New pregnancy yoga class!

I have been practicing yoga since 1997 and teaching since 2000. I specialise in applying fluid, functional asana (poses), pranayama (breathwork) and yoga nidra (embodied meditation) to all areas of women’s lives: fertility and conception, menstrual health, pregnancy, birth preparation, postnatal recovery and the later postnatal phases, and the menopause and beyond.

I teach classes, workshops and private sessions to women and their partners, and teach and advise on my areas of expertise on yoga training courses. I also run bespoke training courses and mentorships (increasingly online). I have trained with the major providers of women’s yoga that I consider to offer sensitive, ethical, clear ways of approaching the female body (the Active Birth Centre with whom I completed an extensive apprenticeship, Birthlight, Womb Yoga and the Yoga Nidra Network), and this has intersected with my many years of daily practice to allow me to offer individualised teaching within a group setting.

I’m delighted to be teaching a new pregnancy/active birth yoga class at the Open Door, and look forward to sharing practical techniques to navigate the demands and delights of parenthood in ways that honour the wisdom of the female body, yoga’s traditions, and modern knowledge.

Fuck Your Neoliberal Yoga: Selling Yoga and Selling Ourselves in the Digital Age Part 2

 

Thank you to Satish K Sharma.

“If Google is the engine that drives the internet, personal information is the oil that makes it purr … What began as a hopeful, democratic mission to make the internet free for all in the 1990s has, when fed through the late capitalist mincer, resulted in a digital economy that runs on microtransactions of identity” – excerpt from an article in The Guardian, May 2018

 

In Part 1 of this piece, I drew attention to some aspects of the workings of the yoga marketplace and how they might impact upon teaching and practicing yoga. I contended that the creation of yoga niches and the relentless sharing of personal experience that now characterise the industry are perfect examples of neoliberal capitalism in the digital age. In this second half, I continue my exploration, looking at the ways we present our yoga self to the world, and considering traditional methods of yoga transmission for perspective.

@ (1).jpg

It’s probably very difficult, if not impossible, to enter the yoga teaching industry nowadays without having to expend at least the same amount of time and energy on marketing as you do your actual yoga practice. (Established teachers may simply pay someone else to do it for them.) At least to some degree – and you may engage in this without knowing or naming it as such – you have to create a yoga product to sell. Even though yoga is above all a process, and a process does not easily lend itself to being neatly packaged and attractively presented, offered up to all takers, most of us presume that we have to engage in this process in order to participate.

Because part of the mechanism of the marketplace is to blind us to its workings, we can fall into making yoga into a product without knowing. Commerce is so ubiquitous as to be a social behavioural patterning: as a default setting, we are powerfully conditioned to replicate its modes of operation even with (perhaps especially with) things we treasure, and even if we consider ourselves avowedly anti-capitalist. Teaching what is relevant to our modern lives within the context of modern life and its trappings is a tremendously difficult balance to strike. And god only knows how one goes about navigating one’s realisations about these issues if we’re already paying a mortgage and supporting dependants through our yoga profits. (It can be done. Honesty helps; here’s how one teacher approaches this.) But I want to make a plea here – remind you, if you prefer, of your human rights – to not commodify absolutely everything. Quaint, I know.

Because it turns out, you see, that the endless self-promotion, marketing and networking in the name of “sharing yoga” might also be the creation and cultivation of a yoga-practicing and/or-teaching persona. And, that this might function as a mask more readily than it presents our genuine experience of yoga. As that character acquires status and market power (students, wealth), we become more and more required to perform that character, and to carefully curate her/him and his/her presentation to the world (real and digital) in ways that might, in the end, be deeply damaging to both us and to what yoga becomes through us.

Emma Bonanno, reading Foucault on power and institutions, contends that social media platforms are inherently restricted as regards the potential for presenting a “true”, whole “you”. A Medium article entitled “Instagram Basics for Yoga Teachers” says it even more plainly:

You are a three-dimensional human being with a broad range of interests, opinions, and emotions. However, if you let all of that run rampant in your posts, you’ll dilute your personal brand as a yoga teacher.

For yoga practitioners and teachers, this intersects with fascinating questions about whether we can brand authenticity; whether there even is such a thing, and whether it is inseparable from marketing to such an extent that it doesn’t really exist as we in modern-day yogaland would perhaps like to believe it does. Although we might hold yoga innovators such as Vivekananda, Krisnamacharya and BKS Iyengar in higher regard than, say, John Friend of Anusara over-reach infamy, or franchises such as Moksha Yoga or Lush Tums teacher trainings, it’s clear that such luminaries also engaged in deliberate promotion of their “authentic” yoga in the form of lecture tours, book deals, and influential employment. In some ways there is little difference, other than the means of engagement and the platforms utilised, between the entrepreneurship of the famous old masters and the familiar 2018 yoga hustle.

But deeper than this, I think that regardless of whether we engage with social media as a marketing tool or prefer to stick to photocopied flyers and attractive patter, there is a very real possibility that in making yoga a product, especially if this is intimately tied to our own personal practice, we not only blur the lines between public and private in ways that might have as-yet unknowable consequences down the line, but we also blur the lines between the practicing self, the teaching self, the teaching product, and the self as product. If we sell our practice, how can we be sure we do not sell ourselves as product?

For those of us not held within lineage, and who are more or less reliant upon our local communities, peers, kulas and sanghas to provide support and accountability – communities which have at most a few decades of experience in navigating the ever-shifting terrain between personal and public, and which are themselves subject to the same pressures of capitalism and the same steep learning curves that accompany the digital age – how can we be sure that we are not offering up for public consumption that which is deeply intimate and private? Is yoga practice not primarily personal, bound up with our individual internal world? Is yoga not an experience of interiority first and foremost without which we are buffeted around by the whims of the world? What does it become once it is always and forever on display, at the mercy of those very whims? Do we even care at this point?

By building a personal brand based on personal practice experience, we also create a commodified self. My online feeds are full of shiny-haired marketing experts offering me the opportunity to learn (read: pay for expertise in) how to create “a brand called you”, my “best version” of myself, how to “leverage my life”. Some of these are odious and silly, others slicker and more attractive. There are politically-savvy, socially-engaged folk such as Kelly Diels who regularly writes about her astute insights on how to align our marketing with our personal politics in the form of, for instance, “feminist marketing tips” and “a feminist fix for your “about” page”. While at first glance this seems laudable, we should question whether this effectively undermines the inherent capitalist thrust of packaging up our experience, or merely ties us more invisibly and therefore tightly to the marketplace. The fact that we are engaged in creating a self-product to be bought and sold is obscured.

Now, this is not palatable to most yogafolk, but sociologists and political scientists have long noted that commodification is a classic device of neoliberalism. In this schema, the self, and the relationship to both the private self and the public, self-in-the-world, are constructed in highly specific ways. An essential part of its mechanism is promoting the notion that everything is a resource, including our most personal, intimate experiences. In fact, in a world hungry for novelty, the more intimate and raw the better. In yogaland, we call this “authenticity”.

kitten yoga (1).jpg

(Note re image: a few days into this blog being online, I am aware that it is getting quite a lot of attention. I took the photo from a public Instagram account which I consider epitomises the phenomenon of visual displays of intimacy being used as a powerful marketing tool. The cat head was added to anonymise the woman. Thanks to all who contacted me and commented on what became a rather more startling image than I intended!)

The normalisation of a yoga self available for consumption in the marketplace, and then rewarded by that marketplace in the form of students, followers, facebook likes (and blog comments!) forms a closed loop in which the tethering of the self to the product becomes invisible – and therefore impossible to critique. We see this at work in the regular online spats between yoga teachers. (Of course, as the lines between “real” and digital become increasingly blurred, real-life conflict often spills over into the virtual realm, too, and vice versa.) When a teacher’s public image is tied to their brand, the fact that that brand necessarily exists in the uncertain territory between private and public, and is very often both at the same time, makes it very difficult to engage in any kind of constructive conversation about what they are teaching – their product.

Given that so much of modern yoga is determinedly severed from lineage, we might think that critical and self-reflective dialogue is inevitable as we all try to work it out as we go along. We might also think that by engaging in this kind of peer support network (as opposed to the vertical power structures that are presumed to characterise traditional yoga, and which modern yoga often explicitly wants to move away from), our discussions and debates should even be fruitful. But what tends to happen is that teachers – here I use the term loosely, to include yoga commentators, academics and “thought leaders”, as well as those who regularly document their yoga progress online – become so attached to their product, because it performs their authentic personal experience, that conversations about the product are also about them as private individuals. Therefore, any critique is viewed through the lens of product-as-self, and is taken as personal attack, if not by the individual her/himself, then by students or supporters. As well as making it very difficult to engage in any kind of meaningful discussion (including ones about this very issue), and it also means that the “winners” are those who are structurally advantaged in the first place. Those with the economic stability behind them to engage in sustained online conversations, rather than those who are continually dashing out of the door to teach their next class in order to cover the rent; those with large social media followings and student bodies and/or yoga cultural cache – these are the determinants of who controls the online yoga narratives.

Yoga-Like-Us-Button.jpg

Many of us studying the history and geo-politics of yoga as part of our practice have a keen interest in understanding where we stand as regards the guru/student relationship. Historically, this was an integral part of the methodology of yoga transmission. In some circles it has been getting a bad rap for a good while, but fuelled by larger tides of social change, yogaland is currently undergoing a systematic dethroning of an astonishing number of its beloved teachers. To be clear – I believe that we absolutely should all work to bring to light the appalling abuse that has occurred within the traditional guru/student model, and the abuse, exploitation and heavy-handed wielding of power that Westerners who fall or step into the guru role all too often perpetrate.

Of course, yoga, to be effective – we might say to be yoga at all – has to be relevant, and it is inevitable that in its waves of expansion and contraction, it will lose some elements and gain others. Yoga has always done this anyway, showing up in particular cultures and at particular historical junctures in different forms, manifesting in specific ways. So on the one hand, it is entirely appropriate that we interrogate the guru-student relationship, assessing its suitability, safety and relevance for our modern lives. But – if, at the same time as stripping out some of yoga’s elements, we do not then replace them with something workable, sustainable, and grounded in the reality of – here’s a radical suggestion – actual yoga, it seems to me that a void will open up. And in that space, our most hidden conditioning will kick in, and we’ll call it “freedom”, “safety” and “modernity”. All sorts of ideas and beliefs find a foothold in this shadowy place, and yoga starts to get organised around them. In short, by deconstructing traditional yoga supports and frameworks such as guru-student in order to bring them in line with our modern sensibilities, we might be opening up a dangerous space for the ultimate sacred cow – free market ideology – to become the new authority. Yoga, simultaneously emancipated and unmoored by its decoupling from cultural specificity, its gatekeepers thoroughly demonised, becomes subject to our most invisible, insidious dominant norms. And so the most saleable ideas become yoga’s guiding principles. Those with market clout become the new gurus. Suddenly yoga is all about fascia, or biomechanics, and it has a whole host of new gurus, happy to take up that mantle when it applies to their particular area of expertise rather than fusty old Indians.

