Category Archives: My Research

Updates or musings on my research.

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

‘Oops, We Did It Again!’ Yoga Journal Is What Co-optation Looks Like

I recently published a blog post on Yoga Dork, one of the top yoga blogs. It was such an honor, especially because I got to write about something I am extremely passionate about, diverse representation in the yoga world. Specifically, the post is about how the yoga industry co-opts and appropriates body positive discourse in ways that continue to be problematic and supportive of unequal, oppressive systems. What follows is an excerpt from the entire piece. To read it in full, please visit this link to the post on Yoga Dork!

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Is it possible for companies like Yoga Journal to be body positive when they are built on a for-profit, corporate model that has a legal obligation to sell the practice? Especially when they often sell yoga as an elite luxury good available only to a few?…

Yoga Journal and Continuing Co-optation of Body Positivity

Yoga Journal’s co-optation and appropriation of body positivity has continued this month as they revisit attempts to address claims of their lack of diverse representation and of size shaming. However, perhaps unexpectedly, their latest approach to solve these problems continues to be problematic. In a similar vein to other prominent yoga companies like CodyApp they have been promoting larger, curvy yogis like Jessamyn Stanley (who is also a person of color, and a teacher through CodyApp along with Dana Falsetti, another Instagram curvy yoga sensation).

I commend the magazine and companies like CodyApp for their efforts to increase diverse representation, and I love that yogis like Jessamyn and Dana are making representation in yoga more diverse. We need to acknowledge how great it is that some individuals like Jessamyn and Dana are finally being represented. If you haven’t yet, check out the amazing work they are doing, and send them some love for trying to make some change in a world that actively tries to resist changing.

But how exactly are these diverse yogis represented? Why these yogis? And how much representation are we really talking about? The problem is that the industry rarely engages in broader structural changes to address concerns and tends to tokenize members of marginalized groups for the industry’s own uses.

Tokenism

For those who don’t know, tokenism is the practice of making only a perfunctory or symbolic effort to do a particular thing, especially when one recruits a small number of people from underrepresented groups in order to give the appearance of sexual or racial equality within a workforce. In essence, Yoga Journal gains legitimacy and acclaim for their efforts to represent greater diversity even while their organizational practices continue to be unequal and their portrayal of the practice inaccessible. In other words, the industry profits from maintaining the same systems that generate inequity in yoga, but because they tokenize a small number of specific diverse contributors, the company gains ethical legitimacy even while nothing substantive really changes. All talk, no walk.

I believe (I hope) attempts like this are driven by a genuine desire of those involved in these companies to do better in terms of diversifying representation. However, despite the best of intentions, they still completely miss the mark in important ways in their implementation of their chosen “solutions.”

Social Distance

This is in large part because companies like Yoga Journal are socially distant from those most affected by their practices. They typically draw from an applicant pool that is demographically narrow, both in terms of reflecting a demographic of yoga practitioners in the USA that is predominantly white, middle-class, and female but also because the company’s past scandals mean yogis who are diverse are less likely to be interested in working with them in the first place. So the staff at these agencies, by the very nature of their hiring practices and their applicant pool, is similarly very homogenous and lacking diversity. We also know because of network segregation that most people associate with those who are similar to them in both background and beliefs, so perhaps it is not surprise that the experiences, stories, concerns, and bodies of white, middle-class women are overrepresented in the magazine (plus, that’s their target market, and when you want to make money, then caring about equity and diversity are chump change, right?).

Management and sociological research in labor/work has shown that a more diverse workplace leads to better creative thinking and more creative results. Not to mention diverse workplaces broaden the network of contacts available to an organization, so they can better represent diverse viewpoints (which, let’s face it, are still pretty much non-existent within companies like Yoga Journal as well as in their products, including the magazine, website, and events). Companies with more diversity also make better decisions and are less prone to group-think. Research on television has also found that shows with a more diverse writing staff often produce more diverse and more realistic content that results in above average returns. So Yoga Journal, maybe you should get on creating a more diverse workplace if you really care about more diverse representation? Or, let’s face it, if you want to improve your bottom line because the results are in and diversity sells.

Unequal Power

Characterized by an unequal power dynamic, Yoga Journal and companies like CodyApp include diversity on their terms only. And their terms are steep.

There is always an unequal power dynamic in their choice of diverse models and contributors like Jessamyn Stanley or Dana Falsetti. For example, these individuals have had to generate their own fandom and following to even be noticed by the likes of companies such as Yoga Journal or CodyApp. It wasn’t until they were Instagram stars in their own right that they were able to obtain industry opportunities with companies hoping to gain followers by latching on to something already trending. In other words, such companies capitalize on the unpaid labor of these women, and the fame that these yogis had to create all on their own, while facing obstacles of sizeism (and for someone like Jessamyn, racism) within yoga, along with more isms I’m sure, isms that are often supported by and at times generated by the very yoga companies like Yoga Journal and CodyApp that now benefit from affiliation with these Instagram stars. Irony, much? So there is unequal power in the relationship between these types of companies and these women they are hiring to help make the companies seem like they are increasing diverse representation.

