Category Archives: My Research

Updates or musings on my research.

Reflections on Surviving Graduate School

When I first got into graduate school, I was warned that degree programs were designed to break you down and build you back up again in the University’s own image, in what we might call normative ways. Graduate school is ultimately a ritual transformation, a rite of passage and initiation, marking a person’s transition from one status to another. The question is–what is graduate school transforming us into?

The past year has been one of intense change for me and my family. I am happy to report that I finally finished my Ph.D. in Sociology in Fall 2018 (the one year anniversary since I filed will be December 21!). For those interested in my research, my dissertation is now available on ProQuest. With that said, I’d encourage folks who want to read my work on yoga to wait a bit longer. ProQuest can be expensive depending on what library access you have and I am planning on submitting a book manuscript draft to academic presses soon. There are some important post/colonial elements I had to cut for the dissertation that will be included in the book that I think are worth waiting for.

The other big news I have to share is that at the same time that I was finishing my dissertation, I went on the job market (for the second year). Somehow the stars aligned because I landed a tenure-track position as an Assistant Professor specializing in Popular Culture at California State University East Bay. So this Fall 2020 I started my new job and my partner, my dogs, and I moved to the Bay Area.

I have been meaning to write a post about this huge milestone and transition for a long time. To be honest, the draft of this blog has been sitting, collecting dust, for many months. The whole process of finishing my degree and job hunting was difficult and draining, making it hard to come back to. With that said, it has also been an exciting and joyous time. As the wheel turns and we are nearing the end of 2019 and the beginning of 2020, I want to share some reflections on graduate school and academia.

This post isn’t part of the trend of “quit lit” that has become pervasive in higher education, since I’m not leaving the field. It is, however, a critical reflection on my own experiences as a graduate student and now new Assistant Professor. In this sense, it’s a response to historian Erin Bartram’s powerful piece “The Sublimated Grief of the Left Behind,” where she challenges “academics — especially those who have landed coveted tenure-track positions — [to] take a minute to think of the all their colleagues who have been ‘lost’ along the way” (as quoted in Flaherty 2018). According to Bartram, “those left behind, or, as we usually think of them, those who ‘succeeded’, don’t often write about what it means to lose friends and colleagues,” allowing academia to avoid grappling with the loss and grief of seeing so many of our peers quit working in higher education.

As one of those rare folks who managed to land a tenure track job, it’s been a strange and complex experience to process the change occurring in my own life–especially since I still have close ties to so many friends who are amazing scholars currently navigating the job market or who have been pushed out of academia over the past few years. I also want to strongly resist language that paints this as their “choice” to leave, given it’s overwhelmingly due to structural and cultural norms that rely on pushing out a large percentage of graduate students after exploiting them as cheap adjunct labor or funneling them into precarious lecturing positions.

After accepting my new position at CSUEB, I struggled with “survivor’s guilt” for months, ironically feeling imposter syndrome more intensely after finishing my degree and landing “the dream job.” I don’t know if it’s possible to ever fully overcome those feelings of being an imposter or somehow being undeserving of my new position. I also don’t know if completely overcoming those feelings is something to strive for, since that vulnerability and anxiety can be an important source of empathy and humility.

After reflecting on my graduate school and job hunt experiences, there are a number of things I wish I had realized sooner in my graduate studies. I have written them down here as a means of processing my own thoughts and with the hope that this exploration is helpful for others.

Graduate School As Colonizing Technology

“Making ‘good’ citizens was as much about excluding or subordinating certain kinds of people as it was about including, regenerating, and reshaping others…. Schools forged disparate paths to citizenship… that frequently precipitated and overlapped with constructions of race and nationality. In this sense, schools within the bounded national space often served as domestic colonial institutions, espoused narratives that projected American power onto other foreign and domestic geographies and populations, and created distinctive paths to citizenship that many native-born and indeed many naturalized whites hoped would strengthen the boundaries of race and nation…. Rather than treat colonialism as a process tangential to or apart from public schooling in the US, it needs to be understood as a central ideological, narrative, and organizational force in schools.” (Clif Stratton, Education for Empire pg. 3,7)

For most of my time as a student, I didn’t think critically about schools, their origins, their purpose, and the inequality built into educational institutions. I was aware that schools were characterized by inequality, but it wasn’t until I got into higher education and the University of California system that I began to learn substantially more about how deep and pervasive it is–it’s worth noting a lot of what I learned was actually through activists fighting tuition hikes. This experience undoubtedly reflects my own privilege within educational institutions, but I also think it relates to the way schools are often hailed in the media as a great equalizer, as a source of meritocratic value and as an “objective” and normal part of life for most children (up through high school) and many young adults in the US today (for college).

