it. Had Shaw actually wanted to understand reality or feminism rather than cater to his emotionally hurt ego, he over the years he could have found a myriad of feminist work that would have refuted his flawed viewpoints. I doubt he will seek out such resources (though here’s hoping he will).

The incident made me angry. And when I get angry, I make stuff (like this list).

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Frankly, Shaw is not someone I would ever waste my time trying to educate. It’s clear he’s not interested in moving beyond his own turmoil.

But there are other people out there who are interested in learning more about feminism, about themselves, and about our world. There are people out there hoping to become better people. There are people out there hoping to uncover and practice satya (truthfulness), and who are willing to engage in some profound Self-Realization.

I have compiled this list for you.

The fact is, even though feminism is gaining prominence in today’s world most people don’t actually know much about feminism, engage with feminists in their everyday lives, or know how to find out more information if they wanted to. It’s not always easy to track down sources, to know what is foundational work in both academia and activist circles, and to learn more about the history of women’s rights, women’s liberation, and intersectional feminism.

Even though it’s likely most people have feminists in their social networks, they might not be consciously aware of this since not everyone who is a feminist openly, consistently identifies as one. Sadly, feminism today is often still stigmatized, and many people (especially white people) selectively disclose their feminist identity only when it is relatively safe to do so. Feminism has in many ways become cool only in-so-far as one’s practice of feminism is surface level and non-confrontational,  while deep discussions or political action in the name of feminism are still highly conflict-ridden and controversial. The sad truth is that identifying openly as a feminist can sometimes damage one’s relationships or careers.

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Given the wide breadth of feminist work out there today and the many decades (centuries, really) of activism and research feminists have been engaged in, it can sometimes be difficult to know where to start. Even those who are feminists may only be familiar with specialized areas within the movement, because thanks to the sea of information we can sometimes end up isolated from broader dialogue (and heated debates within the movement don’t always help either).

The reality is that unless someone is lucky enough to know a self-identified feminist or has been able to study gender, sexuality, and women’s studies at the university level, many people simply don’t know how to begin learning more about feminism or about the wide variety of feminist work being done. In some ways, there is simply too much information out there. We have google at the tips of our fingers, but unless we know what to search for, the quality of the information we have access to can be skewed, buried in the sea that is the internet today. And of course, let’s acknowledge there is a clear class divide in who has access to university spaces or the internet. It’s vital that feminism become rooted in class solidarity and efforts to overcome the digital divide and the often-times inaccessibility of academic feminism.

Even today, much of our popular culture perpetuates inaccurate and problematic stereotypes of feminism and feminists (or straight up lies). When something is discredited, it’s harder for people to take it seriously. Especially in our current political climate, it’s important for feminists to help combat this by helping to direct and build our own communities of knowledge and of feminist educators. In other words, it is vital for feminists to openly and consistently identify as feminists, to work toward documenting the work movement members are engaged in, to build networks of solidarity and knowledge production, and to participate in codifying such knowledge as explicitly part of the feminist movement.

I made this list to help work toward these goals, and to also make the process of sifting through a sea of information easier for all those interested in learning more about feminism, regardless of whether you are completely new to the movement or a long-time feminist hoping to deepen one’s knowledge. Given my own positionality, this list does lean more heavily toward academic feminist work, but I have made an effort to include a wide variety of sources and more accessible resources throughout. My hope is people who are interested in learning about feminism or deepening their understanding can do so more readily with this resource. I hope it also serves as a resource for fellow educators.

This is the list I wish I had years ago, when I was just beginning to learn what feminism actually meant, the history of the movement, and why it is so vital to continue feminist work today. It is a list I am offering you today, with a prayer to all future feminists.

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A Prayer to Future Feminists

I am my ancestors’ wildest dreams, the granddaughter of the witches that did not burn.

I speak as those seeds, who from darkness became the weeds that tear out concrete, that break down walls, the retake public spaces.

I speak as those silenced generations, lost to time, lost to power:

You are not lost to the deepest part of ourselves, that longs for connection, that longs for the wisdom of the one who survives against all odds, the one who (nevertheless) persists.

I speak as those embattled, enraged beings who are sick of the (illusion of the) cage, who are fighting to be free:

Your struggle is not in vain.

For all those who have been disappeared, who have been targeted, who have been harassed, and who have been abused;

For those who have yet to find themselves in the historical oppression patriarchy teaches us to inscribe in all our bodies, in all our minds, in all our hearts:

We will seek you out.

We will be the mirror that allows you to see and free yourself.

For those who would undermine the colonization of their self, for those who would deconstruct the map of power we are subject to;

For those who seek to be better, to leave a legacy of equity for our future selves, for our future planet:

You do not do so alone.

We will be the waves at your back, crying for justice, crashing at the bars set to contain us.

I speak as those who fear for themselves, who fear for each other;

as those who are angry, fed-up, and frustrated;

I speak as those who fear the future coming for us like the whisper of death and the haunting of subjugation, seemingly inescapable:

Do not lose hope.

Remember, the chains that bind us also bind us together.

The chains that bind us give us the very weapon we need to break the cycle.

May we find each other in our resilience, in our strength, in our resistance.

May we recognize that “unity” does not mean sameness, and that “to unify” does not mean to lose what makes us uniquely powerful.

May we recognize imperialist, white supremacist, settler-colonial patriarchy is the enemy of all of us, but also the unifying thread that makes this fight our fight, our struggle.

May we support each other, honor each other, and challenge each other to admit to our failures, flaws, and complicity.

May we support each other, honor each other, and challenge each other to seek out the path with heart even though it may be the tangled labyrinth of our darkest dreams.

Go forth, future feminists, and together let us uncover the bones of justice, the archaeology of equity.

Go forth, future feminists, and be your ancestors’ wildest dreams.

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To download:

FEMINIST RESOURCE LIST

Don’t see something you feel should be on the feminist resource list? Post the reference below in the comments, and in the near future I’ll update the list and post a revised version. 

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The Misogynist on the Mat: Patriarchy, Yoga, & You

Coauthored by: Amara Miller and Joanna Johnson

The latest scandal in the US yoga world: it turns out well-known yoga teacher and teacher trainer, Eric Shaw, is actually a deep-seated, unapologetic misogynist and sexist. This revelation is turning heads among practitioners and teachers, especially in the post-Trump moment where we have a growing culture of cruelty, a slew of domestic abusers in our highest offices, a crack-down on women’s rights, and rising right-wing nationalism and white supremacy not just in the USA but globally. Although Shaw is US-based, the escalation of neo-fascism is worldwide; the issues raised here will therefore have their own particular country-specific manifestations, relevant to the worldwide yoga community.

Today we will be writing about misogyny, sexism, and patriarchy in yoga, and the ways we are all complicit in these systems.

The Hateful Rant (aka Misogynist Tears!)

On Thursday, February 16th, Eric Shaw posted a note to facebook titled “Masculinism 101: A Response to the Feminist Recoding of History” (to read his original post, go here, but be aware: trigger warning). Yoga Dork has already covered the incident, noting they “believe that you should know if your yoga teacher is a raving misogynist.” We completely and wholeheartedly agree.

We’re not going to rehash all the hateful, spiteful, and untrue things he has to say about women, women’s history and accomplishments, and women’s oppression. This blog is not about a point by point rebuttal, because all his points have been well-researched and debunked by feminist scholars over the decades. With that said, we do think it’s helpful to get the gist of his rhetoric.

Shaw begins his epic rant with the words “How about this vision? Women have been cowards.” He goes on to claim they “sucked the wealth and life-blood out of men to enjoy their baby-making efforts while men went out and did the real work in the world.” He asks: “We’re to trust that the gender that has been passive, supplicant—arguably ‘parasitical,’ to quote Simone de Beauvoir—is overnight competent, self-possessed and unyielding enough in composure to handle the pressures of public responsibilities?” (Feel like projectile vomiting yet? And also, way to adhere to a gender essentialist argument and a lack of recognition of gender fluidity, Shaw.) Apparently, Shaw contends, “we could just as easily demonize women for being a kind of succubus. For dodging their social responsibility and hiding behind a veil of too-moral dignity to dirty their hands with the affairs of the world. We could say women were cowards for hiding in the home and not successfully challenging men to take up their fair share of public responsibilities.” (Whoa there. Way to victim blame those oppressed for the acts of oppressors subjugating them?)

Shaw’s post oversimplifies and completely misinterprets history in pretty much every way possible, focusing on the vantage point of those who have historically (at least!) been oppressors and abusers with absolutely no nuance (which is super ironic considering his one and only academic working paper on abuse during BKS Iyengar’s childhood). His post makes it clear that he doesn’t know a thing about women’s historical accomplishments or the way patriarchal systems often erase such feats, symbolically annihilating herstory and taking sole credit for accomplishments only made possible because of the work of women. Eric is clearly another brick in the wall of our education system, who ate up patriarchy in our schools and now regurgitates it at will.

According to Eric’s position, there are no people of color anywhere in (cue dramatic music:) all of time. This means every time he says “women” or “men”, he is only referring to white folks and their experiences. So to be clear, not only is this rant an epic, extreme example of misogyny, patriarchy, and sexism at work but it is also deeply embedded in white supremacist culture and educational experiences that whitewash and enforce a Eurocentric focus in historical retellings. We can add to the list of Eric’s flawed thinking: it is racist, because this type of language and hate speech is also directly supporting racism, “a system of advantage based on race” (Wellman 1977).

According to his Facebook info, as an undergraduate Shaw attended Willamette University from 1979-1981 where he studied Art, Biology, and “Intellectual History” (note: this isn’t actually a major?). Later on, he studied yet more Art in Santa Cruz (art has historically been an incredibly white, patriarchal, and misogynistic system, so no surprises there). He then got an MA in Religious Studies from the United Theological Seminary in 1995 (including studies in “Church History”), an MA in Special Education in 2000 (ye gods, really? with those misogynist views?), and finally an MA in Yoga History and Philosophy at the CA Institute of Integral Studies in 2011. His bio shows he began teaching yoga in 2006 at UCSF Medical Center (we can assume to patients), and has taught at several renowned studios including YogaWorks from 2009-2010, Yoga Tree from 2011-2015, and most recently at the Dallas Yoga Center (although apparently he was fired after his diatribe–good on them!).

