Tag Archives: tolerance

An Argument for “Spiritually Engaged Activism”

“Over time, it became clear to me that there’s a problem with the question ‘What can I do.’ The problem is the word ‘I.’ By ourselves, there’s not much we can do… The right question is ‘What can we do to make a difference?’ Because if individual action can’t alter the momentum of global warming, movements may still do the trick. Movements are how people organize themselves to gain power—enough power, in this case, to perhaps overcome the financial might of the fossil fuel industry… Movements are what take 5 or 10 percent of people and make them decisive—because in a world where apathy rules, five or ten percent is an enormous number.” ~Bill McKibben (“The Question I Get Asked the Most“)

I recently saw a new post by Carol Horton, the second in a series on Yoga International called “Re-imagining Yoga: Holistic Wellness, Social Connection, and Spiritual Revitalization.” In the most recent post on Spirituality & Social Justice, she describes what she called the experience and rise of what she terms “socially engaged spirituality.” I’ve been sitting with her words for several days now thinking about this “re-imagining” of the practice, and for a number of reasons it just hasn’t been sitting well with me. I want to talk about why.

Horton introduces the experience of “socially engaged spirituality” by sharing a story of her youth when, in the first grade, her class was brought into a gymnasium to hold hands and sing together a freedom anthem of the civil rights movement, “We Shall Overcome.” It’s a lovely tale, and one she argues embodies the hopeful, spiritual possibility she feels may be developing in some yoga circles, particularly in the yoga service field, described as “people who have launched successful organizations dedicated to teaching yoga in prisons, supporting recovery from addiction, and so on.”

I agree that the growing awareness in yoga circles of social justice concerns is promising. It is wonderful to see so many people “seeking to deepen their practice by engaging more deliberately with the world—rather than escaping, renouncing, or transcending it.” As she mentions, “to see this happening on the scale that it is today… is unprecedented.” This is something to be hopeful about, and I am happy this conversation and service work is growing. As McKibben notes, “It’s the right question or almost: It implies an eagerness to act and action is what we need.”

But while I applaud those engaging in yoga service I also feel that service work in yoga is  something we need to be critical of, for a number of reasons. As I have written about before, there are often problematic elements to the organizational structures of groups involved in the yoga service field (often through no fault of their own). The nature of the industry is often not set up to support more radical approaches than what Horton I think appropriately calls a “socially engaged spirituality,” as the model of the industry is often based on a form of charity work driven by white middle-class communities, in ways that are rooted in the colonialist history of philanthropy within the construction of the United States, rather than more radical, overtly political models.

I do want to acknowledge there are groups of socially engaged spiritual yogis out there doing political, activist work and engaging in social justice beyond the mat. You do exist, and I commend you. Just to clarify, this post isn’t about these people, who I think are creative and bold individuals (those of you doing this type of work know that you can often be treated with disdain or virulent sanctioning by those in the yoga world who find this work “unyogic” and “judgemental” because of the political bent). More importantly, I think it’s important to recognize that while many yogis want to believe they are socially engaged in radical ways, these people are rare in the yoga world, even in the yoga service world, in part because mainstream yoga often promotes a more individualized, complacent positivity that is constructed as at odds with political engagement.

This post addresses the majority of service work in yoga that is not overtly political, that is not seeking to engage in collaborative movement building and organizing both within but also outside yoga circles, and which often uses a “socially engaged spirituality” to justify their own personal commitment to social justice without engaging in actions that are radical enough to promote more effective and widespread change beyond the individual level. To those folks, please listen, and I hope you take this post as a plea to think deeper about what social justice means and why spiritually informed social engagement demands an active, political, and collaborative approach.

The Dangers of a “Socially Engaged Spirituality”

What exactly does it mean to have a “socially engaged spirituality”? Who does it serve? What type of social engagement does it enable? Why is yoga service becoming more popular, and can we problematize this sociohistorical context?

