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

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