There is a marked modern proclivity towards trashing traditional yoga teaching relationships that is troubling on many levels. To reiterate – we must be unstinting in our efforts to uproot power structures that enable abuse, and we must hold those responsible to account, and interrogate how we might uphold dominator-paradigm dynamics within our own yoga communities. However, it’s not clear to me how this justifies the systematic diminishment of the guru-student relationship, especially when it also seems to involve the keepers of the yoga flame being replaced by imperious Westerners with minimal direct experience of such matters. There are surely at least as many healthy and productive guru-student dyads as there are appalling cases of manipulation and exploitation; the fact that we hear far more about the latter says as much about our own proclivities than it does the bare facts. Just because the internet is not a-buzz with accounts of yoga students happily receiving teachings within a traditional framework doesn’t mean they are not happening. Moral imperatives do not mean that we need to undertake a pre-emptive rescue mission on the behalf of Western students who might, apparently, find themselves entangled within a cult or a dupe of the right-wing nationalist Hindu project without it.

Quite why all of this isn’t seen as grossly entitled neo-colonialism surprises me. It seems both entangled within but wanting to set itself apart from the uneasy relationship between the West and India. It begs the question of quite who, if anyone, is qualified to undertake such delicate and nuanced work, especially on the behalf of others. The tendency also intersects uncomfortably with other problems in the yoga industry. Systemic, ingrained racism and Hinduphobia take many forms, from our chronic inability as white folk to look at how we might benefit from these, and therefore have no impetus to uphold or amplify Indian voices and authority, right through to feeling we have the right to right to present the multiplicity of student-guru relationships in ways that suit our agenda and bank balance.

I think it’s safe to say that none of us outside of the system are in a position to comment with authority on guru-student relationships, and that includes me. It’s also clear that as is par for the course within yoga in India, its forms and manifestations are far too numerous and divergent to be effectively captured within a blog post. The impossibility of pinning the phenomenon down notwithstanding, simply for the purposes of highlighting aspects of the formulation of the Western yoga self, perhaps we can make a number of broad generalisations. For instance: within some traditional teaching relationships, a student was expected to undertake the process of determining a teacher’s suitability for him or herself, and would not devote him or herself to a teacher without due diligence. (Texts exist to help students make the relevant assessments.) A teacher would assess a student’s suitability and readiness to receive teachings at the same time. Teacher and student would therefore engage in a mutually supportive and satisfying relationship, within which the time-honoured teachings of yoga would be preserved, at the same time as being honed and refined for that specific relationship. The individual guru-student relationship would form the newest link in a chain of transmission stretching back through the particular lineage, intersecting with other lineages along the way, both immersing and locating the student in a web of connection.

Never having had the privilege to study at source, I have only vague ideas about the workings of parampara, the student-guru relationship and oral transmission. Some will no doubt say I’m naïve. Nonetheless, I’m pretty sure that the truth, at least for most practitioners, lies somewhere in vast territory between guru-as-saint and guru-as-despicable-abuser. This polarisation seems emblematic of Western modes of thinking in itself; its insistence on categorisation, on either/or, and its discomfort with both/and. And I am confident that despite the current onslaught of stories of abuse and exploitation that the system, and its Western copiers, has enabled, traditional methods of yogic transmission can also act as a crucible for experiencing, understanding and teaching yoga in ways that offer a radically different relationship to the self from the dominant Western one. The Self as discoverable in relationship, self as relationship, self embedded within community, self guided by another through careful, respectful, mature, reciprocal teaching, not to “be its best self” but to uncover the true nature of self: these are very different experiences to those of the tight little bundle of I-ness at the centre of the world fostered by modern yoga culture.

And so here’s the thing that I want to scream every time I see yet another heinous yoga mashup, yet another new training on the block advertised with yawn-inducing imagery and shallow new age pop culture, all owing something to their existence to and dependent upon the glorification and gratification of Western selfhood. Yoga is and always has been primarily concerned with the true nature of selfhood and its relationship to reality.

As a quick introduction to this topic which I explore in Part 3: I could pick any number of pithy quotes from the Bhagavad Gita, which states clearly in numerous places that yoga is a practice of self-understanding.  “Yoga is the journey of the Self, through the Self, to the Self” (6 20). The Gita, of course, is based in an understanding of yoga as a spiritual practice, and so perhaps doesn’t speak to modern Western practitioners, lovers as we are of asana, and ever more mistrustful of religious trappings as we are being conditioned to become by the Western yoga industry. So let’s turn briefly to Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, which even the most perfunctory teacher training at least nods to. Edwin Bryant, in his translation and commentary, states that it is a text “concerned with realization of the true self” (pg 188). Alistair Shearer’s translation and commentary, which has a definite Buddhist flavour, speaks of “the quest for the Self” (and Yoga and the Quest for the True Self is the title of Stephen Cope’s Vedanta-, Western-psychology-influenced 2001 book). My first introduction to yoga philosophy came in the form of Iyengar’s translation-commentary, which one the very first page posits “self” and its “shape or form as ‘I’” as the central concern of the yogic project.

Modern-day yoga culture, however, has certain factors within it, and has entangled with certain others (social media, visual culture, celebrity culture, the entertainment industry, the wellness industry) which obscure and distort this central concern. Further, they simultaneously construct the self, and the relationship to that self, in highly specific, sometimes conflicting ways. And it turns out that every single one of the ways that modern-day yoga culture encourages the view and experience of the self is in direct opposition to the nature of the self according to classical Yoga, which, let’s remember, is supposed to bring us freedom from suffering.

In Part 3 of this piece, I look at yoga’s philosophy and ethics, and how this provides us with tools to locate and make sense of our selfhood. This is used to illuminate the restrictive and dissociative yoga “self” neoliberal capitalism demands of us. I also consider ways in which we might integrate anything herein we find resonant, both at the level of the individual practitioner/teacher and as members of our yoga communities.

 

 

Fuck Your Neoliberal Yoga: Selling Yoga and Selling Ourselves in the Digital Age Part 1

With gratitude and thanks to James Russell.

“We must not always talk in the marketplace of what happens to us in the forest” Nathaniel Hawthorne

Image result

When I did my original teacher training, it was possible to imagine a future making a modest living as a yoga teacher in the UK. But the mushrooming, unregulated industry means that this is no longer viable, and it seems everyone needs a niche to teach yoga nowadays. Yoga for stress relief, yoga for cancer survivors, teenagers and depression; yoga informed by biomechanics, neuroscience, trauma awareness and psychotherapy; yoga foregrounding students’ relationship with their gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity and body size/shape. And: yoga with kittens, goats, rabbits, dogs, wine, marijuana, chocolate, chicken nuggets, cellos, harps and guns; yoga in the airport, in a supermarket, in the snow, in a spa, in a rave, in a salt cave; yoga in designer clothes, yoga in no clothes … the spectrum of what yoga has become in popular understanding, and the heights of innovation and creativity or the depths of appropriation and disrespect, depending on your perspective, that it has reached, are frankly mind-boggling.

On a charitable day, I’m able to remember that in each of these niches, whatever we may think of them, are real human beings, often doing their damnedest to balance the need to make a living with teaching what they believe to be true to the spirit of yoga insofar as that is what they have themselves encountered. In a less generous mood, I confess to viewing the folk teaching things such as puppy yoga and beer yoga as caricatures, emblematic of the open secret that is the utter lunacy of yogalalaland. And yet, I get it. I trained as a yoga teacher, then a pregnancy yoga teacher, then a postnatal yoga teacher, then a fertility yoga teacher, then a women’s yoga therapist … niches within niches dictated as much by the expansion of the outer circle of niches within my locale, as by my interest in the subjects themselves.

It seems that fewer and fewer teachers are able to get by in the West by teaching “just” yoga. It’s difficult to know how much this is due to the niche market – not least the flood of yoga mashups – and how much the specialisations are due to the over-saturated teaching industry in the first place. What is clear is that the scrabble to attract students affects us all, teachers and students alike. It is also clear that the proliferation of niche yoga is part and parcel of the spread of the capitalist mindset. Can’t get by on your “just yoga” class? Try adding some gardening. Or swimming. Whatever it takes, right?

Many people are fond nowadays of some variation on the idea that “yoga is whatever you want it to be”. Whether this is the product of actual ignorance or is merely yoga doublethink – “I teach yoga; I’ve added some weight-lifting to this class, but because I am a yoga teacher, it is still yoga” – what it means, of course, is that the whims of our students, now recast as consumers, are the drivers of what yoga is becoming.

Because the marketplace has such a huge influence on what is taught as yoga, teachers have to create an appealing, marketable product. In an age when it is no longer anything like enough to simply set up classes to ensure students, yoga needs to be desirable. No matter that you are teaching from a solid practice foundation, and that you can trace the minutiae of what and how you teach back to genius teachers who also learnt from exceptional, committed teacher practitioners. If just down the road someone is running classes from a background of minimal practice experience, but fresh from a quick-fire teacher training, replete with gung ho optimism and a strong social media presence plus saleable yoga product, who do you think is going to draw the students? If only three people come to our traditional kriya and pranayama class, but twice that seem tremendously excited by the idea of some yoga-y shapes with a nice glass of wine and a bit of a social after savasana, well, it takes either a certain type of person, perhaps someone with absolutely no concerns about their financial situation, to stick with the former. (Anecdotally, in my experience, it is usually those with a solid practice history, especially if they are engaged in reciprocal, accountable relationships with teachers, who are most likely to fall into the former grouping.) And witness the peculiar phenomenon of social media celebrities who, having garnered thousands of followers, embark on a teacher training and then capitalise on their audience. Through the lens of “teaching yoga”, this is effectively a ready-made student base.

I’ve been told many times during my teaching years to “build it and they will come”, “just show up and teach”, “just do you”. And while there might be truth here, this is also the neoliberal market-based mindset in a nutshell. The cream does not always rise to the top in a society that indoctrinates all its members into individualistic, entitled thinking, and concurrently (largely invisibly) stratifies society so that the resources to actually act on this are only selectively available. And let’s make no mistake here – every single one of us operates from this basis. Every single one of us has the sickness of late capitalism raging through our veins, infecting the way we feel, the way we think, the way we relate – including to yoga, both practicing and teaching.

