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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 ❤

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Yoga : Magic : Meaning Making

One of my previous posts, Yoga, Magical Thinking, and Satya explored what it means to be truthful. Today I want to talk about the nature of magic, because I think digging deeply into what we mean by “magic” reveals a great deal about the nature of yoga.

Yoga has been associated with the magical for a long time. During British colonization of India, Singleton (2010:35) notes that “yogins were more likely to be identified by their critics (both Indian and European) with black magic, perverse sexuality, and alimentary impurity” than with yoga as we think of it now. Tantric yogis were similarly associated with occult powers. Samuel (2011:311) notes that: “If we want to understand what early Śaiva Tantrics were doing, for example, it is surely relevant that they were probably doing it, much of the time, in the context of being employed as official sorcerers, healers and magical practitioners by local rulers and ‘big men’… we have to see similar contexts for much Buddhist and Jaina Tantric practice as well.”

The association of yoga, tantra, and magic only grew stronger in interactions with the West, where such affiliations were stereotyped and reproduced in various forms of popular culture, including literature and movies. Ultimately, “the fakir-yogi was the object of an intense fascination for European occultists, who naturally emphasized the wondrous magical powers that such figures could acquire through yoga” such that “the supposed siddhis or magical powers of some such yogis resulted in the association of hatha yoga with occult magic” (Singleton 2010:64-66).

But can we dig deeper into this connection between yoga and occult powers? Why is yoga associated with magic?

What is magic all about?

The heart of magic is the art of knowing the true essence of something. This is the root of folklore about the power of knowing something’s “true name,” the idea of a sacred language that captures the true essence of the referent. The most common example of this is the tale of Rumplestiltskin, a story pattern common across many cultures. In the tale, the woman can defeat Rumplestiltskin only by learning his true name. Miyazaki’s film Spirited Away also utilizes this same story pattern, as the young girl can only win her freedom when she is able to remember her true name (for those Miyazaki fans out there).

 

My favorite author, Patricia A. McKillip, utilizes these ideas of magic throughout her corpus of award-winning fantasy books (of which I’d highly recommend The Riddle-Master of Hed trilogy, The Book of Atrix Wolfe, The Forgotten Beasts of Eld, and The Song for the Basilisk). She describes magic as the power of naming, and the gaining of magical power as developing a deep understanding of something such that by knowing it’s true essence one can become it, or manipulate it.

“There are no simple words. I don’t know why I thought I could hide anything behind language.”
Patricia A. McKillip, The Book of Atrix Wolfe

Words, for McKillip, hold tremendous power, not because of the word itself, but rather because words can become powerful when one comes to understand what the word truly means. Magic entails a recognition that enables a replication or manipulation, and is thus a way of doing something, not something itself. It is how we do things that produces magic. Anyone can say “fire,” but those with magic (at least in McKillip’s books) will say “fire” and, understanding the true essence of fire, the word itself will burn. So magic is the power to name, to come to know the true nature or essence of the world, and by doing so gain the knowledge to predict what may yet come, reproduce what already is, or manipulate the world around us.

Magic is thus not something distinct from us that we draw on, but rather a viewpoint, something internal to us that shifts and morphs and changes in a way that changes the way we see, and by doing so grants us power, or magic. By changing the way we look at things, the things we look at change. It is a way of looking at things so as to understand them deeply, and ultimately a way of doing (of acting) with knowledge and reverence, so that every action we engage in is done with mindful devotion. We can think of magic, then, as a form of wisdom, a way of seeing what has always been before you in a new and never-before-thought-of way and then acting based on this knowledge (with control and mindfulness).

“A riddle is a tale so familiar you no longer see it; it’s simply there, like the air you breathe… until one day you look at it and something shapeless, voiceless in you opens a third eye and sees it as you have never seen it before. Then you are left with the knowledge of the nameless question in you, and the tale that is no longer meaningless but the one thing in the world that has meaning any more.”
Patricia A. McKillip

Magic requires mindfulness, in that, like Sherlock Holmes, with mindfulness we are able to detect how things work in ways that seem magical, genius, or supernormal. This is the way we are able to, like the turning on of a light, see and know the true essence of things (including situations). It is also the way we are able to exert force upon things or situations by understanding and identifying pressure points so that we can change or manipulate the situation or thing to actualize a specific orientation or goal, in the process moving the course of the world around us in a concerted direction reflecting our will.

This wisdom is thus magic, and grants power (understanding the true essence of something gives you power over it). With it you can affect change along a predetermined path; with it you can manipulate a path; with it you can forge your own path. As with all power, without ethical guidelines it can be abused. But it can also represent the power to understand problems and to find solutions. With it you can affect changes that might seem impossible to someone who does not understand as deeply. Magic makes the impossible, possible. This can frighten people at times. But it can also inspire or be used toward positive ends.

So what does magic have to do with yoga?