Yoga Journal and companies like CodyApp also only include diversity on their own terms by focusing on maintaining a particular representation of yoga that is inaccessible and largely unattainable to the average practitioner: namely, these Instagram celebs fit the acrobatic image of the practice companies like Yoga Journal want to promote, in ways that body positive activist organizations like the YBIC are actively seeking to disrupt. Perhaps most importantly, they prefer non-political teachers who don’t rock the boat. If a teacher is political, if only at times (cue: Jessamyn Stanley or even Dana Falsetti to some degree) the industry will try to minimize, downplay, or erase any political messages.

Rather than working with politically active yogis working to promote diversity in yoga, they prefer working with other celebrities like Kathryn Budig, or more recently, a small number of Instagram self-made celebrities—tokenized, young, diverse teachers such as Jessamyn Stanley who can do biomechanically complex, flashy asana or postures. When a curvy yoga body is the one doing such difficult postures it makes for the sensational, surprising, wow-factor that sells big and can inspire their readers to just try harder (and spend more) to reach physical goals. But this coverage is still generating an exclusive and ableist understanding of the practice of yoga as predominantly just complex asana. It presents the yoga body as one that must do complex postures, even if it is larger. So even while it increases diversity in representation in some ways, it symbolically erases the diversity of the yogic experience for practitioners by focusing only on a few celebrity teachers in ways that perpetuate unrealistic, asana-focused understandings of the practice and the yoga body.

For example, the first of a series of recent posts on Yoga Journal’s website featuring Jessamyn Stanley is all about “Tight Hips? You Need Jessamyn Stanley’s Hanumanasana Prep.” It claims, “Monkey Pose can be accessible to everyone” (an argument that, by the way, could be potentially dangerous as it has been questioned by recent research on biomechanics) and “features North Carolina-based teacher, body-positive advocate, and Instagram star Jessamyn Stanley breaking down the pose to help out tight hips.” The post then cycles through a series of asanas with an image of Jessamyn in each pose, including warrior II, reverse warrior II, triangle, one-legged down dog, two versions of crescent lunge, half splits, and full splits. None of the images feature demonstrate with props (although the text provides an “option” for blocks). Is it truly accessible to everyone?

Appropriation of Body Positivity

The other two articles featuring Jessamyn Stanley, including a version of one slated to come out in the November issue of the magazine, blatantly appropriate from the YBIC. One, announcing an excerpt from Jessamyn’s new book Every Body Yoga utilizes the phrase, “yoga is for all” claiming “That’s the message yoga teacher and body-positive advocate Jessamyn Stanley spreads to her students and 233K Instagram followers.” The problem? It’s the message self-proclaimed fat and black YBIC board member Dianne Bondy has been using for years as part of her #yogaforall movement that centers of generating more inclusivity in the practice for all practitioners, “regardless of their shape, size, ethnicity, or level of ability.” It’s the name of an online Yoga For All Training Dianne Bondy and her partner Amber Karnes (both body positive activists) run for teachers on how to make yoga classes more accessible for everyone. And it’s a phrase used to describe inclusive classes in Bondy’s online website Yogasteya.com, “dedicated to celebrating students of all shapes, sizes and ethnicities” whose “motto is ‘No Yogi Left Behind.’” However, Yoga Journal, of course, mentions none of this.

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The final Yoga Journal article, “How Jessamyn Stanley is Erasing Yoga Stereotypes” claims “This North Carolina–based teacher and Instagram star is changing the perception of what a yogi looks like.” They fail to mention that this language is co-opted directly from an ongoing campaign by the YBIC to change representation in the practice by disrupting #whatayogilookslike. The magazine fails to even mention the campaign, despite the fact that since Yoga Journal’s largely staged Practice of Leadership panels, the only time they have featured the coalition publicly was over a year ago when they ran one online article featuring several images that YBIC produced and provided for them as part of the activist group’s #whatayogilookslike campaign and media series (along with a number of other magazines, so it’s not like Yoga Journal was going out on a limb with their coverage). So despite largely ignoring the YBIC and avoiding engaging in dialogue with activists since that token inclusion, the magazine has appropriated a number of their slogans and campaigns without giving them credit or even acknowledging the organization and their work.

According to the YBIC, the #whatayogilookslike campaign was originally created by the YBIC to showcase the faces and stories of people not usually represented in the pages of major yoga publications or covers (like Yoga Journal) and included a participatory social media campaign that actively sought to disrupt the dominant, stereotypical imagery of the yoga industry to provide real, diverse yogis to share the diversity of their practices. The YBIC also created a media series initially intended to be utilized as “a full cover image with a group if diverse yogis representing all the facets of human diversity that exist, the kind that pulls out to reveal a double cover… I envisioned something powerful and bold that not only represented diversity but also strayed away from the ‘yogalebrity’ covers in which you have one featured ‘star.’ I think it’s crucial that we celebrate our communities, not idolize individuals (as if these individuals have not been bolstered by their communities). Furthermore, it was a vision that sought to move beyond tokenizing one person. Like, hey, ‘here’s a person of color.’ Check. Or, hey, ‘here’s a curvy yogi.’ Check.” (Emphasis added, see Klein’s interview here). But as Klein reports:

“The initial cover idea has never happened. The idea was pitched to 3 major yoga publications, including Yoga Journal. Every single one of them turned it down. Frankly, I was shocked Yoga Journal didn’t jump on the opportunity since they were at the beginning of re-branding and the pitch followed the panel discussion by a month wherein Yoga Journal said they were committed to making big changes. Instead, their rebrand was rolled out with their “body issue” and Kathryn Budig on the cover.