Or do you think you’re exempt? Do you think the purity of your love for yoga and your burning desire to share it insulates you from, or magically removes, this most insidious of conditioning?

Perhaps the invisibility of neoliberal capitalism, which is to say its triumph over other modes of societal structure, its seamless meshing with similarly oppressive structures (patriarchy, racism, heteronormativity) and its concurrent stealthy advance into every area of our lives, is one of the reasons that it is hard to see the proliferation of niches within yoga for what they are – a perfect example of capitalism at work. In diversifying as a yoga teacher, you may be acting as a good little capitalist unit as well as serving a specific population’s needs. (There are arguments to be made too that although it suits the yoga mindset well to view ourselves as simply wanting to benefit our students and being in service to them, it might be equally accurate to see the creation of a particular student body as entrepreneurship.) The more niches created, the more the possibility of commerce increases, and the more ideology of buying and selling prevails. More unnecessary products are created. The commerce around yoga builds.

Except … yoga itself … well, yoga’s not product.

Much has been written in recent years about the commodification of yoga, including tracing its history, its winners and losers, and whether it matters at all. It’s a complex issue, encapsulating many other hot-button subjects, and I don’t pretend to be able to add much to the plethora of excellent commentary on the topic. I can, however, write from my perspective as a practitioner. And from that perspective, I hope I can speak to all yoga teachers. Because if you are not a student of the practice first and foremost, and you identify more as a teacher than a practitioner, I humbly suggest that your attachment to your yogic identity might mean that capitalism has you in its teeth more than you think.

Image result

I was taught to “teach from my practice”. This makes sense on some levels. Especially in a world where teachers are accepted onto trainings with minimal, sometimes nothing in the way of personal practice, it could operate as a strategy to sift the good from the bad, the experienced (who, yes, I believe in most cases should by right have the lion’s share of the market) from the gung-ho newbie. But it is also deeply problematic. My original training was, like so many at that time, a new venture for my teacher, who saw an opportunity to create a yoga community and a business combined. And so like many others, my training, although offered in what was undoubtedly a spirit of generosity, was hopelessly disconnected from effective, time-tested modes of transmission. We were your classic modern school, cut adrift from both cumbersome heritage and bothersome red tape. We thought we were at liberty to take what worked. In fact, we thought that being able to take what we wanted – which looks a lot like exploitation, neocolonialism and flat-out privilege from a 2018 perspective – was a marker of that freedom … and that that freedom was “yoga”. We were influenced by a little bit of tantra, a smidgeon of Vedanta, a whole lot of Iyengar; by well-meaning immaturity, and the required large dash of arrogance that allowed us to disregard what appeared irrelevant (brahmacharya!), and to dismiss unethical behaviour and trust that we would learn how to handle the complexities of human beings along the way. There were no checks, no balances, no critical friends, not even any visiting tutors. Power was concentrated at the top despite lip service about peer support, community and sangha. The only thing I really had to draw upon was my own practice. I was encouraged to view this as the laboratory within which I explored yoga. Which, so long as I remained aware that this was only one body, with a highly specific history, subject to specific environmental influences, and therefore didn’t extrapolate too much from the data, might not be that problematic.

Except that it is. Because my practice is not for sale.

What happens to me in the forest; where I wander in the lands of the body and consciousness exploration, is not your business. I might find some gems there. I might choose to impart some of this hard-won wisdom, when appropriate, to students. And, I am grateful to the travellers, the psychonauts in the diverse regions of my life; the artists and the story-tellers. I am especially grateful to the yoga mapmakers. But I do not, will not, offer up my most intimate, tender experiences to a rapacious market that has no actual function other than to perpetuate itself. You won’t find pictures online of me with my toddlers suckling in eka pada rajakapotasana. Because although those moments happened, and although my parenting evolved from my embodied understanding of yoga as relationship, and is guided more by the principles of yama than the latest parenting expert, my children are not my yoga accessories. Equally, you won’t find me selling my marriage or my friendships in the form of workshops on “the yoga of sex/communication/relationships” or using the growth in self-awareness that those relationships have given me to market palatable (neo)tantric concepts and their therapeutic applications. You won’t find me mining the depths of my intimate relationships, or the secrets of my heart, using that intimacy as a signifier of “authenticity”, to hook students. Yes, I write a blog, and I occasionally teach yoga. But my personal dramas, my joys and tragedies, are not assets to be turned into a coherent (conveniently saleable) journey to self-knowledge and self-empowerment for others to find #soinspirational. Because these things are sacred to me.

We live in a world where it has become completely normal, utterly acceptable, to document every single tiny detail of our lives. But how did we arrive at the point where we think that nothing is lost through this? The idea of preserving that which is intimate, personal and potentially tremendously powerful is hardly new. The Hatha Yoga Pradipika, for instance, says

The yogi who is desirous of attaining success … should keep the knowledge of hatha yoga very secret. It will be potent when it is kept secret and ineffective when publically revealed. (I 11)

And the Siva Samhita says

This yoga-sastra [doctrine of yoga] … is to be kept secret; and must be revealed only to those … who are sincere devotees. (I 19)

But somewhere within the last ten years, the common (but not unproblematic) practice of using asana photos to market your work as a teacher turned into a veritable avalanche of apparently everyone who practices yoga “sharing the practice” in this way. Of course, social media users who happen to fit the narrow beauty standards of the day (and sometimes those who explicitly pit themselves against them) are financially rewarded for this behaviour, in the form of lucrative clothing deals, ambassadorships, travel and teaching opportunities. Perhaps the loss of some kinds of freedom feels like a fair trade in these cases. But, deeper than this, how does it actually feel to live in this time of apparent boundless expansion? Do you really want to post that video of you in handstand? What happens when your post, your blog, your class, has less likes, less takers, than you secretly think you’re owed? Is it possible that believing you’re owed anything in the first place is a function of the relentless offering-up of your life that the yoga marketplace requires of you? Did you actually sign up for this, or are you just doing it because it’s “normal”? (If you did sign up, was it clear what you were signing up to?) What happens to us when we buy into this ostensible liberation; what is gained, what is lost?

What happens to yoga when, rather than learning or studying it, we consume it, and as part of our consumption we make it a thing for others to consume in turn?

I know, I’m not exempt. I am not outside of this dynamic, occupying some authentically yogic position; I cannot claim any kind of moral high ground. What I do have is an interest in, and a growing concern for what happens to us as yoga practitioners, as yoga teachers, as human beings, within the simultaneous yoga industry squeeze and the digital media explosion that makes the former appear an expansion. I have a care for how this feels at the level of our precious human bodies, how it impacts us when we’re alone on our mats. I suspect it structures our identities in highly specific ways. I’m increasingly convinced that we pay a heavy price by lending the yoga marketplace our energy, and that the seeming freedom it grants us is also working to structure our yoga relationships and communities in ways that might pull counter to what yoga actually is.

In parts 2 and 3 of this piece, which I will publish over the coming month, I explain this contention. I look at the construction of the self within social and digital media and the yoga marketplace, and how this might intersect with practicing and teaching yoga. I look at the ways that yoga has traditionally been transmitted in order to provide context. I also turn to yoga’s philosophy and ethics. This is used to illuminate the restrictive and dissociative yoga “self” formulated in neoliberal capitalism, and to consider ways in which we might integrate anything herein we find resonant, both at the level of the individual practitioner/teacher and as members of our yoga communities.

Part 2 is here

 

Embodiment II – Pratyahara and the Soft Fascination of the Body

p1080146

 

“All that is gold does not glitter

Not all those who wander are lost” JRR Tolkien, Lord of the Rings 

 

“Soft fascination” is a term coined in 1989 by environmental psychologists Rachel and Stephen Kaplan. It draws upon philosopher, educator and psychologist William James’ distinction between two different types of attention. What James called “voluntary attention”, also referred to by the Kaplans as directed attention, describes a mode of concentration in which the mind has a specific task. In order to maintain that concentration, will or force is required to sustain one’s application through interruptions or other external factors which might otherwise disrupt the mental direction. The key word here is effort. In contrast, “involuntary attention” is essentially passive, requiring no willpower or exertion to sustain it. Involuntary attention refers to the human bodymind’s ability to become captivated by external stimuli, and is not elicited purely by intention.

The Kaplans’ work focused upon finding a balance between the two types of attention in order to heal a mind exhausted by the demands of directed attention, which they found (and which is instinctively corroborated by our own experience) is an inevitable side effect of existing within urban and work environments. (We might add digital milieu to the mix nowadays.) They called this balance “attention restoration”, and within Attention Restoration Therapy (ART), developed by the Kaplans and others, one of the key concepts is that of soft fascination.

Before I describe this intriguing term and how it might apply to our yoga practice, it’s worth noting that these two types of attention might be used to broadly categorise types of yoga. Perhaps some call for the engagement of attention more strictly than others, and perhaps there is a relationship between this and the typical outcomes for students. Ashtanga vinyasa students, for instance, develop concentration through the tristana method – movement (including the bandhas) yoked to breath and gaze. “Vinyasa” itself is composed of the Sanskrit words “vi” and “nyasa”. Vinyasa commonly means “sequence” nowadays, but it is more accurately translated as something along the lines of “to place in a special, deliberate way”. The tantrik practice of nyasa itself, concerned as it was with installing the specific energies of deities through students visualising them at particular points on and in their bodies, required practitioners to develop and refine powerful concentration abilities. So we could say that some forms of yoga, whether they work predominantly with the annamaya kosha (the physical body) or the manomaya kosha (the mental/emotional body), require directed attention. Attention is tethered and asked to rest in a series of pre-determined places, and to be a student of the practice is also to be a student of the placements.

Similarly, perhaps there are more permissive yoga styles in which the practice is primarily noticing, opening to, and including or incorporating that which might otherwise be understood as distraction. Perhaps attention does not need to be fixed or yoked in the same unwavering fashion in forms such as yin, or other gentle styles; and perhaps this might have more in common with involuntary attention, allowing time and space for working with whatever is currently arising within the bodymind. Even the dreaded goat, kitten, and bunny yoga, and “doga” (dogs + yoga, duh), though they can hardly be termed styles in their own right, are, by encouraging students into a pleasant somatic experience, prioritising involuntary attention. (Whether that is intended to lead towards the practice of yoga is debateable.) At the far end of the spectrum here is Judith Lasater, originator and queen of restorative yoga, who currently recommends that teachers “avoid the trap of believing you are not giving your students enough if you are just sitting with them … Trust the silence” (from Restore and Rebalance). The asana itself is considered powerful/potent enough in and of itself to still the fluctuations of the mind, hence the directive to “trust the pose. Trust your students”.

