I’ve been meaning to write blog posts about my personal insights on yoga and my practice, but it’s been a difficult process to get started. First, because there are so many things I want to write about so it’s hard to decide which to start with. Second, I’ve been putting off writing about my personal experiences with yoga in part because like many yogis I’m an introvert in a yoga world that rewards extroverts, and am not usually one to share my personal beliefs. (While I would argue yoga is a process, I also recognize that just because something is a process doesn’t rule out that it also reflects a belief system—for example about which process is best.) Third, because many of the things yoga has taught me are personal or reflect my personal experience and worldview, I recognize that many of the insights I have about my practice might not be relevant to others. Yoga is many things to many people, and each person comes to yoga for different reasons and takes from yoga different lessons and uses. It is polyvocal and multivalent, and whether we like it or not it has become part of popular culture in America and throughout the world. So I don’t want to deny another person’s various and unique experiences of yoga in the process of sharing my own.
With that said, here goes. This post will explore the idea of yoga as dynamic love, as well as one reason I practice yoga that has resonated deeply with me in the last year or two (particularly since I began regularly teaching the introductory sociology course Social Problems). I argue that one of the reasons yoga has become so physically-focused and oriented towards acrobatic self-mastery of the body has to do with increasing feelings of a loss of control within the broader social and economic worlds we move within. Similarly, one of the main reasons we’ve been seeing the obsession with other “apocalyptic,” extreme exercise regimes in the Western world, including extreme contortionist, aerobic yoga forms, is the increasing powerlessness we feel in broader social systems.
Why Practice? Yoga as Dynamic Love
As I said, people come to yoga for many reasons, and though we can identify clusters of common reasons there is really no way to completely capture the various and multiple causes why people turn to the practice. For example, the most recent data commissioned by Yoga Journal indicates that as of 2012 the top five commonly cited reasons people give for starting yoga are “flexibility (78.3 percent), general conditioning (62.2 percent), stress relief (59.6 percent), improve overall health (58.5 percent) and physical fitness (55.1 percent).” Some also come to yoga to treat specific health conditions, such as back pain, neck pain, arthritis, and anxiety. But there are important limitations to these studies of common motivations that should discourage anyone from reading too much into the statistics–first, because people have multiple, concurrent motivations for coming to yoga (as those percents show, the question must have been a “check all that apply” not “check one”). Second, because our motivations for starting yoga are often very different than motivations for continuing it. Inevitably, the nature of the practice (and the culture) means that there is a self-selection process where only certain types of yogis continue, becoming dedicated, lifelong practitioners, while people with other motivations for doing yoga eventually leave the practice entirely or diversify their physical fitness repertoires to only do yoga “on occasion,” often for the common reasons listed above. As a result, we often find that those who become lifelong yogis tend to use the practice to access deeper (dare I say more spiritual?) meaning than just the physical/mental health reasons cited by those starting yoga.
The reason that we practice yoga changes over time, at least for those who stay with it for years (or a lifetime). It has to. This is because we have a relationship to our practice, and to commit in our yoga practice is similar to commitment in a relationship. A while ago I read a random article as I was sifting through my facebook feed. The piece was about love and relationships, and things you have to realize and learn when you are with someone for life (in order to remain with someone for life). Contrary to popular epitaphs that “love is forever,” “love never changes,” or “love stays the same” this article dropped some hard truths in opposition to those popular, romanticized Disney versions of “love.” The fact is, in any long, loving, and lasting relationship you have to learn to love the person you are with over and over again. Love isn’t static, but dynamic, and it has to change over time as both of the people in the partnership evolve and learn and grow and age. So we have to learn to love not just the person we met at “that place,” at “that time,” and “in that moment,” but also the person they become the next day, the next month, the next year, or two, or ten. We have to learn to fall in love with the people they become, and do so as the people we become (because we change in the same ways too, and similarly are not the same person the next day, next month, next year, or two, or ten). So if love is to last it must never stay the same; the only way love can survive is through evolution, through adaptation, through the conscious and deliberate development of dynamic love rather than an (inaccurate) ideal of static love. We have to learn to love the process of growth just as much as the moment of stasis.