During my time as a graduate student, lecturer, and now tenure-track faculty member, I’ve learned more about the inequities, conflicts, and politics of higher education than I’ve honestly ever wanted to know. And the more I’ve learned, the more I’m convinced that there are a whole mess of problems within academia and the graduate school system that are rarely discussed or brought to light.

This is old news, of course, so I’m not trying to claim this is some sort of insight of my own. My views on education systems have been informed by radical activism such as the Third World Liberation Front strikes and recent struggles around the adoption of Ethnic Studies curriculum, as well as scholarly research in critical race theory, Marxist traditions, feminist research on professions, and post/colonial work on the origins of educational institutions and (forced) cultural assimilation of indigenous people. I consider these various sources to be part of a “critical university studies,” which includes recent books like The Imperial University (2014), Decolonizing the University (2018), and la paperson’s (2017) A Third University Is Possible (you can also check out the Radical History Review’s online micro-syllabus).

We are often encouraged to gloss over the more unsavory aspects of graduate school when talking to prospective students or the general public in an attempt to lend our profession more legitimacy and prestige, and ultimately to give more (positive) purpose to our own lives and experiences. But it’s essential to recognize how the University operates to police and contain difference and what this means for graduate students, particularly those most marginalized and/or targeted within education systems. Because let’s face it, graduate school is hard. It’s designed to be. And I wish more people talked about it and warned potential new students about the difficulties they may face while pursuing a graduate degree, particularly if you are an activist-scholar. How else can we give consent to enter into graduate programs unless we aren adequately informed about the nature of University systems or the experiences we are likely to face as students?

According to la paperson (2017:2), colonialism consists of a set of “technologies of alienation, separation, [and] conversion of land into property and of people into targets of subjection.” By doing so, the process remakes not only territories but also views indigenous and marginalized bodies (and minds) as natural resources to be exploited. Resulting in radical social and cultural ruptures, technologies of colonialism are designed to create and maintain new patterns of relationships with the spiritual, with the world, with temporalities, with language, with social divisions, and within the psyches of all involved (Fanon 1963; Memmi 1967).

University systems are one such colonial technology. Most American universities are built on unceded indigenous territories and were designed to educate a particular type of student: young, rich, white men. These men’s educational journeys were meant to produce a particular type of citizen, one who believed in projects of empire as well as the inherent good of the nation state and who could pursue their studies largely because of the continued unpaid domestic and care labor of women. The modern University is, unfortunately, still largely predicated on this model of an ideal student who does not have to work, does not have care obligations, and whose studies contribute to nation-building activities.

University spaces (especially graduate programs) are meant to transform students into “valuable” and “productive” members of society and often perpetuate particular social and cultural paradigms rooted in existing systems of inequality. Some programs are more creative, innovative, or critical than others depending on the field of study. But generally, the purpose of schools is to socialize students into ideological belief systems in ways that serve the interests of a white settler colonial state. In doing so, schools alienate, separate, and sort students according to a host of variables, treating them like exploitable resources. Historically, individuals from marginalized groups who entered into University spaces were generally included in so far as they adopt the Eurocentric and patriarchal norms of such institutions, in so far as such bodies could be made legible and liable to such institutions (see, for example, Carter Woodson’s 1933 foundational work The Mis-Education of the Negro).

Graduate school, especially Ph.D. programs, can heighten these forces of control and socialization given such programs are professional entry points into University careers. Graduate programs are often designed to be intense experiences and are characterized by overwork as well as high rates of stress, anxiety and depression among students (especially among the social sciences/humanities). Drop out rates in Ph.D. programs are ridiculously high, often estimated to be around 50%. The academic job market, where such grad students are theoretically meant to move on to full-time, tenure-track positions, is so competitive and emotionally intense it’s often described as a “nightmare” and has even been compared to a drug gang. The program is literally designed to break us down and build us back up again, in the University’s image.