Knowing the true essence of something is the art and magic of yoga. This is the nature of the eight limbs of yoga; as we practice them in concert, as we practice yoga as more than asana and journey on the eightfold path we are able to attain a higher state of consciousness. This is particularly true regarding our engagement with the final four limbs of yoga: pratyahara, the service of the senses to the mind; dharana, holding focused concentration in one direction; dhyana, the movement of the mind in continuous communication with the object of our attention; and ultimately samadhi, becoming one with the object of our attention, or the merging with the object of meditation. Desikachar teaches that “when dharana, dhyana, and samadhi are concentrated on one object, the resulting state is samyama… when a person is constantly focusing on one particular object [such that] he or she will come to understand it progressively more deeply” (Heart of Yoga: 110). By doing so we are able to empathize and understand the true essence of whatever we turn our concentration to. And this is yoga. Yoga is the art of meaning making. It yokes our senses and enhances them and our ability to interpret the world; it provides us with knowledge that can seem magical, supernormal, and that is powerful.

Many yogis refer to such powers as siddhis, supernormal perceptual states that are beyond what is typically within the purview of the normal range of perception. Now, regardless of whether you believe it’s possible to defy gravity, as with all myths there is truth embedded in the tales. While some recorded siddhis are likely exaggerated, such as being able to reduce one’s body to the size of an atom (because really, that’s an anachronistic interpretation anyway),  others are obviously quite real and many instances of supernormal feats have been recorded and are undeniable. For example, other siddhis include: knowing the past, present and future; tolerance of heat, cold and other dualities; being undisturbed by hunger, thirst, and other bodily appetites; dying when one desires; checking the influence of poison; perfect accomplishment of one’s determination; or orders or commands being unimpeded.

Ultimately, then, the practice of yoga is a practice of magic, of acting with mindful devotion, with knowledge and reverence. And when we understand something someone else does not understand, the conclusions we can draw and the action we can take can seem magical. What is magic, but an understanding deeper than what is normal, so that it seems extraordinary? What seems like magic is ultimately a trick, as with all magic shows, but in the case of yoga is a trick of awareness and understanding the true essence of the world around us so that we are able to act in ways that appear, to all intents and purposes, like magic.

Yoga as Controlled Folly

Yoga is also the recognition that the world is inherently unpredictable, that there is always an element of chance, and thus we are always playing the odds, playing with risk. This knowledge allows us to be detached to the outcome, because we know that all paths are disrupted at some point. This detachment allows the yogi to act without fear, as part of what Castaneda calls controlled folly in his book, A Separate Reality. Thus, recognizing that: “nothing being more important than anything else, a man of knowledge chooses any act, and acts it out as if it matters to him. His controlled folly makes him say that what he does matters and makes him act as if it did, and yet he knows that it doesn’t; so when he fulfills his acts, he retreats in peace, and whether his acts were good or bad, or worked or didn’t, is in no way part of his concern.”

“When you put your hands and mind and heart into the knowing of a thing … there is no room in you for fear.”
Patricia A. McKillip

Those who practice the magic of yoga are able to minimize the risks,  minimize the chance of disruption, and when it does occur (because it will, inevitably, at some point) it becomes possible to focus to make these disruptions as small as possible, to ride the wave of the storm, to submit to and thereby influence the outcome. As in martial arts, the yogi is able to turn the power of an opponent in on itself; the yogi harnesses the powers of the world to accomplish seemingly impossible feats.

With love, light, and… yoga ❤

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Castaneda by Nicolas Rosenfeld

Ottawa, Yoga, and Cultural Appropriation

Response to: No, Westerners Practicing Yoga Are Not Guilty of “Cultural Appropriation”

Today I want to write about the recent viral news story regarding the cancellation of a free yoga classes offered in Ottawa. The story has been met by a great deal of debate and discussion on the nature of cultural appropriation, how cultural appropriation relates to yoga, and concerns of “reverse racism” and “over-sensitivity” by marginalized populations. I feel many responses I’ve seen on the story have ignored some very important points about cultural appropriation and yoga that are relevant to the conversation.

The Ottawa Incident: What Happened?

The incident involved a free yoga class offered at the University of Ottawa through the Centre for Students with Disabilities that was cancelled because of administrative concerns regarding inclusivity and cultural sensitivity, namely that the class was culturally appropriating yoga from a historically oppressed population (India under colonialism and imperialism). Center staff originally explained the decision to cancel the class was a response to complaints from several students and volunteers about issues of cultural sensitivity and appropriation, as well as the fact that the center were short on staff and didn’t have the capacity to continue the programming.

The yoga teacher attempted to bargain with the university to continue the classes, including discussing the removal of references to yoga philosophy (which were already sparse to begin with),  focusing on “stretching” and “fitness”, and refraining from using Sanskrit (which she hadn’t really been using much anyway), all strategies that have been used successfully to integrate yoga into schools in California, for example. However, the center ultimately admitted there were no direct complaints about the class, and that they decided to drop the courses because the university was concerned about issues of cultural sensitivity and because “they couldn’t get a French name and nobody wants to do it.” The student federation president also added that “they suspended the class as part of a review of all their programs to make them more interesting, accessible, inclusive and responsive to the needs of students.”

A recent post by the disabilities center clarifying the situation is worth sharing, as I think draws attention to some of the miscommunication that has developed around the details of the events:

Never did the Student Federation at the University of Ottawa, or the Centre for Students with Disabilities, release the statements around cultural appropriation to the Ottawa Sun in the interview that we had with them on November 19th. The Ottawa Sun received emails exchanged between the Centre for Students with Disabilities and yoga Instructor. These emails, we would like to highlight, are outdated and have led to a lot of miscommunication about our program. [In other words, the quotes regarding concerns about cultural appropriation are from email exchanges between the center and teacher that were given to the news agencies, and were from several months ago during the review process.]…

The consultation process has been going on since the beginning of summer 2015 and because of that, the CSD has had a lot a feedback on how to improve the program to better accommodate their members. The statements quoted by the Ottawa Sun were a small-misrepresented message out of a larger conversation around the program. For example, the following concerns needed to be addressed.