Any relationship we have with something we love needs to change over time as a result, so in lasting relationships we must fall in love over and over and over again, every day. It’s like the movie 50 First Dates, but less comedic and without the Hollywood ending or inappropriate jokes. The practice of dynamic love takes courage, dedication, and deep self-reflection to accomplish, and is something we have to actively do with the mind, body, and heart. But it is also incredibly rewarding. As Lao Tzu said, “Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength, while loving someone deeply gives you courage.” I think those who initially come to the practice fall in love with it at “that place” at “that time” and for “that reason,” whatever that might have been. But for those who stay with the practice, who become lifelong, devoted, and dedicated practitioners we have to fall in love with it continuously, and the way in which we love it changes depending on who we are and what our practice is at that time. This act of dynamic love is itself part of the practice, because learning to cultivate our ability to love in dynamic ways is part of what yoga teaches us. Yoga is a process, and an art, and ultimately about cultivating stability and commitment in dynamic, changing worlds and bodies. And I would argue it makes us better people in all areas of our lives as a result. Movement is life; when we stop moving, we stagnate, become brittle, and die.
Why Practice? Apocalypse and Work on the Body as a Strategy of Control
Like many people, I came to yoga haphazardly and without really knowing much about it. The first yoga class I attended was a hot yoga class. My mom took me on a weekend while I was still in high school, I think because she thought it would be a fun mother-daughter bonding experience (she was right, and it was) but probably also because at that time in my life I wasn’t as active and she wanted to encourage me to be physically healthier. I didn’t know what to expect, but I recall I loved sweating a ridiculous amount and the jello-limbed feeling following the class. At the time we lived in Humboldt county, a place of constant fog and 50 degree damp ocean weather, so it was a marvelous experience being hot and warm and sweaty for a whole hour. The reasons why I practice yoga have shifted since then and multiplied. It was a mutual shift; I changed, my needs and desires changed, so why I did yoga had to change too, and my practice evolved alongside my own evolution.
People practice yoga for many reasons, and all of them are valid. However, I think people who tend to stick with yoga for a lifetime come to develop very deep and meaningful reasons for their practice, beyond just basic health and wellness. It takes deep motivation to commit to practicing yoga for years, or decades, or life. So while I do still practice yoga as a means to stay physically healthy and strong, I also practice for other reasons, including those that are more spiritual, mental, and emotional. With that said, I think one reason that has been particularly relevant to me lately (and that also makes yoga such a powerful vehicle for healing addiction or trauma) is that yoga enables me to feel a sense of power and control in my own life. By yoking the mind and body, yoga enables a degree of self-mastery that we often lack in our social, economic, and political worlds. So yoga for me has become a means of finding peace and a small, unmovable, unshakable sense of stability in a world that is increasingly out of balance and beyond our control.
The sense of control I gain through yogic work on the body (and mind) is a way for me (and I expect many others) to regain a sense of self-efficacy, or what social psychologists refer to as perceptions and assessments of the self with regard to competence, effectiveness, and causal agency. In other words, self-efficacy is how much we feel we control our own destiny and have the ability to complete tasks and achieve our goals in life. And research has shown that having greater self-efficacy and an internal locus of control matters. Those who see themselves as internally controlled (a skill yoga definitely teaches us on and off our mats) do better in school systems, are more successful in stopping unhealthy habits like smoking, are more likely to wear seat belts, often deal with relationship problems directly, earn greater incomes, and are better able to delay instant gratification to achieve long-term goals which makes them more successful and happy. This is one of the reasons that yoga and mindfulness movements have been co-opted by capitalist systems through McMindfulness programs; yoga can make us more effective and productive workers, in large part because yoga helps us develop greater self-efficacy and self-mastery. (However, that doesn’t mean that’s what yoga should be used for, and as I’ve discussed before this type of application of yoga and mindfulness practices can actually serve to prop up unsustainable capitalist systems rather than solving larger social problems.)
