Category Archives: My Yoga Journey

Thoughts or insights gained through my own personal practice with yoga.

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

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Healthism, Yoga and the Body as Machine

As some of you may know if you follow me on social media, I’ve been dealing with a minor shoulder injury. When I was around ten, I fell through a metal jungle gym, fractured my left wrist during the ten foot drop, and landed on my left side while at school. After going to the nurse and then having my parents take me to the ER, my wrist was treated and healed. But I didn’t realize until much later after I had became a more dedicated yoga practitioner that my shoulder had also experienced impact trauma and hadn’t healed properly, leading to over a decade of compensatory movement patterns. This is actually very common with impact trauma, as the instinctual reaction is to protect the area of the injury, often leading to postural habits that imbalance the body; for me, my instinct was to protect my left side even if I didn’t realize I was doing so.

Part of the lingering problem included an ability to slightly dislocate my shoulder, allowing my clasped arms to wrap around, up, and over my shoulders all the way to the back (yes, crazy I know). Yet for years, not understanding why I could do this and its connection to my lingering shoulder injury, I would dislocate my shoulders. It often felt like a great stretch through my upper back (even while I wasn’t learning to utilize my muscles to stretch the back). Admittedly, there was also some part of me that enjoyed the novel identity it brought, being able to do something so many people couldn’t do, especially considering I was never very athletic (book worm much?). Obviously, I have since stopped doing this.

As I have been going through my teacher training, I found that my practice was beginning to aggravate my shoulder. I’ve been practicing asana more than I ever have, and between the activity, weight bearing, long holds, and adjustments I’ve had to back off my asana practice for a bit and seek some medical and therapeutic help to let it heal properly, finally, after nearly twenty years. I am getting a variety of bodywork done to realign my left shoulder to proper placement, and am now trying to relearn proper postural habits to overcome over a decade of compensatory movement patterns. For me, this minor injury has actually been a profound learning experience in my own personal practice and has helped me think more deeply about my research, about what we are doing in asana, and about how we learn and think about yoga and the body in the Western yoga world.

Why do we think of yoga as only asana? In what ways have Western modalities of thinking influenced our understanding of the body as machine, and prevented us from a holistic connection and proprioceptive understanding of the body? What does it mean to have a deep yoga practice? How do certification programs reproduce and perpetuate limited views of yoga and the yoga body? And ultimately, how can we teach yoga as more than asana?

In sociology, we talk about how our ideas of health are socially constructed. What a healthy body looks like and the practices it engages in are socially determined through culture, socialization experiences, and medical practices. In the last century, western medicine has become a primary driver in our determination of “health,” often in ways that moralize the division between healthy/unhealthy, normal/pathological, pure/impure, such that marginalized populations are typically ascribed the status of “unhealthy.” In sociology, we call this approach healthism, and it is equally common in the yoga world where ideas of health, asana, and the body as machine mix in often dangerous and unanticipated ways.

Let’s look at an example of healthism in action. Women’s natural health systems, including pregnancy, menstruation, and menopause have been medicalized and pathologized for centuries. This is what I like to call (pseudo-)scientific sexism, and in the past included ideas that a woman’s uterus could travel through the body disrupting normal functioning (a “pathology” called female hysteria among Western psychology that wasn’t removed from their list of diseases until 1959), that a women who was menstruating was impure and dangerous, and (during the height of eugenics) that mental or physical exertion could actually damage future unborn children, an idea that was used to restrict access to higher education for women as it might “tax the brain” and damage our capacity for reproduction. And it’s important to note that these type of myths are not dead and gone! They survive in popular culture ideas that women are more emotional, that we experience PMS that interferes with our judgement (for which there is NO sound medical evidence), and misnomers like the popular “women shouldn’t lift weights” adage. In yoga, we often hear outdated ideas about not practicing certain poses while during our periods, despite the complete lack of scientific evidence as to why this might be necessary.

We could take this further to discuss (pseudo-)scientific racism, as well as popular ideas of size as a determinant of health that are similarly problematic and rooted in cultural and social myth rather than fact, but I think you get the idea. The point I’m trying to make here is that, especially in the Western world, we often like to think we understand what “health” means and how to practice it. But sociology teaches us that these ideas, like all knowledge, are socially constructed, historically situated, constantly changing, and can often lead to flawed understandings about the body, especially bodies of marginalized groups like women, people of color, larger bodies, queer bodies, and so on.

And if you are feeling reactive in light of this information, and want to proclaim, “Amara, how can you say that health is constructed? That PMS is a myth? WHAT?! *mind blown*,” know you are not alone. When I teach medicalization in my classes, my students often have similar reactions. This is because we are taught from infanthood to accept these ideas as absolute, indisputable “natural,” “truth.” It’s very uncomfortable to challenge something we have internalized and believed in for most of our lives. In fact, a great deal of social psychological research shows that people who are confronted with their own biases become defensive and reactive. But ultimately, confronting deeply ingrained misperceptions is the art and practice of yoga: to acknowledge the biases that we have internalized that drive our actions, and to overcome these illusions to get at a more accurate and pure understanding of our Selves and the world around us so that we can act from a place of knowledge and intention, with mindful awareness (which we can think of as a practice of vinyasa krama).