Part of the resocialization that is forced upon us in graduate school is made possible by the way such programs isolate students. Ph.D. programs rely on students traveling to new areas, often geographically isolating them from their local communities. Specialization in programs is designed to compartmentalize us into fields, and often discourages interdisciplinary work given the structure of program milestones. In this sense, programs often seek to divide and classify and separate us, even as they teach us “appropriate” ways to go about data gathering and analysis designed to promote “objectivity,” a goal that has been heavily critiqued among feminist scholars (particularly through standpoint theory and feminist science and technology studies). Programs, especially R-1 programs, and the publishing industry in academia often end up suppressing radical thought and critical voices, discouraging public sociology that has too much of an “activist” bent.

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For example, let’s look more closely at the career pathway of faculty into academia. Ph.D. programs often necessitate moving away from local communities, not to mention the inequity built into applications, which can be incredibly expensive and prohibitive for students traditionally marginalized from educational systems (especially those who are poor, people of color, disabled, or sexual or gender minorities).

The more presitigious the institution, the more likely the students at that school have moved to attend. This can make it more difficult for students to form long-lasting connections to local issues, and the heightened pressure on students who want to land jobs at prestigious schools can also make it challenging to find time for alternative types of work or more creative or critical research. To achieve tenure track positions, you have to be willing to uproot yourself and move again, perhaps multiple times, in ways that are disruptive and prevent establishing strong community roots. Does this always happen? No, of course not. Department and administrative politics will influence how receptive a school is to local candidates. But the higher up you go toward R-1 schools, the more competitive and the more unlikely they can be to hiring local applicants (from what I’ve seen).

Since Universities are a colonizing technology, it can be difficult to resist the resocializing impacts of such graduate programs. They are designed to isolate us, disconnect us from local struggles, and ensure the exclusivity and legitimacy of higher education is maintained.

With all this said, I recognize that there can be immense benefits of education (more to come on this), so University systems are inherently contradictory and complex. However, I think it’s important to acknowledge that University spaces reflect unequal power relationships rooted in incredibly racist, colonist, and classist histories (as well as religiously biased!) and are invested in their continued replication. As such, they can be toxic and harmful spaces for many people. This is often heightened in Ph.D. programs given the way that academic professions rely on such spaces to sustain themselves across time, not just in terms of producing new faculty candidates but in maintaining a system of precarious adjuncts who take on a large proportion of teaching responsibilities at educational institutions.

As a result, to survive, let alone thrive in such programs while maintaining a revolutionary ethic takes strategy and support, and sometimes a lot of luck or unfortunately a lot of privilege.

But… Universities Can Be Liberatory Too

Although Universities are often a colonizing technology, they are also complex and can paradoxically be a source of liberation even as such institutions coerce and control. As scholar Michel Foucault has observed, “Where there is power, there is resistance, and yet, or rather consequently, this resistance is never in a position of exteriority in relation to power.” In other words, resistance arises from within power structures and often exists in ongoing relation to such structures.

Historically, many colonial Universities became sites of anti-colonial activism and anti-racist revolution. In South Asia, colleges started by the British government to educate the native populous and prepare them for work within the British Empire became key sites of resistance, particularly during the Indian Independence Movements of the early 1900s. In North America later in the 20th century, the Third World Liberation Front strikes were led by students hoping to change the California State University system. During the Civil Rights era college students were crucial actors in so many campaigns, helping develop and popularize tactics like sit-ins and teach-ins or engaging in voting rights efforts like Freedom Summer. Many Native American leaders involved in the occupation of Alcatraz island in 1969 were also brought together through university experiences, including several student leaders at UC Berkeley. (Ironically, many American revolutionaries also were radicalized through colonial universities prior to declaring independence from Britain way back in the 1700s as well.)

Many of these radical groups were explicit about their beliefs that education is a key tool for liberation (ala Paulo Freire), and prioritized the creation of alternative systems of schooling. So the TWLF contributed to the founding of Ethnic Studies, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) formed Freedom Schools as part of their larger campaign to ensure greater voting rights for people of color, and members of the American Indian Movement formed Survival Schools that contributed to the global movement for indigenous decolonization (Davis 2013).