Horton’s construction of a “socially engaged spirituality” is one that is deeply personal, and as such is very focused on the “I” question: “what can I do?” rather than the question “what can we do?” And this is particularly interesting given that the civil rights movement she cites in her original story of her six year old self holding hands and singing “We Shall Overcome” was driven by a powerful religious tradition and social network; in other words, it was a movement based on the question of what we could do, not what I could do. Churches and church networks were central in the success and spread of the civil rights movement. The movement Horton so romantically recalls in her post ultimately was one that (while diverse and sometimes conflicted) was able to come together in unity and purpose to accomplish great change, and it did so through loosely coordinated efforts on the part of movement organizers/organizations, which included on the ground activism, not just unifying sing-a-longs–though these are of course nice too. When we focus on a personal form of “socially engaged spirituality,” we can miss the potential for unified resistance, for unified transformation that the civil rights movement embodied.

My worry in the type of approach Horton uses in the re-imagining of yoga is that even while expanding a personal spirituality to include social engagement, because the nature of this engagement is not clear it’s incredibly easy to fall into the trap of ego, self-service, and privilege in application. Meaning: when our spirituality is socially engaged only on our own terms, and in ways that are geared toward meeting the needs of the one doing the service rather than the populations that service addresses, and without broader political understandings and engagement in unified social movements or activism, ultimately the transformative potential of service work is significantly lessened and, potentially, even utterly destroyed. Sometimes, service work (if done in ways that aren’t rooted in deep understanding) can actually lead to the supporting of systems of the very oppression such service advertises to fight or solve. As Uma Dinsmore Tuli has said, “Yoga is a toolkit for liberation often used in the service of oppression.”

The danger of reproducing inequality in service work isn’t necessarily a surprise when we consider who is often involved in these types of service organizations. As most people know, yoga practitioners in the USA and Western countries are often a narrow demographic group: predominantly middle- to upper-class, highly educated, and majority white. In other words, many people getting involved in these projects are privileged, and may not have first hand experience or even adequate educational knowledge to understand the types of work they are engaging in. In my own research I have heard of numerous cases where the people running these organizations know very little about the populations they are serving, and don’t have adequate training to safely and effectively serve those most at-risk (here’s one example for you). Yogis are not required to receive even basic diversity training in their certification programs. This can often lead to forms of service that are not coming from a place of knowledge, that are not actually beneficial to the communities served in the long-run, but often just bolsters the legitimacy of those engaging in the service work and teaching the classes, and props up an unsustainable and harmful system in need of drastic reform.

mlk-cfw

The tendency in the West is to individualize service work. It becomes something an individual does, or an individual organization, perhaps (as I have said before), an excuse to mitigate personal feelings of guilt for those with privilege, as a way of easing our own self-doubt and insecurities, and as a way of healing ourselves rather than a means of truly serving other people. This is largely because yoga, and yoga philosophy, is interpreted by Westerners through our capitalist, individualist, and neoliberal ideologies in ways that appropriate the ethically guided spiritual practice of yoga out of context of the profound understanding that comes through absorption with the object of our focus and meditation. It becomes a project one either succeeds or fails at independently, in relative isolation. But in isolation, we have significantly less power.

The growing trend of yoga service also often only involves the teaching of asana/postural yoga classes to at risk-populations. Don’t get me wrong, there is definitely value gained by these populations through these types of class offerings! But the idea that a postural yoga class or two can somehow solve larger systemic problems is flawed logic. It is essentially a stop-gap measure; it does not cure the underlying illness, despite lessening the impact of the symptoms of disease (somewhat). Instead of listening to what the populations we serve actually need, we listen to ourselves and serve them in ways we believe (or want to believe) are beneficial. We volunteer in prisons, rather than fighting and advocating for a better system that won’t imprison so many people in the first place. We provide asana classes to poor youth (often of color), rather than addressing the underlying issues of poverty, segregation, crime, unequal education, and limited job opportunities they often deal with. Instead of engaging in advocacy, activism, and movement organizing, we engage in attempting to promote personal self-care within a system that is slowly killing us. We become complacent, and complicit, rather than resistant.