First, the attendance of the Yoga classes was declining, this program has been running for the past 8 years without any re-evaluation and we wanted to ensure that students’ money and resources was being used in a responsible and efficient way to better promote the centre. There were some real concerns about how yoga was not meeting the mandate of the centre, and serving the needs of students with disabilities namely, students with physical disabilities and mobility issues. As the primary goal in the mandate of the CSD is to ensure that activities put on for the service users are accessible, it is our responsibility to address the issues and act upon them.

It is important to stress that the Student Federation at the University of Ottawa is very disheartened by the rhetoric being used around our due process to evaluate our service centres as we all take our jobs very seriously and work tirelessly to represent and support our students.

We do not condone and are very disappointed by the harassment and violence some of our staff experienced, due to the misrepresentation of our process. Acknowledging that many students are not given access to safe spaces in and around their campuses, the CSD in no way thought that suspending this program for the semester with the intention of improving it for a January return would cause this much uproar. Let us please revaluate this conversation and have a more conducive dialogue around how to make our campuses more accessible to those who do not feel safe.

So clearly there is a lot going on here in this case. Before I talk about whether or not this was actually cultural appropriation, I want to clarify some problematic arguments that have arisen regarding what cultural appropriation is, whether or not it’s possible to culturally appropriate yoga, and ultimately come back to this particular Ottawa case to demonstrate why it is not a case of cultural appropriation (but why we should still care about the possibility of appropriation in yoga).

Defining Cultural Appropriation

Appropriation is defined as a process where one group takes intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from another group’s culture without permission or understanding of the original history, meaning, or use of the appropriated good (adapted from Ziff and Rao 1997). The process is characterized by a power difference, where members of a dominant group have more power, taking from a culture that has often been systematically oppressed. Cultural appropriation is always a transaction that goes on between two groups, and as such is a process that always should acknowledge the agency of both groups, including that of the group being appropriated.

For example, Buyukokutan (2011) notes that particular outcomes, such as exploitation or equitable exchange, are more likely depending on the “whether the would-be appropriators and legitimate owners of the appropriated resource can strike a mutually beneficial bargain” (620). In this way, he draws attention to the way appropriation is not simply a one-way process, but often serves to benefit both groups (if unequally). As such, appropriation is best understood as reciprocal “exchange,” if an unequal one. Appropriation is a transaction where the dominant group has substantially more power to control that process and ultimately benefits much more as a result. As a consequence of the power differential involved in appropriation, the process can be harmful, whether that damage is cultural, emotional, economic, or intellectual, and is a cause for concern for this reason, since (regardless of the intentions of the taker) it may negatively impact the culture, identity, or life course of those experiencing appropriation.

Typically only members of the dominant group profit from appropriation, often through commodification of the appropriated cultural good that simplifies the meaning or history, utilizes stereotypical representations, or results in the symbolic annihilation of the original culture—when the original culture is marginalized, misrepresented, or ignored entirely, including when the origins of the appropriated cultural object are erased or when historical oppression experienced by the non-dominant group is trivialized (see Gerbner 1972; Gerbner and Gross 1976; Coleman and Yochim 2008). It is thus by culturally appropriating “that one asserts power and privilege” because the act of appropriation is largely driven and controlled by the more powerful, dominant group (Hooks 1992: 36). Thus, the terms of “exchange” take place according to the needs and desires of the taker in ways that benefit the dominant group. Often, the taker is also able to engage in the politics of self-serving distinction, utilizing the appropriated culture to garner higher prestige or status unavailable to members of the nondominant group.

Can Westerners Culturally Appropriate Yoga? (Hint: Yes, and so can Indians)

Michelle Goldberg has responded to this event with an article that claims Westerners practicing yoga are not guilty of cultural appropriation. She argues the Ottawa case is part of a larger trend where certain groups who she claims “know very little of the cultures they purport to protect” are overly-sensitive about appropriation, and fail to understand the historical case of cultural diffusion of yoga to the West. (She cites the website Decolonizing Yoga as a example of such groups, which is incredibly problematic considering she claims such people know “little” about yoga or cultural appropriation, and this is definitely not the case for those involved with this site.) In general, her article argues westerners practicing yoga are somehow incapable of engaging in cultural appropriation because claims of appropriation “completely ignore the agency of Indians themselves who have been making a concerted effort to export yoga to the West since the late 19th century.” Thus, it’s somehow impossible for westerners to culturally appropriate yoga because Indian gurus have been engaged in exporting yoga for centuries, with the implication being that the Ottawa case is an overreaction and misapplication of the term cultural appropriation and is, in fact, people just being “overly sensitive.”

