In Neil Pearson’s Mettaversity presentation on how pain science can inform yoga practice, the paradox sharpened. This is what I gathered: Continue reading “On Pain, Awareness, Self-Regulation, and What People Want in Yoga”
Honestly I’m conflicted about spotlighting this article (trigger warning: predatory gaslighting), but I think exploring it might be instructive. My intent isn’t to isolate this individual any more than he’s isolated himself. It’s to show how Yogaland is woefully ill-equipped to engage the Trump era because of this malicious fact:
the discourse of neutrality, openness, and empathy can be effortlessly co-opted by a cynical and grandiose narcissism and used by those whose job it is to put others into psychosomatic stress positions and presume to shape their inner lives. This has always been a problem. Now it’s a cultural crisis.
A shorter version of this article appeared in Guardian.
Is yoga a sport? A therapy? A religion?
If you’re not a yoga insider and you listened to British Wheel of Yoga Director Paul Fox and British Hindu monastic Swami Ambikananda joust over these questions on BBC this Monday (time cue 2:50), you’d be none the wiser. Their prickly duet sang of a subculture-turned-industry that not only can’t decide which of the three it is, but for decades has based its mystique on the tensions between them.
The question at hand is whether or not British yoga is ripe for regulatory intervention through alignment with a National Occupational Standard. Instigator Fox says yes, because he claims yoga is causing physical injury — but he can’t say how much — and that some teacher trainings are too short – but he won’t say which ones. Defender Swami says no, because she claims yoga is a religion, and regulation would constitute a neo-colonial intervention into an ancient tradition.
Obscured from most observers would be the fact that these are two power brokers wrestling within yoga’s confederacy of cults, in which charisma and zeal consistently outperform evidence.
When Fox asserts in science-y terms that yoga practice can deliver medical benefit through the guidance of expert instruction, but it can also injure people if the instruction is poor, he sounds reasonable. However, hard data on both the good and bad of yoga postures is very thin. Fox seems to be upselling and crying wolf at the same time, and as the director of an organization leveraging membership dues to lobby for regulations that would surely validate its own “expert” trainings, his motives cry out for a grain of salt. Especially when he punches down at less-moneyed guilds like the Independent Yoga Network, which recently gutted Fox’s proposal with a few curt bullets.
About the upselling. Research into yoga’s benefits is surging, but it faces definitional, methodological and conflict-of-interest obstacles. Whose yoga is being tested is the first question, followed by what that yoga consists of. (These are the same questions that Fox’s regulation project would have to dictate answers for.) Then there’s the fog of self-reporting, and the fact that yoga tests are impossible to control or double-blind. And from the beginnings of the modern yoga in 1930s India, researchers have been over-invested in positive outcomes. They’ve either been self-promoting teachers, propagandists, unwitting pseudoscientists, or a blend of the lot.
Research conflicts continue. An example: Fox’s own teacher, yoga anatomist David Keil, is currently undertaking a broad survey of yoga injuries. It looks like a noble effort, well-supported and designed. But will Keil really be able to objectively assess whether his and Fox’s particular slice of the yoga pie – the Ashtanga method, famous for its joint-punishing acrobatics – is more or less safe than any other?
But I can understand Fox’s alarmism about injuries. When I started publishing on yoga’s shadows two years ago, I too was outraged that people should be getting hurt when they were looking for healing and succour. I quickly realized, however, that my crusade was about something deeper than the torn hamstrings and shoulder dislocations that could more easily happen in Crossfit or tennis. I learned that what little hard data we have shows that injury rates in yoga are quite low. And in more than two hundred interviews with subjects injured doing yoga, I’ve found that “expert” teaching is as much a predictor of injury as a preventer.
Why? Because key experts at the forefront of yoga’s globalization in the 1970s had some ideas about the human body that mingled the medieval with the naive. In his bestseller Light on Yoga, Iyengar suggested that placing one’s full weight of the body onto the head in headstand was a great idea. Pattabhi Jois – Fox’s own root-guru – said that his repetitive Primary Series was “Therapy for the Body.” Along with the echoes of their abusive childhoods, they passed these axioms down through training programmes where elaborateness projected legitimacy, and students matched cash with devotion to make their tuition.
