“I am not (what you need from) my body”: expanding on a yoga meme

“I am not (what you need from) my body”: expanding on a yoga meme

 

1. “I am not my body” communicates a felt reality: a review + another possibility

 

It’s been about five months since I called out Cameron Shayne’s use of the “I am not my body” meme to rationalize his DIY libertarian It’s-Okay-To-Sleep-With-My-Students ethics. It started a rich discussion that gave me a lot to think about, and softened up this critical heart of mine. At least a bit, anyway.

In “If We Erase ‘I am not my body’, What is Left of Yoga Philosophy?”, I tried to explore the rational virtue of the meme from four perspectives:

  1. “I am not my body” as the echo of a developmental response. Our first frustrations as babies, enacted through the Moro reflexes, rebel against the containment of the mother’s flesh, and then, it seems, against the containment of the flesh we suddenly realize as ours.
  2. “I am not my body” records the wonderment of an Axial Age paradigm that is newly discovering an internal self-sense that seems separable, via the act of observation, from the ancient actor who was formerly so enmeshed in her livingworld that she did not or could not distinguish internal sensations from the swirl of weather or the twitchings of the all-pervasive gods.
  3. “I am not my body” is a reasonable trauma/survival response for those to whom the body has become the site of acute pain, whether “natural”, or inflicted by the state. The man who says “The kingdom of God is within you” is tortured to death to prove the point. On the cross he says to his fellow crucified, “Today you will be with me in heaven.” He means: our bodies are being stripped away from something that must be always already free. In yoga literature, Krishna says to Arjuna: Do not fear the killing or the danger of being killed that I’m forcing upon you, because human bodies are as insubstantial as clothes. You cannot ‘die’. (Krishna might be the first character in history or fiction to put the word “die” in air-quotes.)
  4. “I am not my body” records the felt truth behind Descartes’ dualistic assertions, even if he dogmatized his case. As Drew Leder points out in The Absent Body, our embodied experience is layered with four interwoven degrees of separation. 1) The body disappears through so rarely being the thematic target of our attention. 2) Our senses are not trained upon ourselves. Through doing what they are designed to do – look upon the world – our eyes become invisible to us. 3) Our internal bodies are very strange, characterized by a recession from awareness and control. When you swallow a chunk of apple you can’t tell for certain where the sensation ends. The yogic quest to master prana, therefore, seems in part a response to the feeling that our inner spaces are infinitely other. 4) We most definitely feel separated or even exiled from the flesh through sickness and pain. When ill, we lose agency. We must battle within and against the flesh to regain control of what we think we want to do. (The paradox here is that it is also pain and sickness that most shockingly embody us.)

In short: “I am not my body” has solid phenomenological cred. The problem is that the sentiment is too easily hijacked by the dogmatic impulse that projects multiple forms of dissociation, from the Shaynesque interpersonal trainwreck to the environmental savagery of evangelical capitalists.

But now I’m becoming aware of another possible – if indirect – usage of the meme. Connecting the dots of “yoga’s feminist awakening” over the past several years, from Judith Lasater’s protest of sexualizing adverts in Yoga Journal, to criticism of the “Slim Calm Sexy” franchise, to Melanie Klein’s searching inquiry into asana and dysmorphia, to Frank Jude Boccio’s questioning of the “body beautiful” in 21st Century Yoga, to Roseanne Harvey’s poignant “yoga body” experiment, “I am not my body” carries another resonance today. To make it audible, I’ll add a little parenthetical filler:

“I am not (your objectified/patriarchal/sexualized projection of) my body.”

Making the silent clause audible transforms the slippery meme from a phenomenological reflection, or a metaphysical deflection, into the political reclamation of the unceded territory of the oppressed body. The reclamation uses the meme directly against so many earlier religious usages. It leaves the door open for becoming a different type of body than the body that is framed and defined by the other. It whispers I am not the body you would have me be.

(The most radical expressions of the “I am not my body” reclamation may come through the experience of  trans persons. Jessica Savano used the meme plainly to crowdsource funding for the documentary that would tell the story of her transition . She asked the society that labeled her body in an overdetermined way to contribute to undoing that determination.)