In this way yoga service can often take the form of a white savior complex, a trend where whites increasingly use service work (and charitable giving) as a means to justify and validate their own unwarranted privilege, thereby reinforcing it, rather than actually performing service in the interests and according to the needs of the ones they serve to disrupt unequal and intersectional systems of oppression/privilege. Thus, the white savior supports brutal policies in the morning, founds charities in the afternoon, and receives awards in the evening. As Cole says, “there is much more to doing good work than ‘making a difference.’ There is the principle of first do no harm [ahimsa!]. There is the idea that those who are being helped ought to be consulted over the matters that concern them.”

All agree that in the last five years, there has been an exponential expansion of this sort of work, particularly in the U.S. Interest in integrating yoga practices into major public institutions, as well as in fields such as education, criminal justice, public health, social work, and psychotherapy is vastly higher than it’s ever been before. All evidence suggests that the growth of socially engaged yoga will continue to snowball in coming years. (Carol Horton, “Re-imagining Yoga, Part 2: Spirituality and Social Justice”)

One of the reasons there has been such an exponential expansion of this sort of service work is that the yoga industry has been pumping out new teachers in recent years, and one of the ways these teachers are often encouraged to gain experience is by engaging in “service work,” aka, teaching free classes so they can further their career goals. It seems radical, and progressive, and yogic (seva!), but often in reality free classes are just as much about serving the needs of the teacher as they are about serving the needs of their students, and in many ways are more focused on the needs of the teacher as they don’t always even engage in dialogue with the populations they serve. I have heard countless teachers encourage new students to teach for free, to do charity work and classes as a means of gaining experience (with the implication that the end goal is primarily to, upon gaining more experience, teach to a wealthier clientele who can afford to pay).

The growth in yoga service work has also been enabled by the continuing defunding and gutting of social welfare systems in the USA, combined with a stagnating middle class, unlivable minimum wage, and growing job insecurity that means this type of charity work in some ways becomes a means of supplementing the growing scarcity of government funded programs and support networks that leave so many populations at risk. The problem with this is that charity work is often unable to adequately fill these gaps, and as we know historically and even today of charity work, there are often disparities within aide or required stipulations on who is able to gain access to such aide that can be problematic. (For an excellent exploration of why doing “good work” doesn’t always mean we are “good people”, see this post from Michael Lee via the Huff Post.)

And finally, this is exacerbated by the fact that many teachers are limited by the expectations of their professions to present an overly positive (cult of positivity, anyone?) outlook, which typically means that political discussions are considered “unyogic.” People who engage in critical discussions and political activism in the yoga world are often seen as “focusing too much on the negative.” This limits the type of engagement yoga service workers can sometimes practice, provided they want to be seen as “authentically” yogic and to retain or grow a following within the yoga world more broadly. This is something more yoga teachers need to be willing, and able, to push back against, because ultimately a deep understanding of the world and our locations in it per a yogic practice intent on uncovering bias and living ethically requires a recognition that the personal is inherently political, and that there is no yogically sound way to engage in a “socially engaged spirituality” without also being political.

Re-Imagining Yoga: “Spiritually Engaged Activism”

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

If we truly want to engage in re-imaging the intersections of spirituality and social justice we have to take our spiritual understanding of the practice beyond a potentially self-focused “socially engaged spirituality” and instead begin to form a collective movement for “spiritually engaged activism,” where spirituality guides, informs, and even necessitates the development of a unified, intersectional movement predicated on a spiritual understanding of ethics and morality.

