Today I want to explore some thoughts about elitism and class privilege in the yoga world, and how this connects to constructions of the yoga body in terms of manners, size, and race (because really, these three tend to be interconnected). There is a great deal of discussion about how yoga is primarily practiced by and accessible to a high-class, highly educated, thin, white, female demographic, and that it is this body that is overwhelmingly featured in (stereotypical) cultural representations of the yoga body. Often, discussions of inequality in yoga focus on race or size (or gender) rather than on social class per se. But in this post I want to center the discussion on class, and see how we can think about inequality/exclusion in yoga in a different way by using class as an underlying lens to focus in on issues of race, size, and even gender. Watch out folks, we’re about to discuss the gross yoga body!
Bodies as Social Signals
In addition to being a very intimate and personal part of our everyday experiences, bodies are also inherently social as they signal others around us, signifying and representing identities to others in ways that allow us to interact more effectively within the world. For example, Goffman’s theory of dramaturgy discusses how bodies can serve as props in the performance of social scripts; what we wear, how we carry ourselves (our body language), and (ultimately) how our bodies are interpreted by others (including race, class, gender, sexuality, and/or size, all of which are embodied to various degrees) provide a framework for us and others to interact in predicable (but unique) ways, what Bourdieu calls “regulated improvisation.” Bodies are a part of our social scripts, and help us interpret and interact with the world as they can help us anticipate what is appropriate behavior in different settings with different people.
We learn to interpret bodies through our personal interactions but also through media (which is a profoundly powerful agent of socialization in today’s world). Bodies, in this sense, are interpreted and framed by cultural processes that ascribe meaning and moral distinction to various individuals depending on what they look like. Because we often develop split second impressions of people based on appearance, bodies shape our experiences in life as they can affect how others treat us, and because of the looking glass self, bodies also come to shape how we think about ourselves as we imagine what others see when they look at our fleshy being and learn to internalize that (as if we see through a looking glass to develop our sense of self).
Class is ultimately an embodied experience and signal. Our social class is written in the body in ways that are often invisible, naturalized, and normalized even as we socially construct them. This happens in numerous ways. For example, poverty contributes to increased rates of diseases and illnesses that can define and shape our bodily experiences in the world. All those in poverty have bodies shaped by less access to quality health care, both medical and dental, across a lifetime. Those who are poor generally live in worse areas that have higher rates of pollution and exposure to dangerous substances (such as lead paint) all of which can impact health in profound and lasting ways. Those who are poor have shorter lifespans as well; the wealth-health connection is strong and lasting, and ultimately a connection that plays out in and on the bodies of real people, in real life. So class is written in the body and signaled through the body in terms of health, illness, disease. Class is also written into the body through the type of work done by different classes (e.g., blue collar vs. white collar) or in the type of fashion worn by different classes.
Manners, Size, and the Gross Body
More importantly to our discussion, class is also embodied in terms of manners. Norbert Elias researched how during the industrial revolution when people began moving to cities en masse, a civilizing process took place where the new experience of living in close quarters with so many people created a system of self-imposed restraint, especially regarding bodily management, or manners. It became necessary to construct a divide between “private life” and “public life” to preserve personal boundaries in new urban environments, and bodily processes that were once relatively open and shared (particularly sex and the processes of elimination) became unacceptable, taboo, inappropriate, controlled through laws (like “no defecating in public spaces” or even “no sleeping in public places”), and relegated to the privacy of the home, preferably kep private even from those you share your home with.
This civilizing process, this private/public divide, wasn’t an accident. Levine and DiMaggio have both researched how elite groups in cities actively worked to impose manners on the lower classes as a means of combating and controlling class tensions. Not to mention the fact that this process was directly related to elite desire to maintain racial differences between elite whites and newly freed black slaves after the end of the civil war in 1965. What did elites do when there was no more legal distinction based on race? Not a problem when they could utilize the adherence of manners to justify the exact same practices and beliefs. So the construction of manners was intimately connected to maintaining class and racial inequality by elite white men, but in a way that seemed “natural” as it took place through bodily controls learned from a very early age, becoming habitual over time.
Farrell discusses in her book Fat Shame (which I can’t recommend enough) how this civilizing process was also connected to body size. Prior to industrialization, fatness was considered a sign of wealth, status, and prestige. But as the civilizing process took place, beliefs about fatness changed. Fatness becomes associated with gluttony and non-white racial identities, particularly the “primitive” or “uncivilized” body. Thin bodies were considered “closer to God,” and thinness became physical evidence of the control/restraint one presumably had to demonstrate to maintain that body (and faith, presumably) (60). “Fat became clearly identified as a physical trait that marked its bearers as people lower on the evolutionary and racial scale— Africans, ‘native’ peoples, immigrants, criminals, and prostitutes. All women were also considered to be more at risk of fatness, another sign of their status lower on the evolutionary scale than men. Thin, in contrast, became identified as a physical trait marking those who were higher on the evolutionary and racial scale—aristocrats, white people, men. Fatness, then, served as yet another attribute demarcating the divide between civilization and primitive cultures, whiteness and blackness, good and bad” (64).