In yoga philosophy, we refer to the biases of the mind as maya, illusion, or avidya, incorrect comprehension or ignorance that clouds our perception, that is the “accumulated result of our many unconscious actions, the actions and ways of perceiving that we have been mechanically carrying out for years” (Desikachar’s Heart of Yoga). Such habitual bias colors the mind, obscuring our clarity of perception and preventing us from achieving true understanding of our Selves and world. The art of yoga is about overcoming this ignorance and illusion to foster a deeper understanding, so that we can avoid and alleviate suffering in our lives and others.

Healthism, Yoga, and the Body as Machine

During the past century our understandings and ideas about the body within yoga have been heavily influenced by Western medical practices and healthism. Historically, the incorporation of anatomy into yoga was driven by an interest in eugenics in the early 1900s (a topic thoroughly researched by Joseph Alter) and by the cross-cultural transmission by yoga gurus like B.K.S. Iyengar, who often utilized medical science to appeal to a Western audience and to legitimize yoga in the modern world. In this process of transformation yoga increasingly became defined as asana, which was more accessible and easier for Westerners to understand as it corresponded to already existing ideas of fitness practices and provided a tangible path of progress to follow. It was also easier to teach in group class settings than the more classical understanding of yoga as a philosophical practice.

What this meant is that yoga became synonymous with asana, disconnected from philosophical practices, and tied to medical science, particularly the use of anatomy, predicated on dividing the body into separate parts and systems rather than viewing the body as a holistic physical, emotive, and mental being. So we now take classes, solely teaching yoga as asana, that “focus” on specific parts of the body: a class to work your hamstrings, a class to open the hips, a class to work the core abdominal muscles, a class to work the butt muscles, and so on. We learn that this pose is good for this ailment, this muscle, this system. And in teacher training systems we teach the body as consisting of seemingly separate parts: poses that work the legs, poses that twist the spine, the separation of the muscular, skeletal, and nervous systems, a division between structural and functional movement patterns. We divide the body up into parts of a machine, that work together but are presented as separable. And “health” becomes constructed as purely physical and as something that we achieve by isolating and maximizing the utility of seemingly disparate parts of the physical body without a clear end point (something illustrated clearly by the creation of numerous sequences in the Ashtanga method beyond the primary series; there used to be just one until the practice was Westernized and the later series were added on to meet the demand and expectations of students).

This view of the body and of health in yoga is flawed; the body is not divisible, and all the parts of our body are interconnected. The organs are not separate from the muscular and skeletal systems, but are intimately tied together into a functioning whole. The muscular and skeletal systems are interconnected, and alive; habitual functional movement patterns can actually change our skeletal structures over time. We cannot isolate the core muscles from other parts of the body, or target particular body areas to work on in isolation and when we try to do so we disconnect from the sense of the body as whole, the body as holistic, the body as flesh and blood rather than the body as machine. We also potentially increase the risk of injury. Not to mention that the body is not simply physical but also a mental and emotive being. Emotional and mental states can change the physical body, which, for example, is at the heart of current research on the psychology of eating. In asana, ideally, every pose is a entire body practice, not just of the entire physical body, but also of the mental and emotive body.

And these aspects of the body are not separate from the world around us, either. We are not contained in an isolated bag of flesh; as Stacy Alaimo argues in Bodily Natures, the body is transcorporeal and interconnected to the world around us. What we put on the body, like body products, enters into us through the pores of our skin. The toxins we are exposed to become a part of us as we breathe, and the social, cultural, and institutional influences on our lives have a profound effect on the physical, emotive, and mental practices of the flesh. For example, research has shown that poverty affects our mental behaviors and attitudes, as well as the physical being as those who are poor are more likely to suffer from a variety of health concerns like obesity, mental illness, or toxic exposure. Gendered socialization can actually change the way the brain works. The body is ultimately permeable and porous, and as yoga philosophy teaches us all of these things are constantly in change, constantly in flux (even our bones).

This holistic, transcorporeal approach to health is gaining ground in Western science, and is being corroborated with recent biomechanical research on movement and stretching, on the new science of pain, on the psychology of eating and weight loss, on the existence of the microbiome, and in bodywork circles on the way emotional and physical trauma is held in the body across time. But most of the Western yoga world is woefully behind the times, as the regulations for teacher training systems have not been updated in decades and most certification programs primarily teach yoga as asana according to the body as machine approach to “health.”

In this “yoga as asana” approach, yoga becomes constructed as the achievement of various positions of the body, rather than a way or method of moving the body to prepare for the deeper, more meditative practice. Rather than think about how we practice asana, as a methodology of moving meditation and philosophical application practiced through the physical body, where the physical is joined with the emotive and mental and whose movement takes place in the world, we focus on disjointed poses or positions of the body and rarely pay attention to the transitions between postures. We focus on staying bounded on a mat, restricted in space, stuck in a box, rather than recognizing the movement in every moment, in every transition and position, as an extension and engagement with the world around us, wherever we are.