First, there are some serious problems with her brief vignette of the history of diffusion of yoga to the West by Indian gurus, and her argument that Indians have been exporting yoga to the West willingly over the last century and as a unified group. Goldberg rightly identifies that “Indians saw getting Westerners interested in yoga as a way of undermining British colonialism.” But what is left out of this discussion is how practices of hatha yoga, in particular, were actually reconceptualized (cough, appropriated) by educated, middle-class Indian intellectuals like Vivekananda in order to create a new formulation of “yoga” that was more acceptable to Westerns, Indian elites, and Indian nationalists. This newly formulated “modern” yoga was aligned with nationalistic projects to distance the developing independent Indian state from Orientalist stereotypes that portrayed India as “superstitious” and “traditional,” and instead sought to portray India, through a reconceptualization of yoga, as “modern” in order to gain support for India’s independence. Sri Yogendra and Swami Kuvalayananda, for example, started the Kaivalyadhama Health and Yoga Research Center in 1928 to study yoga as a modern science (based in Western practices of medicine).

So we have to understand that yoga, even in India, was a fractured, multiple, and diverse practice historically, and did not reflect a unified group of individuals or a unified ideology (which Goldberg implies). We also have to acknowledge that certain styles of yoga (such as hatha yoga) were themselves appropriated by wealthier Indian intellectuals from subordinated, oppressed, and poor Indian populations. In this appropriation process, practices and conceptualizations of yoga changed. For example, Singleton notes yoga became more focused on physical postures as gurus like Krishnamacharya incorporated Western practices like bodybuilding (physical culture), gymnastics, and military-style drill systems into their teachings as part of nationalistic projects that promoted yoga as a “traditional” way to build stronger Indian men (to counteract Orientalist portrayals of Indian men as effeminate) and to build a stronger nation state (ideas based in eugenics, which was popular at the time but lost credibility after the horrors of WWII and the Nazi regime).

Goldberg also argues that “nationalists sent the Hindu monk Swami Vivekananda as a sort of missionary to America, where he introduced yoga philosophy in the 1890s.” But we have to problematize this, too, because at the time Vivekananda’s travels to the West were seen by many Indians as blasphemous, attention-seeking, and potentially damaging. That’s not to say all Indians felt this way and in general Vivekananda did have a great deal of support from those back in India, but again, this points out how we cannot assume any one Indian guru (like Vivekananda) spoke for all yogis or Indians.

Academic research shows that one of the main motivations for Vivekananda’s trip to the West was actually to raise money. He was broke, unable to find stable employment, and it was his financial struggles and difficulty dealing with the new responsibilities he faced upon the death of his father that initially drove him to connect with his guru, Ramakrishna (who Vivekananda had actually disliked when he initially met him prior to his father’s passing). In fact, the entire “official” narrative of how Vivekananda was petitioned by Ramakrishna to continue his spiritual transmission after his death by starting the Ramakrishna order is likely over-exaggerated, as evidence actually shows Ramakrishna did not wish Vivekananda to become a sannyasi, a form of religious ascetic, while his mother lived (most likely because, with the death of his father, Ramakrishna felt Vivekananda was needed to help support his family, meaning he could not renounce material desires and completely detach himself from material life; he did so regardless of Ramakrishna’s concerns, a decision that ended up changing India, Hinduism, and yoga forever). Similarly, evidence indicates that “Ramakrishna never formally initiated the future Vivekananda and the other young devotees,” as the renunciation undergone by Vivekananda took place several months after Ramakrishna died in a very unorthodox initiation that featured strong Christian content and was likely self-administered by Vivekananda and his followers (De Michelis: 105-107).

It was only after traveling for several years in India spreading his teachings and struggling with poverty that Vivekananda “hit upon a plan” to “raise the masses,” but recognized that he needed two things to do so, men and money. Because he had a difficult time raising funds in India (in part because there were so many sanyassins, or religious aesthetics, “wandering about teaching the people metaphysics”), he went to America to “earn money myself, and then return to my country and devote the rest of my days to the realization of this one aim in my life… I give them [Americans] spirituality and they give me money” (Vivekananda, quoted in De Michelis: 109). So Vivekananda traveled to America of his own accord, primarily as a means of earning funds for his religious projects, and contrary to Goldberg’s claims he was not sent as a spiritual emissary representing all Indians or all yogis.

In fact, Vivekananda ran out of money soon after arriving in New York but was “adopted” by prominent members of the occult religious organizations in the USA, including the recently formed Theosophical Society in New York and other new age religious groups such as metaphysics, harmonial religions, and mesmerism, whose members were “impressed by the handsome monk in the orange robe” and his “perfect English.” It’s worth noting that Vivekananda only started wearing orange robes during his time with Ramakrishna, who actually found the attire worrisome. Regardless, this apparel lent Vivekananda credibility in his new role as spiritual guru both back in India and especially in the West; he was able to start earning money almost immediately by giving talks and classes to wealthy white American occultists and by receiving donations.

De Michelis notes that “he acted as a wise counselor and teacher, as a friend and as a ‘soiree ornament… entertaining the wealthy and curious'” and that his popularity was partly due to “the fascination exercised in cultic milieus by Oriental teachers” who were romanticized by Westerners as “providers of genuine teachings, whatever their credentials” (111). Vivekananda applied to present at the Chicago Parliament of Religions as a “representative of the Hindu monastic order,” but this was a self-ascribed title and didn’t reflect any actual diplomatic representative status he possessed. So we have to understand that Vivekananda’s trips to the USA were self-motivated, even if it was for a good cause that he believed in, and that the formulations of yoga he disseminated to the West did not represent all Indians or all yogis (in fact, De Michelis recounts how his formulations of yoga were modified as a result of his interactions with new age spirituality in the West, which he adopted into his own understandings of the practice and then brought back to India). So Goldberg’s claim that it’s impossible to appropriate yoga is based on a misunderstanding of Vivekananda’s “mission” that ignores the ways his travels to the West were self-induced as a means of raising money for his spiritual projects, and not a reflection of some common approval of Western transmission by all Indians or all yogis.