As much as graduate programs can be a colonizing force, they can also be liberatory spaces. This is particularly true when graduate students get involved in revolutionary forms of activism, including labor organizing. Their experiences struggling within and against dominant structures of power often serve to radicalize students, and their studies provide them with skills they can turn against institutions of power in creative and strategic ways, thereby building strategically coordinated points of resistance. Despite the difficulties of graduate school, or perhaps because of them, I definitely experienced this type of radicalization during my own graduate program. In many ways I feel like I learned more from activist work during school than from formal classes, although both experiences existed simultaneously and in relation to each other.

School in general, and graduate school in particular, is a rite of passage, a ritual tranformation. But it’s not a simple linear transformation–it’s transcorporeal. According to Stacy Alaimo (2018), “Trans-corporeality means that all creatures, as embodied beings, are intermeshed with the dynamic, material world, which crosses through them, transforms them, and is transformed by them.” Graduate school makes everything feel like it shifts. You feel it in your body (e.g., depression), it transforms your worldview, and it changes your relationships to the world around you, including your relationships with your family or your environment, in a multiplicity of ways, some good and some bad. It can be harmful for one’s health. It disrupts you, but that disruption can create space for liberation. Graduate school is never just one thing, just as you are never just one thing. In this sense, the question becomes not how we abolish such power structures entirely, but rather “what forms of power do we want to live with and which forms do we wish to limit or prevent?” (Thorpe 2012) How do we make University spaces work for us, and how do we minimize the negative and harmful aspects of such spaces?

These contradictory elements, the University as a space of oppression and potential liberation, reflect both the risks and the power inherent in graduate degree programs. After my own experiences surviving graduate school, I feel like the challenge is to learn to live within that paradox, recognizing the social injustice at the root of University education systems and using that as motivation to advocate for changes to create more just and equitable communities.

Crafting Support Networks as Resistant Praxis

The colonizing nature of schools seeks to divide us, isolate us, and make us feel like we have no power compared to those above us in the hiearchy. The idea of “prestige” and “professionalism” is often used as a gatekeeping mechanism. But school systems also bring together like-minded people who can provide structural supports for liberatory organizing work in the form of working groups of scholars, student organizations like graduate student associations, and especially unions.

We are always stronger together, and navigating the pitfalls of graduate school is easier if you can find a support network to rely on. Some of us are privileged enough to have existing networks of family or friends, but graduate school also expands our networks exponentially and cultivating relationships with like minded people you meet in your programs can be crucial social capital.

Navigating graduate school without being seduced by the powers that be and losing connection to liberatory politics on the ground also requires having folks who can hold you accountable. Academia encourages us to make our ideas understandable only to a select few, to use big words and fancy terms to sound professional and signal our belonging to an elite group. Losing our ability to connect to regular people and breakdown social issues in ways anyone can understand effectively deters dissent and intersectional organizing work. Having diverse support networks can prevent you from feeling isolated and can make it easier to survive and challenge the various struggles that we face during graduate programs.

What you learn in graduate school only matters so much as it is connected and embedded in the web of relationships with our human peers, other-human kin, and ecosystems. Do not let yourself become isolated. Whatever you learn only matters in the context of the world we are situated within.

Make connections, particularly with other graduate students and especially across disciplines. Don’t be afraid to reach out to faculty at other Universities. Retain and develop connections with folks outside of academic spaces.

Recognize that not all folks want to or can go on to a tenure track faculty job. Grieve and rage as you need to given the difficult job market. Consider the power of possibility–what calls to you? What are you willing to do? What options do you have? For sociology folks especially, we have many routes for employment outside of academia, and all the more power to you if you can recognize that navigating the toxicity and power dynamics of academia might not be for you. Coming to acknowledge what we don’t want to be a part of is just as important as discovering what spaces and networks we do want to be a part of. Think about your ultimate goals (plural) and try and see how you can form connections with people involved in those areas while you are a student. Use graduate school to build the web of relationships that can help you work toward a better, more liberatory, socially just future.