We need to begin thinking about how we can unify spiritually in ways that create social engagement that is inherently radical, political, and intersectional. We need to think about how we can strategize beyond just the individual level, beyond individualism, to develop a sense of collectivity and unity even as we acknowledge difference. We need to stop modeling ourselves on the current models of white charity predicated in histories of the “white man’s burden” and colonial missionizing narratives. Instead I think we should consider how we can decolonize service work, gaining inspiration from the radical potential of groups like, for example, the black panther movement, which fed millions of children through their free breakfast program while raising awareness on the racial inequalities of food scarcity in the USA.

We need to think about how we can model ourselves on movements like the ongoing indigenous resistance to climate change,  environmental racism, and corporate power that seeks to ground their resistance in spiritual traditions and experiences shared by hundreds of indigenous tribal peoples across the Americas.

These types of movements are rooted in a deep spirituality and social engagement with the world as it is (not as we would like or romanticize it to be). These movements don’t just close us off from connection, or prescribe an individual level of healing that never quite heals us completely; they open us up to building communities of activists, allies, and protectors that can provide mutual support and connection. They allow us to heal at the communal level, to heal in ways that get to the root of our insecurities and trauma both as oppressors and as oppressed peoples, because ultimately in systems of oppression, everyone suffers. The spiritually engaged activism these groups engage in is just that: action, organizing, and resistance that goes beyond treating symptoms of a larger disease and instead seek to overcome and cure the actual illness.

Perhaps, rather than solely focusing on the individual healing we can gain from a “socially engaged spirituality,” we can ask: How do we use a yogically informed spirituality to engage in intersectional movement building and support systems? How can we cultivate an intersectional, “spiritually engaged activism” rooted in yogic philosophy and practice? And how can we achieve this together? Is the model for yoga service currently gaining popularity simply not enough, and how can we radicalize it and decolonize it to be more effective in promoting industry and government changes that ensure greater equity and social justice for everyone?

Some Additional Resources:

[i] “The Black Panthers: Revolutionaries, Free Breakfast Pioneers” by the National Geographic

[ii] “End of the Line: The Women of Standing Rock” via Ic Magazine

[iii] “Just Because You Do ‘Good’ Work Doesn’t Mean You’re a Good Person” by Michael Lee

Save

Inequality, Manners, and the Gross Yoga Body

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

Bodies as Social Signals

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

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

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

Manners, Size, and the Gross Body

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Class Privilege, Elitism, and Yoga

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

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

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

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

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

Embracing the Gross Yoga Body

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

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

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

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

Love, light, and… yoga ❤

poop-infographic-healthworks

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 ❤

Response to: Yoga and Our Bodies

I just saw the article Yoga and Our Bodies: Let’s Cut the Crap and Make Peace with Ourselves published on DoYouYoga, and couldn’t help but write a response. It’s an article that epitomizes a particular type of thinking common in the yoga world, but one that is absolutely incorrect and needs to be turned on it’s head if yoga is going to be a force for social change and empowerment.

I can’t in good conscious recommend people go read the piece because I think it’s that bad, but if you want to check it out follow the link above. The article makes the claim that it was only when yoga became adopted by women in the West that people started to have issues with the type of yoga bodies portrayed. Apparently, according to this article, when men practiced in the past their bodies weren’t scrutinized for being “too thin” or not being representative of yogis as a whole. The author goes on to claim that criticisms of the stereotypical yoga body (thin, female, white, able to do advanced postures) are driven by jealously, that those images should serve as inspiration, and that ultimately the images reflect yogis who have a depth and dedication to the practice that those who critique the images lack.

Hopefully at this point you’re thinking what I’m thinking: Wow! What a load of bull$&^!! Obviously this author is writing from a place of unacknowledged privilege, a misunderstanding of social issues related to yoga and body image, and and oversimplification of yogic history. Let’s unpack some of the problems with this article, talk about why such opinions are so common in the yoga world, and why we need to change our yoga discourse to promote social change.

Problem #1: She completely ignores social and historical circumstance when she talks about yoga history.