Goldberg also claims that appropriation by Westerners is impossible because another prominent Indian guru, Krishnamacharya, gave teachers like Indra Devi “permission” to share yogic teachings with the West as some sort of “go forth and teach” missionary venture. But again, this is problematic as it ignores concerns Krishnamacharya actually had regarding Western appropriation of yoga, and is based on claims by Devi that such an interaction and conversation occurred. In fact, evidence actually indicates Krishnamacharya didn’t want to teach Westerners originally, especially women. Devi was a Russian noblewoman who adopted the stage name of Indra Devi to sound more Hindi during her involvement in several Indian films, and it was only after the Maharaja of Mysore, who funded Krishnamacharya’s yoga school, spoke on her behalf in 1938 that he even accepted her as a student of yoga. In fact, this revealing and prophetic quote from Krishnamacharya indicates that he was concerned about Western appropriation of yoga, contrary to Goldberg’s claims (thanks, Sri, for drawing my attention to this in your latest blog post):

The foreigners have stolen all the skills and knowledge and treasure of mother India, either right in front of us of in a hidden way. They pretend that they have discovered all this by themselves, bundle it together, and then bring it back here as though doing us a favor and in exchange take all the money and things we have saved up for our family’s welfare. After some time passes, they will try and do the same thing with Yogavidya. We can clearly state that the blame for this is that while we have read books required for the knowledge of yoga to shine, we have not understood or studied the concepts or brought them into our experience. If we still sleep and keep our eyes close, then the foreigners will become our gurus in Yogavidya.

In fact, while Krishnamacharya did teach Westerners this mostly occurred later in his life, and was related to changes in funding as his school stopped being funded by wealthy donors like the Maharaja in the decades following Devi’s study with him and instead became funded privately through fees charged to students. This meant that Westerners, who often were more able/willing to pay to learn yoga from such a renowned teacher, became a prime target market for Krishnamacharya even in India. It’s also worth noting that many Westerners actually trained with Krishnamacharya’s Indian students who then went on to teach, such as Pattabhi Jois, not with Krishnamacharya himself, and it’s likely he had little control of who his students taught even if he was concerned about Western appropriation of yoga.

I realize all of this history can be a bit overwhelming, but what I’m trying to point out is that cultural appropriation by Westerners was in fact a concern of many Indian gurus, even those who did end up teaching non-Indian students. Ultimately, we can’t argue (as Goldberg does) that cultural appropriation is impossible because “confident, outward-looking men who established modern yoga were eager to bring their system to the wider world” and as such charges of cultural appropriation are “invalid” because they “completely ignore the agency of Indians themselves, who have been making a concerted effort to export yoga to the West since the late 19th century.” Goldberg’s argument is flawed because she doesn’t understand that cultural appropriation is always a process characterized by an unequal power relationship between two parties, and as such always takes into account (or should) the agency of the party being appropriated from. Also, her argument lumps all Indians into one group, although it is clear that no Indian yoga guru spoke for all Indians, or all yogis, and as such no guru could “give permission” for yoga to be disseminated to the West, since there is no group that has this authority. Just because a few Indian gurus actively worked to export yoga does not mean they wanted that export to be appropriated by the Westerners they taught. It also does not mean that Westerners can do whatever they want with the practice because cultural appropriation is somehow “impossible” or “doesn’t exist.”

Ultimately, anyone can appropriate a cultural object like yoga, including Westerners but also Indians. The idea that because a handful of Indian yoga gurus actively worked to export yoga to the West somehow it is impossible for any Westerner (or anyone) to appropriate yoga is incredibly problematic and potentially damaging, and ignores research on what cultural appropriation is and how it works. While I would argue on the whole most applications, adoptions, and variations of yoga in the West are not culturally appropriative, just because most of the time it’s not appropriation doesn’t rule out the possibility that it could be cultural appropriation. We should still discuss the possibility of appropriation on a case by case basis to ensure our actions do not inadvertently, adversely harm others. We need to better understand what cultural appropriation entails, something Goldberg does not adequately address in her article.

Bringing it Back to Yoga: Was the Ottawa Case Culturally Appropriative?

Now, in applying this definition of cultural appropriation to yoga, I think it’s clear that some extremely commodified versions of Western yoga that ignore yoga’s roots, do not acknowledge the practice’s rich history, use stereotypical and simplified versions of the practice, profit off a romanticized and orientalist image of yoga, and transform yoga into a power fitness activity reminiscent of Jane Fonda aerobics set to the soundtracks of pop music and featuring scantily clad thin white women can be culturally appropriative. Such formulations profit only wealthy Westerners who own such corporations, and do marginalize, misrepresent, or ignore entirely the origins of the practice. With that said, these culturally appropriative representations of yoga are actually few and far between if we look at the everyday practices of yogis in the West and the great diversity of yoga classes and studio systems. They are more common in the media, sure, but that’s often because the media gives a skewed representation of yoga in the West.