Dianne Bondy and I approached them again earlier this year. Maybe the idea was ahead of its time, I thought. I figured that after last summer’s cover of Runner’s Magazine featuring Erica Schenk and the rapid rise of the body positivity movement, they’d be ready to feature some size diversity. But, not only that, I assumed they’d be prepared to go the distance by not only featuring a larger-bodied yogi but yogis that represent the full range of human diversity with the group cover photo idea I’d pitched 18 months earlier.

Their reply was a flat-out ‘no’ with a note about how they’d be happy to cover the movement in the pages of their magazine, something that was never addressed again when I replied with a “sure, how would you like to cover it?” Dianne and I never heard from them again.”

The appropriation of the YBIC and body positivity by Yoga Journal is especially ironic given that in a personal facebook post Jessamyn Stanley acknowledged the influence the YBIC and Dianne Bondy had on her own practice, in essence demonstrating Melanie Klein’s observation that even ‘yogalebrities’ are bolstered by their communities. Stanley even drew attention to the fact Yoga Journal ignored both Diane and the YBIC in their article:

“So I’m in the November issue of Yoga Journal and I feel really weird about it. Don’t get me wrong, my inner yoga nerd is a few steps beyond excited. But sometimes I feel like I receive credit where credit ISN’T necessarily due. For instance, the YJ article is headlined with something to the effect of “Jessamyn is changing what a yogi looks like.” But that theme, ‘#whatayogilookslike’? It’s actually a whole media campaign by the Yoga and Body Image Coalition, not me. If I’m being honest, I don’t think I ever really set out to challenge any stereotypes- I just wanted to document my asana practice and become part of a larger community of yoga practitioners outside of my tiny home yoga bubble. In fact, I never would’ve taken a single asana photo had I not been inspired by pictures of Big Gal Yoga& Dianne Bondy Yoga on Tumblr. It’s not that I’m not thrilled to be recognized by our industry’s standard, but I think there are other people in our yoga community who need to be acknowledged for smashing stereotypes, maybe even more than yours truly. I just think the community of body pos yoga is way more robust than just a fat hermit with an exhibitionist streak who turned her instagram into a yoga confessional.”

This incident reflects the ways Yoga Journal includes diversity only on their own terms in that how the content is included always reflects their constraints on the type of content they are most interested in curating: extreme asana, and no politics since it doesn’t sell and is controversial. They decide the format they want: short inspirational fluff articles often written by their own staff, rather than giving a platform for diverse teachers or educators. Recall how their most recent articles are about Jessamyn Stanley, not written by her (which would have given Jessamyn a platform and helped amplify the voices of underrepresented yogis, a route that would have been a better choice if they truly cared about increasing diversity and diverse representation). Yoga Journal also uses the framing they want, even if this means appropriating body positivity and continuing to tokenize marginalized yogis. On their own terms, indeed.

In appropriating the discourse and messages of the body positivity movement, but without engaging in any larger structural changes in their organizational practices or composition, companies like Yoga Journal present a distinctly watered down version of body positivity that depoliticizes and decontextualizes the media and industry critique inherent in the movement. Yoga Journal focuses only on an individualized form of body acceptance in ways that continue to send mixed representations about the importance of diversity.

No Real Changes?

For example, each of the three articles featuring Jessamyn Stanley advertises Stanley’s upcoming “love-your-body workshop” at YJ LIVE Florida. But her inclusion in Yoga Journal’s conference has not made an ounce of difference in the actual marketing practices Yoga Journal uses to draw in (their predominantly homogeneous) audiences. All of their ads for YJ LIVE Florida feature thin, white, female models (all blonde, stereotypically enough).

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While Jessamyn Stanley may be included in the November 2016 issue of Yoga Journal, she’s definitely not included on the cover, which features teacher Liz Arch who largely fits the stereotypical yoga body and practice and has, perhaps no surprise, been featured in SELF and on the covers of numerous magazines previously. Jessamyn is the “teacher spotlight,” yet the table of contents doesn’t even display her image, which is featured all of once in the entire issue on the single page story they wrote about her.

