Metamorphosis Part 2: The Secret Life of a PhD, or, the truth about PhD trauma

“One of the hardest things I had to do, and one of the best things I did,” my friend Başak said to me as we sipped maté at El Almacen last weekend, “was let go of my PhD.” I cupped my hands over my ears to listen attentively. We had just watched the cathartic last performance of Secret Life of a Mother, written by Hanna Moskovitch and performed by Maev Beatty. The play removed the mask of motherhood, and gave voice to the pain of countless women who struggle with the anxious, painful and bloody bits of pregnancy, miscarriages, labour, and early mothering. Lately, I have been thinking that I am experiencing another form of post-partum depression. It’s not a baby that I have recently birthed, however, it’s my dissertation. This post will explore the links between the subjectivities of being a new mother and a new PhD. What does it mean to birth a PhD as a mother? How do we navigate the shift in identity from PhD student to PhD, and what will our trajectory be if we do not land an academic job?

Good Enough Mother, Good Enough PhD

Like new mothers who worry they are not a good enough mother, I also wonder if I’m a bad PhD. Am I a failure because I have not yet landed any sessional teaching work? Was my dissertation even good enough? If you’re a new mother, you can tell yourself, just as Hanna Moscovitch did in Secret Life of a Mother, that you ARE a good mother. My identity as a PhD student might be shifting, but I am also still a good mother, and I did finish my PhD. There is an expression, “the best dissertation is a finished dissertation,” so I can safely say I did a pretty good job. I keep thinking, however, there is more to do; more to research, and more to write and publish.

Last year, I worked as a teaching assistant for a 2nd year undergraduate course in Women and Gender Studies called Motherhood and Mothering. We used novels and sociology literature to help students unpack the patriarchal ideologies of motherhood and understand possibilities of feminist, empowered mothering practices. One of the concepts of patriarchal motherhood is developed by Australian feminist social theorist Susan Maushart, and is known as “The Mask of Motherhood”.

The takeaway from Maushart’s argument is that patriarchal ideologies of good motherhood are predicated on mothers being happy, acting as though they have it “all together” while managing the household, the baby, relationships, and even paid employment. The result of these ideologies of motherhood is that mothers feel pressured to perform a version of themselves that may not be true and be impossible to achieve. We want to exude success at motherhood; no one wants to admit that they may be having a hard time. Maushart’s argument is that these ideologies of perfect motherhood contribute to the oppression of mothers and by extension, women everywhere, because we do no one any favours by pretending everything is okay when in truth, everything feels difficult and ugly. If a mother in this culture, or arguably, many cultures, shares that they are not enjoying breastfeeding, not working, and potentially a loss of intimacy with their partner, they may appear to be “failing at motherhood,” or worse, failing at being a woman. This perceived failure stems from the very problematic assumption that a woman’s biology is her destiny and she must be happy with it or at least strive to attain the biological imperative of bearing children. The ideal mother must be happy with being a supermom.

I’m 14 years into mothering, and my mask of motherhood has been off for a long time.  I take the risk of sounding like I complain, but I don’t pretend that motherhood has been easy. I encourage mothers younger than me to be authentic with the expression of their experience. As a mother who defended my PhD just shy of 2 months ago, I have been struggling with just who, or more precisely, what my identity is.

One might think, then, that since I have gone through the post-partum and identity recovery experience, I should be easy on myself transitioning out of my PhD, too. I should know what it’s like to manage identity shifts, and so you’d be thinking, you have a kid, that’s one of the hardest things to do, ever, so this PhD ending thing should be no sweat. I birthed the PhD, and now my life is different. No teaching, no chapter deadlines, no more revisions. For the first time in 9 years, I am not working as a teaching assistant at a university and I am wondering once again, who I am. Now that I am done with my PhD, I create my own deadlines with article submissions to calls for papers and job applications. As one retired professor said to me compassionately the other day when I asked her for post-PhD advice, “now everything’s simple… like finding a job, starting a career.” The thing about completing a PhD is not unlike having a baby. The hard part comes after the kid is born, when you realize that your life will truly never be the same as it was before the baby.

As I confided to Başak the other day about the post-PhD doldrums, she validated my misery that in this period, it really does feel like everyone else has it better. Then I realized, new mothers often feel the same, thinking that every other mom is better than they are, and is having an easier time of it. Can we take off the mask, now, please? I am not, however, a 30 year old PhD graduate, so I don’t have the same mobility to move around the country or the world chasing post-docs and limited term academic appointments. Sometimes I wonder what my path would have been like if I had done my PhD younger, rather than starting at 40 after having already having a career. Check out this article about doing a PhD in later adulthood https://www.cbc.ca/radio/thesundayedition/aren-t-you-too-old-for-that-the-late-life-plunge-into-a-phd-1.4858402/

This article unfortunately makes the problematic inference that older adults who do a PhD “for the love of learning” are in an economic position to be able to afford being in such a situation of low funding levels and precarious work. Of course, some folks are not experiencing life as a PhD student that way because they are retired from a successful career or have a supporting spouse, neither of those scenarios were mine. I looked at the PhD opportunity to expand my knowledge and skills so that I could continue being inspired and socially impactful in my work, while supporting my young children as a single parent. My youngest daughter has no recollection of her mama not being in school.

Başak has a 3 year old who she birthed 4 years after finishing her PhD, and has a rewarding role as a researcher, so it sometimes seems to me that her life is awesome while mine is hard. Our different situations mean that we can support each other though difficulties with our respective experiential knowledge. As I bemoaned my untethered professional life, Başak shared with me how alone she sometimes feels as a mother whose family is back in her country of origin. Başak is in Canada on her own with only her husband, and that lack of immediate, real time connection, like, mom, can you please pick me up another pack of diapers on your way over here, has huge implications for her as a mother. Together we realized, though, that just as our culture worships the idea of motherhood as a moral imperative or a religion (Thurer, “The Myths of Motherhood”; Michaels and Douglas “The New Momism”), we also fetishize women with PhDs. On one hand, women with PhDs seem very interesting to non-academics, but the reality is that we are recovering from the trauma of feeling disconnected from working so hard toward completing the dissertation and doing the defence at the cost of our social, physical, mental, and financial health, and then being cut off from the university if there is no academic job at the end. Academic women with children are always negotiating more hoops than those who do not have that care work to do on top of teaching and research (there is so much to say on this, but that’s another post).