My research has led me to believe that if there are injuries to worry about, they’re not primarily from particular postures or inadequate training hours. They come from dysfunctional learning relationships in which the abusive attitudes and behaviours of top teachers are internalized by students. If I were Fox, I’d be less interested in micromanaging the resumés of workaday British teachers than in sussing out the lingering effects of Iyengar battering his students, or Jois sexually harassing his.
For her part, Swami Ambikananda seems keen on a different kind of micromanagement: that of the image of yoga itself, to protect it from business-oriented interlopers like Fox. But when she claims that she stewards a 5000 year-old tradition that’s religious in nature, and Hindu in essence, and that regulating it would continue the barbarity of the Raj, she stretches the ligaments of credulity in a posture that many right-wing Indian politicians would applaud. Her argument should make atheist, agnostic, and Buddhist yogis nervous, even as it dodges the possibility that public oversight might prevent yoga lineages from falling into the psychopathy that religions are so good at covering up.
In fact, certain yoga regulations could even protect Ambikananda’s own school from negative aspersions. Her “Traditional Yoga Association” claims its spiritual heritage through relationship to Swami Sivananda. Unfortunately, so does the Satyananda School of Yoga, whose worldwide organisation has been rocked by allegations in Australia of fraud and child rape. With both schools claiming the same spiritual lineage, wouldn’t the Swami’s students be comforted by knowing her school was independently approved as a psychologically safe space? Because traditionalism, devotion, and positive orientalism give no insurance of kindness, safety, or sanity, maybe some regulation really is in order. Not of postures, but of power and projection.
I think the British Wheel can stop spinning on this one. The invisible hand is never a satisfying answer, but simple market pressures are positively impacting physical safety standards in classes worldwide. Trainings that want to be competitive now hire bonafide physiotherapists or osteopaths to teach the anatomy and physiology segments of their programmes. “Biomechanics” and “functional movement” are the new buzzwords of Yogaland, and the language of trauma sensitivity is starting to make trainers aware of both therapeutic possibility and overreach.
If the shouting dies down, consensus may gradually develop around touchy issues like the safety of headstand, passive stretching, and whether yoga’s flexibility fetish is dangerous to the hypermobile, or needs to be supplemented with resistance training. If we’re really lucky, an organic discussion will also emerge about a yoga teacher’s scope of practice. This is sorely needed when the commodified vision of teaching is limited to physical skills, and the traditionalist vision is bloated by promises of salvation.
While it all shakes out, people who just want to feel the loveliness of yoga can remember a few simple pointers. If you move with the simplicity and curiosity of a small child, you’re unlikely to hurt yourself. If a teacher seems to have an agenda for your body you don’t understand or didn’t consent to, they need to go to therapy.
New practitioners should also know that yoga bureaucrats cannot guarantee yoga safety. Nor can yoga priests. And that yoga bureaucrats who want to regulate often stand to capitalize on controlling the conversation, while yoga priests who want to resist regulation often stand to benefit from an absence of scrutiny and critical thinking. But if you seek out independent, low-key teachers who don’t put on airs and don’t lay their trips on your body, you might find their expertise offers something neither regulations nor religions can guarantee: humble service.
This notable comment about cultural appropriation in yoga just popped up on my post called “Am I Even Teaching Yoga Anymore?”
Notable, because it shows how reasonableness can occlude emotional intelligence. I’ll paste an excerpt in here in full and then offer some commentary below. Continue reading “Discussing Cultural Appropriation Amidst the Yoga Trolling”
One of the richest things for me about presenting on the post-extreme-asana paradigm with Diane Bruni is listening to her describe her former capacity to tolerate and then sublimate pain while she practiced.
“You get really good at directing your mind away from pain,” she said at a recent event, “or reframing it, or feeling the cortisol and endorphins you’re releasing as pleasure.”
As she’s talking, Diane will half-gesture at some of the things she used to do and teach. At one point she begins to lift her left leg up with both hands as though she were about to put it behind her head. She gets half-way, her spine begins to flex, and she quits, laughing a bit, and sets her leg down.
And then I’m flashing back to the first time I went to her studio, probably 2005. There she was in the Mysore class, rolling effortlessly through dozens of legs-behind-the-head postures with her eyes closed, in a deep trance.