In their TOC, rather than feature Jessamyn the magazine instead opted to include photos of a close up on a (white) woman’s hands and stomach, a picture of a bowl of food (for their “Eat Well” section), and a picture of (ironically, a brown) dog on a yoga mat for the section Jessamyn’s feature is included in. The picture of the dog is in connection with a one-page feature titled “In Focus” about “animals sharing their favorite yoga poses” and is mostly just images of different critters on yoga mats (which apparently is more important to YJ that spotlighting a diverse teacher promoting body positivity). So in their table of contents Yoga Journal prioritized sharing images from a one-page article on animals “doing yoga” over an image of Jessamyn Stanley breaking yoga stereotypes in all her controversial, fat black femme glory. But I guess, dogs over diversity?

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Ultimately, Yoga Journal includes images of diversity that are still largely inaccessible, focusing on complex asana rather than more accessible postures or a more diverse understanding of the practice. They still overrepresent the stereotypical body, including more diverse bodies as inspirational, but not regularly featured, content. They often tokenize a small number of diverse teachers, perpetuating a yoga celebrity model rather than actively, radically challenging homogeneity within the practice and industry. Instead of truly listening to the concerns of body positive activists or providing activists and marginalized yogis space to tell their own stories, or to build community, or to educate on important (political?) issues, they portray a highly controlled and distinctly apolitical retelling of body positivity that co-opts the movement for the benefit of the company, on the company’s own terms.

So where do we go from here?

How do we create and contribute to a body positivity movement that promotes radical change, without allowing the movement to be co-opted and appropriated by “big yoga business?” How do we do so in ways that still work with companies to bring about structural-level changes that promote broader diversity and accessibility in the industry and practice?

I’m not sure of the answers, but perhaps the first step is to engage in the practice of allyship. We need to truly listen to the concerns of those diverse voices involved in generating creative solutions to these problems, especially those traditionally marginalized in the practice or industry as well as those social justice, body-positive activists who have been engaging in this type of work for many years. And Yoga Journal and other companies, stop dominating the conversation and co-opting the movement, please.

Want to read the entire post, including the historical background on Yoga Journal’s past scandals and failures to engage with body positivity? Check it out here and also support Yoga Dork, one of the best blogs on yoga out there.

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Yoga Justice/Yoga Violence: Another Race & Yoga Conference to Remember

This post is a (late) review of the last Race and Yoga Conference held in Oakland, CA this past April 2016. While it is late, I hope it is appreciated! Thanks again to those who put on the conference, especially Sabrina Springs, Tria Blu Wakpa, and Jennifer Musial.

“What is yoga justice? How is “justice” defined and by whom? How do we rethink narratives that promote justice through yoga? What kinds of violence occur in yoga spaces? How are people responding and/or resisting forms of yoga violence?”[i]

On Friday, April 22nd I found myself at the third annual Race & Yoga Conference in Oakland, California. This year’s theme, Yoga Justice/Yoga Violence, explored the ways yoga can be used as a tool to promote social justice, yet may perpetuate oppression.

After attending the prior two years, I knew this conference would provide a unique space to critically examine yoga culture today. Drawing a diverse crowd of yoga teachers, practitioners, and academics, let me tell you, the event did not disappoint!

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The conference opening.

The event began with a morning keynote address by Kimber Simpkins on “Queering Yoga.” Simpkins asked us to think critically about what queer yoga is, and how we can queer yoga as students, teachers, and scholars. Yoga is not always welcoming for queer practitioners. This can be a result of studios without gender neutral bathrooms or clothing, a lack of diversity in their teaching and staff, heteronormative assumptions being taught in the content or through the language used in teacher trainings or classes, and by discouraging conversations challenging yoga cultural practices that may be inherently unequal. She argued queering yoga entails promoting classes for marginalized groups, utilizing and strengthening existing communities through yoga, and teaching informed by trauma sensitivity and awareness of power dynamics. Ultimately, to queer yoga is to make the practice political, breaking down and examining the consequences of Western commercialized yoga-for-profit so yoga can become inclusive for all bodies, including those who are queer.

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Keynote “Queering Yoga” by Kimber Simpkins.

The first panel, Yoga for Profit and Sport, featured Darshini Shah, speaking on “The Yoga Alliance (YA): The Impact of a Western Non-Profit from Global Perspectives” and Ryan Laws, “Yoga, Sports, and Embodied Discourse.” Shah discussed how YA standards have “gone global,” increasingly adopted in areas outside the United States. While the YA represents teachers from over 160 countries, the main board of the YA has no one from the global south represented. Since 2013, no scholarships have been given to anyone from the global south and only to one domestic teacher of color, reflecting broader inequalities that often go unquestioned and unnoticed. Shah challenged us to question our own privilege and power (as members of the global north) and recognize that our actions in this part of the globe impact the practice beyond our borders, often in ways we don’t even realize.

Laws explored the idea of “yoga as sport,” particularly within the competitive yoga community and the organization USA Yoga Federation. While this was an interesting presentation, I would have liked to see a deeper analysis of the connection to Bikram yoga (all competitive poses come from the sequence) and recent rape cases, especially given the conference theme of justice/violence. USA Yoga is seeking to distance themselves from Bikram Choudhury in light of the six lawsuits against him for rape and sexual harassment. This is difficult, however, as the first case brought against him focuses on the victim’s loss of income as a result of Bikram’s involvement in the USA yoga competition.