Untethered

This early phase of the post-PhD means that I feel mostly untethered as I figure out what I shall do professionally. I’ve been told by three other PhD folks, including the friend quoted above, that I can expect between 6-8 months of this period, and plan on applying to between 60 and 80 jobs with few callbacks. Folks ask me, “So what kind of work are you looking for?” I realize that with my transferrable PhD skills as an analyst of cultural and social trends, a writer, qualitative researcher, storyteller, organizer, memorizer, teacher, presenter, and diplomatic stakeholder communicator, I can do so many things, and I’m open to all kinds of opportunities. In truth, I could reinvent myself as almost anything. Sometimes untethered could mean being as free as a bird to fly and explore the world, but these days, untethered means being disconnected. It all depends on how I spin it.

We look for tethering in a variety of ways. Discursively, academia tells us that if you don’t get a job in academe, then you’re a second rate PhD. Thanks to some increasing visibility of an alternate discourse to the PhD path, however, websites such as insidehighered.com, conversations are starting to open up about what’s sometimes called “alt-ac” jobs. So tethering can happen in a variety of ways, and it doesn’t have to only be academic. My friend told me that for 8 months after completing her PhD, she did what I am doing: connecting with friends through social meetings, attending conferences and networking with folks who do jobs that we might be interested in doing, taking small contracts, and writing job applications. I have spent my entire day, as I have been most days, researching opportunities and writing emails to people that I might consider gatekeepers, or holders of information to help me somehow propel me forward on my post PhD career doing meaningful research and knowledge sharing on gender, health, and work. This article by Virginia McGovern in my LinkedIn feed effectively offers a strategy for post PhD networking :https://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2018/06/18/advice-how-reach-out-and-network-effectively-opinion

McGovern says, “I knew that to be happy, I needed a role that was challenging, creative and impactful.” Do you know what you’re looking for? McGovern said that she sent out an email “listing the job titles, industries and dominant companies I was interested in to my friends and family, along with a request to introduce me by email to anyone they knew who could help me learn more about them.” Would I do the same? I’ve been working on this as a potential, but haven’t quite gotten up the nerve! Meetings with friends and colleagues have been helping to mitigate the loneliness and isolation of being untethered to university life. I have, to some been extent doing what McGovern suggests, although I have yet to do this bulk email as she suggests. It is still possible.

Neoliberal entrepreneurialism, or not

It turns out that universities are breeding grounds for the worst in mental health. I learned at this year’s York-Waterloo Early Professional Training Workshop in Urban Studies that increasing numbers of both undergraduate and graduate students are dropping out of their programs. City Institute Director Linda Peake explained, “The paradox of mental health, is that it is invisible if you don’t experience it in your life.” In academia, the fear that you don’t have anything to say, or that what you have to say isn’t worth hearing can lead to depression. Dr. Peake recommended a book that should be on every academic’s list: Depression: A Public Feeling. Durham: Duke UP, 2012 by Ann Cvetkovic. I have yet to read the whole thing, but one of Cvetovic’s arguments is that mental health in the academy is in big trouble because of the pressures of academic performance, impostor syndrome, the anxiety of being judged on your intelligence, all put together with the precarity of working in university. The academy creates a culture of PhD trauma, wherein the university is not a meritocracy; it’s more of a feudal system where lower ranked academic workers pay tribute to those more senior. “Your social location is written on your body,” said Elsa Koleth, a post-doc presenting at the City Institute of York University at the workshop, “where the rules of the game are not designed to help you succeed.”

As academic researchers, we are expected to produce intellectual innovation with minimal to zero funding and little to no promise of future engagement from the academy. The extractive nature of the academic publishing is that we work for free so that we can earn an important line on our CV. We have to “work it” all the time. There is an expectation that you have to be constantly working and if you’re not, then you are feeling guilty. If we start to falter, or struggle with mental health, folks are reluctant to admit anything because they are afraid of jeopardizing their position, so it’s next to impossible to get the support. Structural changes can’t happen if folks only seek individual accommodations. During its mental health week, the university tells us what we should do individually, such as take walks, or take breaks, or make nice food, but it doesn’t make any structural changes such as offering flexible deadlines and more sensible exam schedules. I have seen my students crumble right in front of me at an exam as they tell me they have three exams in one day, but were too afraid to speak up sooner. They thought they would have no support in changing the situation.

Our identity, whether it be a mother, an academic, or someone who currently has no foot in any career door is not really anything more solid than that ephemeral “I” anyway. To draw on the teachings of yoga (somebody gimme a line here!), we know who we are when we ask who we are. We are “That”, and is both matter, and non-matter. Our knowledge of self does not need to hinge on what we are doing, but our value of who we are is culturally constituted through our society. The yoga teaches us that we can free ourselves from these socially mediated rules that dictate our value by our productivity and economic status. Yoga, and I don’t mean the stuff you do on a sticky mat with nice tights and tank top, teaches us that we are fine as we are, but once we are at peace with ourselves, we free ourselves from suffering.

Someone asked me after dance last week, “so how have you been keeping busy now that you’re finished your PhD?” For a moment, I didn’t know what to say, because I felt flabbergasted at the thought that someone might actually think I wouldn’t know what to do with my life. I smiled, and said, “I’ve been very much occupied.” There were many more things I could have said in addition to this, but I just smiled at her. The PhD was painful and at times messy, but knowing that one day I might be able to let go of my PhD, may, in fact, be freeing.