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2. Not in the body, not the body, and not the body you would have me be

 

An interview participant in my project on yoga injuries helped me see this more clearly. A lifelong spiritual seeker and athlete, she described a period of intense asana practice in a major urban center, in a physically competitive studio environment alongside “ballerinas who knew no pain”, who dropped back from standing into full wheel and then pushed back up into scorpion. She forced herself to postural extremes while adhering to the studio’s strict vegan dietary regimen. She felt “rock hard, radiant”, and generally elated with her prospects. She was socially rewarded in the community for her dedication and pizzazz.

However, a dissociative shadow slowly gathered. “I was very strong and healthy, or so I thought, but [this asana practice emphasizing hyperflexibility] was leaving my joints and tendons loose and susceptible to injury… I was not in my body. I had a vata disorder almost to the extent of a bipolar condition… I was unconsciously wasting away.”

Gradually she felt that this catabolic practice weakened her to a point at which she became vulnerable to injury outside of class. Hiking – always as effortless for her as the many sports she played growing up – now became dangerous in her new, destabilized, lighter, ungrounded frame. She blew out a knee and ripped up an ankle.

Looking back on it, she’s sharply aware of the hyper-excited spiritual bypassing of that period, and grateful for how it led her to a deeper existential honesty:

My body led me to a profound connection with Source. When my body started to break down, that’s when I needed to really refine my practices. I really get the message that ‘I am not my body’. I have no problem operating on the astral level. It’s easy. But in order for me to keep my body healthy? Now… I have to be more careful.

Through injury, it seemed that she felt liberated from the near-mystical requirements of asana and diet that her sub-culture taught. But another theme emerged as well. The subject told me that she had begun intense asana following a difficult breakup, and the practice seemed to renew her libido and love life. She described what she called her “vanity” at the time: hair extensions, emerald contact lenses, her Sex-In-the-City “Mr. Big” boyfriend, her globetrotting, her designer handbags, Caribbean junkets. “I was hot”, she said. I was “living the life.”

On one hand, practice brought physical elation through extreme effort and purification. On the other, glamour blossomed in the shala and under the grow-lamps of fashion. Both experiences renovated her self-image through very different sorts of embodied performance. Meanwhile, pain crept in: bursitis in the knees, a painful elbow, the ankle injury that eventually forced her to quit.

Before I was attuned to the objectification aspect of the story, I had asked her: “How did your transcendent attitude towards the body — that things should be opened, reduced, purified… that you could live on coconut milk, almonds, and crystallized ginger while pushing yourself so hard in asana — how did that dialogue with your experience of pain and injury?”

“I realized I am not my body”, she reiterated. “My true essence is not dependent upon this physical flesh-coloured spacesuit… I had to injure myself and gain forty pounds in order to release my identification with my body… There was a lot of ego I had to let go of…”

I came to hear two identifications released through the story. They are interwoven, but worth distinguishing. It sounded like the injury released her identification with the ideal of a transcending and impervious body. Then, it sounded like her shift in appearance released her identification with a certain kind of objectified beauty. This second identification is more relational, more socially constructed than the first. For her, “I am not my body” seemed to leverage a double release: 1) My vulnerability to injury does not define me, and 2) I will no longer be objectified according to a projected ideal. I will no longer conform to what anyone thinks my body should be. I am not what others need from my body. My body is not a display.

The release of objectification shifted the subject’s interpersonal experience. She reports: “I don’t look at other people for their externals like I used to. I really get namaste now: ‘the divine in me greets the divine in you’. I truly get that now. No bullshit. This has given me compassion.” She laughs broadly, with a relaxed wisdom.

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3. Body objectification — and adjustment — in the yoga studio

 

Let’s take this feminist lens wide-angle for a moment, zooming out from the personal. I wonder: what percentage of physical yoga practice and economy depends upon the projection of postural ideals that objectify the flesh? Beyond all of our growing sensitivity to individual needs and capacities and the increased emphasis on modifications and accessibility, how committed do we remain to the form and aesthetics of our postures? I’m sure we would like to say that we are dancing for ourselves alone, but are we not always looking, always seen? Who are we performing for? Others? Internalized others? And who is shaping our bodies? According to what ideals? Are those ideals safe and therapeutic, or do they enhance the forces of external or internal objectification?