In other words, Eric Shaw has never actually studied history in an academic setting outside religious or spiritual contexts. More telling, as far as his biographical information out there indicates he has also never taken a single course in feminist theory, women’s studies, or gender studies (and from his tirade, it’s clear he hasn’t read such scholars/activists on his own either, or if he has he clearly hasn’t understood them). Despite his lack of study in these areas, in typical entitled, white, male fashion Eric Shaw believes that he should be able to mansplain women’s history and feminism to women and long-time, actual feminists who have been studying, researching, and living this work for decades. Because: patriarchy. And white supremacy.

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The irony is that his whole argument is pretty much “patriarchy sucks for men, too,” which is an argument that has already been made by feminists for literally decades, and what’s even more ironic is that feminist work on this very topic is much more nuanced, accurate, and articulate (aka, way better than Shaw is capable of, despite his claims of male superiority). He incorrectly puts the blame for men’s pain on those victimized by patriarchy (women and feminists) rather than understanding that it is patriarchy that ultimately causes the suffering of the men he is so concerned about, not feminism. Frankly, Shaw’s entire take on feminism, gender relations, and history is so completely off track that, as Yoga Dork notes, it “reads very Onion-y” and at first seemed satirical to commenters, many of who “couldn’t believe” a yogi and well-known teacher could harbor such hateful, spiteful, and dangerous views.

And, let’s be real here, these types of views are dangerous. This isn’t some “opinion” to be debated. As long-time activist Teo Drake said in one of his comments, “What Eric Shaw put out into the world wasn’t an opinion to be disagreed with. It was violent rhetoric. There’s a big difference between being imperfect (as each of us is) and crossing over into abuse.” So we need to understand Shaw’s post is an example of violent rhetoric designed to dehumanize, demean, and target an entire class of people with violence, harassment, and assault, and which then attempts to legitimize such harm by claiming victims “deserved” to be abused (completely creepy, and complete BS).

Misogyny is a undeniable motivator for men committing violent crime (fact: men are the perpetrators of most violent crime). For example, according to research on intimate partner violence in the USA, men “with a history of committing domestic violence are five times more likely to subsequently murder an intimate partner” (Aalai 2016). Research also reveals “nearly 60% of all mass shootings (defined by the killing of four or more victims) have roots in domestic violence” (Fairweather 2017). And it doesn’t stop there. “‘When you are trying to predict violent recidivism, you tend to find that domestic violence is one of the strongest predictors,’ said Zachary Hamilton, who studies risk assessment as director of the Washington State Institute for Criminal Justice. He cited an analysis of criminal offenders in Washington State, which found that a felony domestic violence conviction was the single greatest predictor of future violent crime” (Jeltsen 2016). In other words, misogyny is often the canary in the coalmine for other forms of violence, and one of the root ideologies violent offenders adhere to.

This type of misogynist rhetoric is also one of the ways online communities of Neo-Nazis and the “alt-right” prey on and recruit men to their cause (how’s that going for  you, Shaw?). In the article “How the alt-right’s sexism lures men into white supremacy” Romano notes that “the gateway drug that led [members] to join the alt-right in the first place wasn’t racist rhetoric but rather sexism: extreme misogyny evolving from male bonding gone haywire.” All of this is why white nationalist organizations, which are predicated not just on an adherence to white supremacy but also deeply held misogyny, queerphobia/transphobia, anti-Semitism, anti-immigrant sentiment, and Islamophobia, are growing much faster than other terrorist organizations and are considered more dangerous than other terrorist groups in the USA today.

There is a reason the most recent rise of “alt-right” white supremacist groups has been linked, not to racial politics, but to Gamergate, the misogynist attack on feminists critiquing the video gaming industry that occurred in 2014. As Lees notes, “The similarities between Gamergate and the far-right online movement, the ‘alt-right’, are huge, startling and in no way a coincidence… Its most notable achievement was harassing a large number of progressive figures–mostly women–to the point where they felt unsafe or considered leaving the industry… this hate was powerfully amplified… leading to death threats, rape threats, and the public leaking of personal information.” This article fails to mention misogynists also engaged in bomb threats as well as rape threats against these women’s children, leading some to develop PTSD symptoms or to retire for their and their family’s safety and well-being. (So, if people would like to ignore the realities of violent misogyny and continue to bury their heads in the sand, go ahead and continue practicing avidya, ignorance, and keep up with the arguments that Shaw’s views are somehow “a valid opinion.”)

Misogyny kills. Misogyny maims. Misogyny traumatizes, harrasses, and assaults. And Eric Shaw, raging and unapologetic misogynist that he is, is deeply complicit in this system of oppression and violence.

But it must be a mental breakdown–not so fast!

Those appalled by the hate apparent in Eric Shaw’s post, the blatant misogyny, sexism, and lack of respect for women generally, have been quick to claim that he must be having some sort of mental breakdown–that he must be mentally ill, or that he must be going through some deep inner turmoil. That he is really a “good person” who is just not well. Take, for example, comments like these: “what he has written sounds like a mental health crisis,” “Eric, are you ok?”, “this must be a sick joke, or he has had some psychotic break.” In the days following the initial post, every Facebook thread that we read included some well-meaning, but sadly politically ignorant yoga practitioner exhorting us to “have compassion” for Shaw (never mind that the assumption a practice of yoga equates to compassion, that “yoga = compassion,” is a recent and perhaps even false conflation of what yoga is, rooted in capitalist and new age appropriations of the practice).

The claim that those who engage in hateful speech and violent behavior toward others only do so because they are unwell is based on a Christian understanding of a good-evil dichotomy, where people are considered either “good people” or “bad people”. This type of thinking has infiltrated yoga as the practice moved to the West, so it’s no surprise that many people reading Eric’s post are struck by the paradox and dichotomy–is he a “good person,” as some people have personally known him to be, or is he “bad?” And if he is “good,” then it is assumed he must be mentally ill, have had a psychotic breakdown, or be otherwise “out of his mind” to also, simultaneously, be a raging, dangerous misogynist. But real life just doesn’t work this way.

Sociologists and psychologists have long researched the way seemingly ordinary, “good people” can engage in horrific acts of violence and oppression. The term “banality of evil” is not referring just to the way evil is part of our everyday lives (in other words, that evil is banal). It also refers to the fact that most people who engage in evil acts are in fact ordinary, boring, “good people.” (See, for example, Milgram’s shock experiments or Zimbardo’s The Lucifer Effect.) So we need to be clear that someone can be a “good person” in certain areas of their life and still do atrocious acts (and can do so even with the best of intentions). Eric Shaw could indeed be a “good man and a good friend” to some people as some did claim in their comments and still who hold dangerous and harmful views about women that manifest in harmful ways towards others. One does not preclude the other, and ultimately, Shaw needs to be accountable for all his actions, especially those that are damaging, and perhaps most particularly when bigotry is conflated with yoga.

The problem with the argument that misogynists are just mentally ill is that it serves to medicalize abusive behavior, rather than recognizing that perpetrators are often perfectly “sane” by any psychological measure and yet still hold abhorrent views. As Baxter (2017) notes, “Every time we willingly blur the line between raging arsehole and mentally ill person, we do two very dangerous things: we increase stigma surrounding real psychiatric conditions, and we excuse people for their terrible behaviour on the basis that they had to have been ‘out of their minds’ to think or act that way… It’s also easy to see how we then stop holding people account for abuse, for cruelty, for prejudice and xenophobia.”

Rather than further stigmatizing mental illness, we need to recognize that seemingly “good people” can in other areas of their lives do great evil. We need to be able to call this type of behavior what it is, without medicalizing it: systematic oppression, abuse, and a profound disrespect. Sure, Eric Shaw could probably use some serious psycho-analysis and therapy from a licensed professional, although he’s not likely to seek that out given he seems to believe he is completely in the right. But as of right now, all comments, conversations, and posts indicate that he is indeed perfectly sane, if completely despicable.

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In other words, let’s call a spade a spade. Eric Shaw is not mentally ill. He has repeatedly claimed he “is okay,” despite the completely ridiculous concerns of commenters. He doesn’t want help and he doesn’t believe he needs it. He has openly admitted to being sexist, and has essentially said he’s cool with that. He is utterly unapologetic about his diatribe of disgusting hate, claiming in typical entitled white male fashion that he feels “disrespected” by the justifiably angry responses he has received. He has repeatedly, again, and again claimed he stands by everything he said, no matter how incorrect, no matter how damaging/harmful, and no matter how simplistic. This is not someone open to dialogue. This is not someone open to learning. This is not someone willing to engage in healing or willing to admit they were wrong.

His hateful, misogynist views do not make him mentally ill, they make him dangerous. These views make him complicit in the continued oppression of women everywhere. These views make him potentially abusive to his own clients, friends, and family. And these views make him disrespectful, completely uncaring, and disturbingly unconcerned about the harm his words have and do cause others.

It’s also disturbing that there seems to be a great deal of commenters focused on emotional concern for Eric Shaw, his feelings, and his health, rather than concern for those traumatized and targeted by his hate and spite. Many commenters have sent “love and healing” toward him. Others have reached out to make sure he “is okay.” The incessant worrying from commenters about his well-being refocuses attention and care back on someone who is propagating, supporting, and spreading abuse and oppression. In other words, it serves to refocus attention and emotional care work back on the abuser, rather than focusing on supporting those victimized and harmed by this type of abusive language. In this way, despite undoubted good intentions, everyone whose main concern is for Eric is actually upholding the systems of oppression that obscure the lives of victims and reward the deeds of abusers.

Attempting to tone police those most affected and harmed by this type of violent rhetoric while also refocusing attention back toward our abusers does nothing to combat hate, and inevitably actually supports, condones, and excuses the abusive behavior. Tone policing is a silencing tactic, and is one of the ways systems of oppression are reproduced and protected. It’s also a classic symptom of victim blaming, which argues that the justified anger victims feel toward those who abuse them is in fact the reason why they are being abused. In reality, abuse is a conscious choice made by the abuser. Resistance to oppression is not the same as oppression, and one never has to be kind to their abuser. We should never ask people to express love for their abuser in order to have their concerns heard. Ultimately, by engaging in tone policing and victim-blaming, society allows abusers to perpetrate violence while avoiding accountability for their actions. People have a right to be angry about this type of dangerous, hateful speech. This type of misogyny is what leads to policies that target women’s rights. It is what leads to violence against women that is a deep and powerful part of patriarchal systems of oppression designed to keep women “in their place.”