Navigating the Paradoxes of Conferences

Of all the experiences during graduate school, conferences are perhaps the academic activity I am most conflicted about. It took me a long time to attend a professional association meeting, largely because this was an area that I lacked any mentorship on (alas, an all too common problem graduate students tackle, good mentorship is hard to come by). By now, I’ve attending some national ones as well as some smaller local professional meetings. In some ways, I wish I had discovered conferences sooner. In other ways, I never want to attend another conference again. I think my own conflict about conferences stems from the fact that, just like all of academia, professional meetings can be oppressive yet also potentially liberating experiences.

Conferences can be very expensive, making it difficult for students and adjunct faculty to attend, thereby replicating larger systems of inequality across academia. More prestigious universities often provide more funds for tenure track faculty to attend conferences, which also means there are inequities between R-1 and teaching oriented institutions in terms of who can go and who has funds to pay for memberships in professional organizations. Conference attendance can also significantly contribute to climate change, something I wish folks talked about more. Bigger conferences are typically more beuracratic and hierarchical in structure (here’s to you, Weber). They are also more likely to be invested in notions of professionalism, which I personally found very daunting to navigate as a graduate student. However, my experiences at more local and feminist-oriented conferences has generally been more casual, supportive, and positive.

I think as a graduate student, if you are interested in seeking a tenure-track job and have access to funding support for travel costs I would encourage folks to go to conferences, particularly local ones. Sometimes you’ll have more funding for travel as a graduate student than you will as a lecturer, for example, and with the job market being as challenging as it is right now it can be helpful to at least attend while you have access to some institutional support. I went to bigger conferences later on during graduate school as I went on the job market, but I wish I had gone earlier when some had come through my local region, just to get a feel of them as an attendee. They can be overwhelming, anxiety producing spaces. They can also generate many ideas or be good places to network. Costs, though, can be a huge barrier–it’s messed up, but real. Smaller conferences can be less pretentious and more creative spaces, where you can make stronger and more personal ties to academics in your region. They are also less expensive. If you are a student or in a precarious employment situation, many professional organizations also provide travel grants which can be a small help and are worth pursuing if you qualify.

I learned to think of conferences as opportunities to get creative, where I can write or present on projects that are not necessarily part of my dissertation work. Conference calls or other calls for papers often draw on specific theoretical approaches or topical areas, including those you might not typically consider in relation to your own work. Exploring how conference themes or CFPs relate to your interests can help you approach topics in new ways, or give you ideas for new projects. With that said, conference calls can also constrain approaches to topics, too. But in general, they allow you to explore other areas and work on side projects without the constant oversight of your advisors. This gives you more creative freedom to explore what you are interested in as well as how you like to write and research.

Conferences are always a blur, and it’s important to manage your time and energy–you cannot go to everything, nor should you try, so prioritize your time and don’t feel poorly if you need to take a break. Attending sessions at conferences can help you learn about ongoing work or new methods and areas of research you aren’t as familiar with. If you approach the conference with a critical lens, it can also help you learn more about what gaps exist, what work is not being done or at least is not visibly being promoted in professional organizations. For example, when I was at the American Sociological Association meeting in Montreal a few years ago, there was literally ONE session dealing with colonialism. One. And it was run by the Canadian Sociological Association. That is extremely telling about what scholarship ASA prioritizes, or more accurately, deprioritizes.

Conferences can also be an opportunity to collaborate with others, and to form new connections. I like to reach out to academics I know beforehand to see if they will be attending and try and say hi while people are there, even if only briefly. I recommend following up with folks you meet directly after the conference is over, before you forget to. Social media can also allow new connections to continue to develop even if you aren’t geographically close.

In general there are SO many academic associations out there that do regular meetings and conferences, it’s worth doing some digging to get a sense of what ones you are most interested in attending. One resource I wish I had known about sooner is HNet (Humanities and Social Sciences Online), an online network system for academics where folks can access discussion boards but also CFP announcements from various journals and conferences.

Recognize that conferences, as with most academic spaces, are part of the colonial education system. They are often very surreal spaces to be enmeshed in, and have their own politics and drama. Graduate school does not necessarily make you a kinder, more compassionate, more ethical human being. Learning does not necessarily translate into having a strong moral compass. The nature of professions means that those people who most adhere to the colonial values of the system often rise to the top. Working within the system can be important, but is only possible when we maintain a critical, humble, and inquisitive compassion to the web of relationships around us.

