On November 1st I’ll be releasing a prospectus for the book slowly emerging from this project, in conjunction with a crowdfunding campaign. I’d like to preview a bit of that document here, and ask for responses to a strange question:
Do you sometimes have the feeling that there are two bodies on the mat: the body you have, and the body you fantasize about?
I’ll explain how I think this relates to injury after a bit of background. One of the draft excerpts I’ll include in the prospectus describes several theoretical lenses I’m using to understand and analyze the stories my interview subjects are so generously providing. The lenses are, so far:
- phenomenology (the attempt to pay full attention to the raw, felt experience of asana),
- biology (the attempt to bracket off metaphysical concepts such as prana to understand the kinetics and neurology of asana sensations),
- the intersubjective (how we “do” asana to each other, as teachers, students, and consumers of practices and images),
- feminism (how MPY is a story of and by women), and
- cross-cultural studies (the attempt to understand how asana feels in the bodies of different practitioners depending upon their power within the hunger games of global capitalism).
And then there’s psychoanalysis.
Psychoanalysis, I’ll admit, is a rather greasy and chipped lens through which to view yoga. It’s atheism and materialism will alienate many. It can be a killjoy to most “spiritual” aspirations and all feel-good marketing. Plus, large swaths of the Indian intelligentsia charge that Western academics like Wendy Doniger and Jeffrey Kripal have been using it to extend the habit of pathologizing their culture, ever since the colonial invention of “Indology”.
I’d like to do my best to set the politics of this gingerly aside (and to defer the issue of whether psychoanalysis offers any cross-cultural validity) and simply use it to see if it offers compelling insight into why some of us might feel a tad schizoid on the yoga mat, practicing in or with a body we may hate with one breath, and exalt with the next.
At its best, psychoanalytic literature provides rich insight into the process of self-formation, both through and against the development of an independent body. It tracks the early childhood attachments, and strategies for self-soothing and the acceptable expression of desire. It is very concerned with how a sense of selfhood displaces, satisfies, or neutralizes bodily needs, and whether resentment or even enmity towards the body can evolve through this process. It offers multiple narratives for the origin of self and body images: the internal ideals and disappointments that mediate both solitary and social actions. What is yoga, if not the active adjustment or even manipulation of our self- and body-images?
Psychoanalytic insights into how early family structures influence the formation of the self now have widespread cultural currency. We know that how a child is cared for or neglected, how her space is invaded or respected, how she is made to feel guilty for existing, or like she’s the very centre of the universe — this is crucial history for understanding the kind of body and world she feels herself to occupy as an adult. If yoga is pursued by many today in an attempt to feel comfortable in their skin, well-regulated in relationship, mindful of their needs without feeling needy, interdependent as opposed to co-dependent — the broad findings of psychoanalysis can be very useful. But I’ll focus on just one of its findings here.
The British psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott described how a child who realizes that the parental object (usually framed as the mother, although today the gender-role essentialism of this position is receiving justified critique) cannot fulfill her every need may choose to interpret those needs as unworthy or even shameful. To manage this shame, the child learns to repress her needs by creating a “false self”, who masters the performance of a cheerful, apparently self-sufficient persona, refusing to display any need that would inconvenience the neglectful parent. (1965)
We know this person: nothing is ever wrong in her life. Even the wrong things are welcomed, divine challenges. Not only is it illegal for her to be publically miserable, but she dedicates herself to evangelizing happiness to every dark corner that dares to remind her of what she’s repressed.
Decades later, in her amazing work on the psychology of anorexia nervosa, Suzie Orbach extended Winnicott’s idea of the “false self” into the idea of a “false body”. She suggests that as soon as the body reveals itself as needy, vulnerable, farting, menstruating, asymmetrical, or in pain, a sense of shame might overcome the person that can only be managed by fantasizing a body that must be incapable of producing these dark things. The false body is toxically vitalized by the anxious hope to please others through the performance of beauty and strength. The “truer” body — that vessel of aches and pains, fear and trembling, insomnia, frustrated urges and uncertain purpose — doesn’t go away, of course. It is still the lived-in body, wearing the fantasy as a disguise.
[W]here the developing child has not had a chance to experience its physicality as good, wholesome and essentially all right, it has little chance to live in an authentically experienced body. A false body is then fashioned which conceals the feelings of discomfort and insecurity with regard to the hidden or undeveloped ‘inner body’. The ‘false body’ is, like the ‘false self’, precarious. It works as a defense against the unaccepted embryonic real body. Again, like the false self, it is malleable. In attempting to gain external acceptance, the “false body’ is fluid and manipulable. The woman in the ‘false body’ becomes used to trying to reform it along approved-of lines. It does not provide the individual with a stable core but a physical plasticity expressing a complex of inner feelings.