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The way to stop abuse is not to say “stop” more nicely. It’s to say “no more!” as fiercely as necessary. The way we stop oppression is by supporting those who are victims of abuse (rather than supporting the abuser as if they are the one being harmed and the one we should be immediately concerned about). It’s ensuring those engaging in abuse will be held accountable for their actions and choices. And yes, this might include informing their employers so they can take appropriate action to reprimand or distance themselves from a dangerous person. It might include boycotting any of the products, services, or trainings a dangerous person sells. Hell, sometimes, it might even entail protesting against an organization that is colluding in covering up inappropriate behavior.

Then it’s an isolated incident–not so fast!

While it’s tempting to argue that Eric Shaw is just a “bad apple” in a sea of otherwise wonderful yoga people, the reality is much more complex. Commenters on his post have actually indicated Eric Shaw’s rant was not some isolated, out-of-the-blue incident.

Two yogis recounted how: “I was treated to a live version in my kitchen one time, much to my great discomfort. I remember us having to agree to disagree. It was a charged discussion and I felt little leeway in the ferocity of your opinions. The tone of your original post is so hateful toward women and being a woman I am, frankly, revolted [by] the perspective you claim to be ‘investigating,’ but which actually seems pretty entrenched.” Many indicated they had misgivings about him, feeling strongly that something was “off” or that he “gave [them] the creeps.” One commenter noted how “He did one workshop at my studio on ‘women in yoga.’ The students afterwards told me it was the worst workshop they have ever attended and that he wasn’t very bright and the content was low level… I’ve always felt he was a creep but like all of us, we want to give people the benefit of the doubt.” Another individual recalled how “[Eric] taught yoga philosophy in my yoga teacher training five years ago. You shared your misogynist opinions with a group of mostly women and we were quick to speak out against you. I’ve seen a young woman walk out on your class because you wouldn’t allow her to move freely.” Yet another recounted Shaw’s comments on the size of a student’s breasts (too small for him to consider dating her, apparently).

One individual reported how they “sat through several of [Eric’s] workshops over the years trying to honor your scholarship while simultaneously recognizing microagressions against me personally and all other strong woman in the audience who dared question you.” Still others noted, “He taught at my yoga teacher training and was late both days… I also got a weird vibe from him and I’m pretty sure he was kicked out of Yoga Tree Berkeley (rumors).” Another commenter recalls how, “I met Eric Shaw at the Anusara grand gathering years ago. He seemed like he idolized John Friend. In hindsight, this seems all very telling. Something didn’t feel right then either.” Another indicated that “Eric Shaw, who advertises himself as a yoga teacher, has made racist comments on Facebook before.” One yoga instructor, who once had Shaw as their student, recounted: “Frankly you were one of the most self absorbed yoga students I ever had (I’ve known Eric for well over a decade)… Reports I have had from people I trust also peg you as quite the misogynist, and womanizer (yes I know you’ve been pretty fucking slimy with people I know).”

Eric Shaw’s disturbing and dangerous views went relatively unnoticed in the yoga world for a long time, even though he was teaching primarily women. This is despite the fact others had raised concerns about him in the past, and that he publically wrote a very similar hateful rant in 2013 that was published by Elephant Journal titled “Feminism Sucks.” In other words, his most recent invective was a long-time coming, a long-time felt, and frankly, a long-time known. But, his career wasn’t ruined in 2013 when this type of violent rhetoric was first published. Concerns simply didn’t gain traction and visibility in yoga, where it was all pretty much tolerated and buried–until now, in the broader context of the post-Trump, post-Brexit moment when this type of hate makes women, whose rights are already under unprecedented attacks, that much more fed up (and that much more capable of sharing their anger and disgust through social media).

Because Eric seemed like such a “good person” in other areas of his life, people found it profoundly hard to believe that he was also very much a hateful misogynist. It is also likely that the brushing off of any concerns was in part because those who were concerned were primarily women, and as we know in patriarchal systems the concerns of women are often downplayed, ignored, or excused as “overreactions” or “hysteria”. (Which, by the way, feminists have studied the deeply disturbing history of as a catch-all psychological diagnosis called “female hysteria”, often used to target and punish women acting “out of line” in the 19th and 20th centuries.)

Eric Shaw’s post is an obvious and blatant example of misogyny at work, making it easy to recognize and almost comical in its hate, disconnection, and ignorance. But the reality is that misogyny is often far more subtle, harder to recognize, harder to combat, and harder to uproot. The impacts of patriarchy live and breathe in our culture, in our yoga communities, and in ourselves in ways that are often extremely difficult to recognize, let alone resist. In other words, Eric Shaw is not just a “bad apple” in an otherwise pristine, perfect, and “conscious” or “woke” yoga community. The type of misogyny that Eric Shaw spouts is the extreme manifestation of underlying, persistent issues with patriarchy and sexism in the world at large – and within yoga. “The truth is that there is no such thing as a lone misogynist – they are created by our culture, and by communities that tell them their hatred is both commonplace and justified” (Valenti 2014). Eric Shaw’s post is, in this sense, the canary in the coal mine.

Misogyny–especially the more common subtle forms of misogyny, patriarchy, and sexism–functions in part through our own complicity in tolerating, excusing, and condoning such attitudes and behavior. We must not excuse Eric Shaw as one bad apple in a world of seemingly good ones. Misogyny affects and infects all of us and the spaces we move and act within, and it takes active, deliberate, and continual work to uproot. It takes a profoundly deep and committed practice of yoga to engage in the type of uncovering and Truth-seeking required of us to uproot these biases, to recognize the subtle ways our practice is infected with oppression as well as the way we ourselves are complicit in such systems (especially those of us who are privileged enough to actively benefit from such systems). This is work it seems Shaw is unwilling or unable to do.

The easier, more comfortable, and more common thing to do in response to Eric Shaw’s post is to claim that it is simply an isolated incident, that it “doesn’t happen in my circles,” or that it’s not something prominent in the yoga world at large. But doing so would be a mistake. We want to believe that yogis and yoga communities are better than this type of hateful and violent rhetoric, that yoga somehow magically roots out this ignorance and hate, that if we just practice “all is coming.” But this is a romantic expectation that denies the realities of the way deeper practices of yoga have been compromised by settler-colonial appropriation of the practice and have always been deeply rooted in patriarchal systems. This type of approach only serves to trivialize misogyny as the isolated purview of seemingly disturbed individuals, rather than allowing us to understand this type of incident as a symptom of a larger issue in the practice of yoga and in our culture at large. It fails to place this incident in the context of patriarchy, “a system of social structures in which men dominate, oppress, and exploit women” and LGBTQ+ individuals, in ways that harm all sexes and genders (Walby 1990). Misogyny and patriarchy are deeply embedded in most social settings, and to deny the possibility it is part of all our yoga communities, and even a part of ourselves, is ignorant and naive. The question is not “what if?”, it is “in what form?”

Take, for example, this story from one commenter on Eric Shaw’s post:

“Through my close involvement with a spiritually based supportive group some years back, I came to see that misogyny was alive, well, and kicking, albeit in an underground, deeply unconscious way. A known predator (male) was preying on vulnerable young women as they joined the group; countless women had complained about this, but the men banded together, denied any wrongdoing, trivialised the women’s concerns, accused them/us of hysteria. I was baffled, many of these kind, intelligent men were friends of mine [for] several years; I couldn’t understand what was happening. Anyway, long story short, I gradually realised that these ‘new men’ were still carrying the wounds and warped messages from their forefathers, their families of origin, and from society, but that intellectually, they’d seen and accepted that sexism existed and that women suffered greatly–but their deeply felt anger, rage, etc. had just gone underground, only to emerge by leaking out into everyday interactions as described above.”

Although it didn’t get the audience it warranted when published, we can look more closely at Eric Shaw’s 2013 piece titled “Feminism Sucks” to investigate the way institutions often excuse and enable misogyny. This was work that was given a platform by Elephant Journal, known for publishing other controversial clickbait like the recent article by a so-called “yogi” titled “Why I Voted for Trump.” With the increased traffic to Shaw’s 2013 article in the last few days, Elephant Journal has since deleted the offensive piece (which, thanks to internet archives will never be completely gone).

While at a basic level we commend EJ for removing the piece, let’s delve deeper into how and why they did so. Was it because they finally realized “this is a really hateful and violent thing to provide a platform for, and we don’t want to support that so let’s delete it?” Unfortunately, this is not the case. It was because they were likely getting so many complaints from women triggered by and concerned about them providing a platform for this type of hate and the inappropriateness of the article. They were forced to take it down before they were dragged into the scandal surrounding Eric Shaw (four years too late, EJ!). In other words, it was a business decision, not a moral decision. The moral decision would have been to never publish such a piece in the first place. They also haven’t openly admitted why the article was problematic, or why they deleted it, or even taken an explicit stance against the views Shaw expressed in that article which was available on their site for four years (nor did they do so originally in an editor’s note at the beginning of the article, as they did for the Trump piece linked to above).

So even EJ removing the post was a decision that is flawed–{*poof*} it’s just gone! (Get back to the “edgy” articles about neo-tantra, readers!) But Shaw’s other writings? They are all still supported on EJ’s site along with an author page touting Shaw’s credentials (but lacking any disclosure informing primarily female students and readers to the fact that Shaw is also a raging misogynist). So now when people look Shaw up online at EJ they will not actually be able to see what his detestable and dangerous views are. In essence, EJ has completely erased any evidence of Shaw’s hate while continuing to support him as a contributing author, serving to further enable him. Oh, the subtle and insidious ways misogyny works!

Or take the American wing of the Yoga Alliance, for instance, who had this post brought to their attention and were asked to forward their formal statement to Shaw so that it could be more widely shared amongst the worldwide yoga community (note: this is not the same as actively unearthing ethical infraction; because of their lack of regulatory ability the onus is on YA members to inform upon each other). Their response:

“All grievances are private to Yoga Alliance. We do not share that information. Yoga Alliance supports having the public make informed choices when selecting a yoga instructor or a yoga teacher training program, including based on whether a teacher’s or school’s philosophy is aligned with the that of the student. Yoga Alliance Registry’s social credentialing system is designed to allow the public to see feedback from past trainees before enrolling in a training program. Yoga Alliance also encourages prospective yoga students to review other available information when selecting a yoga teacher.”