I like the term “chasing asana” to describe how we have become focused on chasing the sensation or achievement of individual postures, without a clear reflection or understanding (self-study, anyone?) of why and how we seek to attain these positions. What is the purpose of posture? In the Western yoga world, we teach students, and train teachers to teach, that the focus is on achieving the 2-d pose we see rather than feel, typically on social media and through popular culture (produced by the yoga industrial complex that profits often of this consumption-focus). And don’t be fooled! We are taught yoga is something to consume. To buy. To sell. To practice in small quantities in ritualistic and disparate spaces (studios), to keep on the mat, or to take asana off the mat, rather than as a way of living life throughout every moment, for a lifetime. And as a form of consumption, we can also think of this interpretation of yoga practice as a type of indulgence, because chasing asana is ultimately a practice of stroking the ego rather than non-attachment. Frustration that may come through injury demonstrates this, as we are attached to chasing asana, to yoga as asana, so that when we are unable to practice this interpretation of yoga we lose sight of the path, we lose sight of the practice entirely (although personally I haven’t been frustrated with my injury, I know many many yogis who have been with their own, and I have experienced this myself in the past when I was younger and did not understand yoga as deeply.)

We chase a construction of asana as individual positions, regardless of whether we have to force the body beyond its ability to get there, regardless of whether we are capable of muscular stability to prevent injury and ensure proper alignment. We don’t develop proprioception through deep self-reflection, mindfulness, and meditation on what we are doing, in every second, in every transition, as well as in every “end-point.” We are told to “listen to the body,” but never how to do so, or why. We are encouraged to “feel” but never taught how to interpret what we sense within the context of the lifetime, in the context of sustainability in our practice across time. We are encouraged to chase poses that biomechanically speaking often require us to go beyond a safe range of movement in the joints. We are encouraged to seek ego and pleasure through asana instead of practicing vairagya, non-attachment, in order to understand what is best for us and avoid being clouded by bias, illusion, avidya. We are encouraged to want to practice, rather than utilize practice to achieve what we need and encourage functionality.

We don’t teach asana within the context of yama and niyama, within the context of yoga philosophy. We don’t learn the classical purpose of asana as a means of learning to sense, understand, and master the body in conjunction with pranayama for the purpose of self-realization and elimination of suffering. Traditionally speaking, asana was one part of a larger practice of yama, niyama, pranayama and meditation, all of which allowed the yogi to, in a simplified sense, control the instinctual flight or fight response that leads to reactivity, instead developing a constant practice of acting with intentionality, knowledge, and purpose. The path of yoga is the path of learning how to act with intention through the development of self-realization, so that we may be a stable balance point in the sea of constant change, enabling us act from this anchor.

The construction of yoga as asana is exacerbated by the Westernized, militarized format of classes, which have changed from the individualized, one-on-one instruction between a student and teacher to drill-style group classes geared towards the average individual. This is based on the factory-style educational program that began after industrialization in the West which was also incorporated into the military, and subsequently spread to the rest of the world, including India.

In one-on-one instruction the teacher would create and gear lessons to the students’ individual needs and level of understanding. Lecture and discussion of philosophy and readings were common, and asana was taught according the individual student’s ability in conjunction with other yogic practices. But in the drill-style, group class setting there are time restrictions, we can’t assign homework or reading, there isn’t the degree of student-teacher contact, discussion of philosophy is limited to the brief moments of stillness in the midst of chasing asana. And even if teachers want to break free from this mold it can be extremely difficult, as many make a living teaching and in order to earn their income must meet the expectations of paying, student consumers who learn about yoga through popular culture and come to class with prior expectations of what they are paying for that put pressure on teachers to present yoga as only asana. While there are some ways around this, such as offering teacher trainings where trainers can teach yoga as more than asana (to a very limited degree), private classes, reading groups, and the like, these are more difficult to achieve and to find strong student support for.

So I’d like to leave this post with a few questions for myself and everyone out there to think deeply on. What is the purpose of asana, and why do we chase it? What are we really gaining by achieving more complex postures, or practicing 108 sun salutations (which, really, no one should do if they want to avoid repetitive stress injuries)? At what point do these practices become a practice of ego, and devoid of the deeper aspects of yoga? To what extent do we consume yoga, rather than practice or study it, because of industry expectations and encouragement? If the body is transcorporeal and holistic, rather than a machine, then how can we transform our asana practices to reflect this? How can we utilize asana as a tool to gain self-knowledge and self-realization, a tool to practice the deeper philosophy of yoga? (Because a tool is only as useful as how it is wielded; a hammer can just as easily injury you as build a roof to sleep under.) What are we teaching about the body and self if we are not reflecting on the bodily habits (physical, emotional, and mental) in our everyday lives, both on and off the mat? In what ways do we compensate physically, emotionally, and mentally in our practice, why do we do so, and how is this written in flesh?

Love, light, and… yoga ❤

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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Why Practice? Yoga, the Apocalypse, and Dynamic Love

“If you really love something, you never try to keep it the way it is forever. You have to let it be free to change.”
Cassandra Clare, City of Ashes

I’ve been meaning to write blog posts about my personal insights on yoga and my practice, but it’s been a difficult process to get started. First, because there are so many things I want to write about so it’s hard to decide which to start with. Second, I’ve been putting off writing about my personal experiences with yoga in part because like many yogis I’m an introvert in a yoga world that rewards extroverts, and am not usually one to share my personal beliefs. (While I would argue yoga is a process, I also recognize that just because something is a process doesn’t rule out that it also reflects a belief systemfor example about which process is best.) Third, because many of the things yoga has taught me are personal or reflect my personal experience and worldview, I recognize that many of the insights I have about my practice might not be relevant to others. Yoga is many things to many people, and each person comes to yoga for different reasons and takes from yoga different lessons and uses. It is polyvocal and multivalent, and whether we like it or not it has become part of popular culture in America and throughout the world. So I don’t want to deny another person’s various and unique experiences of yoga in the process of sharing my own.