Importance of Creative Writing & Reading Spaces

A sad truth of graduate school is that experiences in academia can make you hate writing. Many of the forces of academia are designed to teach you how to engage in a particular type of writing, especially styles that will get approval from organizations or people who are granted legitimacy. Before graduate school I used to write for fun, for emotional release, for creative imagination. It’s easy to lose sight of writing for pleasure, for joy, or for resistance when writing becomes work that has to meet the approval of numerous people on your committees.

I found it very important to develop room for creative writing, like blogging, private journals, poetry, or fiction, which can make writing more than a chore or task. It’s not something I engage in all the time, but writing for yourself allows you to find your own voice. It makes it easier to maintain the clear perception needed for critical self-awareness that allows us to navigate the colonial education system without uncritically reproducing its oppressive nature. To paraphrase Toni Morrison, write what you want to read. Finding a space to share this type of creativity that won’t be high stakes can also be particularly freeing, where the people who are reading your work can’t force you to change it (unlike, for example, writing work done for one’s degree that has to be approved by committee members for you to graduate).

My blog actually started as one of those spaces–I wanted to explore ideas, practice and play with writing without having to worry about oversight. It’s been a rewarding experience. Though one thing to note about social media in particular (e.g., blogs) is that it’s also a weird time-capsule. Although you can of course always go back to things to change old posts, I haven’t. I think it’s good to be reminded of the journey I have gone through and while I don’t necessarily agree with everything I once shared, I think it’s good accountability to keep it all up as a sort of archive of my own transformation throughout my time in academia.

I also think one of the most rewarding things I ever did was pursue what might be called “creative reading” space, particularly with scholarly work. It can be hard just to keep up with the reading material assigned in graduate classes, so adding additional reading on top of this can be difficult. But I found that it was by branching outside of what was assigned in courses that I really found out what I was interested in and what areas of work I wanted to contribute to. I also realized there was so much more amazing and radical scholarship out there than I had previously been exposed to, and I felt more empowered to do that type of work and felt less isolated during that pursuit. Don’t get me wrong, I also was exposed to amazing scholarship through my classes, too, but there’s something different about discovering new areas of research for yourself.

Things like academic article searches for fun on topics that interest you help you find out what type of scholarship exists, mapping scholarly communities. Google the scholars you like, or scholars you don’t know about–who are they? What’s their background and politic? Do they have any filmed talks? Use “related readings” algorithms on sites to your advantage to find new work. Skim things. Read abstracts. Save readings you are interested in (within intensive folder systems if you are like me, and remember, back that stuff up!).

One of the best things I ever did was sign up for table of content alerts for journals I was interested in. You can usually do this easily with at least some journals through the library system, where you sign up for alerts when a new issue comes out. You will likely discover interesting articles that help you think about your research, yourself, and our world. We have rare access to a lot of information as students or academic workers that is typically kept behind outrageous pay walls. Don’t miss that opportunity. I also love sharing things with folks I know when I see something I think they would like.

Reading for fun allows you to learn more about methods and teaching pedagogy. This likely only applies to folks who really want to stay in academia beyond graduate school, but I don’t think I was alone in feeling frustrated by inadequate training in methods in graduate school. Continuing to read scholarship directly about methods or teaching pedagogies can inform your own research and change the way you design your classroom spaces. For example, I was recently at a conference where a session organizer had never heard of photovoice methods before. This was a tenure track faculty member who had never even heard of participatory action research methods. And to be honest… at that session I was reminded I hadn’t heard about it in graduate school either. I found out about photovoice and PAR through my own digging into feminist theory. I haven’t used any of these methods yet in my own research, but if I had known about them sooner, I might have been able to and I hope to someday create a project that does.

Remember… It’s Meaning/Less

In closing, the final reflection and take away I have from my time in graduate school is the hope that as an Assistant Professor, I remember that obtaining my Ph.D. is ultimately meaningless. Allow me to explain.