Most of the time, the variation we see in yoga in the West is a natural product of cultural diffusion as cultural objects, like yoga, change and evolve slightly with each iteration of diffusion as each teacher or student puts their own interpretation of meaning and use on the cultural good in order to make the cultural object more relevant for their lives and needs. For example, even power yoga classes can and do train teachers on yoga philosophy and history and acknowledge the practice is more than just physical fitness, implying that it is not cultural appropriation that is happening. Many studios, even those that seem the most “Westernized,” can and do provide workshops for students that go deeper than more surface-level (but still yogic) asana classes.

Sure, yoga has changed in ways that are sometimes hard to reconcile. And yes, there are obviously some aspects of yoga culture (like industries producing fashion “yoga” clothes) that are highly problematic, as such industries can often support unsustainable, exploitative systems of inequality. The fact that yoga is often used as a form of self-distinction to signal high-class status is similarly troublesome. But what I’m trying to get at is that most yogis do not use yoga in this way, or passively absorb and reproduced this culture. These problems (when they do exist in yoga) are often part of larger problems of corporate power, consumerism, and capitalist global exploitation that are not just present in yoga in the West today but in the Western world more generally. We should continue to talk about them, but it doesn’t mean we need to stop practicing yoga. For example, this interesting article from Vice on the Ottawa case discusses some of the ways we can still practice without culturally appropriating yoga.

While it can be hard to disseminate the more philosophical or meditative aspects of the practice in group classes, this doesn’t mean teachers aren’t aware of the deeper aspects of yoga. In fact, the lack of these type of yoga teachings in Western yoga has more to do with the corporate nature of mainstream yoga publications (which, again, present a skewed picture of yoga in the West removed from the everyday practices of yogis) as well as limitations in the standardized format for teaching group asana classes (which have become the staple cash flow for studios) than because teachers are culturally appropriating yoga. In fact, I would argue that most yoga as it is practiced in the West is not culturally appropriative in the sociological sense of the word. In general the evolution of yoga in the West is a complex phenomenon that has many factors, and reflects a more general cultural diffusion as yoga was adapted to meet the needs of a different audience (both geographically, but also temporally as modern society evolved and changed over time).

As for the Ottawa case, I think it’s clear that this, similarly, was not a case of cultural appropriation. First, there were many other reasons the classes were cancelled, such as low enrollment and concerns about accessibility for differently abled students. The teacher obviously did have a deeper understanding of yoga practice and the history and origins of the practice, but was seeking to create an entry level class for students of all levels that focused on overall health and well-being, a goal that is not contradictory to a broader understanding of the practice of yoga but rather reflects a particular type and level of class given the interests of students and constraints of the university system.

With all this said, I want to reiterate that just because not all Western adaptations of yoga are culturally appropriative does not rule out the possibility that it could be cultural appropriation. We should still discuss the possibility of appropriation on a case by case basis to ensure our actions do not inadvertently, adversely harm others. To do so, we have to understand what cultural appropriation entails, have a dialogue with all members involved, look closely at issues of power, and remain mindful about the nature and consequences of the process.

I also think it’s worth seriously considering whether or not, in attempting to make yoga more available within school or university systems, the practice has been so de-contextualized as to make it unrecognizable. I understand the benefits of integrating yoga into schools, but institutional constraints in these sites often mean that the spiritual nature of the practice becomes impossible to even acknowledge. At this point, I think we have to ask whether or not it is even yoga anymore, or if it has been so appropriated to fit within school systems that we have symbolically annihilated the roots of the practice in this process in ways that are in fact culturally appropriative.

The Ottawa case is, I think, an example of this process, as yoga is changed dramatically to try and fit into institutions that demand a lack of spirituality. Can we still retain the essence of the practice, and can the practice still benefit students if the spiritual roots are removed to fit into school systems? Are there alternative ways to incorporate yoga into schools (say, after school programs) or make it more accessible to populations that might benefit (like children) that would still allow the roots and history of the practice to be acknowledged and taught? This is a complex topic. There is no easy answer for those interested in increasing the reach of yoga and spreading the benefits of the practice. However, in sacrificing the complexity of the practice in attempts to gain a wider audience we risk falling into McYoga and McMindfulness traps, where yoga and mindfulness practices are yoked to unsustainable systems of productivity, individualism, and consumerism in ways that ultimately culturally appropriate the practice.

Love, light, and… yoga ❤

The Origins of Yoga: Part IV

This post is the third in a series about myths surrounding the origins of yoga. You can read Part I here on yoga in Ancient Egypt, Part II here on the 5,000-year-old yoga myth, and Part III here on exactly how old postural yoga is.

This final post in my series of articles on the origins of yoga has been a long time coming. To be honest, this was a daunting post for me to write because it addresses why origin myths have been so widely adopted and spread within yoga today despite the fact that they are fictions. And this is a difficult question to answer. If you haven’t checked out the earlier posts in this series, I ended part III asking: Why do so many yogis believe in origin narratives of yoga that trace postural yoga to some ancient tradition? What purpose do these myths serve? What are the implications of the true history of yoga for our practice? Does it mean modern yoga is “inauthentic?” So let’s try to tackle the real, although messy, answers to these questions.