With that said, here goes. This post will explore the idea of yoga as dynamic love, as well as one reason I practice yoga that has resonated deeply with me in the last year or two (particularly since I began regularly teaching the introductory sociology course Social Problems). I argue that one of the reasons yoga has become so physically-focused and oriented towards acrobatic self-mastery of the body has to do with increasing feelings of a loss of control within the broader social and economic worlds we move within. Similarly, one of the main reasons we’ve been seeing the obsession with other “apocalyptic,” extreme exercise regimes in the Western world, including extreme contortionist, aerobic yoga forms, is the increasing powerlessness we feel in broader social systems.

Why Practice? Yoga as Dynamic Love

As I said, people come to yoga for many reasons, and though we can identify clusters of common reasons there is really no way to completely capture the various and multiple causes why people turn to the practice. For example, the most recent data commissioned by Yoga Journal indicates that as of 2012 the top five commonly cited reasons people give for starting yoga are “flexibility (78.3 percent), general conditioning (62.2 percent), stress relief (59.6 percent), improve overall health (58.5 percent) and physical fitness (55.1 percent).” Some also come to yoga to treat specific health conditions, such as back pain, neck pain, arthritis, and anxiety. But there are important limitations to these studies of common motivations that should discourage anyone from reading too much into the statistics–first, because people have multiple, concurrent motivations for coming to yoga (as those percents show, the question must have been a “check all that apply” not “check one”). Second, because our motivations for starting yoga are often very different than motivations for continuing it. Inevitably, the nature of the practice (and the culture) means that there is a self-selection process where only certain types of yogis continue, becoming dedicated, lifelong practitioners, while people with other motivations for doing yoga eventually leave the practice entirely or diversify their physical fitness repertoires to only do yoga “on occasion,” often for the common reasons listed above. As a result, we often find that those who become lifelong yogis tend to use the practice to access deeper (dare I say more spiritual?) meaning than just the physical/mental health reasons cited by those starting yoga.

The reason that we practice yoga changes over time, at least for those who stay with it for years (or a lifetime). It has to. This is because we have a relationship to our practice, and to commit in our yoga practice is similar to commitment in a relationship. A while ago I read a random article as I was sifting through my facebook feed. The piece was about love and relationships, and things you have to realize and learn when you are with someone for life (in order to remain with someone for life). Contrary to popular epitaphs that “love is forever,” “love never changes,” or “love stays the same” this article dropped some hard truths in opposition to those popular, romanticized Disney versions of “love.” The fact is, in any long, loving, and lasting relationship you have to learn to love the person you are with over and over again. Love isn’t static, but dynamic, and it has to change over time as both of the people in the partnership evolve and learn and grow and age. So we have to learn to love not just the person we met at “that place,” at “that time,” and “in that moment,” but also the person they become the next day, the next month, the next year, or two, or ten. We have to learn to fall in love with the people they become, and do so as the people we become (because we change in the same ways too, and similarly are not the same person the next day, next month, next year, or two, or ten). So if love is to last it must never stay the same; the only way love can survive is through evolution, through adaptation, through the conscious and deliberate development of dynamic love rather than an (inaccurate) ideal of static love. We have to learn to love the process of growth just as much as the moment of stasis.

Any relationship we have with something we love needs to change over time as a result, so in lasting relationships we must fall in love over and over and over again, every day. It’s like the movie 50 First Dates, but less comedic and without the Hollywood ending or inappropriate jokes. The practice of dynamic love takes courage, dedication, and deep self-reflection to accomplish, and is something we have to actively do with the mind, body, and heart. But it is also incredibly rewarding. As Lao Tzu said, “Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength, while loving someone deeply gives you courage.” I think those who initially come to the practice fall in love with it at “that place” at “that time” and for “that reason,” whatever that might have been. But for those who stay with the practice, who become lifelong, devoted, and dedicated practitioners we have to fall in love with it continuously, and the way in which we love it changes depending on who we are and what our practice is at that time. This act of dynamic love is itself part of the practice, because learning to cultivate our ability to love in dynamic ways is part of what yoga teaches us. Yoga is a process, and an art, and ultimately about cultivating stability and commitment in dynamic, changing worlds and bodies. And I would argue it makes us better people in all areas of our lives as a result. Movement is life; when we stop moving, we stagnate, become brittle, and die.

Why Practice? Apocalypse and Work on the Body as a Strategy of Control

Like many people, I came to yoga haphazardly and without really knowing much about it. The first yoga class I attended was a hot yoga class. My mom took me on a weekend while I was still in high school, I think because she thought it would be a fun mother-daughter bonding experience (she was right, and it was) but probably also because at that time in my life I wasn’t as active and she wanted to encourage me to be physically healthier. I didn’t know what to expect, but I recall I loved sweating a ridiculous amount and the jello-limbed feeling following the class. At the time we lived in Humboldt county, a place of constant fog and 50 degree damp ocean weather, so it was a marvelous experience being hot and warm and sweaty for a whole hour. The reasons why I practice yoga have shifted since then and multiplied. It was a mutual shift; I changed, my needs and desires changed, so why I did yoga had to change too, and my practice evolved alongside my own evolution.