If you are in a position similar to mine, feel free to reach out and share how you’re managing this part of the post PhD process.

References:

Cvetkovich, Ann. Depression: A Public Feeling. Duke University Press, 2012

Douglas, Susan J. and Meredith W Michaels. “The New Momism.” Maternal Theory: Essential Readings, edited by Andrea O’Reilly, Demeter Press, 2007, pp. 617.

Maushart, Susan. “Faking Motherhood: The Mask Revealed.” Maternal Theory: Essential Readings, edited by Andrea O’Reilly, Demeter Press, 2007, pp. 460-481.

Thurer, Shari. “The Myths of Motherhood.” Maternal Theory: Essential Readings, edited by Andrea O’Reilly, Demeter Press, 2007, pp. 331-344.

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Metamorphosis and Endings (Part 1)

 

July, 2018:

I saw a dead Monarch Butterfly while wandering through a small wooded area at Hillside Music Festival in Guelph, Ontario in July of this year. My union, CUPE 3903, had been on strike since March 5th. I became acutely aware of its resonance with what has been happening with the University and my own work trying to complete my dissertation. Culturally, we consider butterflies to be beacons of change, but what does a dead butterfly signify? To me, the dead butterfly is representative of letting go, but a dead one conjures the sort of feeling that the thing you’re changing into is actually a lost opportunity.

About Hillside: [I was high on endorphins and oxygen from camping, ecstatic dance, food, love, play, and inspiring music honouring the identities and stories of Indigenous peoples and women (2018 Polaris Prize winner Jeremy Dutcher https://jeremydutcher.com; Cris Derksen http://crisderksen.virb.com; LADAMA http://www.ladamaproject.org; Djazia Satour http://www.djaziasatour.com were some of my favourites this year). In the midst of the joy of the music festival, I found this dead butterfly. My partner put these remains into a container to one day mount in glass as a form of momento mori, a visual reminder of the eventual ending of all things and of our eventual death (see this for more info and how I learned of the term back in art school: https://www.tate.org.uk/art/art-terms/m/memento-mori).]

This blog explores the blessings and curses of CUPE 3903’s strike,  how I’ve managed, and how I articulate these experiences with yoga. How does how yoga intersects with the longest academic labour disruption in Canadian history?

The answer: because capitalism.

Two major phases are coming to an end in my life. The first, I have already discussed in Notes from the Precipice of Ontological Angst.  The second phase was never meant to be a phase, but forces outside myself made it the longest academic strike in Canadian history. #20WeeksOnStrike and #WeAreStudentsToo are the new hashtags theCUPE 3903 Social Media Picket Captains and I created together, as we rushed to promote member morale and improve public opinion of the union as the Ontario Conservative Government legislates us back to work. See https://cupe.on.ca/ford-government-begins-mandate-violating-workers-rights/ for more information.

People have asked me to reflect on how this strike has affected me, and it has occurred to me that it would be wise for me to share here the ways in which not only my finances, but also my studies, my post-PhD employment search, and my physical health have suffered. I don’t need to write the causes of the strike, but CUPE 3903’s Chairperson Devin Lefebvre had 8 minutes on CBC the other day to talk about it; here is his talk with Matt Galloway: http://www.cbc.ca/list…/shows/metro-morning/segment/15558152. As always, you can check CUPE 3903’s website for more information on the strike. https://3903.cupe.ca/2018/07/18/cupe-3903-strike-newsletter-july-18-2018/

I made some amazing friends on the picket line. While we walked around in circles at the picket line, we cut through the depression and demoralization and had deep, exciting conversations and shared sweet moments of solidarity. The following images are not just photos of people posing for a selfie, but rather, these photos represent solidarity in the face of a capitalist university institution that wants to break our union.  When I came to the July 18 rally protesting the Ontario government legislating us back to work, I was delighted and encouraged by the warm supportive hugs from my colleagues from the picket lines. They are a testimony to the sweet connections we share through collective struggle. CUPE 3903 is part of a social movement fighting not only for equitable labour conditions, but also for truly accessible education.

IMG_7143

A colleague and I at the beginning of the strike. Note double scarf, parka, & hood.

 

IMG_8208

Roberta and I at the Week 20 CUPE 3903 rally at Queen’s Park

The truth of a 20 week strike means that I lost the last two months of my PhD, but I did not allow this to be a failure for my own work. I managed to not only submit my dissertation draft, but my committee also voted it defensible on June 7. I may have lost funding because it is tied to my contract as a CUPE 3903 Unit 1 member, but I still did not allow that to stop my progress, because I refuse to be victimized by what basically has been a lockout. I lost time that I would have been able to work on my dissertation revisions and finish it in better time. I might have actually been able to graduate in October 2018 rather than February 2019 in absentia. I lost the last month of teaching a course that I loved, Motherhood and Mothering. This means that I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye to my students, or teach them the important material on African American and Indigenous Mothering. They lost valuable instruction time, and had to learn the material independently, rather than learn it in the context of the classroom. And then, I had to grade it all.

The truth of a 20 week strike means that the time I might have spent working on my dissertation and teaching was lost to picket work, because in order to earn the same amount of money I took in doing the above-mentioned things, I had to pound concrete with my feet for less than half the dollar value amount at double the time. Factor in the commute up to campus 3-4 times weekly instead of the 1 time I was doing before the strike, and that is a lot of time lost for a single mother grad student! I lost the health of my feet, because all the concrete pounding from walking in circles in winter boots and wool socks created plantar fasciitis. I can not run anymore without having to deal with rehab time to prevent recurrence, so this, too, is a loss. My feet will recover, but my feelings still hurt because of the reason they’re sore.

I met some amazing scholars on our picket line, also known as “Chimneystack”, which is named after the street we picketed on, and organized by departments. On our picket line, I had the opportunity to get to know people from Math, Psychology, Film studies, and History, as well as folks from Gender, Feminist, and Women’s Studies that I had never met before. I learned things about animal psychology I had never thought about. My CUPE 3903 Chimneystack family was wonderfully supportive, and I enjoyed supporting them, too. Once the weather warmed up enough for me to not have to wear gloves, I used my shiatsu therapist skills to give chair massages to folks needing a bit of a break.