As a sociologist, I study society and our broader social world using scientific research methods. Sociology teaches us to understand our world in deeper ways than the average person does, because as a sociologist we are trained to uncover the true nature of complex social interactions between individuals and larger social structures, see the interconnections of all areas of our society, as well as the ways our society influences and constrains our actions as individuals (often without our conscious awareness). So on the one hand, learning sociology can be incredibly freeing because it helps us understand how to be ourselves in a world with numerous outside pressures trying to force us to conform; in other words, it teaches us how to resist outside social pressures.
On the other hand, sociology is also incredibly depressing because it teaches us about the various, overwhelming, and interconnected problems there are in our world and how horribly difficult it is to solve any of them. Sociology teaches us how futile our efforts to make a difference can be, and this is often an unpleasant and, in some ways, traumatic realization. This is especially true for those who are romantics (as sociologists and yogis tend to be) or those who experience a great deal of privilege in other areas of their lives (for example, those with higher education or those who are white, like myself). Those who come from privileged positions often like to imagine anything is possible if they just put their mind to it, and that subsequently all the awesome things that happen to them are a result of effort rather than circumstance. Thinking that we earned what we get in life gives the illusion that we deserve what we get, which is appealing. However, social psychology research has shown that we often overestimate our strengths, abilities, and skills. This is called the “above average effect” or illusory superiority. For example, when comparing our driving skills to other people, 93% of people put themselves in the top 50%, something that obviously doesn’t add up. So sociology gives us a disturbing reality check: it’s likely those awesome accomplishments are mostly due to circumstances beyond our immediate control (combined with some individual effort to take advantage of privileged opportunities).
In the past several decades sociologists (along with many others) have been drawing attention to numerous social problems within our modern (postmodern?) global society. We currently live in a world in turmoil, a world in crisis. The problems facing us today are on a scale and level beyond those facing us throughout most of human history. Increasingly, we have very little personal power or control over our own lives and the course of our civilization and planet. Corporations have gained immense power in the last century, particularly during the last decade and even more so since the controversial Citizens United ruling in 2010; they now have immense influence over our culture, politics, and economy. We’ve been seeing the negative effects of an unsustainable capitalist consumer society both in terms of our own lives (decreased job satisfaction, decreased job security in a world where the permanent employment model has weakened in favor of temporary employment, increased stress and anxiety, stagnating wages, and the middle-class squeeze, just to name a few) but also in our world more broadly (such as global wars like the never-ending War on Terror or apocalyptic predictions of climate change and it’s contributing causes, including widespread global overpopulation, desertification of fertile lands, deforestation, extreme drought, sea level rise, and ongoing and widespread pollution). And hey, if all this isn’t overwhelming enough just think about this terrifying statistic: “By 2025, an estimated 1.8 billion people will live in areas plagued by water scarcity, with two-thirds of the world’s population living in water-stressed regions as a result of use, growth, and climate change.” In other words, within 10 years nearly two-thirds of the world will be without clean, drinking water.
As Ulrich Beck noted, we increasingly live in a high-risk society where we can never be sure if we are really safe, and where the technological advances that would enable us to gauge the risks we face are not widely available or widely understood. (What’s really in your shampoo? What’s really in your food? How do you ever really know?) Many of these risks are felt worldwide and require global solutions and global coalition building, a project that will likely not be realized in time to prevent widespread social changes (e.g., climate change). Or the risks we face are complex and interconnected with other social problems (e.g., income inequality is deeply interconnected with our cultural, political, and economic systems), or risks are invisible (e.g., chemicals or toxins), or risks are dispersed so much across our lifetimes (e.g., multiple chemical sensitivity caused by ingesting small, “safe” amounts of numerous chemicals regularly over decades) that it can be hard to avoid risks or fully understand them (e.g., regulations on chemicals are nearly non-existent in the USA).