People practice yoga for many reasons, and all of them are valid. However, I think people who tend to stick with yoga for a lifetime come to develop very deep and meaningful reasons for their practice, beyond just basic health and wellness. It takes deep motivation to commit to practicing yoga for years, or decades, or life. So while I do still practice yoga as a means to stay physically healthy and strong, I also practice for other reasons, including those that are more spiritual, mental, and emotional. With that said, I think one reason that has been particularly relevant to me lately (and that also makes yoga such a powerful vehicle for healing addiction or trauma) is that yoga enables me to feel a sense of power and control in my own life. By yoking the mind and body, yoga enables a degree of self-mastery that we often lack in our social, economic, and political worlds. So yoga for me has become a means of finding peace and a small, unmovable, unshakable sense of stability in a world that is increasingly out of balance and beyond our control.

The sense of control I gain through yogic work on the body (and mind) is a way for me (and I expect many others) to regain a sense of self-efficacy, or what social psychologists refer to as perceptions and assessments of the self with regard to competence, effectiveness, and causal agency. In other words, self-efficacy is how much we feel we control our own destiny and have the ability to complete tasks and achieve our goals in life. And research has shown that having greater self-efficacy and an internal locus of control matters. Those who see themselves as internally controlled (a skill yoga definitely teaches us on and off our mats) do better in school systems, are more successful in stopping unhealthy habits like smoking, are more likely to wear seat belts, often deal with relationship problems directly, earn greater incomes, and are better able to delay instant gratification to achieve long-term goals which makes them more successful and happy. This is one of the reasons that yoga and mindfulness movements have been co-opted by capitalist systems through McMindfulness programs; yoga can make us more effective and productive workers, in large part because yoga helps us develop greater self-efficacy and self-mastery. (However, that doesn’t mean that’s what yoga should be used for, and as I’ve discussed before this type of application of yoga and mindfulness practices can actually serve to prop up unsustainable capitalist systems rather than solving larger social problems.)

As a sociologist, I study society and our broader social world using scientific research methods. Sociology teaches us to understand our world in deeper ways than the average person does, because as a sociologist we are trained to uncover the true nature of complex social interactions between individuals and larger social structures, see the interconnections of all areas of our society, as well as the ways our society influences and constrains our actions as individuals (often without our conscious awareness). So on the one hand, learning sociology can be incredibly freeing because it helps us understand how to be ourselves in a world with numerous outside pressures trying to force us to conform; in other words, it teaches us how to resist outside social pressures.

On the other hand, sociology is also incredibly depressing because it teaches us about the various, overwhelming, and interconnected problems there are in our world and how horribly difficult it is to solve any of them. Sociology teaches us how futile our efforts to make a difference can be, and this is often an unpleasant and, in some ways, traumatic realization. This is especially true for those who are romantics (as sociologists and yogis tend to be) or those who experience a great deal of privilege in other areas of their lives (for example, those with higher education or those who are white, like myself). Those who come from privileged positions often like to imagine anything is possible if they just put their mind to it, and that subsequently all the awesome things that happen to them are a result of effort rather than circumstance. Thinking that we earned what we get in life gives the illusion that we deserve what we get, which is appealing. However, social psychology research has shown that we often overestimate our strengths, abilities, and skills. This is called the “above average effect” or illusory superiority. For example, when comparing our driving skills to other people, 93% of people put themselves in the top 50%, something that obviously doesn’t add up. So sociology gives us a disturbing reality check: it’s likely those awesome accomplishments are mostly due to circumstances beyond our immediate control (combined with some individual effort to take advantage of privileged opportunities).

In the past several decades sociologists (along with many others) have been drawing attention to numerous social problems within our modern (postmodern?) global society. We currently live in a world in turmoil, a world in crisis. The problems facing us today are on a scale and level beyond those facing us throughout most of human history. Increasingly, we have very little personal power or control over our own lives and the course of our civilization and planet. Corporations have gained immense power in the last century, particularly during the last decade and even more so since the controversial Citizens United ruling in 2010; they now have immense influence over our culture, politics, and economy. We’ve been seeing the negative effects of an unsustainable capitalist consumer society both in terms of our own lives (decreased job satisfaction, decreased job security in a world where the permanent employment model has weakened in favor of temporary employment, increased stress and anxiety, stagnating wages, and the middle-class squeeze, just to name a few) but also in our world more broadly (such as global wars like the never-ending War on Terror or apocalyptic predictions of climate change and it’s contributing causes, including widespread global overpopulation, desertification of fertile lands, deforestation, extreme drought, sea level rise, and ongoing and widespread pollution). And hey, if all this isn’t overwhelming enough just think about this terrifying statistic: “By 2025, an estimated 1.8 billion people will live in areas plagued by water scarcity, with two-thirds of the world’s population living in water-stressed regions as a result of use, growth, and climate change.” In other words, within 10 years nearly two-thirds of the world will be without clean, drinking water.