In some ways having the degree is a huge, meaningful, and important milestone and accomplishment that is worth celebrating. It is a rite of passage. But despite the degree having so much meaning, after everything I have been through and seen and learned about academia, I truly believe that my degree is also completely meaningless. So many amazing scholars are pushed out of academia. We are constantly losing folks. This is often due to circumstances beyond our control, in ways that are unpredictable and tied to privilege and power relationships. All it takes is one medical emergency, one breakdown, one year of lost funding, one abusive advisor, or the list goes on, to completely derail a talented and amazing individual from finishing their degree. Yes, I finished. But that 50% drop out rate means that my finishing is basically a coin tossed in a bucket. I got lucky. I had privilege.

So where does that leave me? Where does all this leave all of us in academia? Graduate school teaches you a little about a lot of things, and a lot about very few things. If I have learned anything, it’s that I know nothing. Most of the knowledge produced in academia is not from academics–it’s from the people we study, the organizations we do ethnographies on, the data we analyze. And that all exists out there in the regular world. Just because academia legitimates particular forms of knowledge, doesn’t mean that it’s the only source of truth or wisdom. A lot of academic work has historically been rooted in projects of Empire, and a lot of academic work still is.

I think it’s vital to stay humble. I look forward to continuing to learn and grow as I enter into my role as a tenure track faculty, but always a student.

Research Update & Recent Presentations

Many of you know I am working on my dissertation in sociology, which explores neocolonization of yoga in the last fifty years, with an eye for the rise of the yoga industry.  This has, alas, been one of the reasons my blog has been quiet in the last few months. I’ve been redirecting my energy into finishing a complete draft of this research, finishing graduate school (expected June 2018), going on the job market, and engaging in a slew of other activism and union organizing work outside of yoga spaces. This blog post is just a brief research update for those interested, alongside access to the slideshows from two recent talks I’ve given in the academic world on some portions of my research in case they are of interest to readers.

I am happy to report I am nearing the end of my graduate school journey. Now in my seventh year, I am ABD (all but dissertation) and writing frantically in the next month and a half to finish a complete draft of what will become my book manuscript. At that point, my committee will be reviewing it during Winter quarter, and then I’ll be engaging in revisions during Spring when if all goes smoothly I will pass and get my doctoral degree. This project will at that point be revised into the proposed book manuscript and sent to academic publishers in Fall 2018, and then hopefully turned into a book. During the last six months I presented on my research at the Association for the Sociology of Religion and the California Sociology Association conferences, and while I (alas!) didn’t video the talks, I thought I’d share the slideshows with you to give you a peek on some of the things I’ve been working on.

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“Professionalization, Authenticity, and Neocolonialism in Yoga.”

Association for the Sociology of Religion, August 2017 (Montreal, Canada)

ACCESS SLIDES FROM ASR HERE

This particular presentation explores work from my third chapter. How is the “authentic” yoga body institutionalized through the development of a professional certification system for yoga teachers? In what ways does the professionalization project within yoga legitimize embodied boundaries, privileging certain embodiments and marginalizing “Othered” yogis? As teacher training programs became more prominent in the 1980s, yoga producers worked to create a system of self-regulation that would promote and retain professional legitimacy. Culminating in the creation of the Yoga Alliance (YA) in 1997, despite controversy this registry remains the dominant credentialing system in the USA. The professionalization project in yoga was influenced by the white and middle-class American habitus of YA founders as well as the historical development of the yoga studio, which delineated the “job” of a yoga teacher and promoted an understanding of yoga-as-asana through the emphasis of group fitness classes. Certification requirements subsequently institutionalized by the YA relied heavily on colonial, Westernized factory models of yogic education that standardized knowledge, monopolized competence, and regulated entrants. The resulting certification programs filtered personnel, adhered to inaccessible program structures and costs, and often encouraged exclusionary marketing and recruitment, reinforcing institutionalized ideals of the “authentic” yoga body as white, affluent, female, thin, young, and able-bodied. In this way teacher training programs serve as near-total institutions, filtering out deviant constructions of yoga as well as “Othered” yogis at various stages in the professionalization process and socializing new teachers into the field in ways that create and maintain embodied boundaries. Thus, the professionalization project can be understood as an exercise of symbolic violence, where the construction of the “authentic” yoga body is legitimated and institutionalized in ways that reproduce inaccessibility, exclusion, and inequality in yoga even while concealing the power relations that are the basis of its force as seemingly natural, “authentic” expressions of the practice and identity of a yogi.