I’ve written a great deal about yoga history on my blog, but in general she’s completely ignoring why it was mostly men, and also why they often were thin or practiced in loincloths. At the point in time in yoga history that she’s talking about women were prohibited from practicing because of gender norms prominent at the time. It wasn’t until 1938 that the first woman was accepted as a student at the most prominent yoga school in India and even this early case was exceptional. Indra Devi (previously Eugenie V. Peterson) was a Russian noblewoman, actress, and dancer and became the first woman to learn yoga in India from the prominent yoga guru Krishnamacharya. Devi had traveled to India in 1927, changed her name, and acted in several Indian films. Despite her royal and celebrity status Krishnamacharya still wouldn’t accept her as a student until the Maharaja of Mysore (the man who established and funded his yoga institute) spoke on her behalf. And it wasn’t until decades later that it became acceptable for the average woman to learn the practice; even in America it took the counterculture and feminist movements of the 1960s and 1970s to change gender norms and draw women en masse to yoga.

Yogis prior to the 1900s were often in abject poverty and were usually religious ascetics that underwent a lifestyle characterized by abstinence from worldly pleasures, often for the purpose of pursuing spiritual goals. This meant they often had limited access to food because of poverty or engaged in fasting or other bodily practices that left them quite thin. Such yogis were often stereotyped negatively as dangerous and criminal by the general public both in India and abroad (often with reason, since many yogis were militant and fought against colonialism). So of course individuals weren’t going around wondering, “Where are all the curvy male yogis at? Why are all these yogis so thin? Isn’t this promoting negative body image?”

Making a claim that men weren’t considered in this way in yoga’s past so it doesn’t make sense that women in modern yoga are is anachronistic and doesn’t acknowledge that at the time of history she’s talking about such claims wouldn’t have made sense. And of course she’s also oversimplifying the idea that all yogis were thin men practicing in loincloths, since after the 1900s yoga became tied to physical culture so many male yogis actively worked towards a body common in weight lifting, and numerous prominent yogis of both genders did not have stick-thin body types (including BKS Iyengar’s daughter, Geeta S. Iyengar). Even now, men and women face very different gendered ideal yoga body types, with women facing often unrealistic thinness and minimal muscle definition, while men are faced with the ultra-buff broga stereotype. Both of these gendered ideals are often unattainable for the average practitioner, and are equally problematic for both men and women (I’ll talk about this more in depth in later posts).

c201a585385a837c926bdc09721b5b3e  1cd8a62456365acf140b1d6016fc769c

090eced363cd9327a187c4c56c3cf39c

I think it’s incredibly common in yoga today to promote a variety of myths about the origins of yoga as well as the nature of “authentic,” traditional yoga and yogis. Yoga has been, and still is, polyvocal and multivalent in that it is not any one thing with a set meaning. At all points in the history of yoga there has been immense variation in the practice as well as the people who practice, but we tend to forget or ignore this in modern yoga because to acknowledge it would complicate the origin narrative that is so vital and important to legitimate something as “real” yoga, or someone as a “real” yogi. Ideas of tradition and authenticity are socially created, but they serve as legitimation in modern yoga, delineating between what is real yoga and what is not, or who is a real yogi and who is not. So while most of these ideas of tradition and authenticity are myths, many in the yoga world still give them credence as if they were hard truth. This article is just another example of that mindset. The false assumption is that if men in the past didn’t face denunciations of exclusivity around body image, why should women today? Well, the answer is because it was a different social and historical moment, so it’s not the same thing and we can’t just haphazardly compare the two as if they had the same sociohistorical context. That’s called ethnocentrism, folks.

Problem #2: The assumption that outward appearance of the body or the body’s asana practice reflects the depth of someone’s practice.