So during this time elite (white, male) groups constructed a cultural divide between the elite, “high” body and the “lower” body. (By the by, interesting side note: the terms “high” and “low” culture derive from racist terms “highbrow” and “lowbrow” which were based on the pseudo-scientific eugenic study of craniometry, which argued that white people were inherently more intelligent because they had “higher brows”, aka skulls, than other groups. This study has since been found to be complete codswallop, the very definition of (pseudo-)scientific racism).
The “high” culture body was well-mannered, a body in control at all times, associated with intellect rather than emotion, and as such associated with the upper half of the body, especially the brain (rather than the lower half that engages in activities like sex, processes of elimination, and for women also menstruation, child birth, and so on). The “high” culture body was as such a male body, a white body, and higher-class. The “low” culture body had no manners, was a body out of control, was presumably subject to the whims of emotion and instinct, and as such was associated with the lower half of the body (e.g., sexual urges). It was (and is) a body associated with women, people of color, and those who are poor (also people of “deviant” sexual identities). Kipnis (in her excellent study of Hustler magazine) discusses how this “body is often a gaseous, fluid-emitting, embarrassing body, one continually defying the strictures of social manners and mores and instead governed by its lower intestinal tract: a body threatening to erupt at any moment… [It] devotes itself to what we might call grossness: an obsessive focus on the lower half of the body, and on the processes (and products) of elimination.” (132)
This bodily distinction took on a moral quality, with “high” cultured bodies considered more moral, “better,” “good,” and “normal.” As Bordo argues, “The moral—and, as we shall see, economic—coding of the fat/slender body in terms of its capacity for self-containment and the control of impulse and desire represents the culmination of a developing historical change in the social symbolism of body weight and size… [Under capitalism,] social power has come to be less dependent on the sheer accumulation of material wealth and more connected to the ability to control and manage the labor and resources of others. At the same time, excess body weight came to be seen as reflecting moral or personal inadequacy, or lack of will “ (Unbearable Weight: 192).
But how laughable all this is when we dig deeper! Because manners, bodily difference, and moralizing this difference is based on a false construction of elite bodies as somehow inherently different than those who are “Othered,” than “lower” bodies. And it is a false distinction! It is an illusion! It is not truth! Because all bodies eat, spit, piss, fart, poop, have sex (here’s hoping, at least!), and are ultimately at a basic level out of our control. Most of our body processes, and even mental processes for that matter, happen outside our conscious awareness. And that’s a good thing, because if we had to remember to breathe all the time we’d be in trouble, folks, let alone if we had to remember to make our hearts beat. All bodies are gross bodies. All bodies are flesh, and blood, and fluids, all bodies are messy–and thank god for that too because otherwise we’d be robots, unable to feel or truly experience anything. Denying the human nature of our bodies, hiding processes that are “undesirable” according to cultural norms just to take on, maintain, or enforce elite status can actually be incredibly damaging, not just in terms of the inequality it helps support and reproduce but also physically and mentally for those who adhere to it.
Class Privilege, Elitism, and Yoga
So let’s bring this back to yoga and class privilege. Of course class privilege in yoga is partially tied to the way the industry developed, the creation of yoga studio systems and teacher training programs, their marketing that primarily targets and caters to middle-class, highly educated white women (and to a lesser degree, men), and their locations, which are often in high end, white neighborhoods. (That’s a whole other post, though.) It’s also in some sense tied to fashion and consumption patterns. But right now I want to draw your attention to the way class privilege in yoga also has to do with the social construction of the yoga body, which is ultimately a classed (and raced, and gendered) body.
The yoga body is constructed as a “high,” elite body. It is a body constructed as completely in control (look at the force of will required to achieve and maintain some of those intense arm balances and inversions!), a body that is thin, “absolutely tight, contained, ‘bolted down,’ firm: in other words, a body that is protected against eruption within, whose internal processes are under control” (Bordo: 192). It is a body that does not burp, fart, or defecate (that we hear about), that is associated with the mind and upper half of the body, a body that is white, a body that is not messy. It is a body that is elegantly photographed, in a way that is associated with high-end, high-class production (think: Playboy, not Hustler). It is the sexualized body, not the body having sex. It is a bodied that is well mannered at all times, not the embarrassing body. And in saying these things, I’m not trying to say these things are bad; they simply are, and I am simply trying to acknowledge the way the yoga body is constructed as a classed body. But this construction is also limiting; at its very essence it is classed in profound ways and tied to forms of oppression and privilege that are inscribed in and read off bodies and their representations. The representations we see of this yoga body are not truth; they are manufactured and present a particular classed reality that is not shared by most people, that hides the underlying, inevitable gross body.