Despite the increasing danger and instability of the worlds we live in, we have very little power to change things or control the conditions of our society and world. As a recent study by Princeton notes, the United States is no longer a democracy, but an oligarchy where the wealthy have increasing power and influence and our single voices are drowned in the vast sea of elite money. Even collectively, our powers are limited. Social movements often struggle to create larger social changes, as the recent demise of the Occupy movement demonstrates. Many times research on methods of resistance and collective action becomes used by those in power to further control and manage possible rebellion, so attempts to band together to make a difference are often thwarted as methods of control only become more insidious and powerful (e.g., recent trends to ban the filming of police in response to the #blacklivesmatter movement).
Besides being horribly depressing and at times terrifying (how could it not be?), what all of this means is that as individuals, we live in a world where we have very little power over the larger social conditions that structure our choices, attitudes, beliefs, and actions. There is very little we can do to influence our work environments or work opportunities, to influence our economy, to influence our politics, or to influence mainstream media culture (which, by the way, is controlled by only six megacorporations). So of course we are left feeling powerless in a world that is indeed largely beyond our control. And this feeling of powerlessness is often exacerbated for those who are on the front lines of this type of research, especially sociologists but also groups like climate change scientists. For example, a recent article by Dahr Jamail (one of my all time favorite reporters, do yourself a favor and check out his work) discussed how climate scientists have been experiencing depression, anger, and fear; in other words, the five stages of grief and/or symptoms of PTSD. Personally, I know many sociologists (including myself) that have experienced similar effects from the work that we do. Our mental and physical health is not independent of the systems we are embedded within.
Which brings it all back to yoga. Because for me (and I think for other yogis who are on the front lines of these social battles, or really anyone who is living in this world and dealing with these social trends in their personal lives) yoga is a means to regain a sense of control. While our ability to affect larger structures and social systems is extremely limited (though I do think there still may be hope, a topic I am exploring in my dissertation), we can at least cultivate control of our bodies, minds, and emotions. Through yoga, we can regain a sense of self-efficacy and power, largely by work on the body to regain strength, confidence, and self-mastery which we can then take off our mats and into the social worlds we move within.
Many extreme exercise forms use work on the body as a way to regain control of ones life in a life increasingly out of control world. Some recent research suggests, and I would completely agree, that the increasing loss of control in our lives is actually the reason why we are seeing the rise in popularity of forms of extreme fitness in America, including the trend within modern postural yoga towards the more flashy, acrobatic, and intense asana practices like Ashtanga, hot yoga, power yoga, or power vinyasa styles (a trend that has ultimately resulted in, no surprise, higher rates of injuries). In these extreme fitness trends, work on the body becomes a metaphor, symbolic of anxieties about the social body, or the body politic, and through work on the body we are able to alleviate some of the anxiety and stress we are unable to solve in other, macro-level arenas in our lives. So work on our bodies takes on a ritual symbolism of larger social issues in our social structures. In her book Purity and Danger, Mary Douglas investigates how “the body is a model which can stand for any bounded system” (114). The body, how we ascribe meaning to bodies, and what we do with bodies all become symbolic of larger social structures, and our own anxieties, attitudes, and beliefs about those systems. So “the ‘microcosm’–the physical body–may symbolically reproduce vulnerabilities and anxieties of the ‘macrocosm’–the social body” (Bordo in Unbearable Weight: 186). And as Douglas notes, body rituals like those practiced in yoga or extreme exercise regimes “enact the form of social relations and in giving these relations visible expression they enable people to know their own society. The rituals work upon the body politic through the symbolic medium of the physical body” (129). Our fears of impeding social, cultural, economic, and/or political crises of potentially apocalyptic proportions become manifested through the turn towards intense fitness activities, which also serve as a means to manage the embodied effects of such crises (like stress, anxiety, or trauma held in the body that is ultimately caused by larger social insecurities, dangers, or risks).
And while I’d love to offer some positive, hopeful, or upbeat ending to all of this I don’t really have one, and that’s the whole point. In a world falling apart at the seams, yoga has become a stopgap measure to hold ourselves together, a symbolic representation of the desire we feel for more control over our lives and a reflection of anxieties about our lack of influence in broader social systems. (I do realize yoga is more than just this, though, but that’s another blog post.) There is no easy solution.
Love, light, and… yoga ❤