In other words, despite their belief that they are supporting “having the public make informed choices,” Yoga Alliance is doing nothing to actually inform the public and potential students (most of whom will likely be female) about Shaw’s potentially dangerous views, serving to further enable him and condone his behavior. Does your brain hurt yet?

We can see more subtle forms of misogyny and systems of patriarchy at work in the way people have tried to excuse Shaw’s behavior as some sort of mental breakdown or illness. We can see it in the way yogis, including women, empathized more with the perpetrator of hateful discourse than with those affected by it (even if it was harming themselves; but then again, that’s not such a surprise since patriarchy teaches women to put others and especially men first, to love thy oppressor, and to forgive instead of oppose). We can see misogyny and systems of patriarchy at work when we look at the way yogis, after confirming that “yes he was perfectly fine yet also totally cool with being a sexist pig,” still refused to cut ties with him and decided to remain his friend despite his hateful views, in essence tolerating his actions. These people likely have the privilege to ignore any potential harm done because it doesn’t/won’t affect them directly.

picture7See the full public post from Ekabhumi Charles Ellik here.

Let’s also not forget that while the majority of people on Shaw’s post were rightfully, justifiably disgusted with the drivel he wrote, there were also others who agreed with him and who were amenable to his ideas. In other words, Eric Shaw is not alone. This was not just other men (though it largely was). It was also (white) women, which isn’t really a surprise when we consider that feminist theory has long indicated women internalize and often participate in their own oppression, especially if they themselves may benefit from white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. Shaw might be an extreme version, but there are many others out there who support his view, who are part of yoga communities, and who also perpetuate systems of oppression.

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But, surely Shaw’s yoga career is over–not so fast!

Despite optimistic statements arguing Shaw’s post was “career suicide”,  it’s best we be realistic about the ways patriarchy works to hide, bury, erase, condone, and tolerate those perpetrating misogynist hate and violence. Even in the yoga community–indeed, especially in the yoga community–we can see this type of process at work over and over again, where scandals involving teachers engaging in abuse often do not result in their expulsion from yoga spaces or teaching roles. Is this completely messed up? Totally. But does it happen anyway? Yes, all the time.

Historically, there have been numerous “gurus” who have abused students, taken advantage of students, or been otherwise engaged in scandalous activities who have continued to have careers in the yoga world.

Take, for example, Pierre Bernard (originally Perry Arnold Baker) in the early 1900s, who was involved in numerous sex scandals after he created a group called the Tantrik Order. It was alleged that Bernard required participants to engage in “sacramental sexual intercourse” in order to join. In 1909, two teenage girls alleged he had sexually taken advantage of them and charged him with kidnapping, which led to his serving time in jail. But was this the end of his career? No. “Bernard eventually regrouped and founded successful yoga schools in New York City and Nyack, N.Y., where he entertained lavishly, raised a herd of elephants, and taught yoga to the cream of high society” (Love 2012). Not only that, but ““at the time of his death in 1955 Pierre Bernard was a bank president, an officer in Nyack on the local Chamber of Commerce, the head of a large real estate holding company and a member of more than twenty societies, including the British and American Philological Societies, the Royal Society of Arts and the Royal Asiatic Society” (Yoga Dork 2010).

Other prominent “gurus” who have been embroiled in scandals and yet still have gone on to have successful careers include Bhagwan Shree Rajnees, more commonly known as Osho. Rajnees was implicated in a number of serious crimes in addition to sex scandals, including a bioterror attack, an assassination plot to murder a US Attorney, tax evasion, immigration fraud, prostitution, drug-running, drug use, and exploitation of workers. When he was deported, twenty-one countries denied him entry. He ultimately returned to India and his Pune ashram (now one of India’s main tourist attractions) and is still a celebrated figure in many New Age circles today. In fact, his prestige only grew after his death in 1990.

Or take Swami Satchidananda, who rose to prominence after opening the Woodstock Music Festival in the 1960s and was the founder of Integral Yoga institutes across the country. Over the years at least nine women have accused him of sexual abuse, although this didn’t halt “invitations for over fifty years from around the world to speak about the way to peace.” Oh the irony! (You can see his organization’s glowing biography which includes absolutely no record of any charges against him here.)

John Friend, the founder of Anusara yoga, went through what has since been dubbed “Anusaragate” in 2012 when he faced claims of financial mismanagement and a prominent sex scandal, explicit photos and all. Although he reportedly was “left estranged from much of the yoga world, banished from the empire he’d created,” was his career over? No. After a mere year off, he began teaching at a studio in Denver (where “he was welcomed”) and ended up creating/appropriating/adding the Friend branding “magic” to a new style of yoga with (female) teacher Desi Springer, called Sridaiva or Global Bowstring. A mere five years ago, yoga practitioners were optimistically calling Friend out on his numerous ethical infractions and announcing his career was in tatters. Apparently we have short memories, as “his” new style is enthusiastically investigated by both new and long-term yoga practitioners, and the intricacies of the style’s biomechanics dissected in online forums.

Or take the recent Jivamukti scandal, which entailed “allegations of sexual assault and battery against yoga teacher ‘Lady’ Ruth Lauer-Manenti, brought by Holly Faurot, her student at Jivamukti Yoga School in New York City. The suit names Jivamukti founders Sharon Gannon and David Life, as well as studio director Carlos Menjivar, as co-defendants for covering up and condoning Lauer-Manenti’s alleged actions.” (Remski 2016a). Was that the end of any of these people’s careers? No. “Ruth Lauer-Manenti has exited stage right for teaching gigs in Berlin and Switzerland. Sharon Gannon and David Life have exited stage left for retreats in Costa Rica, upstate New York, and then Moscow in the fall” (Remski 2016b). Others commenting on the Jivamukti scandal, such as prominent teacher Leslie Kaminoff (who is well-known for his conservative outlook) “instantly contributed to victim-blaming culture, which enables abuse, and silences those who would speak up.” Despite this, Kaminoff continues to attract large (predominantly female) audiences. The entire incident clearly indicates the ways the yoga world and patriarchal systems in general often work to bury, silence, or excuse harmful actions or violent rhetoric, a process explored by Remski in his last post on the Jivamukti scandal, titled “Silence and Silencing at Jivamukti Yoga and Beyond.”

Look, we believe in second chances. In some of these cases, like Friend’s, there was consent in illicit affairs (if not honesty or truthfulness), so it’s important to note that not all of these scandals involved cases of abuse, harassment, or assault. But the fact is these individuals (mostly men), who made conscious choices embroiling them in disturbing and at times abusive scandals, did not experience “career suicide.” This is a sign that those engaging in abusive and harmful behavior are quite often propped up by patriarchal systems, even, or perhaps especially, in yoga, as their discretions and abuse are consistently downplayed, buried, tolerated, and excused by those surrounding them. Indeed, if we want further evidence of this trend in our broader world we need look no further than the White House, which is now host to a man who was elected President of the USA despite being caught on tape bragging about sexually assaulting women, or his close ties with child sex trafficking networks, or being accused of sexual harassment and assault by over twenty women (including charges that he raped a 13-year old, which were dropped after the victim received a slew of death threats from Trump supporters).

So we need to stop saying Eric Shaw will somehow face “career suicide” after revealing his long-time, deeply-held beliefs of sexism and misogyny, gender essentialism, and indications of racism to boot. Though we wish it were the case, unfortunately, it’s simply not a given. Do we hope Shaw will get the help he needs to overcome his clear biases and to change? Of course. But given the many years Shaw has been engaged in this type of rhetoric, that is not likely to happen, and all the coddling, excusing, and “dialogue” in the world likely won’t do anything to change his mind, no matter how “nicely” we reach out to him. This is a person who has been eating up men’s rights dogma for decades, even while he has never actually reached out to study feminism itself (and that’s one severely lopsided “dialogue” if ever we saw one).

picture15Be Scofield, who is ironically the founder of Decolonizing Yoga, would “love to stay in dialogue” with Eric Shaw regarding men’s rights dogma? The comment does reveal more about how long  Shaw has held such views, and how lopsided his study has been.

Ultimately, to ensure that his career in yoga is actually ended those of us (who are justifiably disturbed by the potential for Shaw to continue teaching predominantly female audiences) will need to stand against him, repeatedly, often, and loudly. It will take denouncing him in our communities and informing others who are considering hiring him in the future about his hateful views. It will take all of us continuing to educate ourselves and our communities on the dangers of such violent rhetoric, the realities of women’s history, and on what feminism actually means and entails.

Where do we go from here?

Happily, most of the comments on Shaw’s post were from people, especially women, who found this type of violent rhetoric unacceptable and disturbing. Here’s a shout-out to all you empowered, amazing people who stood up to combat and denounce hate–you are inspiring. But we would like to encourage all of us to think critically about how we may be condoning, protecting, and potentially even encouraging this type of misogyny in our communities, and how this links to how we teach the practice of yoga.

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Thaumatrope: the bird in the cage

How do we break out of the cage of patriarchy, so people of all sexes and genders are able to fully heal? What are we really teaching when we teach yoga, and is there a way to teach yoga as a radical act of social justice? Can we teach yoga in ways that is informed by and rooted in intersectional feminism? What would that look like? How can we promote a spiritually engaged activism in our yoga communities to better combat this type of hate and violence?

Many people are deeply resistant to notions that yoga might be a force for social change or that yoga is political. Even in these Trump/Brexit times, we are often still enmeshed in ideals of yoga that posit the practices as timeless, transcendent, pristine objects rather than the cultural artefacts and tools that they are. This is not to deny the potential power of yoga to support, empower and perhaps even transform a life. But how it transforms us, what it transforms us into and what kind of communities we create as part of that process is up for debate.

We all have an abiding need for be seen and held; to feel part of something greater than ourselves. Perhaps more than ever before, we might have a need for a de-politicised, neutral space, where we can go to forget our worries and concerns in these troubled times. And it might therefore suit us to view our yoga classes and communities as politically neutral and existing as an alternative to politics. But we also need to recognize that our innate need for community and for simple companionship means that we might also be willing to overlook red flags and subtle signs that could in fact allow us to recognize that the implicit (and almost always unspoken) biases of our particular chosen group do not actually align with values that we personally hold dear. It might mean we are willing to overlook behavior that prevents us from accessing the deeper, ethical practices of yoga to overcome samskara, imprints or impressions left in the deep recesses of the mind by experience (which for all of us is experience rooted in systems of white supremacy, settler-colonialism, and capitalist patriarchy). It might mean we compromise our ethics in ways that make us complicit and which enable abuse and violence to continue.