As Ulrich Beck noted, we increasingly live in a high-risk society where we can never be sure if we are really safe, and where the technological advances that would enable us to gauge the risks we face are not widely available or widely understood. (What’s really in your shampoo? What’s really in your food? How do you ever really know?) Many of these risks are felt worldwide and require global solutions and global coalition building, a project that will likely not be realized in time to prevent widespread social changes (e.g., climate change). Or the risks we face are complex and interconnected with other social problems (e.g., income inequality is deeply interconnected with our cultural, political, and economic systems), or risks are invisible (e.g., chemicals or toxins), or risks are dispersed so much across our lifetimes (e.g., multiple chemical sensitivity caused by ingesting small, “safe” amounts of numerous chemicals regularly over decades) that it can be hard to avoid risks or fully understand them (e.g., regulations on chemicals are nearly non-existent in the USA).

Despite the increasing danger and instability of the worlds we live in, we have very little power to change things or control the conditions of our society and world. As a recent study by Princeton notes, the United States is no longer a democracy, but an oligarchy where the wealthy have increasing power and influence and our single voices are drowned in the vast sea of elite money. Even collectively, our powers are limited. Social movements often struggle to create larger social changes, as the recent demise of the Occupy movement demonstrates. Many times research on methods of resistance and collective action becomes used by those in power to further control and manage possible rebellion, so attempts to band together to make a difference are often thwarted as methods of control only become more insidious and powerful (e.g., recent trends to ban the filming of police in response to the #blacklivesmatter movement).

Besides being horribly depressing and at times terrifying (how could it not be?), what all of this means is that as individuals, we live in a world where we have very little power over the larger social conditions that structure our choices, attitudes, beliefs, and actions. There is very little we can do to influence our work environments or work opportunities, to influence our economy, to influence our politics, or to influence mainstream media culture (which, by the way, is controlled by only six megacorporations). So of course we are left feeling powerless in a world that is indeed largely beyond our control. And this feeling of powerlessness is often exacerbated for those who are on the front lines of this type of research, especially sociologists but also groups like climate change scientists. For example, a recent article by Dahr Jamail (one of my all time favorite reporters, do yourself a favor and check out his work) discussed how climate scientists have been experiencing depression, anger, and fear; in other words, the five stages of grief and/or symptoms of PTSD. Personally, I know many sociologists (including myself) that have experienced similar effects from the work that we do. Our mental and physical health is not independent of the systems we are embedded within.

Which brings it all back to yoga. Because for me (and I think for other yogis who are on the front lines of these social battles, or really anyone who is living in this world and dealing with these social trends in their personal lives) yoga is a means to regain a sense of control. While our ability to affect larger structures and social systems is extremely limited (though I do think there still may be hope, a topic I am exploring in my dissertation), we can at least cultivate control of our bodies, minds, and emotions. Through yoga, we can regain a sense of self-efficacy and power, largely by work on the body to regain strength, confidence, and self-mastery which we can then take off our mats and into the social worlds we move within.

Many extreme exercise forms use work on the body as a way to regain control of ones life in a life increasingly out of control world. Some recent research suggests, and I would completely agree, that the increasing loss of control in our lives is actually the reason why we are seeing the rise in popularity of forms of extreme fitness in America, including the trend within modern postural yoga towards the more flashy, acrobatic, and intense asana practices like Ashtanga, hot yoga, power yoga, or power vinyasa styles (a trend that has ultimately resulted in, no surprise, higher rates of injuries). In these extreme fitness trends, work on the body becomes a metaphor, symbolic of anxieties about the social body, or the body politic, and through work on the body we are able to alleviate some of the anxiety and stress we are unable to solve in other, macro-level arenas in our lives. So work on our bodies takes on a ritual symbolism of larger social issues in our social structures. In her book Purity and Danger, Mary Douglas investigates how “the body is a model which can stand for any bounded system” (114). The body, how we ascribe meaning to bodies, and what we do with bodies all become symbolic of larger social structures, and our own anxieties, attitudes, and beliefs about those systems. So “the ‘microcosm’–the physical body–may symbolically reproduce vulnerabilities and anxieties of the ‘macrocosm’–the social body” (Bordo in Unbearable Weight: 186). And as Douglas notes, body rituals like those practiced in yoga or extreme exercise regimes “enact the form of social relations and in giving these relations visible expression they enable people to know their own society. The rituals work upon the body politic through the symbolic medium of the physical body” (129). Our fears of impeding social, cultural, economic, and/or political crises of potentially apocalyptic proportions become manifested through the turn towards intense fitness activities, which also serve as a means to manage the embodied effects of such crises (like stress, anxiety, or trauma held in the body that is ultimately caused by larger social insecurities, dangers, or risks).

And while I’d love to offer some positive, hopeful, or upbeat ending to all of this I don’t really have one, and that’s the whole point. In a world falling apart at the seams, yoga has become a stopgap measure to hold ourselves together, a symbolic representation of the desire we feel for more control over our lives and a reflection of anxieties about our lack of influence in broader social systems. (I do realize yoga is more than just this, though, but that’s another blog post.) There is no easy solution.

Love, light, and… yoga ❤

Are Commercial Deodorants Harming Your Health?

If you’re a health nut like me you probably see a ton of articles out there promoting psuedo-scientific advice on how to treat or avoid illnesses. I’ll be the first one to question some of these claims (oil pulling being one of the most recent health fads circulating the interweb). However, I do think there is some advice that you just can’t go wrong following: the less toxic chemicals we are exposed to, the better.