It’s all so yoga. Orbach uses the language of “inner body” and “embryonic real body” (and later, “real self”) in opposition to the “false body”. This would seem to mirror many metaphysical streams in yoga that locate the source of bodily suffering in the repression or distortion of that subtler internal body that is closer to a real self. In many forms, yoga seems to be saying that the illusory physical form you identify with distracts you from the wounded energetic pattern that made it. Turn your attention to that wounded inner being, therefore. When you see what it actually is, it might dance freely.
Orbach suggests that in the person with anorexia this tangle of real and false bodies leads to tragically divisive behaviour:
She is caught in a tension. The separation from her embryonic self is at the same time an attempt at protecting it and an expression of her destructive impulse towards it. The push towards the latter comes out of conviction that the real self is bad, dangerous and poisonous. The real self has needs, and the mother’s early failure to meet these needs are the proof of their ‘illegitimacy’ and ‘the badness inside’. The needs are what send people away and the needs are the reason that the person is not adequately related to. But since she does indeed live in her body, the bad object encroaches insistently, she cannot be released from it. (Orbach, loc. 1732-1747)
Here’s what I think: some people might be getting hurt in yoga because they are practicing in the bodies they fantasize about, instead of the bodies they actually have. Bodies they fantasize expressing a happiness that is not truly there. Bodies they fantasize as expansive when they actually feel like retreating, or expressive when they feel choked. What happens to the tissues when the mind presses them into the performance of a fictional suppleness and strength? Can the fantasized body push the real body, the inner body, too far, too fast?
A brief personal example: I had a chronic hamstring injury for over a year that came in part by working towards Hanumanasana. As I worked, I would often visualize Hanuman’s heroic leap from the Himalayas to Lanka and fantasize about that flight, that buoyant freedom. The wonder and devotion I felt in my heart could at times overwhelm the pain in the back of my thigh. But at other times, the pain seemed to amplify my devotion. Whose body was I practicing with, and towards? Is Hanuman’s body any different as a fantasy object than the body of objectified beauty?
What a tangle of matter and ghost, as Leonard Cohen sings.
The advice of Patanjali seems to warn exactly against working with bodily fantasies. The path of the Sutras proposes that the inner body of memory and habit emerging from socialization must be straightened out first through good ethics and interpersonal hygiene. The yamas and niyamas are directed at the subconscious patterns that generate a tense, distracted, and delusional gross self. Once these are pacified, the argument goes, the gross self of the body (a formerly “false body”, perhaps) can be repurposed through asana and breathwork towards a new type of interiority that goes beyond the psychosocial target of psychoanalysis, penetrating into the very heart of what it means to be a conscious subject.
But modern postural yoga really doesn’t pay that much attention to Patanjali’s developmental arc, in part because it is far more influenced by the argument put forward by the more impatient Hatha literature. The Hatha Yoga Pradipika, for example, presents the gross body as the first site of work and revelation. Without exploring the body first through asana we risk amplifying our internal splits by simply paying attention to them. In Saraswati’s preface to Muktibhodananda’s commentary on the HYP the Swami states:
Self-control and self-discipline should start with the body. That is much easier. Asana is discipline; pranayama is discipline; kumbhaka (retention of breath) is self-control…. Why do you fight with the mind first? You have no power to wrestle with the mind, yet you wrestle with it, thereby creating a pattern of animosity towards yourself. There are not two minds, there is one mind trying to split itself into two. One mind wants to break the discipline and the other mind wants to maintain the discipline. You can find this split in everybody. When this split becomes greater, then we call it schizophrenia. (1985, 6)
I agree with Saraswati in a general sense. But I don’t think his position is adequate if we want to explore the question of what kind of internal or external authority is disciplining the body, and according to what ideals, and whether the body we’re practicing with is the one we actually have, or the one we want to have.
If you find this idea resonant (or not) — if you’ve felt in practice the dual bodies that psychoanalysis seems to describe so well — I’d love to hear from you in the comments, or privately at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Muktibodhananda. Hatha yoga pradipika: the light on hatha yoga : including the original sanskrit text of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika with English translation. Munger: Bihar School of Yoga, 1985. Print.
Orbach, Susie. Hunger strike: the anorectic’s struggle as a metaphor for our age. New York: Norton, 1986.
Winnicott, D. W.. The maturational processes and the facilitating environment; studies in the theory of emotional development,. New York: International Universities Press, 1965. Print.
And: shouts to Melanie Klein, Anna Guest-Jelley, Chelsea Roff and Roseanne Harvey, who are doing such excellent work on the body-image front in yoga culture. Their work is opening a big door for me and many others. And to Rachael Blyth for referring me to Orbach: thank you so much.