As one victim put it, “He told me that if I did not have sex with him, I would not have a chance of winning that competition.” The case charges Bikram rigged the 2008 asana competition where she was expected to take first place, instead placing second to another student who was sharing Bikram’s hotel room. The complaint describes how “she has been prevented from teaching seminars or advanced classes because of her… continuing refusal to have sex with her guru.”[ii]

Two workshops were before and after lunch, one by Misia Denea on “Yogic, Body Positive Practices to Overcome Body Fascism” and another led by Susanna Barkataki on “New Faces in Yoga Leadership: A Call to Action for People of Color.” These workshops challenged the audience to engage in body positive practices. Denea provided a list of local and online resources as part of a project she is working on, and Barkataki challenged us to envision what the yoga world would look like if it reflected who we are and who we care about. Asking us to discuss how we might get to this diverse vision, many themes arose including the need to build community with like-minded people who share the same concerns, taking this practice outside studio systems, and teaching yoga as more than just asana.

A second panel, The “Authentic” Body Politic, was a powerful exploration of the day’s theme, featuring three talks: Anusha Kedhar on “International Yoga Day: Modi, Hindu Nationalism, and the Choreography of Unity,” Lakshmi Nair on “The Application of Yoga Towards Healing the Trauma of Racism and Oppression,” and Shaira Vadasarai on “Bodies Under Arrest: The Politics of ‘Decolonizing Yoga in Palestinian Community Life.’” Looking at religious politics in India,

Kedhar asked what types of violence yoga utilizes when coopted as a political tool. While the Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, utilizes International Yoga Day to reclaim the Indian roots of the practice, in reality his government is very aligned with neoliberal capitalism. This means that this holiday may be about further aligning with capitalism and neoliberal policies. According to Kedhar, we have to consider how the Indian right wing utilizes a “tyranny of tolerance” through the discourse of yoga to mark Muslims as simultaneously different and intolerant.

Nair discussed how violence and trauma are stored in the body, and the ways the body can a site of radical healing. Discussing a teacher training she runs for people of color, her talk revealed how yoga offers these populations a means of reconnecting to themselves and healing from the experience of racism and oppression. One of my highlights of the conference was a video she compiled of her inspiring students on their path of radical healing and transformation, available here and included immediately below for easy access. It’s a powerful video, and I have such huge respect for her students.

Vadasarai’s presentation on her doctoral research was one of the highlights of the day. She asked: How does one practice yoga amidst regular, daily, military occupation, assault, and surveillance in Palestine? What does it mean to decolonize yoga when the materialization of colonization for Palestinians is real? Her research and work suggested that while yoga has the potential to promote a radical healing politic and reconciliation between Palestinians and Israelis, these romantic visions often couldn’t be fully realized on the ground as yoga couldn’t eclipse the deeper materiality of suffering and the power dynamics at play in this region. Yoga enabled a process of decolonizing the mind and self, a potential solution for the resentment, anger, and frustration that comes with occupation, and an empowering practice of self-determination in a world where one is rarely allowed the freedom to be oneself fully. But these changes could only take root on the individual level. It is all too easy for yoga to be adopted as a rescue narrative, where Westerners teach Palestinians to “find tadasana at a military checkpoint” without acknowledging that yoga may never be a complete solution to political violence.

The final presentation of the day was by Sri Louise on the “Globalization of the Gayatri Mantra.” Her talk focused on an email exchange with Deva Premal, a well-known new age musician, exploring the idea of cultural appropriation in yoga. This was an interesting discussion of the way the Gayatri mantra has been often misunderstood and misused by practitioners in the West in ways that simplify the practice, rather than preserving its roots. (See a video of her presentation here.)

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Closing Keynote “Where are you from?” from Roopa Kaushik-Brown.

The day drew to a close with a final keynote address from Roopa Kaushik-Brown, founder of South Asian American Perspectives on Yoga in America (SAAPYA), who utilized her own personal family history to explore the meaning and impact of yoga on her own life. She discussed the “propertization” of yoga in America. According to her research, there was a 436% rise in legalized propertization of yoga through patents, trademarks, and copyrights over the last ten years!

Underlying all of today’s eye-opening and insightful discussions was the question: How do we transform our practice to be more equitable and just, without causing unintended violence and harm to practitioners or the rich history and tradition of yoga? How do we evolve the practice to be more equitable in a respectful way? How do we use yoga for justice without doing violence? I don’t think there are easy or even right answers to these questions, but I am grateful to this conference for providing a safe space to explore these issues. Until next year!