Due to my injured feet, however, I had to come off the picket line in May. Picket work is precarious labour. I lost the solidarity with my picket colleagues, but only temporarily. I was able to do alternate duties through 8th Line on Social Media Picket. I have been able to do gratifying 8th Line work again and I do feel like I’m making a difference. Working on Social Media Picket, though, introduced me to more academic women balancing motherhood and disabilities with their studies. We were working together to create a supportive virtual environment through the CUPE 3903 social media platforms, but we also supported each other with our encouraging messages to each other throughout the day. Now that we have been legislated back to work and the strike is over, we have shared with each other that we’re missing our frequent contact.

On July 18, CUPE 3903 and its supporters, CUPE Ontario, OPSEU, OCAP, and UNIFOR held a rally at Queen’s Park, which ended in holding up one of Toronto’s busiest intersections, College and University, for 20 minutes, with police support. Each minute that we rallied in the intersection signifies one week of the strike. The pictures below document some of these moments.

IMG_8207.jpg

CUPE 3903 holding up the intersection of College and University. Kind of ironic that our union holds the record for longest academic strike in Canadian history where these two street names intersect. Not exactly a coincidence, since Queen’s Park, the seat of the Ontario Legislature, is just north of there.

IMG_8200

Two of our members holding the remains of Doug Ford’s effigy piñata after it had been smashed. Note the candy on the ground.

IMG_8212

And then they burned it.

What did we learn from all of this? I’m not actually sure yet. For me, moving through this strike forced me to not buckle under the added pressure of having to earn $15/hour in a 20 hour week, in the cold. Being a part of this strike taught me to demand my own self care, and that other members of CUPE3903 want to support that. I am proud to be in this fight for the right to bargain for fair labour practices, because that is why this strike has gone on for so long. In the 2015 strike, I forged some strong friendships through our union solidarity.

 

My union has supported me through this strike. In my adult lifetime of working, I have not ever had a union behind me as I have over the past 5 months.

In teaching yoga, every yoga teacher was there for themselves or their own studios. The solidarity I experience through CUPE 3903 is non-existent in the yoga world. In the yoga communities I have been part of, we would talk about community, about being non-competitive with phrases such as “all love” and “love and light” and even “non-attachment” thrown in.

The thing is, capitalism overrides much of that nice talk. Yoga teacher solidarity actually suffers as a result of people competing to keep their studios and their classes afloat in a saturated market, and supplementing teaching income by selling products meant to support yoga practice.

I blame capitalism for dividing and conquering communities of academics and other educators who are trying to share valuable knowledge while earning a living. I blame capitalism for reducing a practice such as yoga, which is meant for union, spiritual growth, connection and a wholeness of being as a path to social justice, into commercialism and simple workouts. Our yoga becomes commodified, and as yoga teachers selling their practice, the self also becomes commodified. Most precarious workers would identify with this notion of the commodification of the self. See Joanna Johnson’s insightful  and resonant blog https://whisperingbodies.wordpress.com, which coincidentally encapsulates some of my dissertation!

While there is nothing inherently wrong with selling gear for yoga or doing exercise that makes your body feel good, there is a whole lot wrong with giving an impression that in order to do yoga, you need those things. Capitalism, however, thrives on creating a need we didn’t know we have, and then creates a desire for things we can’t obtain. If a person is able to wear and purchase conventional yoga gear and it is easy for them to attend regular classes, then this is great, but what can we do to make yoga’s benefits for individuals and humanity as a whole more accessible to those who are interested? The answer lives inside a complex network that takes equity, diversity, inclusion and justice into account. The model for accessible yoga is not only offering chair yoga classes, but to offer them in a way that is inclusive and removes barriers to participation. I have the honour of being a National Research Councillor for Yoga Service and Accessibility Canada; it is one venue through which a committed group of yoga teachers and educators are exploring these intentions. The website is currently in development as of this date, but for more info, please see http://www.ysacanada.org.

I have had some time to reflect on the ways that CUPE 3903 has helped support me through 21 weeks on strike. My approach to yoga and accessibility has informed how I have managed through this virtual lock-out and completed my PhD. I wanted to offer yoga sessions on the picket lines to support my fellow striking academic workers, but the weather was always against us, and then I was off the lines because of my feet. There were also concerns that if we looked like we were actually having fun on the picket lines, it would rile public opinion. So we stayed more low key. Instead, I offered to my colleagues my understanding of yoga philosophy as a way of coping through Administration’s tactics to break us. It is my hope that we are stronger for it.

Stay tuned for part 2 of “Metamorphosis and Endings!”

 

 

Notes from the Precipice of Ontological Angst

I am on the limbo-like precipice of completing my PhD and being on strike with the union for which I am employed as a university teaching assistant. I am in the limbo of having a complete dissertation draft with positive committee feedback, and walking in circles in order to earn strike pay. For one week in February, my partner and I were in Belize celebrating the completion of my dissertation draft. I devoured a novel and journaled, but I did not do any writing or post-phd job exploration work. We posted our pictures from our trip to friends and family, and kept informed of the impending strike, which I knew was imminent. When we returned home on March 3rd, I learned that my union, CUPE 3903 was on strike again, for the second time in three years (I have written about the previous strike in this blog, so you can find those musings in this site).

Below is a shot of my daughter and I when we attended the Good Friday CUPE 3903 rally on April 1, and I am proud that she supports the work that I do.