It’s estimated that over 80,000 chemicals are in use today in the United States, the vast majority of which have not been tested for safety. The American government registers an average of 2,000 newly synthesized chemicals each year. With so many chemicals being added every single year, it’s physically impossible for governmental departments that are understaffed and underfunded to adequately research and examine health and safety concerns for every single product. Of those few that are studied, research focuses on short term, high-quantity exposure, often ignoring long term effects of continued exposure or the health consequences of exposure to the smorgasbord of chemical combinations out there in the real world (rather than the one, isolated chemical in the laboratory petri dish).

Cosmetics are made from at least 5,000 different chemicals; more than 3,200 are added to food. As many as 1,010 chemicals are used in the production of 11,700 consumer products, and about 500 chemicals are used as active ingredients in pesticides, according to Environmental Protection Agency data. In fact, even furniture as innocuous as your couch is chock full of chemicals. Scared yet? Yeah, me too. (Welcome to America and the brave new world!)

While we can be exposed to these chemicals through contaminated water, the food chain, air pollution, household products, or even our couches, one of the most common ways we are exposed is actually through body products. In case you didn’t know, our skin is porous, meaning that it’s possible for us not only to sweat out water, minerals, and the like from our pores, but also for things to be absorbed into our bodies through our skin, a process called skin absorption. Skin is the largest organ in our bodies, and according to National Geographic the average adult has about eight pounds, or about 22 square feet of skin. Compare this to a standard doorway at 21 square feet, and the average adult’s skin would fill all of that space.

Since both men and women use body products full of chemicals on their skin nearly every day, that’s a lot of chemicals entering into our bodies. Women are at higher risk, since they often use more of these products than men: women use an average of nine personal care products each day, exposing themselves to a mixture of over 100 individual chemicals. All the toxins that we’re exposed to eventually become part of our body burdenthe total amount of these chemicals present in the human body at a given point in time.

There’s a whole slew of reasons why this situation is a recipe for disaster, and I won’t get into all of them here. But what I’d like to focus on here is a part of the body, and our skin, that is often ignored: the armpit and our use of deodorants.

Most commercial deodorants, including the Dove one included in the humorous video above, are antiperspirants that rely on an aluminum base and parabens (chemicals used as preservatives), along with other harsh and toxic substances such as solvents and some fragrances. Aluminum compounds are easily absorbed through the skin and have been associated with higher risks of Alzheimer’s, seizures, kidney problems, and bone formation disorders. There is also evidence that these chemicals are associated with higher rates of breast cancer.

While there is some speculation as to whether these studies are true, given how little research is actually being done on chemicals in the US or the long-term effects of continued exposure to chemical combinations, I think it’s a safe bet to assume that more chemicals equals worse health. So one of the best things you can do for your health is to avoid commercial deodorants that contain any form of aluminum or parabens.

Making the switch from a commercial deodorant to an aluminum-free, all natural version can be a bit daunting since there are a number of great options out there and the consequences of trying out different products can be, let’s face it, smelly. Nothing is worse than trying a new deodorant and realizing halfway through a work day that the product is just not the right fit for you. (Trust me! I’ve been there.)

With that in mind, I’d like to share with you my all-time favorite company for aluminum-free deodorant: Jungleman Naturals. I tried some other (more well-known) natural products that just didn’t live up to their reputation before happening upon this one. I’ve been using their deodorants ever since, and have even converted my boyfriend (who works as a restaurant manager, so you can imagine how awesome this product is if it can last through his workday). I’ve tried several different versions of their original deodorant, all of which are great, but my favorite is the Junglemint:

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You can buy their products on their website: http://www.junglemannaturals.com/, or through amazon.com. Trust me, you won’t regret it! If you do try to go for a different company/brand, I’d suggest reading some reviews before buying, and having a back-up, reliable deodorant on hand until you’re sure your new one is a good fit for you. Keep in mind, it takes your body a few days to adjust to the change so you won’t be able to tell immediately how effective the new deodorant will be. Make sure to try it for a few days (maybe applying two times a day or as needed) until your body transitions to the new (and healthier) version. If, after a few days, it still isn’t working for you chances are it’s not a good fit and you’ll want to try a different brand.

 

“The Edge” in Yoga

Today I want to talk about a phrase that we hear quite often in yoga: “The Edge.” While it may sound ominous, chances are paying attention to your Edge and having a deep understanding of what it means will change the way you practice. I think ultimately it allows us, and requires us, to take our practice off the mat.

What exactly is the Edge? One of the most common explanations of this term that I’ve seen is: “the place in your practice where you are being sufficiently challenged but not so much that you experience strain or injury.” This is completely true. Playing with your Edge should not be about pushing beyond pain to the point of injury. We have to be mindful not to overdo our physical practice and hurt ourselves. But I also think definition is a very physical way to think about the edge. It focuses on feeling pain and difficulty in the body. Personally speaking, my practice really took off when I started to develop a deeper understanding of what the Edge is.

The Edge isn’t just physical. It’s mental. When we teach people to “find their Edge” by only being mindful of strain or injury, the mental aspect is lost. We don’t often connect strain or injury with the mind; when our mind is strained it doesn’t usually hurt in the same way that the body does (though if any of you have been to graduate school, I think you’ll agree with me in saying such a thing is completely possible).