Perhaps more interestingly, the yoga body has not always been constructed in this way. The classical hatha yogic body was originally a gross body, a messy body. As discussed by Singleton, traditional hatha practice bodily practices were often distinct from the use of asanas, and a great deal of traditional hatha yoga practice aimed at purifying the body would today seem incredibly unorthodox, downright alarming, and, well, gross. Singleton summarizes some these practices as follows: “A preliminary stage of the hahta discipline is the six purifications (satkarmas), which are (with some variation between texts) (1) dhauti, or the cleansing of the stomach by means of swallowing a long, narrow strip of cloth; (2) basti, or ‘yoga enema’ effected by sucking water into the colon by means of an abdominal vacuum technique (uddiana bandha); (3) neti, or the cleaning of the nasal passages with water and/or cloth; (4) trataka, or staring at a small mark or candle until the eyes water; (5) nauli or lauliki, in which the abdomen is massaged by forcibly moving the rectus abdominus muscles in a circular motion; and (6) kapalabhati, where air is repeatedly and forcefully expelled via the nose by contraction of the abdominal muscles” (28). One of the many aims of these practices was to stimulate proper digestion (remember, that whole burping, farting, pissing, pooing messy body?), which is essential to good health.
The hatha yoga body was sanitized when it became appropriated by highly educated, upper-class Indians and later by the West, and this sanitizing process has continued today through studio systems where the practice is removed from the fleshy, gross body (god forbid you fart or burp in your class!) even as we are encouraged to “drop in” to our body through asana–but that “dropping in” takes place in classed ways that tie to race, size, and also gender, and seek to construct our bodies, and shape them, according to class boundaries and privilege.
This is a huge problem, because if we are only encouraged to connect to the “high,” elite body we marginalize many groups from practicing yoga who may feel uncomfortable as their bodies may not fit as easily within this construction (recall: people of color and larger bodies as well as a number of other groups are often are associated with the body out of control, the “lower” body, experiencing greater body monitoring by others as a result). Focusing only on the elite, “high” yoga body also means we lose sight of our connection to our own bodies, which are ultimately not classed, and are all gross. All yoga bodies are gross bodies, just as all bodies are gross bodies. Denying this is denying truth. Embracing our gross yoga bodies is pivotal to deepening a better understanding of ourselves and others as well as improving our health and well-being, both physically and mentally. Only by embracing the entirety of ourselves, including our gross bodies, will we be able to learn to love ourselves, improve our health, and reduce inequality.
Embracing the Gross Yoga Body
I think it’s high time we reclaim the gross yoga body, not only as a means of combating class privilege and inequality in yoga, but also because it’s important for our own health and well-being. Reconstructing the yoga body as a real, gross, fleshy, messy body is necessary if we want to change the classed nature of the practice. And this entails changing the practice to encourage and embrace the gross body. By all means, burp and fart in class! Why not? In fact, why wouldn’t you? What does it say about yoga today when we discourage people from expressing natural bodily practices that are a by-product of a deep, real, felt practice? Because honestly, if your yoga practice isn’t encouraging proper digestion, including healthy burps and farts, why are you even practicing in the first place? If we aren’t practicing asana to become healthier, then what are we practicing for?
In fact, it can be bad for your health to suppress a burp or fart. As this excellent post discusses: “burp when your body wants to burp, and pass gas when your body wants to pass gas; both mechanisms are in place to keep you comfortable and healthy, and suppressing these mechanisms can lead to trouble… The bottom line: For less abdominal discomfort and better overall health, chew well, don’t suppress the release of gas from your body, and strive to avoid foods that don’t agree with your digestive tract.” Here’s another post that identifies how “holding in gas leads to bloating, stomach cramps, and even devastatingly serious pain.” So why is something that is actually good for our health actively discouraged? (Oh right; I guess class oppression, because always?)
And if this discussion about bodily processes is making you uncomfortable, maybe you need to be asking yourself: why? Why do bodily processes that are natural and vital for our health and well-being make us ashamed, embarrassed, or uneasy? Who has taught us this is the “proper” reaction? How do feelings of shame and embarrassment control us and help to maintain unequal power systems?
If we want to adequately develop self awareness, we need to become aware not just of our “high,” elite bodies but also the aspects of our bodies that are “low” class. We need to embrace our gross yoga bodies as a path to self-love and healing, both physical and emotional. And we need to encourage a culture where the gross yoga body is not shamed or “Othered” but is considered normal and welcomed, so that everyone can live in a body that burps and farts without fear! Ultimately, we need to become comfortable talking about these things; and hey, a little laughter doesn’t hurt either.
Love, light, and… yoga ❤