I think this is the most problematic and disturbing part of the article. The assumption here is that if you don’t look like a yoga celebrity you aren’t dedicated in your practice, and that being able to do advanced asanas or have a stereotypical “yoga body” means you are more dedicated and committed to yoga than others. There are so many reasons why this is just completely and utterly wrong. First, it’s contradictory with the idea (that the author herself argues!) that yoga is more than just asana. Someone can have a very deep yoga practice without focusing on asana at all, or without being able to do those advanced yoga poses stereotyped in the above images.

Not all bodies will be able to look like that, or do that type of asana practice, and we shouldn’t all equally strive to accomplish that. We need to meet our bodies and our selves where we are at, and love ourselves for what we are capable of doing without injury. Recent discussions in the yoga community on yoga and aging are a great reminder of this. The fact of the matter is, for some people such advanced poses or that body type come more naturally. This doesn’t mean they are more dedicated or have a deeper practice, it means that they have privilege because it’s more accessible and attainable for them. For example, dancers train their bodies from an early age in ways that parallel advanced postural yoga practices, so many times when dancers start doing yoga they are able to enter into advanced postures with more ease despite only practicing for a short time. Does this make them more dedicated? No. Does it mean their practice is deeper? No. It means they have a body that is conditioned to move in a particular way, and that more naturally fits the stereotypical yoga body image. Is it a coincidence that many yoga celebrities were also once dancers or models? (Examples include the controversial Tara Stiles.) I’m pretty sure that it’s not.

In yoga today this assumption that advanced postures or outward appearance reflect the depth, dedication, or authenticity of one’s practice are common. But it’s not true, and creates a system in yoga where people who are naturally able to fit that body type or more easily access those advanced postures get more prestige and status, and are believed to be more authentically “yogic” than many others that might actually be more knowledgeable about yoga or have a more dedicated and deep practice. But because such folks doesn’t “look” like the stereotype or practice advanced postures they aren’t considered “real” yogis. Such a system directly relates to why yoga is dominated by a particular demographic, and why many yogis of alternative body types or identities feel unwelcome and out of place at “traditional” studios. If we want to create more inclusivity in yoga and really live up to ideals that “yoga is welcoming and accessible for everyone” we need to start changing the system, starting with these assumptions that body type or type of practice can be equated with the depth and dedication of one’s practice.

Problem #3: Such imagery is often an illusion anyway.

Many prominent yogis have come out and shared their experiences trying to create such imagery, essentially saying that these images are something of an illusion. Kathryn Budig has given interviews or shared on social media what goes into actually creating such images. The yogis in these images are being photographed every split second, so the images shown usually reflect only a split second of holding these poses, often while they are greased up with oil, under hot lights, and wearing copious amounts of make-up to look good all while doing advanced poses. Sometimes the images are actually Photoshopped to look more amazing than in real life. And really, anyone who has seen this video should understand that the amazing images we see out in the world (including the world of yoga) often don’t reflect the real, everyday practice of yoga celebrities, let alone most yogis.

Problem #4: The article completely disregards and delegitimates the experiences of real practitioners with body image and yoga.

This article also claims to speak for all yogis, and doesn’t acknowledge the voices and experiences of those marginalized in the yoga community. This parallels a problem that was common with the first-wave feminist movement, where white women would claim to speak for all women, regardless of race, ethnicity, or sexual identity. Obviously the experiences of white women in a patriarchal society are very different that the experiences of, for example, black women or queer identified women, and speaking for all of these groups rather than giving each group a voice to share their actual experiences is wrong. The same thing is going on here, where a thinner white woman yogi is speaking for all yogis, regardless of body type, gender, race, or sexual identification, without any real understanding or empathy for the experiences of such yogis.