We can think of the mental Edge as challenging focus, concentration, dedication, and willpower to persevere even in conditions that are not comfortable. Ever hear the saying that “the pose begins when you want to leave it?” That’s the mental Edge. It’s learning to thrive and persevere even in the face of difficulty. It’s breathing into the intensity rather than running from it. It’s working in the growth zone.

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By challenging both the body and mind to move beyond what we think we are capable of (but only in small increments, without injuring ourselves) we are able to redefine what our limits are. We realize that something we never thought was possible, or never even considered at all, is actually within the realm of possibility. This is where the practice becomes transformative. Yoga makes the impossible possible when you work at your Edge.

My favorite way to the think about the edge involves thinking about change, about the Edge as the growth zone. One of the most common translations of “yoga” is “union.” For me, the Edge is yoga, it is the union of what you are now capable of and what you are not yet capable of. It is playing with moment of union between who you are now and who you will become, between who you have been, and who you will be. Working at the Edge, not just in our physical practice but in our day to day lives, enables us to actualize our full potential, to become the people we want to be, and to recognize that limits are often barriers we impose on ourselves rather than something that actually exists “out there.”

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Given that playing with your Edge can be so transformational, sometimes we may want to always challenge ourselves to work in the growth zone, or push ourselves to be where we imagine we should be before we may be ready. This desire arises from our ego. All great things take time, and yoga is a practice. We need to practice playing with our Edge; we cannot exist there all the time. Recall the song, “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you just might find, you get what you need?”

The Edge is personal, and variable, and there are times when what we need may be to rest and heal rather than challenge ourselves. Listen at these times. The Edge is a moving target, and it will change day to day, week to week, and year to year as we grow. Yoga is a practice, and some days the practice is just showing up rather than pushing our limits. Other days the practice will involve playing with the Edge. Some days we find our Edge has not changed, or that we hit our Edge sooner than we have in the past. Other days we may find we have moved beyond a plateau, and we can push ourselves harder and longer than ever before. Cultivating mindfulness is absolutely necessary to recognize our Edge at any moment so we make sure we don’t move so far beyond it we injure ourselves.

So, play with your Edge as you need, and be patient. With patience comes all things. Through practice we explore our Edge, we find our path, and we move beyond our limitations.

With love, light, and…

yoga ❤

Does What We Do Define Us?

In the past few years there have been a number of studies revealing that the vast majority of workers are unhappy with their jobs and want to change their careers. In 2012 a global study found that 56% of workers in the US were trying to change their careers. A more recent study in 2013 found that only 14% of workers believe they have the perfect job. A whopping 80% of workers in their 20s said they wanted to change careers, followed by 64% of workers in their 30s and 54% of workers in their 40s. Yikes! But it gets worse: nearly 1 in 5 workers plan to change their jobs in 2014. In a society that values and privileges work, often at the expense of health and happiness, how is it possible that so many people are so utterly unhappy with their careers?

Today I want to explore the difference between what we do, and what type of people we are. When we are young, we are encouraged to “plan for our future” and asked, per the featured quote above by John Lennon, “What we want to be when we grow up.” We aren’t encouraged to figure out who we want to be, in terms of the type of qualities we want to possess. In a world that values work, and overwork, we are pushed to define who we are by our careers. But I think this is ultimately a damaging way to cultivate maturity, adulthood, and happiness.

The idea we possess when we are young that we will only have one “career” (singular) is flawed; today, the average person changes jobs 10 to 15 times during their lifetime. We don’t just get a career (singular), we get a variety of careers (plural). In addition, even if we are unusually lucky and find a steady, secure job that we will stick with for the rest of our lives (one career) we often don’t get the “career” (singular) we want. Though the vast majority of people have career goals when they are younger, 73% of workers do not end up in the job they expected to. 

Having goals is incredibly important in life, as is finding happiness and satisfaction in our work lives. But I think ultimately to find joy in our careers, we need to be able to understand ourselves and who we want to be, in terms of what type of people we want to be, rather than what society says we should be. I love the Venn diagram below since it captures this idea that what we are paid to do isn’t the only part of the picture; we also need to discover what we do well and what we want to do, and find the middle ground for all of these things.

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Personally, I don’t typically think about what type of person I want to be when I think about my future–usually when I think of my future I think of career goals, jobs, the things society says I should define my life and value through. Given that I don’t usually think about this, I definitely have never written down concretely what type of person I want to be. But identifying what type of person we want to be shapes what we want to do in terms of our careers. It shapes the decisions we make. So here’s my list of the type of person I want to be in my life. I’ve also made a fun word map, because, well word maps are awesome. What type of person do you want to be? 

 

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I want to be a woman who loves deeply, and laughs often. Someone who finds grace through strength; someone who has the courage to be vulnerable. I want to be mindful and possess the deliberate devotion that leads to wonder. I want to be a creator, an innovator, someone who adapts, bending rather than breaking, who is resilient in the face of change. I want to cultivate gratitude, simplicity, empathy, and wonder. I want to live a balanced life and develop symbiotic relationships that are mutually beneficial to growth. I want to be perceptive and inquisitive in order to develop a deep understanding of the world. I want to be honest and fair, a perpetual student, and a motivational teacher.

word map