I remember watching her back then and thinking to myself: she has something, she’s discovered something. She has a space of her own. She’s free. Continue reading “When Yogis Stiffen Up And Find the In-Between”
B.K.S. Iyengar would have been 97 on Monday, and Google honoured him on the home page of globalization. The guru, rendered in cartoon avatar, doodled through pigeon, triangle, and headstand twists. The illustrator gave him the silver mane of his elder years, but also the litheness of his youth.
My first reaction was cozy. “Google” can still be a fun word, and who doesn’t love the doodle? The white page implies a wintry playground, and the brown stick figure sweeps angels into the snow of search-engine possibility.
For a moment, I felt a warm sigh roll through me: “The practice is truly for everyone. Yoga has come of age.”
But what age?
An age in which it makes perfect sense for techno-capitalism to co-opt yoga as its go-to religion. In which a virtual power aligns with an embodied practice to foreshadow its plans to reach into our very breath and cells with its web-crawlers. Continue reading “Guru Google”
Last updated: December 6th.
Liquid Facts, Solid Derision
On Friday, November 20th, the Ottawa Sun broke a story that went viral. The global backlash has distorted and minimized an issue that South Asian thought leaders in yoga culture have been grappling with for years.
“Student leaders have pulled the mat out from 60 University of Ottawa students,” the story began, “ending a free on-campus yoga class over fears the teachings could be seen as a form of ‘cultural appropriation.'”
The class was administered by the student-run Centre for Students with Disabilities (hereafter “Centre”), under the umbrella of the Student Federation of the University of Ottawa (hereafter “Federation”).
“Jennifer Scharf,” the piece continued, “who has been offering free weekly yoga instruction to students since 2008, says she was shocked when told in September the program would be suspended, and saddened when she learned of the reasoning.”
The Sun reported that Scharf was told via email that:
“Yoga has been under a lot of controversy lately due to how it is being practiced,” and which cultures those practices “are being taken from.” The centre official argues since many of those cultures “have experienced oppression, cultural genocide and diasporas due to colonialism and western supremacy … we need to be mindful of this and how we express ourselves while practising yoga.”
In a phone interview with me, Sun reporter Aeden Helmer clarified that these quotes came from a single participant in a 17-page email correspondence between the Centre, the Federation, and Scharf that ran from September through November.
The Sun article concluded with the comments of Federation official Julie Seguin, which argue against the validity of the cultural appropriation reasoning. Helmer confirmed via email that Seguin’s quotes were drawn from that same correspondence, which suggests that the Centre and the Federation were not in agreement on the issue as it was being discussed. Continue reading “Yogagate: The Downward Dogwhistle Story”
It was impossible to get a conversation going. Everybody was talking too much.
– Yogi Berra
A while back I posted this article about meditation. It suggested that if we think of meditation as an internal conversation, we can stop wondering about the best techniques or the true self or ultimate states, and start asking about what kinds of conversations are useful, and what good conversations feel like. I argued that the tension between our private practice and our social reality might be softened if we model our internal dialogues upon what we desire from our relationships.
But the article was terribly long, and terribly long articles can feel like one-sided conversations. So I thought this shorter and (I hope) more conversational version might help. It’s still in beta mode.
Sexual objectification dehumanizes, hollows out subjectivity, strips agency. It’s the most virulent bug in the social software. Marketers exploit it for maximum return.
But when the target is a gorgeous male politician who works it hard by duckfacing the international press, the creep factor gets lost in the giddiness.
Hotness and hope are commingling in Canada’s Camelot.
And anxiety too. A lot of men out there, including me, just had their repressed dysmorphia torqued up with a big homoerotic rachet, wielded in the manly hands of Justin Trudeau. We’re poking our bellies, searching for abs. Continue reading “It Makes Sense that We’d Sexually Objectify Justin Trudeau, for Just a Little While”
“What does anxiety feel like?”
I’ll ask the question in groups beginning to study Ayurveda. The first round of answers rolls out:
Worried. Concerned. Apprehensive. Uneasy. Fearful. Agitated. Nervous.
They’re all great words. But, I’ll suggest, as psychological synonyms, they might not get us any closer to what anxiety really feels like.
What does “worried” feel like, after all? How does it feel similar to or different from “anxiety”? Continue reading “What Do You Feel? Ayurveda and Becoming the Poet of Yourself”