Fieldwork Play: Health as a Social Currency

April 2016

This blog entry reflects some reflections on my preliminary research findings from my multi-site feminist ethnography of yoga communities. I held two participatory action research sessions last month as part of the fieldwork. From the image above, you’ll see the callout, which did not generate as many participants as I would have liked, but we still had a great discussion with the group that did come. There seemed to be a lot of interest on social media, and then I waited for responses. And I waited some more. A generous colleague at York who specializes in fat studies and critical disability studies had consulted with me on designing the call for participants, and we were both dismayed to discover that as one person I spoke to told me, “folks who identify as not fitting into yoga classes might not actually want to talk about how they feel they don’t fit in.” I am still processing the sessions through my field notes, and have yet to transcribe the conversation.

I am particularly interested in the notion of health as a social currency, which was the impetus for talking about yoga and health in a group session. Social historians have demonstrated the convincing power of media and advertising on consumers that their food, clothing or fitness activities can produce ideal citizens (Lears 1983; Crawford 2006).  We see this in the yoga world a lot, with advertisements in yoga magazines and online for clothes, props, mala beads, essential oils, supplements, and a whole other pile of things available to purchase, all designed to “enhance practice.” Is it possible to buy peace and well-being? I’ll share a reflection on that Pandora’s box in a future post.

 We talked a lot about the misguided notion of a perfect yoga body at the second participatory action research session. Even for people who are interested in de-bunking some of the dominant ideologies about body image, the thought that a person can have perfect health, or shape, or diet still punctuated our discussion. The participants were able to identify, however, that fat shaming is covertly prevalent, or even overt. One participant shared about her experience demonstrating yoga poses for her teacher in her class. The teacher had asked this participant to demonstrate poses for her because she had some kind of injury. Our participant had just had a baby not long before this experience and told us,

the teacher said, “wow I can’t believe how flexible you are, even though you are this chubby.” She sent it in front of everybody! Like it was a compliment. And some people were like, “yah!” I didn’t know what to say. I just carried on, but I felt really bad. I was already struggling, your body really changes after pregnancy!”

This brief but powerful moment demonstrates the many contradictions in the yoga world. On one hand, you’re supposed to be who you are and very accepting of everyone else, and on the other, there is body shaming and criticism that tells people that they have to strive to be something else. This moment also is a reflection of the ways in which some yoga teachers make a habit of praising flexibility. What this excerpt of the participatory action research session indicates is that people are beginning to see the problems in the yoga world as it is hegemonically structured. There are some shifts, and we are seeing them in small ways. For example, there is a community-based yoga and acupuncture centre in Brooklyn NY called Third Root. Its mission is that,

social justice is at the core of healing. Among our goals are to challenge systematic health disparities, hierarchies within different modalities of healthcare, and to provide a different model of care that grows out of love. We work to provide holistic healthcare for everyone, in acknowledgement of the living realities and histories of the many communities that our clients and students come from. We are also a worker-owned cooperative that believes in work place democracy.” (http://thirdroot.org/about-2/)

I have not found a yoga centre in Toronto that is like Third Root, although there are a couple of community-based acupuncture clinics modelled on its concept. There is a yoga studio not too far from where I live in downtown Toronto that was trying to create a positive space initiative, but after some very sad events including a change of ownership, this is no longer happening. The good thing is that there are other sites where yoga practitioners are pushing back against mainstream, hegemonic yoga.

In Toronto, former co-owner of Downward Dog Yoga, Diane Bruni is challenging the validity and usefulness of the Ashtanga yoga system. She had shared extensively with me about her experiences in waking up, having cancer, and stepping out of Downward Dog, which she characterizes as learning how to fall, and spiralling out. These days, Diane’s teaching practice reflects her process of undoing as she looks beyond what is now considered “traditional” yoga and into functional movement. The spiral forms of movement that Diane is exploring reflect what she considers to be the spiral nature of life. You fail, you fall, and you get up and go again. Now two years after her cancer treatment, Diane has shared with me that she let go of any desire to fit into a normalized body ideal. In a recent class where we were rolling around on the floor and she was crawling underneath us, she laughed and said, “that’s what happens when you get old! You don’t give a shit anymore!”

This is, as I understand it, the queering of yoga. It doesn’t need to perform femininity or sexuality. Queered yoga doesn’t need to fit into an idealized body norm. Diane’s maturity, and I don’t refer to her age, asks people to reconsider how “good” they are at yoga, or whether “good” or “flexible” are even important.

Below you will find the powerpoint slides that I created for a presentation of my preliminary fieldwork findings for my dissertation research that I did at U of T’s Sex Salon last month. Feel free to peruse. Feedback is always welcome. This is still a work in progress.

turning-yoga-on-its-head

 

 

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