At first glance it might seem that the eight-limbed path codified by Patanjali will always lend itself most readily to voluntary/directed attention. Therefore any effective yoga style we can think of, from the most physically demanding ashtanga vinyasa to the most mentally challenging meditation, should by rights be readily classified as requiring directed attention. Even the less obviously restrictive types, those which might seem to align more easily with involuntary attention, carry expectations and requirements as much as does, say, vinyasa flow. They might be less obvious, and slower, but they are present nonetheless, and perhaps all the more oppressive for being unspoken. And perhaps this is only right; perhaps yoga has to be with this way because of the scattered nature of our minds. No translation of the Yoga Sutras of which I’m aware does not explicitly address the tendency for the mindstream to waver (sutra I 2).

The Sutras offer a coherent and sequential model to guide practitioners towards steadiness of attention.  The first two limbs, the yamas and niyamas, prepare us for settling within formal practice by directing us to establish an ethical life. That formal practice in the form of asana and pranayama, limbs three and four, can encompass and lead to sense withdrawal, concentration and meditative states, limbs five to seven, leading eventually to direct realisation, the eighth limb. Patanjali’s Sutras refer to samyama, the blending of one-pointed concentration (dharana) with what sutra III 2 calls “a steady, continuous flow of attention” – meditation (dhyana) – and profound, deep, meditative, transformational states (samadhi).

There is tremendous effort implied in all of this, as anyone from a complete novice to a seasoned practitioner will attest. The Sutras make this explicit by using terms such as “steadfast effort” (I 13) and “burning zeal” (II 1) (depending on your translation, various levels of harshness are implied!). They categorise practitioners as “mild, average or keen” (I 22), and exhort us to remember that styana (mental laziness or stagnation), alasya (idleness or fatigue), and anavasthitatvani (lack of perseverance) are obstacles on the path (all from sutra I 30). Indeed, we are reminded, “the goal is near for those who are supremely vigorous and intense in practice” (I 21, transl Iyengar. Incidentally, it is interesting to compare this with other translations such as Desikachar’s which includes “faith” as part of the intensity required, and Alistair Shearer’s, who simply renders this sutra “it is near for those who ardently desire it”! Edwin Bryant translates this as “intense application”, and Chip Hartranft uses the phrase “seek[ing] liberation wholeheartedly”).

Despite the famous description of yoga as “effortless effort” (actually a misapplication, as it is in fact only asana that is described in this way, in sutra II 47), what has been called modern postural yoga certainly demands some effort. Breathe this way, making this sound, inhaling and then exhaling for exactly this long. Stand with big toes together, big toes and heels touching, ankles in line with each other; tighten the knees, pull the kneecaps upwards and tighten the quads, compress the hips and tighten the buttocks. Focus your gaze on this point, then move it here as your body assumes this shape. Hold this shape for this amount of time, and then move into this shape for this amount of time. If we add to this the hyper-stimulation that attends many group classes – the gaudy clothes, the sheer number of people in the room, the music, and in some spaces, the searing heat –  then we are truly in the realm of voluntary attention, where the task in hand – concentration and skilful action as a result of that – is basically at odds with the environment in which it occurs. We live in a “directed” society in which even our “involuntary” attention times are scheduled and prescribed within the larger “direction”: yoga culture mirrors that.

So, tapas, you might counter: fervour and zeal! Concentrate, apply yourself, follow your teacher’s instructions! The mind is a drunken wild monkey, a wild forest elephant, and our ability to concentrate is ruined by social media nowadays! And indeed I cannot and have no wish to argue that this is not an integral part of yoga; and yet …. Perhaps it’s a personality issue, perhaps it’s an immaturity in me, perhaps it’s a fundamental laziness on my part, but all this effort makes me exhausted before I’ve even begun. I don’t do well with trying to engage my body, my awareness, my heart, with what feels like a sledgehammer to these delicate, infinitely sensitive instruments. My years of daily personal practice have definitely honed my ability to apply myself, to commit myself, to both hold on with tenacity and to let go with grace. I do this in life and I learn how to do it in formal practice. But I do not do it by crowding my mind with the white noise of breath, by fitting myself into the mould of the predetermined gaze points of dristhi, the precise angles of my limbs and joints of asana. I need nuance and space, investigation and exploration. I need relationship. I don’t want the product so much as an understanding of the process. The styles of yoga that correspond most obviously to voluntary attention – ashtanga, Iyengar, Bikram; all the hybridised forms that have grown out of these – do not suit me. Even yoga styles which would seem to offer more sympathy with involuntary attention, a way of engaging that I sense could engage my individual bodymind skilfully – yin, restorative, old-school hatha – seem to intrude upon my private explorations of what I believe is the inherent nature of awareness to coalesce, ossify, dissipate and break apart. Even in yoga classes in which I am apparently invited to explore at my own pace, I rebel and find myself mired in refusal to participate when I am required to bring my attention back from its wanderings and musings, its meanderings and its amblings, over and over, like a strict parent chastising its wayward, life-filled offspring.

I want to make it clear that I have no desire to supplant the comprehensive body of knowledge that yoga already is; nor to proclaim it something other than what it manifestly says it is. I detest and despise the modern tendency to announce yoga as “THIS, actually (frequent subtext: forget that old Indian stuff)”, and to graft onto it, usually in ignorance that within its vast teachings yoga has already encompassed the essence of this, thanks very much, some new-fangled, sexed-up, shiny addition to make it more palatable to the yoga masses. At the same time, I think that the authors of the texts that we might apply to our yoga practice (which is not quite the same thing as saying that they’re texts that guide our practice) can hardly have imagined the magnitude of the problems humanity is currently grappling with, nor how that would manifest in our individual bodies. So although the texts might well contain something we call “universal truths”, we need skilful, relevant practices in order to work appropriately with our 2018 selves. These are not necessarily the ones we encounter in yoga texts. The shatkarmas in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika and the Gherandha Samhita, for instance, are cleansing or “purification” practices. They include such practices as vaman dhauti (induced vomiting) and bahiskrita dhauti (washing the rectum in the hands), which hardly seem appropriate for your average keen but chronically-out-of-contact-with-the-body practitioner – to say nothing of the fact that overlaying what might be dormant bulimia in some students with a spiritual sheen is hardly healthy. Equally, the complex breath counts and ratios of inhale, exhale and retention we find in classical pranayama (detailed in, for instance, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika and the Shiva Samhita) are unlikely to sustainably undo and displace the ingrained breathing habits of most practitioners.

So perhaps the application of certain concepts from outside yoga which have an affinity with embodiment might help us to both work wisely and safely within yoga, and yogasana. Despite the near-universal exhortation to “listen to your body”, the “how” of this is rarely taught in group classes; and in fact a yoga class might be one of the very worst places to learn how to do this. The combination of stressed, numbed bodies, the echoes they carry of the religions and ideologies which perpetuate this and promote distrust of this precious instrument, with asana, certainly seems to be yielding worrying results in the form of the yoga injury epidemic, be that physical or psychological. Modern asana (by which I mean here the severing of movement practice from spiritual and philosophical roots) seems too often to uphold or give rise to a particular mindset that is actually antithetical to yoga – that of endless striving, competitiveness with others and with oneself, a linear progress curve within practice. What we do in the class seems to encourage further alienation as often as it does union. So please note that I am not saying here that asana = yoga. I’m well aware that all the authoritative yoga texts make it very clear that asana is only one route into yoga. Neither am I arguing that we junk asana, or indeed pranayama. But if we are going to continue to utilise asana as the primary access point to yoga, it might be useful to learn some skills to help us to approach the body with gentleness, kindness, and an open mind about what it might present us with.

This is where soft fascination, the art of allowing attention to be gently captured by that which delights, intrigues and inspires just enough, might come in. As mentioned earlier, it’s a term originally coined by environmental psychologists, and as such, it generally refers to a manner of relating to natural environments. In neuroscientific terms, directed attention causes activity in the pre-frontal cortex, the area of the brain to which jobs such as “higher order” thinking (multitasking, problem-solving) are assigned. This is an area increasingly stimulated and over-burdened by the busyness of life, and by being metaphorically if not literally constantly online. Involuntary attention allows the overtaxed prefrontal cortex a break, and other parts of the brain come to the fore, including those concerned with creativity, memory, and self-focused processing (the hippocampus and the medial prefrontal cortex). Babies and young children slide in and out of this mode of being; it’s a state that is as natural and necessary to a healthily developing human as breathing. Ideally, we drift in and out of it regularly and often as adults, too. We might call it daydreaming, but it is not quite that. We might call it spacing out; but this is to do a disservice to the tremendous creativity, awareness and contemplative potential it calls forth.

Soft fascination is the kind of awareness kindled by a crucial balance of predictability and irregularity. Although it was developed as part of environmental psychological theory, it does not correspond exactly with just getting out there in the wild. Both physically and psychologically, raw, untamed nature is the unknown. The human nervous system evolved in tandem with the delights and demands of being in relationship with nature, and part of this was the ever-present danger of predators. Popular theories such as re-wilding argue persuasively for the re-introduction of this element into our pampered lives, and it is fashionable nowadays to proclaim re-wilding as crucial to our activities in both our inner and outer worlds, including yoga. But soft fascination does not mean quite this, either. Rather, it is the particular manner of being elicited by, say, observing dappled light slanting through tree branches. The sound of waves breaking upon a beach. The call and response of birds during the dawn chorus. Wind moving through long grass, both seen and felt, flower heads nodding. The scent of honeysuckle on a warm evening, floating towards you and then drifting away, never quite captured. The patterns summer clouds form, the gradual coming together and breaking apart of shapes and forms, subtly suggestive of both the known and the half-dreamt. Flickering sunlight on river water. Dried leaves skittering across the ground in a sudden gust of wind. Snowflakes drifting lazily from a leaden sky.

Some of the poetic descriptions above depict an idyll that not everyone necessarily has access to. But the key to soft fascination is not that the external environment is gorgeous. Although my personal practice increasingly takes place in natural environments, I’m aware that this is not practical for everyone, and I certainly don’t want to promote destruction of our precious world in the form of flying long-haul to yoga retreats in order that we can connect with nature! Luckily, soft fascination is available to us in the most mundane of experiences. A breeze through an open window moving your house plant leaves. Flocks of pigeons moving through the sky. The patter of rain on your roof. The important point to grasp about soft fascination is that it awakens within us a specific set of responses. Attention is caught and held, but not demanded. It is dangled and dandled, not pinned; invited and aroused, not imposed upon.