To catch up on the live tweets from the conference: https://storify.com/JenniferMusial/race-and-yoga-conference-2016

CITATIONS

[i] “Call for Papers: Yoga Justice/Yoga Violence Conference.” https://call-for-papers.sas.upenn.edu/node/65385

[ii] “Bikram Choudhury Sued for Sexual Harassment, Sex-Based Discrimination” Yoga Dork http://yogadork.com/2013/03/21/bikram-lawsuit/

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LAUNCHED: Survey for Yoga Teachers

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

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

The survey link: Yoga Teacher Survey

 

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

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

Love, light, and… yoga ❤

Inequality, Manners, and the Gross Yoga Body

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

Bodies as Social Signals

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

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

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

Manners, Size, and the Gross Body

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Class Privilege, Elitism, and Yoga

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

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

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

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

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

Embracing the Gross Yoga Body

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

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

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

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

Love, light, and… yoga ❤

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Social Media / Social Justice: Yoga, Weed, and #BlackLivesMatter

What Yoga, Weed, and #BlackLivesMatter Can Teach Us About Creating Change

I imagine some people are going to be scratching their heads at the combination in this title. I get it; on the surface yoga, weed legalization, and the #blacklivesmatter movement don’t seem to have much in common. But bear with me, because I’m here to talk to you today about how, with the use of social media, individuals and groups can influence our culture to drive social change. And while this may not seem immediately relevant to yoga, if we use our yogic discernment to improve ourselves it’s equally important to think about how we can utilize our yogic discernment to take a long and hard look at our practice in order to make it (and our world) more inclusive, equitable, and welcoming to all. In other words, we should not just use our practice to better ourselves (which is great, but perhaps a reflection of ego?) but should also use the practice of yoga to better the lives of others and our society as a whole. But how can we do this? Read on, my friends, as I begin to discuss one aspect of my dissertation work on the intersection of digital technology, social movements, and cultural and organizational change.

Media Influence

One of the most hotly debated topics in social science is the question: how much influence does culture have on our lives? We know media has an effect, because there are some hilarious studies like this one looking at the influence of movies on our choices of pets. They found “the effect of movies featuring dogs on the popularity of dog breeds can last up to ten years.” For example, when Lassie came out in 1943 there was a 40% increase in collie registrations during the following two years. Similarly, a great deal of research on gender has indicated that ideas we have of “femininity” have been strongly influenced by cultural factors as well as various industries like the cosmetic industry (for those who are curious, I highly recommend the books The Feminine Mystique and The Beauty Myth). For example, pink actually used to be a boys color, but when clothing manufacturers in the early 20th century were trying to figure out ways to sell more products they decided to push different colors for different genders, creating the idea that blue was for boys and pink was for girls. This caused parents to buy two different sets of clothing for differently gendered children, rather than just dressing their children in the same clothing (typically white dresses until they were entering school). Cha-ching! Instantly doubled profits, all from promoting the idea that pink and blue are meant for different genders. And this idea has stuck with Americans and become so ingrained in our culture it’s now almost impossible to find any kid-product that isn’t color-coded to indicate gender affiliation.

Further research has shown that gendered toys (another brilliantly fiendish invention of the toy industry to maximize profits) often push girls into caring careers that pay less. Because girls are often encouraged to play with toys focusing on beauty, caring for others, and non-leadership roles they are given implicit messages throughout their young lives that they are not capable or do not belong in male dominated fields more focused on building, science, or leadership positions. Girls get to be nurses, boys get to be doctors; girls get to be stewardesses, boys get to be pilots. This is also clearly seen in Halloween costumes that differ by gender, where boys get to be super heroes and girls just get to be princesses. The popular documentary Miss Representation outlines these disparities as they play out over our lifetimes: “Women make up 51% of the population and only 17% of Congress. When they’re seven years old, an equal number of boys and girls want to be President of the United States, but by the time they’re fifteen, the number of girls who say they would like to be President drops off dramatically compared to the boys. Women are only 3% of Fortune 500 CEOs, 37% of lower-level and middle managers, and 26% of vice presidents and other senior managers. Men occupy 80-95% of the top decision-making positions in American politics, business, the military, religion, media, culture, and entertainment.” So culture clearly does matter, and clearly does affect our decisions in small ways that add up to big changes in our lives over time.

Given this reality, then, the question becomes: is it possible for individuals to change culture? How can we fight back against larger systems using the limited agency that we have? In the past, the ability of individual people to affect broader cultural change was severely limited because everyday people, even when mobilized into social movements, rarely had access to the media and culture industries or forces of production. Before the age of the internet, they weren’t able to write their own news stories or produce their own content in ways that reached a large audience. However, all of this is changing with the advent of social media. Social media has democratized media (to a degree), giving individual people never-before-seen power to not only mobilize and connect with others who are like-minded but also engage in cultural production of their own. With a wide platform and the ability to create our own content, it is suddenly possible for individuals or groups to have a much greater impact on the broader culture of society. This means that we are able to influence the larger social structures, particularly our cultural ones, much easier and with much more impact than ever before. And this, my friends, brings us back to yoga. Because the yoga world is undergoing exactly this type of change right now, as I write this blog. Within yoga, we are beginning to see a social media movement, body positivity, being tied to the heart of the practice. This movement is trying to take back cultural control in order to promote a more equitable and just practice and society. While the body positivity movement has it’s origins in the feminist movement of the 1960s, it’s only recently gained ground and prominence and this is in large part due to activists’ uses of social media. These same tactics (whether or not they are intentional to begin with) have been seen in what I will call other social media movements, such as the weed legalization movement and the black lives matter movement.