IMG_7318

 

As CUPE 3903 enters into the 8th week of the strike, I have some insights on what it means to be completing my PhD in an economic and educational climate that sees undergraduate and graduate students as basic income units. (See An open letter of gratitude in times of strike and stress for more information about CUPE 3903, and also https://3903.cupe.ca/news/ ). My dream of becoming a professor via a tenure-track stream position is eroded by the precarious labour in which I am disappointed to find myself. Many of my colleagues who I chat with on the picket line tell me that their plans of becoming a prof is shattered by the realization that the university only pretends to care about us. The university may say they care about research excellence, but the truth of placing its instructors in chronically insecure employment situations undermines the quality of the research we’re then pressured to produce. Another result of this is that teaching quality definitely suffers when instructors are often hired with only 2 weeks to prepare for a course.

While PhD students are not provided with what’s now called “alt-ac” employment paths, I do know that there are many rewarding post-phd career goals I can pursue. I refuse to accept the notion that not becoming a professor is a failure. Some people make a choice to not complete their PhD and this is also not a failure; it’s a choice to cut losses and do something else. That I’ve managed to get to where I am is sheer good fortune and determination.  Sometimes I think that another person in my situation, a single mother of two in her 40s, who is more grounded in reality might have made other choices. I could have chosen to remain in the field I was in previously as a shiatsu therapy and yoga professional, but instead, I wanted to pursue a goal that would ensure broader health access to marginalized groups because I was tired of providing these complimentary health care services to an elite group that could afford these so-called luxuries. I discovered the potential of working in social policy in order to advocate for equity-seeking groups. Through my PhD in gender, feminist and women’s studies, I think I have found a creative way to do that health justice work.

Teaching yoga was one way that I thought I was living my dharma, so to speak, back when I was in my early 30s.  I love sharing knowledge and reflecting on our learnings; I learn just as much from my students as I do from the texts I research and teach. Post Phd, I want to use my skills in service of social justice. As I dangle on this precipice of near PhD completion ontological angst, I ask readers to also consider their social location. Are you doing the work that fulfils you? Are you serving your community and nourishing yourself? What might you need to do to change this if you’re not? How can we support and love each other in order to help one another to reach goals? My dissertation findings about yoga communities point us toward thinking of a greater ethics of care, not only for ourselves, but for each other and for the world we live in.

On Healthism, Yoga, and Yoga Teachers: A Post-Structuralist, Feminist Political Economy Approach*

*excerpt from my dissertation chapter draft, “Yoga and Feminist Political Economies of Health”

Theories of Healthism

Margaret Lock and Nancy Scheper-Hughes’ (1987) classic discussion of the body as a symbol through which we can consider nature, society and culture explains the notion of the healthy body politic in harmony with the social world. As Lock and Scheper-Hughes explain, we can understand the healthy body politic as a body that conforms to discursive social regulations of both reproduction and individual discipline of the self (7-8). Drawing on the Marxist notion of the body as alienated and E.P. Thompson’s (1967) discussion of the body as subverted in service of industry, Lock and Scheper-Hughes suggest that the world in which we live is alienated from the body’s so-called natural state. Instead, they suggest that the body represents a form of “commodity fetishism of modern life, in which even the human body has been transformed into a commodity.” (22)

Yoga teachers fall sadly but neatly into this definition of the body as commodity as they run from one class to another in different locations, in order to lead classes in stress and body management to other workers. Like machines, the bodies of yoga teachers are expected to function optimally in order to produce yoga experiences that offer healing for the bodies of others. As we have seen in recent discussions on social media and in some yoga magazines, there is a rise of awareness about yoga injuries that both yoga practitioners and instructors acquire as a result of their practice.

Foucault’s (1978/1995) “docile bodies” concept is an important consideration in this discussion, particularly with regards to the ways in which yoga practitioners see hātha yoga as a health discipline that contributes to their self betterment. As Foucault explains, “discipline produces subjected and practiced bodies, ‘docile’ bodies. Discipline increases the forces of the body [in economic terms of utility] and diminishes these same forces [in political terms of obedience].” (138) This concept articulates well with my field research participants’ ideas of doing yoga as a good thing for themselves, as we will see in the examples later in this chapter. Many of the people I interviewed often said that they felt either pressured to do more yoga in order to be a better yogini, or they felt that they were not good enough because they were not practicing sufficiently and achieving certain levels of yoga poses. Drawing on Foucault’s discussion of the disciplined and docile body, I argue that the more a person practices yoga, the more useful they are as workers and if they are yoga teachers, they are also useful for workers. Furthermore, Foucault contends that disciplining the self makes it less likely to resist domination or regulation, a condition which manifests subtly and surreptitiously in the yoga practitioner as an embodied desire to conform to a physical or social norm wrapped in either goodness or happiness.

By extension of the notion of discipline in yoga, we need to also briefly consider Patāñjali’s tapas, which is the concept of heat, or concerted effort in practice (see glossary). I hesitate to use Foucault and Patāñjali in the same context, however, because of the risks of re-colonizing yoga by articulating European poststructuralism with yoga scripture. If I do this, am I not simply appropriating yoga for my own purposes? Or perhaps it is the opposite, that I am appropriating Foucault for my analysis of yoga, which could be permissible in this context. In continuing with the spirited intention to decolonize yoga, however, I do think it is worthy for a moment to consider tapas as a signifier of the good yogi.

I remember in my Ashtanga days when pushing harder toward the end range of motion of a stretch was the desired goal, and attaining the next pose sealed our success and perhaps approval of our teacher and peers. This ethos of concerted effort to the point of heat, however, often led yoga practitioners toward injury rather than enlightenment. While it is important to bear in mind that Foucault is referring to penal institutions, military barracks, and later factories and hospitals, he explains that discipline requires an enclosed, “protective place of disciplinary monotony” (141). It becomes possible, then, to articulate this kind of disciplinary space to the yoga studio, or yoga shala, as it is called in the ashtanga world, where discipline, tapas, and productive advancement in poses represents enlightenment and health.