Stimuli that elicit soft fascination have an inbuilt irregularity. We might say that the sound of waves crashing onto the shore has a predictable unpredictability, and that the flickering of dappled light through tree branches has an unpredictable predictability. Part of the essence of both the waves and the light is an inbuilt chaos giving way to order, and back again. Their nature is self-disruptive, and that means that it’s not possible to concentrate on them in the usual “directed” sense. There is simply too much information to process. In order to be in relationship with them, we have to give up trying to concentrate and simply allow them.

Without knowing it, I have long used soft fascination as a yoga practice tool. I was introduced during a training to two practices which have their roots in tantrik yoga, and which were unlike anything I had come across before. Yoga nidra and antar mouna take the experience of the physical body as the starting point for an exploration of embodied meditation, leading to deeper and more finely-honed experiences of our inner reality. Yoga nidra translates as “yogic sleep”, but it is more properly an opportunity to wake up. The body takes very deep rest, lying in motionless comfort, whilst the mind is guided (or for advanced practitioners guides itself) through ever-more refined states of concentration, leading to direct experience of the conditioned, and for some the unconditioned self. The early stages of antar mouna (“inner silence”) explore the senses as gateways. The acts of looking and listening are reconfigured not so much as looking at or listening to, but as opportunities to become aware of the processes of looking and listening. In everyday life we direct the senses outwards into the external world, but they can also be harnessed as portals into our inner reality.

Antar mouna is a formal pratyahara practice. Pratyahara also effectively complements the framework of yoga nidra. Both foreground what is as a method of guiding the attention inwards. There is no implication that one’s engagement with the world is inherently a problem, rather a compassionate understanding of this – and, crucially, a methodology within which to work in order to gain experiential understanding of the fact that our senses are habitually in thrall to external stimuli. Practitioners of antar mouna do bring their attention back to the object of awareness, echoing more “voluntary attention”-orientated meditation styles. The point is not luxuriating in sensual gratification for its own sake. But because the object of awareness is simultaneously the sensing instrument, its inherent nature is not pathologised. (Note: I am not saying here that yoga itself pathologises; only that our Western conditioning is likely to lend it this lens, and that this subtle slant necessarily pulls counter to our aims in yoga.) There is no problem with the wandering nature of the senses, or with our relationship to them. Even the habitual scattering of attention that this leads to is not inherently a problem to be fixed, but is rather instructive of the nature of embodied consciousness.

Pratyahara teaches us that there is no such thing as distraction (therefore failure), but only differing levels of engagement. One of the reasons that these practices landed so well for me was that this manner of anchoring awareness was one that I have discovered in my own practice as a powerful tool. And this corresponds quite uncannily with soft fascination.

When I stopped attending yoga classes, I had to learn how to engage my bodymind within practice by myself. Cut loose from the unyielding demands of directed attention in the form of instruction, to which I had become accustomed and not a little dependent upon, I had to learn how to use the tools I had. These were, as for every practitioner, body, breath, mind, external environment, past encoded within my body. During this time I was also engaged in the everyday miracles of growing, birthing and feeding babies. A mother’s body is a newborn baby’s entire world, and experiencing and responding to this gave me a deep trust in the rightness and goodness of my body. I began to experiment with treating my body as my loved ones did, with infinite tenderness and respect, even wonder and awe. If my body was a world unto itself, it was a precious jewel, valuable beyond my rational comprehension. Both lulled and crazed by the rhythms of childcare, I had both fuel and method to practice deeply and effectively by myself.

Frequently nowadays this means moving through asana very slowly, allowing the unfurling of a limb across the ground the same kind of attention I might give to the movement of tree branches in wind. There is both a dispassionate observation and a minute attention to detail, a sort of beneficent impartiality that has nothing in common with detachment or dissociation. The delight available in watching a bee move from one blossom to another on the apple trees in my orchard is the same order of pleasure I find in feeling air transmuted into breath by the pull of my body, that breath hovering imperceptibly at the tender patch of skin at the base of my nostrils in the same way as the bee ponders its blossom of choice. Breath moves through body with the same hypnotic potential as dappled light flickering on a forest floor. Occasionally my body moves in a new and startling way, surprising me by sliding effortlessly into hanumansana or eka pada rajakapotasana, appearing like the rare orchids that bloom some years in the woods here. Movements of limbs, folding and unfolding of joints, breath coming in and breath going out; being with and allowing, letting my attention be tricked into engagement by these simple, bare-bones experiences of having and being with a body; all of these serve to lull me reliably towards a state that matches both descriptions of a bodymind anchored by soft fascination, and that of yoga. My yoga practice begins with the soft fascination of the body.

The soft fascination of asana and pranayama, nourished by pratyahara, dharana and dyana, rooting in the fertile soil of yama and niyama regularly – not always, but more and more frequently – can also allow me access to a state of deep reflection.  Experiencing the body as infinite variety within familiar rhythm with tenderness, reverence and openness induces a state that would be trance were it not for the simultaneous anchoring of awareness.

Dramatherapist Toby Chown, writing in the journal Unpsychology, describes a classic experience of embodied soft fascination induced by a silent night walk across a moor.

It was an invitation to go within and without at the same time, through the simple act of walking, into a semi wild environment, in a group, and yet alone … The act of walking and the suppression of words encouraged reverie, that state of being where images, memories and feelings flow unbidden before one’s mind as in a dream, yet awake.  Yet the darkness and the tangible presence of root and path made the environment vivid and real, each step to be taken with care.  Each step was a step taken simultaneously into oneself and into nature, memories, images and reflections mingled with the flash of torchlight and the darkened outlines of trees and hills.

As a yoga practitioner, this passage speaks to me powerfully of the potential for self-awareness and self-knowledge available to us through approaching the body with soft fascination. Its poetic account of encountering facets of the self not accessible under regular states of consciousness echoes yoga’s deeper goal of encountering the conditioned self as a route into the unconditioned. Chown mentions “memories and reflections”. In yogic philosophy, these are products of the i-making process, which are understood as both part of human nature and as the cause of our suffering. Pada IV in Patanjali’s Sutras makes several mentions of “memory and impression” (IV 9-11), and the thrust of the text is towards a realisation that they are intimately bound up with the self-making project. Therefore, it may be that within states of awareness induced by practices that align with soft fascination, latent impressions, known within yoga as samskaras, might arise. It appears that not only can soft fascination lead to a powerful experience of embodiment, but that that can then lead spontaneously to an encounter with the constructed nature of selfhood. Yoga aims to free us from our false identification with the conditioned self. Perhaps the unremarkable yet magical practice of soft fascination is a gateway through which we can step into the radiant ground of being which is our true nature.

Sneaky side routes into yoga such as soft fascination, as opposed to the practices we come across in classic texts, might also help us make sense of some of the contradictions inherent in practicing yoga in the modern world. Patanjali’s yoga is explicitly a yoga of transcendence. This is problematic for those of us who wish to practice as sincere, committed students who are simultaneously committed to life in the world. Especially for those of us who are the heirs to belief systems, ideologies and religions which have left traces of distrust of the body, and which utilise the body as the primary site for enacting oppressive behaviours and resultant dissociation, it is vital that we thoroughly investigate how the practices we take as “yoga” might uphold rather than dismantle these disconnects. Soft fascination might be a key to experiencing the body, and the body-in-the-world, not as a problem to be fixed or overcome, but as a portal to the world. In this schema, neither the body, nor the world, are problems. And in this time of increasing pressures pushing us towards multiple, intersecting crises, do we need another belief system that reinforces the notion that our beautiful, precious world must be escaped from and transcended? Does yoga as it is both commonly understood nowadays, and as we experience it in our own, very personal ways, help or hinder us here?

I’m reminded as I write of an early fragment of this piece which had the working title “pratyahara is a bullshit goal”. I was disheartened, some years ago, to find that my growing conviction that I as an individual practitioner was less aligned with classical yoga than I had previously thought was backed up by the thrust of what I understood as pratyahara. Whilst understanding all too well the enormous energy expended in sensory engagement, and intuiting that this energy can be channelled inwards within meditation, I instinctively felt that I didn’t want to view my senses as some kind of enemy. I was, and am, enamoured of Celtic poet-scholar John O’Donohue’s beautiful take on embodiment. He writes in Anam Cara of “the senses as the threshold of the soul”, calling them “generous pathways which can bring you home”. This spoke powerfully to my awakening to yoga’s anthropocentrism.

Of course, yoga does not need another justification for severing its limbs from themselves and from their philosophical roots, by me or anyone else. But neither does it need a blind adherence to its tenets by those of us who choose to engage with its other limbs, simply “because it’s yoga”. So: is our practice another way of avoiding ourselves and retreating from the world? Is it a technology of intimacy, or spiritualised disconnection? Do we need to withdraw our senses? Do we even know what it is to be a sensing, feeling organism in the cacophony of modern life which both deadens and hyper-stimulates these exquisite instruments?

The world desperately needs those of us committed to waking up to turn back to it, rather than withdrawing in splendid yogic isolation. The stranglehold of the dominator paradigm is loosening all around us as the Earth, the natural world, and those most brutalised by the paradigm’s systems rise up and join our voices to say, enough, no more, me too, and time’s up. We need to dedicate the fruits of our practice to the world’s healing as much as our own: they (/we) are after all indivisible. Our senses, our bodies, our minds and our hearts are ours, to use as wisely as we feel impelled. Embodiment practices such as soft fascination teach us the art of relationship – between our bodies and the ground, our breath and our forward fold, our senses and the outer world. Turning back to the body with friendliness can lull us into the sort of effortless engaged attention in which the mindstream can be ridden upon, merged with/penetrated and therefore harnessed as a potent tool. This might allow us to restore the senses to their rightful, health-ful places, which for some might then allow for the inward-turning of classical yoga. For others it might awaken a calling to renewed engagement, such as activism. Perhaps hidden gems of practices such as soft fascination can re-configure a technology such as yoga as a powerful tool for both internal awareness and engagement with the external world.

(Note: Apologies to anyone who feels their practice, lineage or allegiances are misrepresented by this piece. As ever, it is a personal exploration of the issues therein, and is necessarily constrained by that.)