The article assumes that images of thin women doing advanced poses should only be interpreted as “inspiration,” and claims that people who get upset about such imagery are really secretly jealous. In other words, it tells people what is appropriate for them to think or feel, rather than acknowledging the actual experiences of practioners who have been brave enough to speak out about their interactions with body image and yoga. It assumes all yogis want (or maybe should want?) to look a certain way, and interprets their feelings and desires without actually listening to the real feelings and desires of diverse yogis. This is pretty much a textbook definition of privilege, since it assumes the author’s experience and understanding is the norm, and discounts any experience that might not be shared or understood by the author. Again, the only way we can actually make yoga live up to claims of inclusivity and ideals of being welcoming and accessible to everyone is if we actually listen to everyone, and acknowledge their experiences.

Problem #5: The assumption that regular yoga practice will give someone the stereotypical yoga body.

The article also promotes a common assumption within yoga that “if you practice asana daily, your body will become more toned and lean too,” as if this is a clear cut equation. First, there has been numerous research articles that show that while yoga does help with weight loss, it’s not guaranteed and often has more to do with becoming more mindful of what we eat than that the physical practice itself transforms our bodies. Whether or not yoga will help us become “toned and lean” is completely dependent on the type of practice you have, how often you practice, and ultimately on the type of body you possess and what it is capable of, not to mention your diet. In all likelihood for most people it’s pretty much impossible that they would be able to obtain the stereotypical yoga body, even if they could stop going to work and taking care of their families to do yoga 8 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Some bodies can’t and shouldn’t try to practice more rigorous physical forms of yoga, at least without a great deal of preparation, perhaps lasting decades. For example those dealing with injury, health concerns, or those who are older probably shouldn’t practice in the way that would be required to obtain the stereotypical yoga body. Yet in yoga, despite claims that “yoga is more than asana” this is often completely ignored. Recent discussions of yoga and aging draw attention to the fact that our goals in yoga have to shift depending on the body we have now, and what our bodies and minds are capable of in this moment. Adjusting our goals in this way is the heart of mindfulness and self-love, and should be celebrated not ignored or degraded as a lack of dedication.

Problem #6: Gender essentialism that assumes women are naturally better at yoga than men.

The author of this article is also promoting a very common idea in yoga, gender essentialism, when she is making the claim that “women are naturally more flexible than men.” While it’s true that by the time we are older many women are more flexible than men, this is by no means natural or based in biology. It’s because men aren’t encouraged to move in the same ways women are throughout their young lives, so by the time men are older they have focused so much on building strength (per ideals of masculinity) that they often aren’t as flexible as their female counterparts (who are encouraged to be sexy and flexible as part of ideals of femininity).

Ideas of gender essentialism, that men and women are biologically different and complementary in terms of their bodies and also their desires, interests, and needs, is not true. While there are some biological sex differences between men and women, most gender differences are actually because of different socialization throughout our lives. In other words, gender difference is socially constructed rather than natural or biological. Ideas of gender essentialism abound in yoga, and often result yoga being highly feminized and heterosexualized, both trends that contribute to men (and queer identified individuals) feeling unwelcome or out of place in yoga. If we truly want to make yoga more inclusive, we need to stop believing in gender difference and promote a form of yoga that is accessible and welcome for everyone (for real).

In Conclusion:

I’m not trying to target the author of this article, and I think she made a valiant if failed attempt to talk about an issue that she clearly cares deeply about. But this article illustrates so many misconceptions in the yoga world at large that groups like the Yoga & Body Image Coalition are trying to address and ultimately contributes to the exclusivity and inaccessibility of yoga, as well as various forms of inequality within the yoga world. Not to mention it’s co-opting the body positive movement to promote body hate. Yoga is a practice of mindfulness, and mindfulness requires deep understanding that promotes empathy, something this article is lacking and that honestly is often lacking in the mainstream yoga community. To try and overcome this, how about we start by actually listening to and valuing the experiences of real yogis with body image, no matter how uncomfortable the reality might make some of us who experience privilege in the yoga world feel. Being called out on our privilege is not a pleasant experience, but it is a necessary one, and I think one that will enable yoga to be a force for social change and equality on and off the mat.

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 ❤