This overlooking becomes particularly problematic when aligned with the rhetoric of self-care that much of modern yoga culture espouses. (Not to mention that this focus on self-care might not be in line with traditional teachings, but rather an example of yoga culture taking on the dominant values of the society it is embedded within). What do we as practitioners do when something a teacher or prominent member of a community says feels “off” to us? How do we make sense of the dissonance? Most of us, particularly women, are very well-schooled to prioritise social harmony and cohesion over our own internal wellness and wholeness. If we are yoga teachers ourselves, can we say that what we transmit from this space of internalised violence is truly yoga?

As teachers, our careers can be dependent on our reputation, networks and connections, and perhaps we sometimes feel we simply cannot afford to turn down the patronage of a powerful teacher (even if they are known to be abusive, hateful, or someone who engages in victim blaming; or if we suspect that is the case). In such circumstances, we may very well collude with power structures we consider ourselves morally opposed to. In fact, female practitioners might do this most of all. This becomes even more complicated when we consider the material conditions of women working within the yoga industry. Let’s be clear here that this is a world in which employment is increasingly scarce, underpaid, and rarely sustainable past the glory days of Instagram-friendly “health” and desirable bendiness. Rampant self-promotion is necessary and resources (for example students or studio space) are competed for fiercely. In this uncertain industry, it is the working lives of women that bear the brunt. Maternity leave is as likely to be the end of your teaching slot at a studio as it is the beginning of a new chapter of a woman’s relationship with her body. So can we blame female teachers for looking anywhere we can for security?

Misogyny does not always manifest as brutally or obviously as we might think. In our experiences as yoga practitioners, we have seen many apparently innocent incidents which are in fact examples of deeply buried sexism. A great many of the things we take for granted or that are normalised within a yoga class are symptoms of this and other forms of bigotry.

Consider, for instance, how acceptable it is for female practitioners to let their teacher know that they are menstruating, which for all women who do menstruate (whether they know it or not) has an effect on energy levels, joint liability, and emotional states. If this aspect of female embodiment is accepted, how is it made space for within the class? Is an alternative to, say, inversions actually offered? Is that done with a sense that this is not somehow lesser than the “real” work of the class, which is going on somewhere else in some non-bleeding body? What does this do to us as female practitioners? What does it say to us about what it is to have an female body, about yoga? Who loses here, and who gains? How does this play into pre-existing hierarchies of power and of who is given voice?

Let’s take some other common examples of female experiences in yoga. How is pregnancy accommodated? There are many good reasons to attend pregnancy-specific yoga classes–but isn’t there something ironic in the rhetoric of “start where you are” and “yoga is for everybody” that peppers every class if this entirely normal facet of human experience is not accepted by the usual structure of what we are practicing together? What about miscarriage, an experience that one in five to six of known pregnancies ends in, which causes an estimated one in five women who go through it anxiety levels on a par with people who attend psychiatric outpatient services? What about menopause, which every woman who menstruates goes through? These are largely hidden areas of female experience, and perhaps we obscure them further and even complicate our ability to go through them without medicalising or pathologizing them if they cannot be accommodated within yoga.

Once we start looking at these questions, it is difficult to see a yoga class as quite as female-friendly as we might want to think. Is this evidence of deeply-ingrained sexism? Not necessarily–though we, the authors of this article, would argue that it is. At the very least, we might want to re-think our cherished notion of yoga as a non-political space.  And we might also want to investigate, at the level of our own practice, how we make sense of the messages we receive from our teachers about what a female body is (and is not), and the way these messages often support essentialist, hetero-patriarchal understandings of a gender binary.

Perhaps we could focus on how it actually feels, somatically, to receive messages both coded and/or explicit, that our body is “less” or “different” than a seemingly “neutral” male one, and how we then pass these messages on to others. As people who are schooled in the rhetoric of “listening to the body”, can we pay subtle attention to what happens to us when we receive disturbing messages from our teachers? What do we do with that dissonance? Do we project it outward onto others, or do we turn it inward? We need to work at this micro-level, as well as at the macro-level, in order to begin to root ot this and other forms of bigotry.

Other practical efforts we can make to combat sexism, misogyny, and patriarchy in yoga:

  • At the micro-level, how can we better recognize the way misogyny has become rooted in our preconceptions and understandings of the world? One way to do this is by paying careful attention to our language, with an aim to create more equitable and inclusive social spaces in our everyday lives through a conscious effort to use gender-neutral language. For example, it’s easy to lose count of the times people will use the gendered phrase “you guys” when referring to a group of people, even if every single one of the people in the group is female (or take the use of “man,” “he” as all people, or out in California the use of “dude”). This type of language is what feminist author Kate Swift discusses in her book Words and Women, where “so-called ‘generic’ senses of the word [man] were subconsciously contaminated by the male sense of the word. The result: women were getting lost in our language” (Bodine 1996). Of course this also means those who identify as gender-queer are lost in our language, too.
  • When you see a problem, speak up. (And alas, be prepared for push back.) Can’t speak up because it could put you or your job at risk? Perhaps drop an anonymous note to staff with some articles helping educate the studio/teacher on the topic at hand. Seek out other allies who can engage in that conversation with you, or have a friend speak for you anonymously if they are comfortable doing so. Also, consider keeping a written record of incidents and dialogues you have had about such incidents to document any concerns.
  • Do your homework on the teachers you are taking classes from. Let’s avoid supporting those who don’t actually walk the walk with any of our money, time, or energy. Find out something disturbing? Let the organization hosting the event know, and consider informing people who might otherwise attend (note: informing others can take many forms from private conversations to public demonstrations).
  • Are you a studio owner?
    • Consider having a process for anonymous feedback so those who may not feel comfortable disclosing their experiences can do so safely.
    • Ensure teachers are properly trained on appropriate conduct, including maintaining professional boundaries with their students–especially when these relationships may be charged with gender, race/ethnicity, and other power dynamics. Have clear policies on how to deal with difficult or disturbing situations that hopefully never come up, but realistically might (like this incident with Eric Shaw demonstrates). This includes having policies and training for all staff (including teachers) on reporting, filing, and addressing disturbing incidents, including those involving hate speech, sexual harassment, or discrimination.
    • Have a list of emergency contacts somewhere handy in case emergency situations arise, including mental health services and numbers for local emergency centers. (Sometimes it may also be useful to have this information in a format that can be passed out to others.) Here’s hoping it’s never needed.
    • Consider offering classes that can serve as safe spaces of healing for all people, especially marginalized groups. This might entail offering classes or spaces that serve marginalized communities or which can address specific needs for certain groups (things like curvy yoga, classes for people of color, and yes, this might also entail yoga classes for men). Recognize this work is not a marketing gimmick (looking at you Broga!), but rather about building inclusive, empowered, and supported community spaces. The way you teach might need to change to truly serve the community you create (for example, Brandon Copeland’s studio in Washington D.C.).
    • Considering offering classes that help fundraise for important causes. These type of events can help build community, establishing connections with local organizations and networks. They can also support those in need, or help raise awareness on important issues. (For example, yoga classes to benefit Planned Parenthood or something like Yoga Refuge’s fundraiser supporting survivors of the Bay Area Ghost Ship Fire.)
    • Consider hosting workshops and trainings for staff (and maybe even students) on important topics, including: combatting sexual assault and harassment, trauma informed yoga, anti-racist education, creating spaces that are queer and trans friendly, the impacts of gentrification (which yoga studios are often deeply embroiled in), the nature of privilege, and other forms of anti-oppression education, including feminist education. There are often many local activists and community groups that do these types of trainings you can reach out to.
  • Do you run a teacher training?
    • Revisit the point above about doing your homework on the teacher trainers you are hiring. Also revisit the point directly above this about types of workshops or trainings that might be important to discuss during a TT.
    • Consider the way your curriculum, including book choices, also monetarily supports and legitimates certain instructors. Is it possible to represent a more diverse range of authors in your curriculum (are all the authors of curriculum students read from just one group, such as white people or men)? Can you work in training on trauma sensitivity?
  • Have other practical suggestions for us all? Add them in the comments below.

Let’s all work together to create spaces where we can heal in safety and work towards a more socially just and equitable world. Onward and forward!

Co-Contributor: Joanna Johnson has been a yoga practitioner since the 90s, has had a daily practice for fifteen years, and has been teaching for seventeen. She is particularly interested in the myriad experiences of female embodiment. She teaches women’s yoga in a beautiful barn in the English woodland, where her teaching is increasingly inflected with the felt realities of being a householder in intimate contact with the Earth. Her Facebook page is Red Moon Yoga, and she blogs at www.whisperingbodies.wordpress.com.

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Satya: Radical Truth in this Trumped Up Age

Welcome to the Trumped up age, everyone.

I’m sure like many of you, these last few days (weeks… months… __fill in the blank?__…) have been filled with trying to process the events unfolding in this country, not to mention the ripple effects these events have on the broader world.

Today I want to tackle the increasing importance of practicing satya in the form of radical Truth. Given our current political climate, it is even more imperative that we center our practices on the ethical prescriptions of the yamas. But what exactly does it mean to practice satya, or truthfulness, the restraint from falsehood, the resistance to distortions of one’s reality rooted in ignorance?

The Trumped Up Age

This week was, of course, the inauguration of Trump to the presidency. As I sit here writing this, #DayFour has already seen:

So pretty much it’s been a shit-show. Why list it all? Because frankly, it’s important to remember that this is not normal. Also, experts in authoritarianism recommend keeping a regular list of things changing around you, because as we can see it can be overwhelming to keep track of. Literally, it’s been almost impossible to keep up with the slew of horrible and disturbing news.