#YogaForAll

The body positivity movement in yoga is aimed at changing stereotypical ideas of who is a yogi and what qualifies as yoga. The movement draws attention to the ways mainstream media, including the yoga industry, has overrepresented an “ideal yogi body” as one that is thin, white, able, female, cisgender, heterosexual, and affluent. I’d also add that this same industry has largely represented only one narrow idea of what yoga is, predicated on advanced physical postures, or asanas, that are often used to sell either products or services. Body positivity activists argue these images have contributed to issues of inequality, access, and exclusion within yoga (and broader society) since they often deny the experience of non-stereotypical yogis and make it much more difficult for these types of yogis to make a living in the industry. Similarly, they point out that such unrealistic images contribute to the formation of negative body image, body hate, and self-doubt that many women and men experience in our society at large, and the experience of body-isms like racism, sexism, sizeism, and so on. This movement, while still in the beginning stages of development, has been gaining ground and received increasing industry attention from corporations like Yoga Journal and the controversial Lululemon.

#LegalizeWeed

What I will call the legalize weed movement has been brewing for some time, and gaining slow ground through initiatives like state’s legalization of medical marijuana. However, in the last several years the movement has taken off, gaining monumental support. PEW Research has indicated that support for marijuana legalization is “rapidly outpacing opposition” to the point that most experts agree the trend is “that cannabis, as an industry, is headed toward commoditization, regulation and standardization.” For the first time in the history of polling about marijuana attitudes, more people favor legalization in America than those who oppose.

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And of course, there is the black lives matter movement sweeping the nation. Utilizing the hashtag #blacklivesmatter, the movement has drawn attention to systemic racism and continued discrimination in America today. Obviously, with the numerous cases of police brutality the focus has been on discriminatory police practices and inequality in the criminal justice system. However, the movement is ultimately about America’s history of racial inequality and the intersection of race with other forms of oppression. It draws explicit attention to discriminatory media practices that create a culture where whites are valued more than blacks, hence the hashtag #blacklivesmatter that seeks to overcome this cultural bias. They hope to illuminate the role of cultural stereotypes that are the root of implicit racism plaguing our country today.

Activism, Social Media, and Social Justice: Creating Effective Cultural Change

But how have these movements been so successful, and how can those still in the growing stages utilize social media to create more effective forms of activism? I’m going to outline here some common strategies and tactics used by these movements, to widespread success:

(1) Busting Stereotypes (utilizing social media): This tactic typically takes two forms. The first is commonly used in the #yogaforall and #legalizeweed movements, and has been incredibly successful. It involves changing our ideas of stereotypical consumers (of yoga, or weed) and also changing ideas of how or why those individuals consume. For yoga, this means showing more diverse yoga bodies, practicing not just advanced asana but all types of yoga including meditation or more foundational postures done with the support of props. Utilizing instagram and selfies, numerous curvy, non-white, queer, male, or in other ways non-stereotypical yogis have gathered huge followings, a sign that the narrow representations in mainstream media are lacking and that most people have a hard time relating to the stereotypical yogi and how they may practice. Sure, such narrow representations can be aspirational, but when that’s all that is shown it’s problematic because there aren’t any adequate images of how to get there, just the end point. So body positivity has been able to successfully fill this gap, providing a more accurate and real representation of yogis and yoga via social media that has very successful in reaching out to a broader network of supporters to promote their cause.

For weed, this tactic has typically involved changing our idea of a weed consumer from “the typical pot smoker as a college-age guy inhaling a joint and gorging on pizza” to other bodies associated with positive stereotypes. They have been particularly successful in tying marijuana use to women, especially women associated with the “mother” or “grandmother” stereotypes (indeed, they have been “aggressively courting female consumers“). For example, in WA (after legalization) they filmed this viral video featuring three (white) grandma’s who smoke weed for the first time:

It’s pretty hilarious, and I think illustrates this strategy very well. Activists have also been successful in tying marijuana use to middle-class, white America (and white-collar jobs), a big shift from associations of marijuana use to the counterculture of the 1960s or poor minority races/ethnicities. The second way activists have been busting stereotypes is…

(2) Sharing powerful (and brief) facts: Movements that have been successful in using this tactic have primarily been #legalizeweed and #blacklivesmatter. This tactic typically entails utilizing short and easily digested statistics that make telling comparisons, drawing attention to inequality, inconsistencies, or myths that are widely (but falsely) believed by broader society. These statistics are often accompanied by visualizations, which lends itself well to memes and short videos that can be shared easily on social media. For example, in the case of weed PEW Research uncovered that nearly 70% of all Americans now believe that alcohol is more dangerous to a person’s health than weed, and “if marijuana became as widely available as alcohol, 63% still believe alcohol would be more harmful to society.” That’s a huge cultural shift! HUGE! And it’s largely driven by easily digestible social media content that has widely spread this fact, such that it is now common knowledge that weed is safer than alcohol (yet remains a schedule I narcotic according to the federal government). Here are some examples of these type of memes:

weed-legalization-memetumblr_m8ke3rWT3n1qf2gluo1_500 For #blacklivesmatter, this has taken two main forms. First, they do use visualizations that portray facts about racial inequality in America today. But the movement also uses more disturbing content that has been the focus of this tactic, namely real-life video evidence of racial discrimination by police, such as the video of police murdering Eric Garner that caused the adoption of the phrase “I Can’t Breathe” into the movement. These videos are horrible, powerful, disturbing testimonies of the life and death consequences of being black in America, and speak to why #blacklivesmatter.