It makes me think of adjustments. Of how 80% of the student population of modern postural yoga consists of people with female bodies. And of how the top strata of teachers is predominantly male. And of how much emphasis there is upon the practitioner conforming to the posture — so much so that teachers for decades now have felt free to invade the posture with a “correction”, despite the clear potential for injury. I’m thinking of how the most dangerous adjustments are all generally those that increase binding, folding, twisting, or backbending pressure. In other words: the adjustments that press for submission. I’ve never heard of an adjustment to a student in the Warrior series of postures causing injury — the student is generally expressing too much power and freedom. But when the student is pressed to be smaller, more compressed, more tangled and twisted and submissive in form, the risk of injury rises.

Where does this presumption to intervene and correct come from? Could it be continuous with the long-standing impulses of patriarchal culture that cannot view bodies, especially female bodies, beyond the economy of ownership, beyond what they should do, beyond what they must eventually do, which is to submit? T. Krishnamacharya was an outstanding modernizer and innovator at the cusp of yoga’s global surge, famously progressive in inviting women to share in the heritage of practice. But as much as culture changes, it hangs on. What are we to make of the fact that at least two of his most accomplished students have risen to their well-deserved fame despite aggressively adjusting and correcting the bodies of mostly women — by many reports helping them to “open”, but also as though they should conform to some ideal of mobility, adaptability, thinness and grace that will likely injure them to reach? To study with these leaders and be adjusted by them seems in part to say “I surrender to your vision of what my body should be.” Actually, it may be less personal than that: “My body surrenders to your idea of what bodies mean.”

Slavoj Žižek says somewhere (who can keep track?) that capitalism requires flexible workers. Likewise, patriarchy demands flexible women. It makes me wonder if I am not my body might at times be the shadow-statement of a wish for stronger boundaries, uttered by those who yearn for fuller agency. I am not my body = You are not my body.

Several years ago, I stopped adjusting my students physically. Not only because I realized that my (substantial) asana training was insufficient to the physiotherapy-level interventions that it encouraged me to perform, but also because I realized I was unclear about why, beyond preventing injury, I wanted to intervene into the space of another person’s body at all. What did I want my student to do? Why? How did I want her to express herself? Why? I even stopped giving verbal adjustments for the most part. I still remember the moment that I approached a female student to give a very benign suggestion regarding femoral grounding in the back leg of a standing posture, and then I stopped in my tracks, realizing that I didn’t feel I had the authority to interrupt her process. I didn’t know what her history with authority was and how she might respond to an exchange she found critical, regardless of how relaxed I was in my approach. I flashed on something larger as well – that this person is inheriting two centuries of vigorous attempts to reclaim bodily agency, and do we really need another man in the world telling women what to do or how to look? (Of course, this is all in the abstract. In that personal moment, it’s just as likely that she would have benefited from the attention and direction. But I had to take a pause. She is not just the body I am seeing. She is not a body for me to interfere with.)

When I teach now, I no longer look at a posture as something to do, nor at the student as someone who should do it. I see the posture as something to try, and the student as someone who might find it interesting, with or without the potential benefit of my experience, which may or may not apply to them. However they engage the posture, it will be with their body: the body that they are, the body they live through, a body I am not, a body that does not exist as I experience it but as they do, in a way that I will never fully know.

Realizing that you can never fully know someone — because you are not their body, which means you can neither possess nor change them — is at the root of being able to love them while glimpsing your own strangeness, and while keeping the bullshit to a minimum.

 
 

9 Comments

  1. Brilliant!

  2. James

    And what of the transgressive chodpa ? – eschews conventional memes of corporality only to recognize that in sacrificing/offering, one realizes corporality to be the locus of generosity. Memes of embodiment and dissociation as swirling faces of a flipped coin

    • Good reminder of chod. I haven’t thought of that in a while. My first sadhana with the Gelukpas had a dismemberment visualization that is relevant here as well. I’m sure I’ll be weaving it in at some point.

  3. James

    Image: outside the Shala, Foucalt blasts from his thigh bone trumpet, appended with a megaphone, “Discipline and Punish” and we come to realize the institutions of priveledge and power behind the methodologies we naively or unquestioningly adopt

  4. anonymous

    The warrior ‘pose’ that –can– injure (who needs adjustment to injure themselves?) is one where the individual then ‘surrenders’ into a forward fold over the front leg (‘bent’ knee or no).