This qualification of being a good yogini is predicated not only on health, but on disciplines of self-care. In Volume 3 of The History of Sexuality, Foucault (1984) explains the Epicurean philosophies that inform contemporary discourses on health. In particular, Foucault points out that not only does self-care take time, but it also is “filled with exercises, practical tasks, various activities. Taking care of oneself is not a rest cure. There is the care of the body to consider, health regimens, physical exercises without overexertion, the carefully measured satisfaction of needs. There are the meditations, the readings, the notes that one takes on books…” (51) To extend Foucault’s discussion to yoga then, is to understand that to be a “good” yogi, one must take good care of themselves, and this self-care is multi-disciplinary. Interestingly, many of the yoga participants in my field research focus more on the health regimens and physical exercises than the meditations and readings, despite an admitted awareness that yoga is more than just exercise.

This emphasis on health practices in the guise of self care leads to a cognitive dissonance for some yoga practitioners. Except for one particular locally renowned instructor who professes zero interest in meditation or scripture reading now that they have pretty much disavowed themselves of yoga altogether, most of the people in my study shared  that they feel they ought to read or meditate more, but can’t find the time. Furthermore, Foucault points out that self care is not actually only for the individual doing such activities, but rather it is a “true social practice.” (51) In his foundational article, “Health as a Meaningful Social Practice,” Robert Crawford (2006) contends that self care is an expectation that society places on the individual to acquire medical knowledge and other modes of disease prevention and treatment. Just as Crawford points out that people “come to define themselves…by how well they succeed or fail in adopting healthy practices,” (402) the yoga practitioner similarly defines themselves as worthy of the moniker, “yogi” by how much and how well they practice.This discursive notion that our identities are wrapped up in our productivity is never more underscored than through this articulation of the healthy body as useful, productive citizen.

We further complicate the issue with questions around authenticity in the yoga world. We have seen long, fiery, discussion threads on social media where people debate how authentic is someone’s yoga practice if they are not engaging with the Upanishads, the Vedas, or Patāñjali’s Yoga Sūtras. When people start making accusations of cultural appropriation toward those who practice only the physical aspects of yoga or commoditize yoga for the marketplace, we have to ask, who is in power here, and who is using that power over others for their commercial success? The feminist killjoy response is to call it as I observe it: most of the time, it is white women (aka “Yoga Beckys” https://postyoga.wordpress.com/2016/06/10/yoga-becky-hinduphobia/), who are oblivious to their social privilege. This social privilege, in part empowered by liberal feminism, enables white women to define their yoga as what they want it to be, regardless of yoga’s social and philosophical groundings in the sanatana dharma, also known as Hinduism. They may call themselves feminists and they may feel themselves empowered by a so-called divine goddess energy, but they generally do not have an intersectional analytic framework to see the imbricated oppressions to which their intentions of marketing abundance contribute.

So what do we do? We keep on writing, posting, and hoping that little by little, Western yoga practitioners will stop trying to divorce yoga from yoga.

In solidarity with yoga sovereignty,

Judith

The Final Push: On lethargy, writing, and the myth of the productive supermom

It is interesting how as writers race to finish a draft, we often hear the phrase, “the final push.” That is where I am now, racing to complete my dissertation in the next 6 months so I can get out of grad school and settle into PhD-worthy employment. The final push is that word-baby that is more like an albatross on my back. The feeling is such that I want to crawl under a rock, to wriggle away from that albatross, but I know that I must continue on. I don’t know if this is typical for many folks trying to complete their dissertations, but at this point, I have this nagging sense of lethargy. They say that the only good dissertation is a finished dissertation, and so I’m going with that. Sometimes the feeling is actually akin to not caring anymore about writing about yoga and equity and diversity. But I know that’s not true; I’m just fatigued.  I know that yoga and its intersections with race, class and gender are still timely and important concepts to explore, so I’m not giving up yet.

One thousand words a day is my minimum quota, and I’m hoping that I can write a bit of blog to warm up my fingers on the keyboard. One of the writing exercises that I learned to do back in my undergrad days is what I call the automatic writing practice, where you sit down and write non-stop for a certain amount of time. I’ve since learned about a similar technique called the Pomodoro, in which each segment of productive time is called a pomodoro, and is separated by a 5-10 minute break in between each burst of work. At York University, where I’m trying to get my PhD finished, the Faculty of Grad Studies has in the past offered “Shut Up and Write” sessions, but I haven’t heard about these happening yet this year. I used to be a part of a writing group two years ago, but back then, I wasn’t quite ready to write because I was still doing fieldwork. Now, that writing group has dispersed and I’m deep in the isolation and what Brené Brown in her new book, Braving the Wilderness, calls “The Lonely Feeling”. It refers to the sensation of being alone even when there are people around, and ploughing through work that does not necessarily have a promise of reward, and that often isolates us from others. images.jpeg

I’ve heard it said many times that writing one’s dissertation is super lonely work, and I have hoped in the past that a writing group would help. Indeed, I have enjoyed the times I’ve worked in a cafe or in someone’s home with a colleague, and perhaps this blog entry, if anyone is reading it at all, is a call for that. Those co-working sessions have often left me feeling nurtured, supported, and inspired. So yes, let’s take these last two sentences as a shout out to anyone working on their PhD dissertation in the vicinity, or even via Skype, who would be willing to co-write.

I know I need to dive into writing in the morning. Somehow, the super-productive mom that I’m supposed to be performing does not feel like a cloak I can don today. As a single parent, I am torn between meeting the needs of my children and meeting the needs of my dissertation. But hey, what about the needs of me? The thing that falls by the wayside, of course, is my own self care, and resistance to this pressure shows up in the form of lethargy. That is where the blog shows up; I think this kind of writing is a form of self-care. I meditated for 15 whole minutes this morning after everyone was gone, did my breakfast smoothie thing, and sat down to write. I want to do some physical movement, but instead I’ll just think about doing it. I want to address briefly the tension between my position as a mother and as a PhD student, and the ways in which I can negotiate this through my teaching.