Trump and his team have been waging a war on the media, a war on facts, a war on reality in attempts to discredit even the most obvious and verifiable information. This war has also been focused on overloading us with so much at once that it becomes nearly impossible to catch everything, to resist the myriad of ways his administration and the Republicans in the House and Senate are attempting to rollback our civil rights and undermine our democracy. According to journalist Ezra Klein:

The spat over crowd size is a low-stakes, semi-comic dispute, but the groundwork is being laid for much more consequential debates over what is, and isn’t, true. Delegitimizing the institutions that might report inconvenient or damaging facts about the president is strategic for an administration that has made a slew of impossible promises and takes office amid a cloud of ethics concerns and potential scandals. It also gives the new administration a convenient scapegoat for their continued struggles with public opinion, and their potential future struggles with reality… It’s not difficult to imagine the Trump administration disputing bad jobs numbers in the future, or claiming their Obamacare replacement covers everyone when it actually throws millions off insurance.

What happens when our government becomes an untrustworthy and unreliable source of information, when it is our government that lies to us? Social psychologists have found that when faced with falsehoods, especially a torrential downpour of them, commitment to the truth becomes monumentally more difficult.

Our brains are particularly ill-equipped to deal with lies when they come not singly but in a constant stream, and Trump, we know, lies constantly… When we are overwhelmed with false, or potentially false, statements, our brains pretty quickly become so overworked that we stop trying to sift through everything. It’s called cognitive load—our limited cognitive resources are overburdened. It doesn’t matter how implausible the statements are; throw out enough of them, and people will inevitably absorb some. Eventually, without quite realizing it, our brains just give up trying to figure out what is true.

But Trump goes a step further. If he has a particular untruth he wants to propagate—not just an undifferentiated barrage—he simply states it, over and over. As it turns out, sheer repetition of the same lie can eventually mark it as true in our heads. It’s an effect known as illusory truth… Repetition of any kind—even to refute the statement in question—only serves to solidify it…

When false information is specifically political in nature, part of our political identity, it becomes almost impossible to correct lies… In the face of a seeming assault on their identity, they didn’t change their minds to conform with the truth: Instead, amazingly, they doubled down on the exact views that were explained to be wrong. (Konnikova 2017)

It’s important to remember that facts do exist. But it’s also important to recognize that in the Trumped up age, authorities like our government are actively working to undermine our abilities to determine fact from fiction. These attempts make it harder for us to sift through the slew of misinformation being promoted by what have in the past seemed to be legitimate sources.

In this day and age, we all must come together to commit more fully to a radical understanding of what the truth means, and what it means to be truthful. In this day and age, we all must come together to support the development of a yogic culture of radical truth tellers.

Satya: Radical Truth in Opposition to Radical Lies

In yogic philosophy, satya is commonly interpreted as truthfulness or the restraint from falsehood, with many teachers  promoting the idea of truthfulness in thought, word, and deed. But what exactly does this mean in practice?

In the yoga world today, we often misunderstand satya to mean “honesty.” This implies satya entails remaining “true” to our self in ways that allow us to honestly share our personal opinions, and to feel justified in doing so with comments like “I’m simply being ‘true’ to who I am” (oh, the ego is strong!). Thus, satya becomes misinterpreted as saying your “truth,” as you see it, in your words; acting out your “truth,” as you see it, in your actions; and thinking your “truth,” as you believe it, in your mind.

This is often encouraged by the way yoga has become tied to an individualized, capitalistic understanding of the self in the West. In this misunderstanding, satya becomes the act of remaining “true” to an assumed underlying, unique “authentic self” we are encouraged to discover and express through buying things. Thus, satya is misinterpreted as something completely relative, as unique to each person. It becomes individualized as being “true” to one’s ego-self in our thoughts, words, and deeds rather than understanding satya as a commitment and dedication to the uncovering of deep Truth in our self and our life.

This shallow interpretation of satya as honesty isn’t so much about uncovering, understanding, or spreading Truth, but is instead about feeling justified in our personal interpretations, regardless of their flaws or inaccuracies (oh, the ego is strong!). Rather than becoming Truth tellers, we are encouraged to become tellers of our own personal, radical “truths,” regardless of whether or not our personal opinions are actually grounded in fact, regardless of whether or not our personal opinions are actually based on an understanding of the realities that surround us.

Look, I’m all about honesty. It’s a wonderful thing. I encourage everyone to be honest as part of their practice of satya. But let’s get honest here–honesty is not always the same thing as being Truthful. (And to be really honest, this misunderstanding of satya also ignores yogic philosophy regarding the nature of the True self, purusha, and the realities of avidya, ignorance, which lead us astray from understanding the Truth of our self and the world.)

I believe that to truly practice satya, we need to recognize that there is something to Truth beyond just honesty. We need to recognize that adhering to Truth demands more of us than an accurate, honest reflection of our own ignorance. It demands a commitment to understand reality, a commitment to uncover facts, and a commitment to radically express them.

The fact of the matter is, in this Trumped up age the Truth is often unpleasant, uncomfortable, and complex. The yoga industry often avoids this reality, this Truth, because when you are trying to sell something to a mass audience it’s easier to use a quick gimmick and a surface level understanding of satya than to really challenge our students and our selves. It’s easier to promote a false representation of the “truth” as simple, because it’s easier to sell simplicity. We are comfortable with simple things; complex things tend to scare us. Complex things make us uncomfortable. So instead, it’s easier, and more lucrative, to encourage a fantasy understanding of the world as simple, a world where happiness is achievable (if you can just pay enough, or just consume enough), a world where we are encouraged to remain in the bubbles we surround ourselves with that make us feel safe and comfortable, but which are not really True.

In this Trumped up age, I think it’s important we understand satya as a radical commitment to the Truth that surrounds us, even if it is unpleasant, dangerous, or risky to express. We must become radical Truth tellers, not simply tellers of our personal, radical “truths.”

Reinterpreting satya as a commitment to radical Truth implies a responsibility to combat falsehoods, to speak out in support of what we know to be fact. It implies a responsibility to act with honesty and integrity in the face of lies in ways that don’t just serve our ego, but serve those most affected by the realities of our unequal world. It implies a responsibility to utilize Truth to mitigate harm being caused, in accordance with ahimsa and in ways that actively, radically encourage others we encounter to do the same.

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It means not being complacent to the harm perpetrated by the systems we are a part of by remaining silent in the face of injustice. A radical practice of satya must promote radical Truth focused on social justice, equity, and inclusivity, and continue to seek the complex reality beneath the charade of simple falsehoods.

Perhaps most importantly, we must recognize that we cannot do this alone. The myriad of falsehoods we face is simply too much for one person to bear the cognitive burden. We must band together, form coalitions, and support organizations and independent news agencies that are committed to promoting the Truth, to preserving fact, and to engaging in investigative journalism. We must form networks of trustworthy, reliable, radical Truth tellers. To combat ignorance and promote radical Truth in the face of radical lies, we must continue to resist together. We must continue to organize, together. We must continue to utilize social media to network with others committed to Truth, and we must continue on-the-ground community organizing to create strong local governments and support systems that value a truthful understanding of reality as it is, not as we want it to be.

We must continue to speak out, even when it is uncomfortable to do so, even when it is potentially dangerous to do so. We must resist efforts to be silenced, and we must be willing to take on the burden of radical Truth-telling despite the risk.

Despite all the horrible, depressing, anxiety-producing news lately, I have been encouraged and inspired by those who are committed to sharing radical Truth, who insist on working towards a better future, a future that values facts and is willing to face the unpleasant realities of our world so that we may solve them. Radical truth is a creative endeavor, and I want to leave you with some of those creators and artists who have begun the brave process of speaking out and calling up. I think it is important for us to all begin to utilize the tools at our disposal to educate, to advocate, to agitate for a better world.

Seek radical Truth. And in the words of a friend of mine, “Stay radical. Stay woke AF.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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This image is from an organized action in Oakland, to find out more go here.

I also highly recommend the following speeches that happened at Women’s Marches around the United States:

Transcript of Activist Kelly Hayes at the Women’s March in Chicago, Illinois

Angela Davis speaks at the Women’s March on Washington:

New Website! Blog Revamp!

After much deliberation, I have decided to transition my website and blog to incorporate more of my sociological expertise in addition to my work on yoga. I originally started this blog to write about about my exploration of yoga, whether than be my own personal practice, philosophy, yoga culture or lifestyle. However, in the last couple years I’ve begun to realize that my yoga practice has become intimately intertwined with my sociological work, work as an anti-oppression educator, and as an activist. I have realized I cannot truly delve deeply into yoga without opening doors to discuss other things, and other aspects of my life and work as well.

As such, I have created a new general website as an educator that you can find through my blog’s new header menu or directly at http://amaralmiller.wixsite.com/educator. I have also renamed my blog “The Sociological Yogi” to allow for a broader focus to the posts I make in the future. The domain name for my blog has also changed to reflect this, and is now https://amaramillerblog.wordpress.com/.

Thank you to everyone who has been part of this journey, and who found my work on the original page “All Things Yoga” and was drawn to my writing. Do not fear, my blog will continue to grapple with yoga, yoga culture, and the yoga industry. But I will also begin to integrate my other work in sociology, anti-oppression education, and activism as I desire. I hope you will all continue to join me in the exploration of this continual process of becoming.

Much love to you all out there.

“Go forth, and set the world on fire.” ~St. Ignatius Loyola

Cultural Appropriation, Yoga, and You

(Because all great titles are a list of three things. #ThingsILearnedInAcademia)

This is not a post about what cultural appropriation is (to learn about what cultural appropriation is, see my past post here or my recent academic article, “Eating the Other Yogi,” here). This is not a post about whether or not cultural appropriation happens in modern postural yoga. Hint: it happens all the time. This post is an exploration of why and how cultural appropriation happens in yoga, and what this means for those of us who are yoga practitioners or teachers. Where do we go from here? How do we deal when we are trying to be good people (aka, not appropriative) while continuing on a yogic path?

Across my dissertation research, I’ve grown to realize that most of the yoga practiced in the Western world is culturally appropriative. That statement will likely piss off a lot of people who are very attached to their practice and don’t want to believe this. In fact, it took me a long time to come to grips with this fact too, and to really understand what that meant. But you know what? Too bad. To say that most yoga in the West is appropriative is to speak the truth (satya, anyone?), and while truth is sometimes hard and uncomfortable to face (especially for those with privilege in the yoga world, including myself) I believe wholeheartedly that people always deserve the truth, and that the truth will ultimately set us free. Also, side note, a deep practice of yoga is a practice of truth (not the truth as you want it to be, but the Truth as it is, which is a moving target most of the time). The practice of yoga is also a profound practice of non-attachment even to yoga itself, so if you are still up in arms about the claim cultural appropriation happens all the time in yoga, I suggest taking some time to reflect on why that bothers you so much.