Why do so many yogis believe in origin narratives of yoga that trace postural yoga to some ancient tradition? What purpose do these myths serve?

There are a number of reasons why yogis believe in and perpetuate origin myths about yoga. First, origin narratives provide for shared experiences of group members that promote unity and social solidarity within a group. These narratives may or may not be true, as we saw in the case of yoga, but regardless they are usually simplified into a more easily digested version of a common, public history and become part of our collective memory, or the “memories” shared by all members of a group. So origin narratives allow for people to bond and feel a sense of social identification with the group as a whole and with other community members, where the group is incorporated into our sense of self and the self is experienced as an integral part of the the group. (As such, origin narratives actually provide us with a means of identity formation as well as group membership.) Benedict Anderson called this process the creation of imagined community, or a community that is socially constructed and imagined by the people who perceive themselves as part of that group. While members of the community will never know each of the other members personally, they are bonded together through similar interests and identification as part of the same group, united by collective memories of a shared history.

In the case of yoga, these origin narratives have become institutionalized as required instruction in teacher training programs throughout the United States and subsequently spread throughout the yoga world. Origin narratives within the yoga community allow us to bond together as part of a group of like-minded individuals who all have the same collective memory of yoga, and can therefore feel solidarity over our mutual identification as yogis, and a recognition that we all have something in common. (“Hi, I’m a yogi! You’re a yogi too? Awesome, let’s go do some headstands and talk about the eight limbs of yoga.”) For particular groups within yoga, like yogis of color who are often marginalized in the whitewashed Western yoga world, origin myths like the one I wrote about in Part I of this series, which claims yoga dates back to ancient Egypt, are a way to create a subgroup that seeks to reclaim yoga as a black practice. But the result is the same in both instances, as the Egypt origin narrative provides this subgroup of yogis with a means to bond and unite through shared (black) history.

So much for the first reason so many people believe in these myths. I think the second reason is related to a crisis of faith and spiritual commitment that has beset modern societies. There have been a huge number of studies documenting the decline of organized religion and the rise of those who are “spiritual but not religious.” In 2012 the PEW research center even published a much discussed poll that showed the increase of religiously unaffiliated people in America. This isn’t to say that no one is sticking with traditional religions–the majority of citizens in the United States do still religiously identify. But the number who don’t is rising, and younger generations are much more likely to be religiously unaffiliated. Add the fact that those who are religiously unaffiliated are also two times more likely to be liberal, and overwhelmingly believe that religious organizations are too concerned with money and power, too focused on rules, and too involved in politics and we start to get an idea of the type of person that opts out of traditional religions.

In a modern world where organized religions continue to contradict science or support political policies that oppose liberal values of human rights, many Americans are beginning to opt out of the religious system entirely. But as social beings, we often still desire the meaning, community, and purpose that religion provides. Yoga has become a vehicle for many highly educated, religiously unaffiliated yet spiritually inclined individuals to fulfill these desires. And indeed, many yogis argue that yoga provides a sense of spiritually, meaning, and ritual within our spiritually bereft modern world that can be fast-paced, stressful, and anxiety-producing for many individuals. Many yoga practitioners describe “finding yoga” in ways that mirror spiritual discussions of “finding God,” and openly claim that yoga serves religious purposes within their lives. Origin narratives in yoga are seen as “proof” that modern postural yoga has spiritual roots, and a sign of authenticity for individuals trying to navigate a world of mass information.

What’s ironic is that while many may argue yoga is a 10,000 year old practice that has evolved over time to be the perfect solution and ailment to our modern conditions of high-stress insecure employment, postural yoga is a modern invention. It’s also ironic because yoga and other mindfulness practices have largely been used to prop up unsustainable practices of capitalism. The article by Purser and Loy on mcmindfulness is too good not to quote directly:

“Rather than applying mindfulness as a means to awaken individuals and organizations from the unwholesome roots of greed, ill will and delusion, it is usually being refashioned into a banal, therapeutic, self-help technique that can actually reinforce those roots… Up to now, the mindfulness movement has avoided any serious consideration of why stress is so pervasive in modern business institutions. Instead, corporations have jumped on the mindfulness bandwagon because it conveniently shifts the burden onto the individual employee: stress is framed as a personal problem, and mindfulness is offered as just the right medicine to help employees work more efficiently and calmly within toxic environments. Cloaked in an aura of care and humanity, mindfulness is refashioned into a safety valve, as a way to let off steam — a technique for coping with and adapting to the stresses and strains of corporate life… Mindfulness training has wide appeal because it has become a trendy method for subduing employee unrest, promoting a tacit acceptance of the status quo, and as an instrumental tool for keeping attention focused on institutional goals…Unfortunately, a more ethical and socially responsible view of mindfulness is now seen by many practitioners as a tangential concern, or as an unnecessary politicizing of one’s personal journey of self-transformation.”

In other words, as I’ve mentioned before yoga and other practices of mindfulness are often co-opted by corporate interests to avoid actually solving systemic problems. While mindfulness practices can help people learn to cope with the chronic stress and trauma in their lives, learning how to cope doesn’t eliminate or solve the real problem: that chronic stress or trauma has become normalized as a way of life in America. Simply teaching people to “cope” with problems caused by structural failure acts like a stop-gap measure, mitigating the effects of much larger problems that can only be solved by structural change and activism. Yet as the above quote notes, when some people try to promote a more socially responsible viewpoint most practitioners (who often are coming from a place of privilege) are quick to play the “authentic yoga is about non-judgement” card, implying that drawing attention to systemic problems is unnecessarily politicizing what mindfulness practices “should” be about. Such disturbing arguments are often based on fictional ideas of the origin of yoga: origin myths.