Working as a teaching assistant for the university is a blessing in many ways, because it takes me out of myself so that I can support my students. The course I’m teaching, Motherhood and Mothering, deals with the ideological myths and practices of mothering in our culture. It’s an interesting place to be in, teaching a course on maternal theory and practice. I get to teach my personal politics that I am living in at the moment, and each week, hold a microscope up to my own life. I try to avoid being overly personal, but my students like it when I tell brief stories about my own life and how it relates to the material they’re studying. There is part of me, however, that feels rather certain that I will not be working in academia and teaching barely matters. I know this isn’t true, because even if I don’t work in academia, I will still be doing some form of knowledge translation and presenting. The question remains, however, as to what that work is going to be. I’ll say it now in the form of a confession: I’m afraid that when I’m finished my PhD, I’ll be plunged into a huge void of unemployment. And then what?

For now, I have written a lot, and I should put some words into my dissertation now. Thanks for reading. Feedback and comments are always welcome. Because we are all searching to belong (Brené Brown, 2017).

The feminist yoga mom in three parts: Rumination on the body positivity movement as my own daughter struggles with loving her growing adolescent body

Part 1: On being a feminist mother

To celebrate a very special birthday last week, I took my 12-year-old daughter and her two best friends to see their favourite music artist, Sia, perform at Toronto’s Air Canada Centre. Not surprisingly, Shaina told me that her experience of the concert was less about Sia, who is pictured in the background of this shot below, and most profoundly about watching Sia’s favourite dancer, Maddy Ziegler (centre). img_3741

Shaina said with her customary convincing passion that watching Ziegler re-inspired her to want to return to contemporary dance, and that she wanted to reconnect to her “true dance form” and switch out of her hip hop class. She implored me to find out if I could make this happen, and by Tuesday afternoon, I had achieved success when I spoke with the dance school administrator. The catch was that Shaina had to also take ballet in conjunction with the contemporary dance class, and that meant that she now had to obtain ballet slippers, a black leotard, tights, and little shorts in time for the next day’s two back to back classes. I warned Shaina that ballet can be a strict discipline and that she might find it challenging at first, but she said she was into it, and I wanted to support her enthusiasm.

In order to get these things for Shaina, I have to say that I was what I call “mercurial mom”. I dashed from work, picked up Rachel and her friends from their school to take them to circus class, then picked up Shaina from her school, drove through downtown Toronto traffic to the dance gear store, picked out the stuff, got her a snack for her, and dropped her at the dance class to return in two hours after picking up Rachel. An hour later, Shaina phoned me, sounding so miserable I could tell she wanted to leave but knew she had to stick it out. I continued patting myself on the back about how cool I was to be so in tune with my daughter’s needs and making all these things happen for her so she could truly express herself through dance.

When I picked Shaina up at 7:30 that evening, she got into the car and said, “I never want to go back.” My heart sank. I just spent all that money and time and energy making all these things happen, and my kid was not into it. I tried not to be angry. “What happened,” I asked, remaining composed.

Through tears, Shaina told me, “The teacher was mean! She told everyone to put their butts in and suck in their tummies, and I don’t want to be body shamed!” I thought to myself, “Amazing kid, she sees through the dominant ideologies of the dance world.”

“And then,” Shaina continued, “she yelled at another girl for not having her ballet slippers! The girl told the teacher her mom hadn’t had a chance to get them yet, and the teacher said that she needed a new mommy! I don’t like hearing her talk like that about mothers! At least in hip hop class I can be how I want. I don’t want you to be mad, but I can’t go back to that class.”

What was I to do, but to honour those very perceptive, sensitive, and astute observations that Shaina had about the dance class? I told her that she could return to hip hop, but I also knew that I would be stuck with the now-unnecessary but no-returns-no-exchange dance gear, which is an expense I can hardly afford. My daughter felt better when I didn’t get angry with her, and I asked what lessons we could learn from the experience.

Part 2: The yoga of empowered mothering

In Everyday Blessings: The Inner Work of Mindful Parenting, authors John Kabat Zinn and Myla Kabat Zinn explain that paying attention to our children’s expressions, needs, and non-verbal communication is the most difficult but most rewarding task of parenting. This attending, they write, is tied up in their commitment to “live and parent as consciously as possible.” (2014 n.p) As I rush around from place to place, from admin job to teaching to writing, to chauffeuring, I occasionally scoff at the memory of having read this text back in 2009. What privilege it is to be so mindful, I snort to myself, resentful at what I perceive to be my occasional inability to be able to be so on point with my kids all the time. In attending to Shaina’s passionate desire to explore contemporary dance again after two years, however briefly, I had hoped to also be doing mindful parenting. What I came to understand from this whole experience was that in listening to Shaina’s reasonable plea not to return to the classes she sampled last Wednesday evening, I was empowering her by attending to her. This is what I understand empowered mothering to be, and through listening to my daughter’s truth about her desire to be dancing in a body positive environment, I was empowering her feminist sensibility, too.

Since teaching for Andrea O’Reilly’s Motherhood and Mothering course at York University last year, I became keenly aware that my only imperative as a mother is to be what O’Reilly  (2007) calls “Empowered.” There are five “As” of empowered mothering, as O’Reilly explains, adding that an empowered mother is not only good for the mother, but also for the children. Empowered mothering begins with the recognition that both mothers and children benefit when the mother lives her life and practices mothering from a position of agency, authority, authenticity, and autonomy.” (798) The fifth “A” is maternal activism, which I also apply to yoga and self-care practices, because current trends and past histories of yoga in North America demonstrate practitioners’ interest in not only practicing yoga so as to benefit those less fortunate in the world, but also to cultivate a social justice awareness.

I link empowered mothering as a conceptual framework to yoga as a practice for moving toward wholeness and realization of the self. Part of this self-realization is tied up for me in freedom from body shaming, which is an aspect of my PhD dissertation fieldwork (stay tuned for writing about that).  I want Shaina to have a healthy body image, and to love her body for what it can do for her rather than what it looks like.