Consuming Yoga

The fact is that cultural appropriation is often done with the best of intentions by the appropriator. If it wasn’t enjoyable, pleasurable, and desirable, it wouldn’t happen. Period. So please don’t give me the “I don’t appropriate yoga because I love it” speech. I’ve heard it before in my line of work, more times than I can count. You can be a “good” person, have the best of intentions, and still do bad things, like engaging in cultural appropriation. People culturally appropriate because they are drawn to something. They consume other cultures often with the best of intentions, out of genuine interest in the cultures they appropriate. But they also often seek out these cultures from a place of power and privilege, and without a proper understanding of the cultures they are engaging with, and this is a dangerous line to walk, often resulting in appropriating the cultures they revere. According to work by bell hooks (1992:24,26), the appropriator often sees “their willingness to openly name their desire for the Other as affirmation of cultural plurality… they believe their desire for contact represents a progressive change… [they believe] the Other can provide life-sustaining alternatives.”

In the Western yoga world today, most people desire such life-sustaining alternatives to the often demoralizing, alienating, isolating, and damaging capitalist societies we live in (especially the USA). People are drawn to yoga because they think it offers a solution, a way to mitigate the pain and suffering they are experiencing in their day to day lives. They desire it. And they are actively encouraged to desire it by an industry that sells yoga to the masses as a quick fix to underlying, systemic conditions.

Stuck in a job that requires more than 40 hours of work a week, doesn’t provide paid holiday/sick leave, and doesn’t give you any maternity/paternity leave? Do yoga! Experiencing secondary trauma from the seemingly never-ending video evidence of murders of black/brown people by police? Do yoga! Stuck in the prison system that dehumanizes non-violent offenders locked up for life because of crap mandatory minimum sentencing and three-strike laws? Do yoga! Can modern postural yoga actually solve these issues? No. Not all all. It will take systemic changes to actually solve these problems. But we are encouraged to use yoga as a stop-gap measure, as a way of treating the symptoms of a much larger and more complex disease. Because when you can treat the symptoms (for a cost) but never cure the disease, it’s possible to make a shit-ton of money. Cue: yoga is a booming $16 billion dollar industry.

This is no coincidence. As yoga became more popular in the West with the countercultural movements of the 1960s, yoga became appropriated and reinterpreted through a Western lens that imposed ideas of individualism, capitalism, and consumerism on the practice. It was turned into a “profession,” as something to be bought and sold–it was turned into a commodity. We are taught to consume yoga, to find pleasure in it despite the fact that yoga is not about finding pleasure. We are sold yoga as a “30 day transformation” and as a way to “find your bliss” and “manifest joy.” We are never actually sold yoga. We are sold an appropriative misrepresentation of the practice designed to get us in the door and spending money.

This is exacerbated by the professionalization of yoga as a career. The “job” became predicated on a prescribed set of skills that we can look up via a quick google search for “yoga teacher job description.” Take a look at some of these gems garnered from just such a search:

Yoga aims to create balance in the mind and body through exercise, breathing and meditation. As a yoga teacher, you will teach yoga as a form of exercise that increases fitness and wellbeing. (National Careers Service UK)

As a LifePower Yoga Instructor, you will provide various Yoga training services that offer members programs to maximize workout efficiency, improve fitness, increase stamina, enjoy their fitness experience and improve overall sense of well-being. (A job listing from Monster.com)

Yoga instructors help to guide students in yoga through a variety of postures, or asanas, and breathing exercises referred to as pranayama. Instructors provide hands-on direction to make sure students are performing movements properly and applying the breathing techniques. Yoga instructors may work in a class or in a one-on-one setting. (LiveStrong)

Are we teaching yoga, or are we just physical fitness trainers? At least the first description mentions meditation and “breathing” (did they mean pranayama here? Because I hate to break it to them, but that’s not exactly what the sanskrit term means). Although of course the description of what a teacher actually does has nothing to do with either of those, and only discusses yoga as “exercise” and “fitness.” And LiveStrong at least mentions pranayama, although again defines it incorrectly as just breathing. This next one from Best Sample Resume is probably the most ridiculous (cue laugh-cry):

Yoga is an ancient form of exercise originating from the country of India. Yoga has been known to help people exercise without straining themselves. It is quite fast and effective and this is the reason why it has become so popular in the west. Many gymnasiums now offer yoga as a form of exercise with other unconventional exercises like aerobics, pilates, etc…

Duties and Responsibilities of a Yoga Instructor

  • Yoga instructors have to teach their students about the various yogic positions…
  • They have to take into account the health problems of the students and teach them accordingly
  • They also have to take the age of each student into account as their students can be anyone
  • They have to monitor each of them carefully to ensure that they are doing the position properly
  • They have to be experts themselves and have to be in great shape
  • They can even offer dietary advice to their students but they can do it only after consultation with a dietician
  • They mostly teach their students proper breathing techniques as they are most important aspect of yoga [yet of course this “most important aspect of yoga” is mentioned as a site note in the last bullet of the job description”, talk about hypocritical!]

Because clearly yoga was just ancient exercise. That was sarcasm, in case it didn’t come across right. And don’t even get me started on the statement that yoga instructors “have to be in great shape” comment.

What is so troubling about these descriptions of the job description for a yoga instructor is that we have defined the skills and activities of such teaching primarily on asana alone, or postures, and more specifically on the teaching of those postures in a group class setting (or less common, but more lucrative, private classes). Breathing is sometimes mentioned, but often misrepresented in these descriptions. The profession of yoga is predicated on a job that isn’t actually teaching yoga, but is just teaching a fitness class in the vein of Jane Fonda’s workout videos of the 80s.

The industry supports this, with most “yoga studios” only offering group fitness classes and rarely incorporating other aspects of the practice in their classes, workshops, or retreats. Add in yoga products that present the practice as something that you “do” at a set time, in a set place, through consumption (buy the mat, buy the props, buy the clothes, buy the class). Oh, sure, in these settings you may have a mention here or there of some philosophical aspects of the practice, and a breathing technique or two. But these are out of context, usually incredibly brief, and may not even be completely understood by the people teaching it.

Ex: alternative nostril breathing is a practice often taught completely devoid of the philosophical roots, meaning a yoga instructor will walk you through how to do it but won’t explain why. In fact, the teacher might not even know the philosophical, energetic and tantric reasons behind what they are trying to teach as most TT programs only offer 20 total hours of philosophy, pranayama, and history of yoga combined. And it’s optional how TT programs divvy that time up (usually pranayama is the first to be cut, as it is the most complex and requires the most background to understand). In short, the vast majority of what we are taught to teach, and subsequently get to teach via the yoga industry is group fitness classes that without more context and background are, at their heart, at their essence, culturally appropriative. And if someone wants to go into teaching yoga as a career they will likely be locked into this system where if they want to earn a living in said industry, that is what they have to teach. It’s risky for one’s career to actually teach yoga. But it’s big business to teach yoga fitness classes that are appropriative and that commodify the practice.

So we are stuck, consuming yoga even as we appropriate it horribly.

But isn’t yoga just a moving target, anyway?

A recent facebook post by Matthew Remski drew attention to this paradox many yoga teachers face today, but it also proposed a disturbing solution.

“Honestly, I don’t know whether what I’m teaching is yoga anymore.”

If I had a dollar for every time I heard this sentence from the fantastically skilled yoga teachers I talk to, I’d be able to afford the rent on a yoga studio in a gentrified neighbourhood. Just joking.

Seriously: they pause after they say it. Something between fear and equanimity is hanging in that pause.

Here’s a composite of the speaker: a highly sensitive and generous teacher who after ten to fifteen years of study, training, and teaching feels an oncoming crisis in self and cultural identity, presenting ambivalence along a number of yoga vectors. They love the sensations, aesthetics, and meanings of vinyasa, but they’re increasingly aware of repetitive stress [injuries]. They love postures, but they’re also learning about functional movement. They’re inspired by the ancient wisdom literature but they also know they’re living in a world that scripture cannot have imagined. They cherish the feeling of practice transmitting an essential wisdom through timeless techniques, but they’ve also read Singleton. (Shakes fist.)

They know they’ve benefited deeply from the solitude of self-work but they’re bothered that yoga is mostly the refuge of a privileged class that often wants consolation more than justice. They know self-regulation is essential but that it won’t address climate change or help BLM directly.

They teach in neighbourhoods that used to feel locally vibrant. As their skills increased with age, they were able to offer richer programming. But they also had to charge more for it, because gentrification. Sometimes they feel themselves locked into a consumerist feedback loop that is growing further and further away from the community they originally intended to serve, but which is also disappearing.

They know that some devotees define moksha as the goal that makes yoga yoga. They’re inspired by this, but wonder how many ways there might be to feel freedom. They don’t associate their practice with religion, but the cultural appropriation discussion has made the religious roots of practice — and their love for or aversion to this — undeniable.

They know that therapeutic goals and transcendent aspirations can pull the limbs in opposite directions on the yoga mat.

Sometimes the person utters the sentence with an enigmatic smile, and seem okay with it. That’s cool. But there are those who seem distressed by the problem, and are wondering whether they have to quit to retain their integrity, I feel a prickle, and I just figured it out.

I’m thinking: “But isn’t that just it?”

Isn’t practicing with equal parts of hope and doubt — along with the creativity of their friction — a movement towards freedom? Isn’t the self-inquiry that cuts right down to the nub — about everything — exactly what you wanted? Didn’t you always want to improvise the most skillful response to any given stimulus, regardless of whether it’s been taught or written about?.. Maybe not being able to name what you’re doing is a sign you’re doing that rare thing to which the sages, whoever they were, gave a provisional name.

My issue with this approach is that it argues it doesn’t matter what we do with the practice so long as we, personally, feel that it is yoga. Remski argues that this doubt that people experience because they are finally coming to realize their practice is appropriative is just totally fine, don’t worry about it. Look, I get that learning is always an uncertain process where we are confronted by doubt. This is especially true when the things we learn are polluted by culturally appropriative histories, commodification, and consumerism, not to mention colonialism (both past and present, because colonialism isn’t ancient history, folks–just ask the Native Americans involved in protesting the DAPL). It’s harder to wade through the mess of appropriative, commodified yoga to a deep understanding of what the underlying practice is. But there is an underlying practice.