    There are simply as many ways to ‘press’ the body into obedience as there are people ‘trying’ things.

    I would contend that this ‘trying’ may just be a natural instinct. Some kind of ‘imperative’ we are some helpless against.
    Sadly, being ‘busy bodies’ (there’s a term!) this ‘imperative’ –is exploitable. By ourselves and by others.

    But I do love the thoughts expressed here by Matthew Remski.
    –There is some ‘truth’ here.

    For sure, getting on in years allows one to drop the notions of ‘perfection’.
    We do accept that we are –not– vying for mates, I guess. Vying and trying.

    Beyond reproduction: This is where/when the individual has fewer concerns about ‘the’ look.
    — How to ‘get’ attention.
    Becoming free to cultivate a relationship with ‘fashion’ that is some childlike. Takes time to wind back down.
    Trying.
    Things on.

    Finally, the stakes –at the of the bell-curve of life– (beginning middle and end) are not about pro-creation or being ‘loved’ romantically and/or/as a possession/object in the crucible of the ‘meat market’.

    Meat market// Production of meat.
    -The biological imperative and the ‘being a body’.

  5. Matthew, the layers of insight in this writing are beyond what I can respond to in an enthusiastic note written on a slow moving train gliding south next to dark water late on a school night. But I’ll try. [And finish at home later, giving it some of my last night before my partner arrives home from a month away in Burma. This is a good way to spend an evening. The note became so long and fun I’ve copied it into a fresh post on my own blog.]

    Lately much of my reflection on problems of identity, agency, will, and self consist of recognizing how many unconscious assumptions I carry around embedded in the terms of any equation like “I am not my body”. This turns into recognizing more clearly the nature of the words themselves, as if I have been objectifying and dominating them all these years, forcing them to serve my narrow parochial purposes, when in fact they’re much vaster than I have ever thought. Here’s an equation:

    X ≠ Y (where Y = “body” and X = “I”).
    But if Y = not just “body, but “my body” then X and Y are still in relationship — — ownership, but I don’t know what’s the right math symbol for that. I’ll go with this, which gives a sense of hierarchy: X(Y). [It’s not perfect, so if a logician has the better symbol, lmk!]

    The equation then is: X ≠ X(Y)

    Stated like that it should be obvious. How could “I” ever be both owner and possession at the same time? I’m splitting hairs on the semantics because I think the implications of the phrase point to substantial issues in how we understand this whole problem, from Shayne to adjustment in asana. (This argument is Nagarjuna’s, btw, so I’m not just making this logic up.)

    First, the equation names one manifestation of self as not true or essential (self AS body) but doesn’t challenge the other (self OWNS body). It says what I am not, but assumes that “my” body is mine. This leaves the/”my” body in the position of the slave, the objectified, the commodity, a thing to be owned. To push back against this clearly harmful vision of bodies I understand as fundamentally a feminist act, since women’s bodies have borne the historical force of this domination, this dis-em-bodiment, more fully than men, though all bodies know it some, and men have surely suffered as well.

    If I OWN my body, then the politics and legalities of possession all come into play. If you violate MY body, I can sue you under the same legal system whose primary purpose is to protect property. In some ways it’s the same crime. Of course I’m not saying that violation of non-bodily property and bodily property are in any way ethically equivalent, but that under this implication of this language they may be on the same ontological spectrum.

    When I offer to this body emancipation from being MINE, some energy that’s maybe like equanimity surges up, framing all my problems as errors in agency. If it’s not mine, and it certainly isn’t me, it also isn’t my responsibility, in a strange way. I know this is veering dangerously close to transcendence, disembodiment, spiritual bypass. But what if it doesn’t go there? What if “I” (or the felt sense of presence, agency, witness, lover) move in an intimacy with sensation, space, and palpable form that is closer than close. Not separated by even a hair. I sense a softness and permeability, but not soft like comfortable. More like a hologram, where everything is made of the same substance. The space around me loses depth, which I perceive as “distance from me”, and instead the world feels extraordinarily close.

