“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:
- “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.
- “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.
- “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.)
- “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.)
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.
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.