Part 3: Yoga, the body positivity movement, and mothering as a mashup.

After I put Shaina to bed that night, I contemplated how the body love that I have been cultivating for myself, my yoga students, and my running buddies at #Tribe_Fitness, must also extend to my daughters. Now that Shaina’s body is turning more and more into one that looks like a young woman’s and she is nearly the same height and weight as me, I worry that she has a loving attitude toward herself. Surprise surprise, though, she tells me that she looks down at her thighs and thinks, “Fat,” and asks how she can lose weight. A few weeks ago, Shaina experimented with skipping breakfast. I allowed her to see what that felt like, and then suggested to her that skipping the first meal of the day would actually not work in her favour with regards to losing weight. I also gently reminded her that not only does her body need fuel, but that it is gorgeous, strong, and perfect.

Disclosure: I have not always loved my own body. Like many of the women yoga teachers I have interviewed in my research, I used to struggle to accept my body for what it is, while simultaneously disciplining it to perform as a yoga instructor, because I felt an imperative to exemplify a certain embodied shape. More than a decade later, I guide classes that encourage people to take up all the space their body needs to, and to embrace the strength their bodies’ size represents.

Earlier this year, I led two participatory action research sessions in which, amongst discussions of health ideologies around fitness and nutrition, we explored gorgeous round-bodied women doing strong, powerful yoga practices, such as Dianne Bondy (pictured below), Jessamyn Stanley, and Dana Falsetti.ardhalower_700_394_int

These examples demonstrate that there are many ways to resist hegemonic ideals about yoga bodies, and several of the research participants that I worked with in these sessions experienced for the first time that they, too, could feel good in a yoga class. I had created a gentle chair-based practice for them to experience what it means to move attentively, lovingly, and respectfully in the body that they inhabit. The body positivity movement in the yoga world is picking up steam, with Toronto-based Tiina Veer leading the way in her yoga for round bodies classes, and Shana Sandler’s chair classes at the Miles Nadal JCC. In the US, we are blessed to have other inspiring teachers leading yoga workshops, trainings, and classes on loving your embodied self such as Kimberly Dark, Kimber Simpkins, and Laura Sharkey.

The question remains: how do I connect this body positivity work with my motherwork? How do I empower not only myself in the work that I do as a feminist academic and yoga instructor, but also translate this loving sense of embodiment for my daughters? I answer this question conditionally, knowing that the answer is about as stable as a sandcastle. I have to attend to my daughters, experiment, a little, with what I say to them, and love them fiercely. If I show them that I am empowered, and that I love myself, then they will learn that too.

I’m sharing this in a public blog because I think that not only mothers, but also fathers, yoga, and movement educators need to ask these questions. It behooves us to teach our daughters to resist the hegemony of the images of women in media. One of the reasons that we love Sia in our home is that not only does she write and sing fun songs with uplifting lyrics of empowerment, but that she also has put her own physical image in the background of her music. Maddy Ziegler is Sia’s avatar, as I understand it, and I’m okay with allowing my daughter to explore her own avatar. My hope for you, dear readers if you’re still with me, is that you also want to look for ways to empower your daughters to love their bodies. Start by loving yourself.

Thank you for reading. I welcome comments and feedback.

On being the vulnerable observer: Or, Toward the fermentation of a Feminist Ethnography of Yoga

Anthropologist Ruth Behar writes, “Our intellectual mission is deeply paradoxical: get the ‘native point of view,’ pero por favour without actually ‘going native.’ Our methodology, defined by the oxymoron ‘participant observation,’ is split at the root: act as a participant, but don’t forget to keep your eyes open. Lay down in the mud in Colombia. Put your arms around Omaira Sánchez. But when the grant money runs out, or the summer vacation is over, please stand up, dust yourself off, got to your desk, and write down what you saw and heard. Relate it to something you’ve read by Marx, Weber, Gramsci, or Geertz and you’re on your way to doing anthropology.” (1996:5)

I am at that dusting-myself-off phase, chomping at the bit to make feminist materialism theory links with yoga, if only I could put my finger on what that actually is. What does it mean to dust oneself off, though? I think it is kind of like fermentation. I wait until the right time. I have sat at the sidelines of painful arguments in social media about the definition of yoga, and been heartbroken at watching my teacher lambast my friend. I did nothing but observe, for fear of breaking an ethical code of impartiality and confidentiality that I signed with the university’s Research Ethics Board. And so I have been sitting at my desk, trying to sort out the thousands of pages of writing by feminist critical theorists that I have collected, and I wonder how to write this theory chapter. If you know me personally, you will have heard me whine and complain about how my supervisor wants me to write this before having written up my findings. My anthropology friends tell me that it is unusual to do anthropology in this way, but my supervisor is an expert in feminist theory, not ethnography. And so it is.

My friend D in Brooklyn NY makes it sound so easy; and when we talk, I feel like I can do this. I got this theory chapter in hand; all I have to do is talk about how I’m making a critical yoga study that uses post colonial theory, embodiment, and feminist political economy, and then that chapter is done! Okay, pull the introduction out of the theory chapter, and I’m half way there. Like I tend to be when I stand at a dock hanging over a lake, I just need to dive in and stop talking about it. As I told my friend B last night, as he wondered about getting down to writing some music, it is important to listen to music first. It is the same with writing: sometimes when it’s time to write, I actually have to read a lot first. And then I can write, because what I have read is in my head.

bibliophile

So if you, like me, are feeling scared about writing, or squirming with anxiety about getting that theory chapter written, perhaps reading is the answer. I’m being kind to myself by writing about this impasse, because I know that it will pass. The yoga in practice here, then, is actually allowing the discipline to emerge with faithful patience and gentleness. I am steady, but also not attached to achieving a certain thing. I have an imperative to write two pages per day, but that can be in any format. I do some yoga asana, and I breathe. I wait for words to come. I listen to what the words of others may tell me.