Yes, yoga has been part and parcel of many different traditions, across a variety of religious, spiritual, and atheist demographics throughout its very diverse history. But there is an underlying unity in the philosophical aims of yoga and in aspects of the practices used that it is possible to point to. Sure there is diversity in how we interpret this underlying unity, but that doesn’t negate the fact that there is something underneath it all. While Andrea R. Jain (in her book Selling Yoga) and many other researchers like Georg Feuerstein (in his book Yoga Traditions) do make it a point to talk about how yoga has taken many forms depending on the time and the social group in question, they admit it is still possible to point to an underlying shape of this thing “yoga”; in other words, it’s not just anything we want it to be (cue: white desires that spur and subsequently justify appropriation), there is something we can trace called “yoga,” otherwise these histories of the practice couldn’t exist.

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For me, I like to think of yoga using the metaphor of a blob. And yes, I’m still working on a better comparison, but bear with me. We can think of yoga as a shape made up of a set of practices, beliefs, values, norms, etc. (a cultural object), that are bound together in a networked, fluid form. It is constantly shifting as the circumstances of where that shape is in space and time change, as it adapts to it’s environment, but at the same time as the outer edges shift and change shape, the center of the blob for the most part remains the same over time. So although yoga does shift a bit in different settings, as all cultural objects do (because we consume and produce cultural products differently across space/time to make them relevant to our needs in that moment, this is what makes cultural objects living history), in general the ways we consume and produce yoga do have similarities across space/time that allow us to point to this blob and call it “yoga” across space, across time. We are able to trace this thing called “yoga” because there is an underlying essence to trace.

So trying to argue that as many western yogis finally begin to realize that the thing they have practiced and taught for so long might just be a commodified, appropriative version of something much deeper and greater creates a doubt that isn’t justified somehow because yoga has evolved over time is an attempt to justify appropriation because we don’t want to believe we are appropriating yoga. It’s not truth. We can’t come away from discussions of cultural appropriation in yoga with the claim that appropriation doesn’t matter, that we should just not care, or that anything is yoga because yoga doesn’t exist at all, or that to doubt that what we are doing is yoga is actually what the underlying practice of yoga is at its essence. This doubt many yogis today feel reflects a deep disconnect between a commodified, appropriative version of yoga taught in the West, and a realization that this is not what yoga is at its heart, that the underlying essence of yoga is much, much more.

Sure, this doubt a symptom that they are finally breaking through the nonsensical constructions of the practice that have arisen in recent decades. They’ve entered a deep stage of the learning process where we learn to doubt what we once believed, where we come to deconstruct false conceptions. This is a necessary and difficult part of learning–it is the uncovering of samskara and falsehoods that become embedded in our selves and lives. But that doesn’t mean the doubt and confusion of that stage in the learning process is what the practice is, or what the practice is about, or that we should just ignore it because it doesn’t really matter.

Remski’s post captures some very profound and important developing debates about the westernized yoga most people practice and teach today. But just giving up and saying “who cares, it’s all yoga” and that “if your confused, that’s what yoga is, so just stop worrying and keep doing what you are doing anyway” is not the solution, and not even a yogic solution to those questions. Instead of turning away from the confusion and doubt because it’s uncomfortable, or just living there in that doubt because we are afraid of what may come, we instead need to plot a course that takes us straight into that feeling so that we come out the other side with deeper faith, a better understanding and sense of the practice, and a better sense of how to engage in the practice in a way that is socially just and doesn’t damage this thing we love and live.

In other words, we need to work through the discomfort to actually learn how to practice and teach in ways that aren’t appropriative and aren’t continuing the commodification and watering down of yoga. Because let’s face it, in the West today we have watered down the practice so much it’s possible for students with over a decade of practice to enroll in a TT and not even understanding that meditation and yoga aren’t separate (no joke, that’s straight from my field notes, y’all). Imagine, studying for over ten years but never even realizing that yoga is a practice of meditation. That’s the yoga world we live in, because that ten plus years of study took place in an industry that doesn’t actually teach yoga, but instead teaches group fitness classes and calls it “yoga” to make it more desirable. To make it easier to sell.

Where do we go from here?

Obviously, the practice has changed dramatically over the last 100 years. That blob has transformed so much I think we do need to ask the question, “Is this still yoga?” Because most of these recent changes have been driven by commodification and appropriation of the practice in ways that water the practice down monumentally and turn it into a fitness craze, and this is intimately tied to practices of colonialism and white privilege (hence, appropriative).

The scary thing is that this endangers the survival of the practice as something more than just an exercise regimen. I often compare this process of slow death by appropriation to the appropriation of Native American traditions. Entire tribal cultures have died out through various forms of oppression, both physical but also cultural (appropriation). It’s a shame, it’s unfair, and honestly we are starting to see this happen in yoga, where the appropriative and commodified versions of the practice are being sold back to places like India and are replacing the more traditional understanding of what yoga is, even for native populations. Obviously the case of appropriation of yoga is not as extreme as the case of Native American traditions/cultures which has been going on for far longer, but I truly believe it could become as extreme unless we start to make efforts to retain the heart of the practice in ways that allow it to be protected, even as we also allow it to shift over time to serve the needs of the modern world (because all cultural objects need to evolve, it’s what allows culture to retain its relevancy). But we do need to engage in a mindful evolution of yoga in a way that consciously works toward doing no harm not just to ourselves, or to others, but also to yoga itself.

I get that it’s easy to misinterpret all of this as an argument for Hindu nationalism (which many yogis, especially white, non-Hindu yogis, think claims of cultural appropriation are arguing). But that’s not the case either. Because we can acknowledge the religious (multiple) roots of yoga traditions and practice in ways that are not appropriative without having to ascribe to a specific religion. Saying that cultural appropriation is widespread in yoga doesn’t mean we can’t practice it as white people, or that we have to suddenly support Hindu nationalism. What all this means is that we need to respect the roots of yoga, and begin to teach in ways that honor those traditions, history, and philosophy even as we do make it relevant for us today.

I honestly don’t think this is too much to ask of people who really love the practice and want to share it, and who want to live it (ahimsa, y’all, it’s a thing, look it up, and it also applies to doing the practice no harm too). It’s just that the way the industry is set up right now, if people want to make money teaching yoga it’s incredibly difficult to actually represent yoga accurately in a way that is not appropriative. Especially when most students of yoga think of it as “just exercise” (especially for women, white people, and affluent people, let’s get real). That’s essentially how most people think of yoga today. As a workout. Because: appropriation of the practice. These things are not separate.

If individual yogis and teachers want to resist engaging in appropriation within yoga, I hate to break it to you but they do need to change some of the ways they teach. We can’t just keep doing what we have been doing because we like it, find pleasure in it, or just don’t want to face the discomfort of change. We need to represent yoga more holistically, incorporating actual teachings on the history and philosophy of the practice(s). Does this mean students need to convert? No. But I think it’s a valid expectation that students should learn about where yoga comes from, and about the philosophy that is ultimately the practice (it’s not just asana, y’all). Teachers need to start offering more than just group fitness classes, and when they do offer asana classes they need to begin speaking about why not just how in a way that gets beyond, “because it makes you feel good” or “because it will help you lose weight” (barf), and instead talk about the energetic and philosophical reasons behind the physical practices.

Let’s be frank here. For most teachers out there in the commodified, appropriative yoga world today who have only experienced brief stints of Westernized TT certification programs, this might mean maybe you just don’t know enough to teach yoga yet without appropriating the practice, and if being a yoga teacher is the path you really want to walk maybe you need to go back and study more. Perhaps you need to rethink whether or not you are really, truly qualified to teach. Are you? Really? Truly? Why do you want to be a yoga teacher, really, truly? If, in asking yourself these questions, you realize all you wanted to be is a positive life coach or physical fitness trainer, maybe you need to switch fields and go into those professions. Again, I don’t intend to be cruel here, but if you really want to teach yoga, and really want to be truthful, and really want to engage in non-harm, and really want to live your yoga practice, these are the types of deep reflection that the practice requires of us. These are the types of difficult, uncomfortable questions we need to ask ourselves. Believe me, I know, because I’ve been grappling with them for years.

And heck, if you think that’s asking a lot, get this: the more difficult thing is that most teachers, if they want to earn a living at this and avoid appropriation, also need to push back against the system and industry that makes it difficult to teach yoga for realsies, not just yoga fitness classes in the vein of Jane Fonda. In other words, asking those questions at the individual level isn’t enough, because even if someone comes away from those questions with a resounding “YES I AM QUALIFIED AND I’M GOING TO TEACH YOGA DAMMIT” they are still going to have to do so in an industry that will fight them every step of the way. If someone really wants to teach yoga, and be truthful about that teaching, and engage in non-harm, and live the essence of yoga, they are also going to have to start pushing back against the industry that has commodified and appropriated it.

And that’s where we get to this crisis and doubt that Remski spoke about in his post (despite the really weird, white privileged denial of the problem at the end). The paradox arises, the crisis arises, the doubt arises because it’s hard to make money at yoga and also present it deeply, holistically, and accurately. How do you sell a practice that is difficult, that asks us to face the darkest most disturbing parts of ourselves? That asks us to do so over and over, constantly, until the day we pass on from this life? That Patanjali himself argued is painful? Because 2.15 says: “To one of discrimination, everything is painful indeed, due to its consequences: the anxiety and fear over losing what is gained; the resulting impressions left in the mind to create renewed cravings; and the constant conflict among the three gunas, which control the mind.” How do you market that? How do you sell that? It’s hard to teach yet not appropriate in an industry based on appropriation/commodification of the practice, based on a lie of what yoga is at its essence. It’s so much easier just to say, who cares, to use our privilege and succumb to our attachment and desire for this thing we have created that is not yoga, but is called yoga anyway.

But hey, no one said yoga was easy, right?

Oh wait, I guess the yoga industry did that when they appropriated and sold “yoga” to us as a quick fix to all life’s ills (for a cost).

Love, light, and… yoga ❤

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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.

 

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 ❤