References:

Restore and Rebalance, Judith Lasater (Shambala, 2017)

The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, various translations:

                BKS Iyengar (Thorsons, 1993)

                Alistair Shearer (Bell Tower, 2002)

                Edwin Bryant (North Point Press, 2013)

                Chip Hartranft (Shambala, 2003)

                TKV Desikachar’s translation in The Heart of Yoga (Inner Traditions, 1995)

Unpsychology, eds Steve Thorp and Julia Macintosh (online journal, Spring 2018)

Anam Cara, John O’Donohue (Bantam Press, 1997)

 

 

The Ecology Body: Remembering the Earth and Re-membering Ourselves in Outdoor Yoga Practice

(Written with the help of many, both human and not-human, for whose support I am grateful. Particular thanks to Sarah Louise Gates for technical knowledge and contemplation inspiration.)

IMG_0372

I thought the earth
remembered me, she
took me back so tenderly, arranging
her dark skirts, her pockets
full of lichens and seeds. I slept
as never before, a stone
on the riverbed, nothing
between me and the white fire of the stars
but my thoughts, and they floated
light as moths among the branches
of the perfect trees. All night
I heard the small kingdoms breathing
around me, the insects, and the birds
who do their work in the darkness. All night
I rose and fell, as if in water, grappling
with a luminous doom. By morning
I had vanished at least a dozen times
into something better.

  “Sleeping in the Forest”, Mary Oliver

Several years ago my young family and I moved house, inheriting a sizeable patch of land that includes an ancient orchard. I had birthed three children in our old house, I had become a mother and moved into a new phase of adulthood there, I had set out on my own path of enquiry and intimacy with yoga in that place, and I found myself unmoored by the transition from one home to another. Part of the process of reconciling my grief at leaving, my confusion at arriving in this new place, was tentatively taking my yoga practice outside.

I had occasionally practiced outside in our old garden, only to feel immediately overwhelmed by the flood of sensory data, to the point where I could not focus on what was happening internally. The ground was too uneven. The birds were too noisy. The breeze was too irregular, and sometimes it brought tantalising scents of rose and jasmine, hay and freshly-mown lawns. Dappled patterns of leaves against sky imprinted themselves on my eyelids, so that they were visible even with closed eyes. I felt naked and overlooked, and spent an inordinate amount of time setting up my mat so that my neighbours would not be able to see me.

I was aware at some level that the issue was not what was, but the echoes, ripple actions and patterning that the data was kicking into play within my bodymind. Still, I just could not square the reality of being outdoors with “practicing yoga”. They seemed in fundamental opposition. I’d always considered myself a lover of nature. I have many happy childhood memories of lying in gardens, I’d spent my teenage years sitting in cornfields and at music festivals, and an intense few years in my early twenties dedicated to dancing at illegal outdoor parties. I wanted my past acts of communion and devotion, encoded as they were within my body, to meet with my yoga practice. But it seemed I needed particular conditions to practice yoga, some special, closeted-away place.

In my new garden and its orchard, the ground was even less regular, and the sensory input from magnolia, lilac, and honeysuckle, buzzards and crows, butterflies and dragonflies, tree and leaf, and the whole teeming world of rich fecundity that bursts into life here after the pause of winter, was even more intense. But on spring days when my littlest one and I had spent the morning investigating puddles and jumping on logs, and he was satiated with milk and happily, warmly asleep outside, it seemed a righteous continuation of my sensory enjoyment to practice yoga outside. And so I would unroll my mat onto the grass, flicking leaves and insects off as they landed, and begin to attune my contented and gratified senses to my inner landscape.

I had no fears about being watched in this secluded space since, as my son said upon moving, “our only neighbours here are the owls and the bunnies”. The garden, clearly once well-tended but now wild and unkempt, seemed to actively welcome me. Somehow, the deliberate shutting off of the external data that I associated with formal practice (pratyahara) seemed unnecessary, laughable, almost a sacrilege here. My practice has always woven a steady but meandering dance between focus on the internal and renewed engagement with the external world, which then allows for refined interoceptive awareness. In outdoor practice, I wake up to the permeability of my body and of my mind; as though the delineations of me/not-me are less clear, even arbitrary. My animal senses, deadened and dulled by the simultaneous boredom and cacophony of modern life’s endless stimulation, seem to stir as though from a deep slumber. The mundane act of stretching out on my back is transformed by a sense of immediate welcome, of the ground rising to meet me, of dynamic interchange between the cells of my flesh and those of the blades of grass, the gnarled tree roots. There is some kind of magic in relaxing the underside of my body outwards from the midline, and the softening downwards of my flesh, the way it fills little holes in the ground. The gap between me and the Earth narrows. This is a practical, physical fact, and it also enacts a treasured concept in modern-day yoga teaching: grounding and its close kin, rooting.

We talk a lot about being grounded and rooted in yoga. They’re words that are regularly tossed about; terms that are used, I suspect, to ally the insular world of yoga with more pressing concerns, such as the ecological crisis, and our painful sense of disconnectedness and atomisation. Perhaps the terminology tricks us into believing that this thing that we do across the western world, this bending and moving and breathing and chanting, has value and relevance outside of the sphere it takes place within. Certainly, I have instructed a class more times than I care to remember to “ground your feet” in tadasana. I have invoked the element of earth to add some kind of credence, some extra import to the simple act of lying down.

I suspect this dressing up of a simple act allows me to sidestep the work of being with myself; to really investigate where and how and even what the body is right now, in this moment; and where “I” am in relation to that. And expanding out from the minutiae of formal practice, I see it as a tactic we employ deliberately to try to make sense of the dissonance we might feel between driving or flying to a yoga class, workshop or retreat, and the damage we know that is causing to our precious world. Some days, this makes me cross, and I see it as little more than yoga culture up to its old tricks, co-opting the buzzy terms du jour for its own ends.

Here’s the thing. When we stand or lie or sit in a sparklingly clean studio with a perfectly flat floor, heated to just the right temperature, a floor with a carefully-chosen texture and colour and grain or pattern, perhaps even sprung, it’s easy to think that these conditions are part of what we need to practice yoga. The conditions become part of the practice. In a purpose-built or a deliberately acquisitioned place, we are not necessarily “coming into contact with the element earth”, or “grounding ourselves”, or “establishing contact with the guidance of the earth”, or any number of the attractive things I and many others say all the time. Yes, feeling a surface underneath our bodies can support our practice, literally and figuratively. But the Earth – well, that is not flat, or a pleasing temperature, much of the time. The Earth is messy. It is as it is, indifferent to our needs or demands.

At no time has this hit me more starkly than when I realised that there is no truly flat ground in my outdoor practice. I could – I have, ending by laughing at myself – spent a good half of my practice session hunting for just the right spot to lay my mat out, clearing the twigs and leaves from underneath, trying to orientate it so that it lies as close to flat as possible. Memorably, I once spent so long trying to find the perfect place, where the sun wouldn’t dazzle me and the trees and shifting light would allow me stand straight, that I tied myself into mental knots about what was “right”, realised that was happening, gave up, took my mat into the house … only for the baby to wake up and my practice time be gone before I had even done a minute of formal practice.

img_3020

Outdoor yoga practice is not necessarily the same thing as “grounded” yoga practice, but we might begin to learn what it is to be grounded or rooted through practicing in direct, less-mediated contact with the ground than an indoor space can allow. We might begin to understand the nature of being in contact with this precious Earth through attending to what that does to our sense of embodiment, and how that affects our awareness. Groundedness might become an integral part of awareness, rather than an interesting-sounding concept. I observe, for instance, that gravity is a more powerfully-felt presence when outside. I am anchored in a way that doesn’t happen so readily indoors, even if conditions are conducive in other ways. Gravity becomes an obvious presence, and a trustworthy guide.

Since modern life requires that our bodies remain static and unstimulated for much of the time, when they evolved through and anticipating movement, yoga’s physicality is a huge and understandable part of its attraction. So, physically speaking, how does outdoor practice work? Well, in any given standing pose, for instance, my feet might need to engage differently in order to come into contact with the ground. On uneven terrain, the muscles on my left lower leg have to do something different to those on the right in order to stabilise the bones and the joints and to make the pose safe. My pelvis needs to make minute adjustments on one side that are different to those on the other to orientate itself with fluidity and responsiveness, as well as steadiness and security, so that I can receive the support under my body and then utilise that to enable my spine to rise out of it.

Rather than imposing a script of any given pose onto myself, rather than applying what I know, I am required – invited, seems a more accurate description – to be in relationship with the environment I practice in. The pose is not an end in itself, self-referential and reverential, but embodied interdependence. From this perspective, it no longer seems relevant, wise, or even kindly to dutifully learn or to put into practice up-to-the minute biomechanical ideas, let alone mechanistic, alignment-based models of what an optimally-functioning leg feels or looks like. When I practice yoga outdoors, because I am not practicing in a vacuum, an optimally-functioning leg is one that has its own integrity and is part of the pose, but also one that is in relationship with the ground. Practicing on the ground as it is – focusing on grounding – requires that I have to let go of that insidious desire for symmetry in asana that pervades modern day yoga culture. Alignment, such a treasured and puzzled-over concept in much of modern yoga, becomes an ongoing dialogue between my body and the ground.

This exchange both humbles and heartens me. I am reminded that despite two decades of commitment to studying what it is to be and to have a body through the lens of asana, there is so much I do not know. For instance, I generally believe my right hip to be stiffer than the left in some planes of movement. Perfectly flat ground seems to invite the assessing and judging, scanning and analyzing parts of me to come to the fore, and this is the conclusion they usually reach – that my right hip has less mobility than the left. However, when the right side of my lower body needs to do something minutely, but epically different to the left for safety and stability as well as movement – for a standing pose to happen at all, say – then ideas and concepts about stiffness and fluidity, “open” versus closed joints, sore and tight muscles versus healthily and spontaneously-firing muscles, all drop away.

Outside, asana becomes less about what I should do, what I have done in the past, what I think I know – even about what I believe to be true – and I am more open to moment-to-moment exploration of what it is to have a body. Ideas, concepts, models, even, to some extent, desires and aversions, all fall away in the enquiry. The Earth itself becomes the authority. I orientate myself according to the swell of the land beneath me and the direction of the sun and the wind, not a teacher at the front of the room. Without this as primary focus in poses such as vrksasana or sirsasana, I will inevitably fall over. The intelligence of the Earth is palpable, and listening and responding to that awakens a particular intelligence within me. I am so much more attuned to tiny nuance and subtle shifts within my body, my mind and my emotions when I’m engaged in formal practice outdoors. It’s as though the life beneath and around me calls forth a deep sense of trust that my body knows what to do, what it needs. I know intuitively when to move and when to pause, when to inhale and exhale. Sometimes what we might consider “advanced” asana in terms of difficulty of shape shows up spontaneously, and when it does, I know exactly how to work with both slowness and care and with vigour and speed, balancing moment to moment on that knife edge between challenge and comfort.