What are the implications of the true history of yoga for our practice? Does it mean modern yoga is “inauthentic?”

The most important implications of the true history of yoga for our practice is the realization that yoga has never been just one definitive thing. Yoga has always been multiple and various, and has undergone a very drastic and complex evolution over time. What yoga is has changed at different moments in history for different groups to meet their needs and desires at that social and historical moment in time. So acknowledging that yoga is in fact a modern invention doesn’t make the meaning we get from the practice is any less real or authentic. Authenticity is socially constructed, so the fact that origin narratives widespread in the field now are myths doesn’t make postural yoga “inauthentic.” It makes it the latest evolution in a very long and complex process of cultural diffusion, innovation, and (admitably) appropriation. Acknowledging that the history of yoga is a history of evolution means that we should be able to consciously, purposely mold yoga to be what it needs to be for our group(s), at this time, to meet our needs and desires.

For example, if we admit yoga is a modern invention, then why not admit that some of the myths we’ve been adhering to might not be serving all yogis, or meeting all our needs and desires? Why not consciously change yoga to be more accessible and welcoming for all people and groups? Accepting and being actively involved in the evolution of yoga means we could adjust our asana practice to include more biomechanics and movement patterns rather than relying on “yoga speak” that tries to sound “authentically” ancient and wise but actually has no basis in science, or ancient yogic practices. Or maybe we and could begin to use yoga as a force for social change to combat structural problems. You get the idea? Abandoning yoga origin myths creates the possibility to consciously change yoga for the better since we are no longer locked in to ideas of what yoga should be, and frankly striving to improve yoga is a very yogic goal to have. I think the yoga world is ready to adopt a more accurate origin narrative for yoga, and that doing so could ultimately change yoga into something better, more powerful, more meaningful, and more relevant to our needs and desires.

Love, light, and… yoga ❤

When Resistance Against Dominant Yoga Culture Fails

quote about what yoga is

I saw the above quote on my facebook feed this afternoon, and had a nagging worry about it that wouldn’t let go until I wrote this post. Here’s the quote in its entirety: “Yoga isn’t about our lifestyles, our beliefs, our weight, our diet, our flexibility, how spiritual or enlightened we are. Yoga is about showing up and doing our dance on our mats.” ~Janne Robinson, Elephant Journal

There are a couple of things that disturb me about this quote. First, historically yoga was about all of these things. Yoga has its roots in Hinduism, a spiritual practice that centered on self-realization, a form of enlightenment and oneness with a higher spiritual power. I realize, and am not arguing, that many people who practice yoga today no longer due so for religious practice. But ultimately, we have to ask the question, does yoga still serve this same spiritual purpose in our lives?

Narratives of salvation abound in yoga and among yogis. While today yoga may be disconnected from some higher power, the idea of yoga as a source of salvation and spirituality in a spiritually bereft modern urban world lingers on in the ways in which we utilize and interpret yoga in our daily lives. So in many ways, yoga is still deeply tied to spiritual enlightenment. I do think it’s important to remain in a place of non-discrimination in yoga regarding whether or not someone is more or less spiritually enlightened than we are. But to say that yoga isn’t about spirituality and enlightenment disregards and denies the ways in which it actually is, for many people, exactly about this.

Secondly, traditionally yoga has been about particularly lifestyles and beliefs. In addition, a large part of traditional yogic teachings were about diet (and to a limited degree, weight and flexibility). To say that these things aren’t what yoga is about is to deny the historical tradition of yoga. These associations continue today, as yoga has become a signifier for a cultural ethos that includes particular lifestyles (green, sustainable, organic, whole foods, alternative health practices), beliefs (ahimsa, anyone?), and ultimately about diets (local/organic, vegetarian, raw, juice fasts, and so on). All types and forms of culture are used for identity formation, to provide for shared experiences, social solidarity, and the formation of distinct groups. So yoga, and really any cultural object, will be part of a web of cultural connections, interactions, networks, and associations that all help make it part of what it is. To deny these things about yoga is to deny what yoga is, both historically and presently.

Ultimately, saying yoga isn’t “about” certain behaviors or practices denies the various and diverse experiences of yogis. Yoga is polyvocal and multivalent, and it is important for us to recognize that yoga is many things, to many different people, and that these are all our particular yogic truths and journeys, and we shouldn’t discount or deny any of them are part of the larger practice of yoga (unless they are harmful to ourselves or others). So my final question is this: In our efforts for diversity and inclusivity in yoga, have we removed the essence of what yoga is and why it is so appealing to us? Many arguments for why we should do yoga hinge on the idea that in our modern world we need and seek the spirituality and ritual that is part of the practice. In our efforts for tolerance, have we erased yoga entirely? And if so, what is left? Just us, “dancing on our mats?”

I think many yogis would agree with me when I say yoga always, always, always, goes beyond the mat. Or at least it should.

Love, light, and… yoga ❤