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(3) Getting Expert Support (especially in ways that break stereotypes): Getting outspoken support from industry or government officials, or high-profile celebrities, lends legitimacy to the campaign and can help bust stereotypes. For example, the weed legalization movement has gotten numerous high-ranking police officers and celebrities to come out in support of ending the war on drugs and legalizing cannabis. It’s important to note these experts are in support of not speaking for these movements, and as such are not co-opting or appropriating movement discourse, a key distinction for effective change. Getting expert support also contributes to the next point…

(4) Regular creation of new content: Being able to supply new, easily digestible content on a regular basis keeps the conversation going. This is actually a strategy taken from mainstream industry practices regarding social media that seek to utilize a free, unpaid labor pool of “fans” to create controlled firestorms by having these fans “like” and “share” content for them, and sometimes even create it themselves. But in social media movement cases, this content is not trying to sell a product but instead sell an idea. (I’d recommend the documentary Generation Like, which talks about this phenomena in big business and personal branding.)

(5) Utilizing multiple media types: While this one is probably obvious, the regular creation of new content should utilize multiple media forms to engage audiences in multiple ways, allowing for a wider audience appeal. Common forms utilized on social media are memes, visualizations, videos, podcasts, blogs, news articles, or interviews. Ultimately, the most successful movements have been able to bring the social media support to the real world through concentrated advocacy or activism efforts that move beyond the internet into actual policy reform.

(6) Encouraging community involvement: Finally, movements that are most successful use a familiar industry tactic of encouraging community involvement. By having supporters share content on their social media pages, this creates a web-like network where the use of hashtags or shared posts by friends puts pressure on others to change their views. When it comes to cultural change this tactic can be more effective than we may realize, since most of this peer pressure happens at an unconscious level. In fact, many social psychological experiments have shown that we underestimate the degree of influence our peers have on us (as the famous Asch experiments show). A recent study by none other than Facebook has shown that we conform even within social media worlds. Looking at whether people were more likely to change their profiles to rainbow colors in support of marriage equality, they found people tend to change their profile pictures in response to their friends’ picture changes. In fact, “users were more likely to adopt the equal-sign icon if they saw multiple friends doing so. The more friends they saw, up to a point, the more likely they were to change. That social influence was more of a factor, in fact, than even religion, politics or age.” So if we want to change people’s minds, we need to apply concerted social pressure by engaging an online community that is able to create a new normal, new cultural norms.

While there is more that can be said here, I’ll leave it at this for now. Go forth and engage in cultural change my fellow yogis! We can utilize our networks, including online networks, to create more effective social justice work. We can do together what we cannot do alone.

Love, light, and… yoga ❤

Yoga teacher training, here I come!

I realize it’s been a while since I’ve posted a blog, and I’m sorry to all my readers that I haven’t been as active in the social media/blogging world lately. I’ve had a very busy last few months, which included finishing up the school year (and two classes I was teaching at Woodland Community College), getting married (yay! It was great, for those who are curious), and teaching two summer session classes over the past 8 weeks (and considering I lost my grader for my larger class, this was a lot more work than I anticipated). With all that said, I have now entered my summer “break” and will be continuing more active work on my dissertation and yoga research, which means more blog posts to share with you and more updates about my yoga journey. In fact, I’m working on my next blog post about intersections of social change strategies and activism in the body positivity movement in yoga, the weed legalization movement, and the #blacklivesmatter movement and should have that out soon. More to come!

Today I want to share with you all a special announcement: I am officially enrolled in a 200 hour yoga teacher training! As many of you know, I’ve been practicing yoga for over ten years and have had a dedicated practice for nearly six. I’ve been wanting to get my certification for quite some time, but with graduate school and life it was simply too difficult to schedule and too pricey for me to afford until recently. However, I’m happy to share that I was able to get a work-trade scholarship with Yoga Works, and will be starting my teacher training in January 2016. Yoga Works is a well-respected yoga teacher training system that comes out of the Ashtanga and Iyengar disciplines, and fits very well with the style of yoga I mostly practice and want to teach. I’m very excited to share this next step in my yoga journey and my yoga research with you! Thanks to everyone who has supported me through this process, and I can’t wait to share more of my experiences and updates in my yoga path with my readers.

That’s all for now! And just for fun, here are some photos from my wedding (because, why not?).

Love, light, and… yoga ❤

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