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“Movement Co-optation: Bodyblindness, tokenization, & reputation repair in the Yoga Industrial Complex”

California Sociological Association, November 2017 (Sacramento, CA)

ACCESS SLIDES FROM CSA HERE

This presentation explores work from my sixth chapter. Analyzing the case of industry co-optation of the body positivity movement within yoga, I demonstrate the way body-blind strategies of reputation repair are utilized by dominant actors to maintain power structures. In response to scandals, individuals and organizations in the yoga industrial complex co-opt movement discourse and promote tokenized teachers who do not adhere to dominant constructions of the “authentic” yoga body. This combination of strategies generates the appearance of diverse representation and progressive change in the industry. However, during the co-optation process the political nature of movement discourse is decontextualized or erased through adoption of individualized messages of body acceptance that largely ignore bodily difference, instead reflecting an ideology of body-blindness. Because body-blind approaches rarely result in substantive changes to widespread industry practices or structures, systemic causes which contribute to the internalization of negative body image and inequality within the field endure even as the industry is further legitimized by appearing receptive to social justice concerns. The industry continues marginalizing Othered yogis who now face burdens of additional demands to #loveyourbody and to be #bodypositive in a field that makes it structurally difficult to do so. By downplaying the importance of the movement’s systemic critique of cultural production in the industry to focus only on individual-level solutions of body acceptance, the yoga industrial complex contributes to the marginalization and “eating” of the Other yogi while simultaneously profiting both financially and ideologically from an individualized and depoliticized co-optation of the body positivity movement.

Enjoy yogis, and per the usual standards, be sure to cite if sharing since this is all my original research.

Films for Liberation Open Syllabus Project

“The educator has the duty of not being neutral.” ―Paulo Freire

​Today I am sharing the Films for Liberation Open Syllabus project with you. This site is based on a seminar I designed and taught in Spring 2017 which utilizes documentary films to explore contemporary social justice concerns.

Films for Liberation Open Syllabus

Topics focus on issues pertinent in our post-Trump moment, which has been characterized by emboldened white supremacy, anti-abortion, anti-environment, anti-LGBTQ+, anti-disabled, settler-colonialist, and Islamophobic rhetoric and policies. Because of my own geographic location, the course does focus predominantly on social justice concerns in the United States. However, many of the trends covered are globally relevant. Discussion on each topic is framed in relation to recent attacks on voting rights, growing corporate power, and trends toward kelpotractic systems of governance. Given my background, the course utilizes a sociological approach to investigate: What are some of the pressing social justice issues in our current political and social moment? How can we stay more informed to better combat injustice, oppression, and the creep of neo-fascism?

In the classroom, we held post-film discussions with guest speakers each week after a screening. Online, unfortunately this experience isn’t easily re-createable. Instead, I’ve written a brief recap of some of the topics we discussed in relation to the chosen film each day we held our classes. Students were also provided weekly resource lists on each topic they can use to engage in their own self-study (svadhyaya) beyond the scope of the course. The lists contain lists of videos, resource hubs, overviews, relevant organizations, and articles/books of interest. I have included these lists here as well for online viewers to use and share.

Interested parties can, even individually, use this syllabus to guide their own exploration of social justice through film. You can find the the course below. For each “week”, you can: (1) view the recommended film (some are freely available, unfortunately others may need to be rented), (2) read the associated breakdown, (3) check out specific recommended reads, and (4) explore the provided resource list as desired to learn more about contemporary social justice concerns today.

In solidarity,

Amara Miller

COURSE SCHEDULE

Week 1: Indigenous Rights & Environmental Justice

Week 2: Police Brutality & Black Lives Matter

Week 3: Reproductive Justice

Week 4: Trans Justice

Week 5: Immigrant Rights

Week 6: (Re)Emergence of the “Alt-Right”

Week 7: Voter Suppression & Gutting of the VRA

Week 8: Putin’s Russia : Kleptocracy : #Trumpgate

Week 9: Resisting the Creep of Neo-Fascism

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.

Survey Photo ad

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

Love, light, and… yoga ❤