    This is basically a not-self teaching. The dialectics of compassion (self and suffering other) and interdependence (self and other in mutual influence) both are metaphors that rely on the image of separate selves in relationship. Without denying its utter realness, this separateness is the personal or relative. As in “everyone is my relative”. (Not my self, just my relative.) Love lives here.

    Ok, fine. But you’re preaching a sermon about the reality of difference. About respecting the relative. That bodies ARE very much ours, each of us, and that it’s vitally important to learn how to respect the boundaries between things, like people. The boundaries that are not just necessary as shelter for the wounds of trauma to heal, but the subtler politics of power, gaze, invitation assumed, offered, taken, given. Can I reframe the radical not-self teaching to acknowledge and love the relative while not solidifying the ontological error that leads to so much pain?

    Because the problem with “my body” isn’t just that it’s logically indefensible, but that this view is at the root of so much distress! How many of our social, psychological, spiritual ills have a taproot into the belief that I am this body? How can I resolve this while still standing firm for justice and personal empowerment?

    For me, the wide-angle lens helps. As Ken Wilbur says, “transcend and include”. I must include identity, difference, relationship, friction, vulnerability, and all the qualities that SELVES manifest in the world. But I want to never lose sight of the much vaster stage on which they dance. My practice lately is something like this:

    1. Engage, connect, be human. Love people, deal with my psychology, and invest in relationship. Don’t turn away.

    AND… (that first part is the standard gospel of my sexy Bay Area progressive yoga crowd… this second part gets less press around here…)

    2. Drop it all. Over and over. Let go of being anything to anyone. Let the world be. See things without thinking I know what they mean. Be available to live or die in the next moment. And treat everything that appears as a flowering of the one thing that’s always happening.

    *
    If we take away “I am not my body”, yoga philosophy is fine, because it never said exactly that anyway. It said something much more complex and subtle. But if we take away “I am not my body” we pull a vital block out from under the unstable asana called Modern Postural Yoga (MPY). As you say so clearly, the practice of pushing bodies to their edge and then celebrating that unhealthy edge as beautiful and sexy (and spiritual), IS the disembodiment that the phrase tilts off balance to become. And of course the capitalist infrastructure of MPY also depends on this alienation from the body, from its desires, its rhythms, its aging, sickness, and death.

    To say “No, I AM my body” is to reclaim sensitivity, softness, flesh, hunger, grief, joy, sexuality from Lululemon, ToeSox, and every [f*ing] other greed machine capitalizing on our new favorite spiritual exercise routine. It reclaims bodies that are exactly the shapes they ARE and have exactly the tendencies and preferences they HAVE. Just go for it with the being and ownership. We need to do this to counteract the poison.

    But to go deep into the body reveals other truths. Not “deeper” truths, just other ones. This body is mostly non-human bacteria and cellular creatures with different DNA than me. This body is embedded in cultural, sexual, historical momentum that in many ways IS my bodily experience, like the felt sense of being a 43 year old married, Bi, Latino, convert Buddhist, philosopher, yoga and meditation teacher, musician-dancer, PhD student, in Northern California with a really great community of friends… and the details go on forever. All of this makes/is “my” body. Because everything is conditions.

    So where does that leave the first reclamation? The empowering stance that my body is mine, and not to be dominated? There’s a Śaiva teaching that says, roughly, “It’s like you’re an actor on a stage. You have your role to play. Play it really well! Passionately. With conviction. But don’t ever forget that you’re an actor.”

    Do the whole show: body, power, relationship, justice.
    But also — and I’ll assert, do this Every Day — remember you’re not that.

    *
    Matthew, you put the iconic pic of Marina Abramovic at the top of your piece. Are you saying that she’s an example of someone who really performs Being Her Body? Or the opposite, that through her austerities (tapas) she shows that she isn’t? I think it’s the former, especially now that she’s a grande dame and diva elder of the scene. You could as well have put a pic of the starving Buddha (so I did). Both in the phase of their sadhana (maybe like the yogi in your piece) where pushing the body to its edge felt like the path. The Buddha found the Middle Way, rejecting self-punishment as misguided. He reclaimed his body. I’m not sure Abramovic has done that yet in her public work. And I don’t think western yoga culture has yet either.

  6. Regarding the contention that capitalism requires flexible workers, an alternative frame might be: Capitalism requires workers whose perceptual style testifies “I am not my body”.

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