The Yoga Sutras’ famous description of yoga as “effortless effort” makes sense when I practice pranayama outside, too.  We’re all familiar with the delight of taking a good deep breath outside; with the way we can smell, taste, hear, sometimes see the breath. We’ve all experienced the breath as easeful when the breeze that floats towards us is rich with the scent of, say, wet brambles and jasmine. In formal practice, it is deeply satisfying to feel part of the cycle of breath. To know that I am taking into my body that which is given out as an endless, invisible gift by the huge oak and ash trees, the beeches and birches here, and that I in turn breathe out that which is necessary for the survival of these fellow beings of this wood, is at once a profound and a mundane experience. (Breathing as symbiosis is called Greenbreath within several traditions outside of yoga.) Personal exploration of the simple, bare-bones practice of breath as give and take, partaking of and releasing to the natural world, seems a necessary preliminary for the formal practice of pranayama, with its complex breath counts, ratios and pauses.

There is a circularity at play in both asana and pranayama which is at odds with the linear progress curve imposed upon us from early schooling. Asana culture has adopted this societal bias. Recent initiatives such as Instagram 30 day challenges make plain the underlying assumption that we will continue to get better at asana. “Practice and all is coming”, Pattabhi Jois’ famous aphorism, is often interpreted in this way. In this progress model, there are no meanders or deviations, no seasons, only improvement and advancement.

But the ideal of ongoing progression pulls directly against the nature of the body. Bodies all get sick, damaged, old, and will all die. When we step or fall out of modern day asana culture’s linear progress model because of the lived reality of the body, it can feel as though we fall away from “real” yoga, which goes on elsewhere, in some unchanging, timeless body. When we’re injured, we do some sort of special, rehab yoga; when we’re pregnant we do pregnancy-specific yoga; when women are bleeding we’re often encouraged to do no asana at all or to carry on as though we weren’t … Modern-day asana culture is largely a denial of the reality of the body. I have to fit my body into a mould, a shape, a system; I am required to adapt to it, because it does not adapt to meet me as I am. An adaptive practice seems subtly discouraged, as though by attending to the needs of my body for, say, rest over headstands, I am somehow lacking discipline and commitment. Outdoor practice, however; the simultaneous coming into contact with myself and with the Earth, reminds me that just as the Earth has its own cycles, so do I. Modern life requires that I ignore them for much of the time, but they are present nonetheless, a constant movement from expansion to contraction in my breathing, activity and rest, engagement and introspection – and, in this female body, in bleeding. Just as the Earth has its own wisdom and power which are directly related its seasons, it feels wise and infinitely caring to me to work with my own seasons.

Within nature, growth cannot be split from its pauses, stillnesses, rest periods. So advanced asana practice cannot mean a continual, steady advancement. Rather, it is a working with the unfolding cycles of my bodymind, and holding them in such high regard that I know it a violence to disregard them. Attention to flux is prioritised.  And within this, there is certainly a time for big, expansive poses – often high summer, and ovulation; and how wonderful it feels to focus on the height of the inbreath then, too – and there is a time for introspection, contraction, and for practices such as yoga nidra that allow for deep inner exploration and journeying.

As well as encouraging a non-forceful, sustainable approach to asana and pranayama, outdoor practice seems, inexplicably, to be introducing me to practices that I have never in fact learnt. Years before I undertook formal study in yoga nidra, I had begun exploring the dualities that human consciousness settles into, and the liminal states between, simply by lying on the Earth and noticing how the heaviness of my body gives rise to feelings of weightlessness and lift.  I discovered the early stages of the practice systemised by one school of yoga as antar mouna spontaneously, too. (Antar mouna is a practice of pratyahara. It means “inner silence” and is a meditation utilising sensory input as a means to still mental fluctuations.) Just as the intelligence of the Earth orientates my body within asana and coaxes me to relate to it in ways that are radical departures from the way society, and yoga culture, requires that I treat it, the Earth seems also to be directing the very trajectory of my practice as a whole.

In fact, as a direct result of outdoor practice, human teachers are no longer an authority over my practice. Sure, there are many wise and wonderful people working within yoga, and I could learn much from many of them. But somehow, lineage or tradition, even my own decades of experience, cease to have much relevance in this practice space. The tangible welcome for my flesh from the land I live on feels more trustworthy and caring than that of the most mature and compassionate yoga teacher. Grass and roots and leaves underneath my body cushion me, whisper to my bones of the ancient relationship between human body and not-human. Sometimes, lying down, I feel that I am draped over the curve of the earth, and the gentle swell nudges at my spine just so, with more care and sensitivity than any adjustment I have received from a human teacher.

I am learning that the apparently imperfect conditions within which my outdoor practice takes place can be reframed as a support rather than an impediment, with no mediation from a teacher required. In the same way, body as it is becomes a vehicle for enquiry. A pose done outdoors can never be a static, sealed unit, but always asks me – and gives me the gift of – connection with that which is outside of my apparently separate self. I experience myself as part of an ecosystem, doing what everything else around me is doing – breathing, moving, buzzing with the pulse of life inside me and allowing that to guide me. Whilst we might experience a similar sense of communion in a class setting, and indeed it is wonderful to move and to breathe as a kind of yoga hive entity, in the end, this only reifies human to human connection. Humans, particularly humans who do yoga (who, incidentally, are likely in my demographic to be white, able-bodied, and relatively wealthy), are still placed right at the centre of the experience. But the human need to be part of a community can include the non-human one. At this historical juncture, faced as we are with ecological meltdown, it’s imperative for us to feel the truth of our interdependence with the natural world.

Monterey-Cypress-Wind-TreeGirl-TKAweb12by8

(Monterey Cypress Wind 2015, copyright Treegirl Studios)

Nowadays I am loathe to give this up, the simplicity of lying on the ground and breathing, these bare-bones experiences of having and being a body, and through that, of knowing myself part of an ecosystem. Outdoor practice has become a process of reclaiming these elements of my awareness, of my self. Parent-like, I am becoming protective of them, and tetchy and irritable when required to spend extended periods of time in environments that do not honour them. And something in me is offended when I see nature presented as a pretty, incidental backdrop to asana imagery. Because my outdoor practice is not just my indoor practice transported outside, but is in fact a different entity altogether, the presentation of the natural world as a mere scenic backdrop, something to enhance the attractiveness of the human depicted or of the human activity, feels ignorant, disrespectful and insulting.

I have no love for images of lycra-clad yogis in studios, either, mind you. (I fundamentally do not believe that the essence of yoga can be transmitted through an image of asana.) The studio model that now dominates much of western yoga culture, replete as it is with hierarchies, inequalities and inevitable power abuses, is pushing its evolution in a particular direction. On the macro level, the cosy intertwining of companies such as Yoga Journal, YogaWorks and YogaGlo has had a trickle-down effect on media portrayal of yoga. The imagery they produce has been instrumental in the production of what we are encouraged to consume as yoga. Whilst there are still nooks and crannies of yogaland, practice communities and solo practitioners which have not (yet?) been influenced by studio culture, I think it’s safe to say that the images originated by and within studios, these hyper-asana-ised temples of modern-day yoga, have now reached most dusty village halls in rural England. I wonder whether it is possible to take up yoga nowadays without having to navigate its visual representations.

The pristine conditions of studio culture might influence the very shapes we tend to associate with asana, so that these environments affect us on a very personal, micro level, too. Bodies are primed to relate to the world around them. The sterility of perfectly flat floors and walls at 90 degrees provide a useful blank slate on which we can superimpose asana and its images, but they also elicit a particular response from the body performing these shapes. When we practice asana within these confines, the shapes our bodies make are dictated by the confines, by the angles of the building; by the very specific way our bodies are supported and held by that specific environment.

Perhaps this is another piece of the puzzle in the epidemic of injury amongst practitioners. Asana is often misunderstood as an application of shapes and angles to the body, but more than this, many of modern-day asana’s positions and movements are neither natural or useful to the human body. Some of them appear to actually upset the functioning of the human organism in catastrophic ways.

The following are common components in images of asana:

  • caturanga dandasana done with the body held parallel to a completely flat floor
  • shoulderstand where the body is at 90 degrees to the ground
  • samakonasana with legs at 180 degrees from each other
  • parsvakonasana with front thigh parallel to the ground, front knee at 90 degrees, top arm and that side of the body at 45 degrees to the floor.

These angles and positions are part of the asana training I and millions of others have received. They are so common, the shapes so normalised, that it can feel like heresy to suggest that the shapes do not contain any inherent yoga, or do not necessarily guide a practitioner towards that. Even though we might know rationally that this is the case, these shapes and their images still exert a powerful pull on practitioners. We find them aesthetically pleasing. However, aesthetics are cultural, which is to say that they are in the service of, and reflective of, cultural norms. As part of the intersecting, mutually-reinforcing mechanisms of patriarchy, racism and capitalism, aesthetics rarely encourage a healthy relationship with one’s body. If, within yoga, we add those aesthetics to the studio environment in which they are most frequently enacted, should we be surprised that the most plastic, malleable, fluid, adaptable part of the equation – the human body – should be what “gives”?

As far as our bodies are concerned, the particular angles required of our shoulder joints in order to hold caturanga dandasana parallel to the floor are arbitrary, and might or might not be healthy or sustainable. Placing our hands with middle fingers parallel to the edge of the mat in adho mukha svanasana, and the inner or outer edges of the feet parallel to the edge of the mat and therefore the wall in a standing pose, are positions that are dictated by the environment rather than the desires or needs of the body. Even props such as blocks and chairs, although associated with a more restorative or adaptive approach to yoga than, say, vigorous vinyasa, might subtly reinforce these angles, since their physical structures are modelled along straight edges and 90 degrees.

The upright, militaristic stance of tadasana might make some kind of sense when performed against the clean, straight lines of a studio walls and floor, but this positioning, at least in my experience, bears little relationship to the relaxed attention my body settles into when standing on the Earth. When I practice caturanga dandasana on lumpy, uneven ground, my animal intelligence seems to take precedence, so that the specific angles required by my shoulder joints on flat ground give way to dialogue and connection between my shoulder and the ground. Caturanga outdoors is nothing if not relational, so my shoulder joints are in a constant state of adaptatation. From this perspective, it’s small wonder that my right shoulder screams in protest in urdhva dhanurasana when I place my hands parallel to each other. For years, I have insisted that my right shoulder get in line, like a strict parent, assuming that the feelings generated are good for it. Outdoor practice is bringing a gentleness towards my poor shoulder, and I wonder now whether in fact I have been steadily weakening and damaging it through this sort of discipline. It doesn’t feel like love, that’s for sure.

By forcing our bodies into a position that they do not care for, especially in the name of spiritual practice or health, we may be desensitising ourselves to the intelligent feedback loops within our bodyminds that might be able to tell us when a pose, a movement, an angle or a shape is potentially damaging. Human bodies did not evolve in a vacuum; they evolved to be in relationship with the world around them. Yoga studios, no matter how luxurious, cannot offer the body what it craves – relationship. A studio cannot enfold a human body within its embrace, and cannot call forth the embedded reciprocal intelligences and conversations between the body of a human and the body of the Earth. As a species, we evolved in interdependence with the land, just as the foetus develops in contact with the womb, and just as babies need human contact, life-filled and life-giving flesh, to thrive. Adult bodies hunger for stimulation from hills and inclines, valleys and declinations, and something in us dies without this. My friends report that walking in the desert of flatness where they live in the USA causes them backache and hip stiffness, and even disregarding the benefits of time spent in nature on stress and anxiety levels, immune function and recovery times, this makes perfect sense from a biomechanical perspective. Their reports of endless concrete, straight lines and right angles, deadness as comfort, a world shaped around presumptions of human comfort, evoke in me the same horror I felt upon reading The Continuum Concept, a book read by all hippyish parents in the UK. Rightly criticised for its idealisation and othering of indigenous peoples, it nonetheless contains a graphic description of the casual trauma visited upon babies and children in the name of socialising them out of their inconvenient, ceaseless need for physical contact.

Time spent in nature in 2017 is both my human right and a byproduct of my privileged life. This piece was written as an exploration of my experiences of practicing and teaching yoga outdoors over the last five years. I do not present it as a call to arms, a manifesto, or any kind of solution, but as an inroad into the very difficult questions that the yoga community is grappling with about how to make our practice and teaching relevant to the challenges our world faces. It might be part of a larger conversation; and it can be an invitation to the wildness within us all.

Outdoor practice is teaching me the worthlessness of authoritarian stances within yoga, but I do want to assert that I believe it vital to explore how yoga is tied to the environment it takes place in. I have written before about the intersections between indigenous European spiritual traditions and modern western yoga. Since completing that piece, I’m alert to a growing sense that we need to interrogate yoga’s current incarnation as transnational product, sold to us as equally and always applicable to all bodies, in all circumstances and all places. Can we develop practices and teaching modalities which are both respectful of the particular cultures, and religions, that have historically nurtured yoga, at the same time as they are spontaneous and authentic responses to the very specific geography, climate, and topography they take place within? Do we have this right? What might that disentanglement look like? What kinds of communities might be formed in the unknitting? How might local, grassroots practice communities coalescing around an ideal of connection with ourselves as inhabitants of, participants within, a very specific location, intersect with our 2017 online selves? What are we in the process of making yoga into, and what is that making us? Is this yoga, and its selves, congruent (in alignment) with our ethics and values? Can we plant our roots deep in the fertile land of ethical enquiry, and grow a yoga from that?

A Prayer to Future Feminists

As a follow up to our recent co-authored blog, Amara Miller has put together a list of resources for anyone interested in feminism. It’s epic – but not exhaustive!

To download:

FEMINIST RESOURCE LIST

•••

Why a Feminist Resource List?

Today I’m sharing a project I’ve been working on for a few weeks: a feminist resource list. I had originally planned to release this list with my latest blog entry, coauthored with Joanna Johnson of Red Moon Yoga: “The Misogynist On The Mat: Patriarchy, Yoga, & You.” That blog post was a response to a recent incident in the yoga world, where well-known yoga teacher and teacher trainer Eric Shaw published a misogynist, sexist, and disgusting anti-feminist rant.

Shaw’s rant was so disconnected from the truth of what is and what has been, it was frankly impossible to dissect all the things that were wrong in it. Had Shaw actually wanted to understand reality or feminism rather than cater to his emotionally hurt ego, he over the years he could have found a myriad of feminist work that would have refuted his flawed viewpoints. I doubt he will seek out such resources (though here’s hoping he will).

The incident made me angry. And when I get angry, I make stuff (like this list).

Screen Shot 2017-03-06 at 17.07.31

Frankly, Shaw is not someone I would ever waste my time trying to educate. It’s clear he’s not interested in moving beyond his own turmoil.

But there are other people out there who are interested in learning more about feminism, about themselves, and about our world. There are people out there hoping to become better people. There are people out there hoping to uncover and practice satya (truthfulness), and who are willing to engage in some profound Self-Realization.

I have compiled this list for you.

The fact is, even though feminism is gaining prominence in today’s world most people don’t actually know much about feminism, engage with feminists in their everyday lives, or know how to find out more information if they wanted to. It’s not always easy to track down sources, to know what is foundational work in both academia and activist circles, and to learn more about the history of women’s rights, women’s liberation, and intersectional feminism.

Even though it’s likely most people have feminists in their social networks, they might not be consciously aware of this since not everyone who is a feminist openly, consistently identifies as one. Sadly, feminism today is often still stigmatized, and many people (especially white people) selectively disclose their feminist identity only when it is relatively safe to do so. Feminism has in many ways become cool only in-so-far as one’s practice of feminism is surface level and non-confrontational,  while deep discussions or political action in the name of feminism are still highly conflict-ridden and controversial. The sad truth is that identifying openly as a feminist can sometimes damage one’s relationships or careers.

a5832f2e6c67915385304218f4abfaee

b40

Given the wide breadth of feminist work out there today and the many decades (centuries, really) of activism and research feminists have been engaged in, it can sometimes be difficult to know where to start. Even those who are feminists may only be familiar with specialized areas within the movement, because thanks to the sea of information we can sometimes end up isolated from broader dialogue (and heated debates within the movement don’t always help either).

The reality is that unless someone is lucky enough to know a self-identified feminist or has been able to study gender, sexuality, and women’s studies at the university level, many people simply don’t know how to begin learning more about feminism or about the wide variety of feminist work being done. In some ways, there is simply too much information out there. We have google at the tips of our fingers, but unless we know what to search for, the quality of the information we have access to can be skewed, buried in the sea that is the internet today. And of course, let’s acknowledge there is a clear class divide in who has access to university spaces or the internet. It’s vital that feminism become rooted in class solidarity and efforts to overcome the digital divide and the often-times inaccessibility of academic feminism.

Even today, much of our popular culture perpetuates inaccurate and problematic stereotypes of feminism and feminists (or straight up lies). When something is discredited, it’s harder for people to take it seriously. Especially in our current political climate, it’s important for feminists to help combat this by helping to direct and build our own communities of knowledge and of feminist educators. In other words, it is vital for feminists to openly and consistently identify as feminists, to work toward documenting the work movement members are engaged in, to build networks of solidarity and knowledge production, and to participate in codifying such knowledge as explicitly part of the feminist movement.

Screen Shot 2017-03-06 at 17.08.04

I made this list to help work toward these goals, and to also make the process of sifting through a sea of information easier for all those interested in learning more about feminism, regardless of whether you are completely new to the movement or a long-time feminist hoping to deepen one’s knowledge. Given my own positionality, this list does lean more heavily toward academic feminist work, but I have made an effort to include a wide variety of sources and more accessible resources throughout. My hope is people who are interested in learning about feminism or deepening their understanding can do so more readily with this resource. I hope it also serves as a resource for fellow educators.

This is the list I wish I had years ago, when I was just beginning to learn what feminism actually meant, the history of the movement, and why it is so vital to continue feminist work today. It is a list I am offering you today, with a prayer to all future feminists.

•••

Screen Shot 2017-03-06 at 17.08.27

A Prayer to Future Feminists

I am my ancestors’ wildest dreams, the granddaughter of the witches that did not burn.

I speak as those seeds, who from darkness became the weeds that tear out concrete, that break down walls, the retake public spaces.

I speak as those silenced generations, lost to time, lost to power:

You are not lost to the deepest part of ourselves, that longs for connection, that longs for the wisdom of the one who survives against all odds, the one who (nevertheless) persists.

I speak as those embattled, enraged beings who are sick of the (illusion of the) cage, who are fighting to be free:

Your struggle is not in vain.

For all those who have been disappeared, who have been targeted, who have been harassed, and who have been abused;

For those who have yet to find themselves in the historical oppression patriarchy teaches us to inscribe in all our bodies, in all our minds, in all our hearts:

We will seek you out.

We will be the mirror that allows you to see and free yourself.

For those who would undermine the colonization of their self, for those who would deconstruct the map of power we are subject to;

For those who seek to be better, to leave a legacy of equity for our future selves, for our future planet:

You do not do so alone.

We will be the waves at your back, crying for justice, crashing at the bars set to contain us.

I speak as those who fear for themselves, who fear for each other;

as those who are angry, fed-up, and frustrated;

I speak as those who fear the future coming for us like the whisper of death and the haunting of subjugation, seemingly inescapable:

Do not lose hope.

Remember, the chains that bind us also bind us together.

The chains that bind us give us the very weapon we need to break the cycle.

May we find each other in our resilience, in our strength, in our resistance.

May we recognize that “unity” does not mean sameness, and that “to unify” does not mean to lose what makes us uniquely powerful.

May we recognize imperialist, white supremacist, settler-colonial patriarchy is the enemy of all of us, but also the unifying thread that makes this fight our fight, our struggle.

May we support each other, honor each other, and challenge each other to admit to our failures, flaws, and complicity.

May we support each other, honor each other, and challenge each other to seek out the path with heart even though it may be the tangled labyrinth of our darkest dreams.

Go forth, future feminists, and together let us uncover the bones of justice, the archaeology of equity.

Go forth, future feminists, and be your ancestors’ wildest dreams.

•••

6359638087851574931439926138_tumblr_nigop713tb1qkfpu0o1_500

To download:

FEMINIST RESOURCE LIST

Don’t see something you feel should be on the feminist resource list? Post the reference below in the comments, and in the near future I’ll update the list and post a revised version. 


Amara Miller is a PhD candidate and Associate Instructor in sociology, as well as a yogi, feminist, artist, teacher, and perpetual student. She seeks to utilize a feminist and sociological understanding of the world to inform her yogic practice/teaching to better combat systems of oppression, including inequality and inaccessibility within yoga. Her dissertation looks at the impact globalization, commodification, and appropriation have had on the transformation of yoga in the last fifty years and the way marginalized teachers and activists involved in the body positivity movement resist these changes. You can find her on Facebook at her page Amara Miller, on Twitter @AmaraMiller27, or through her blog https://amaramillerblog.wordpress.com/.