The Embodiment of Yoga: An Analysis
I am ten years old. I giggle with my best friend, Heather, as we wait for our moms to finish their yoga class. We laugh at the way they chant “om” and go into strange positions. “Yoga is weird!” we exclaim when they finish their practice. My mom says that as soon as I turn eleven I can begin. I have no intention of doing so. I’d rather be writing stories or playing outside.
At first it may seem like the topic of yoga is far removed from a class about sex work, performance and feminism. However, I have come to learn that yoga, for me, is about being in my body and discovering how it is connected to wider politics. Ultimately, through yoga I have better understood my own relationship to the world. Yoga is not just about being on the mat, but it is how I interact with others, how I perform daily, how I feel when I wake up, and how I approach learning about my mind, body, and spirit. Likewise sex work can be an avenue into all of these topics of exploration and can serve as a gateway into better understanding the complexities of life. Sex work is ultimately an embodied practice, one that is deeply relational and affects the mind and arguably the spirit as well. Sex work is about bodies interacting- and the repercussions of that connection. Sex work is political; yoga is political too. Sex work and yoga can be sites of power dynamics, resistance, self-awareness, and economics. Exchange is inherent in today’s yoga world and is fundamental to sex work.
Both yoga and sex work are sites of intersectionality and a place of convergence for the politics of everyday life. This paper will focus on yoga in terms of embodiment, performance, and feminism, and aim to uncover the sometimes hidden yet pervasive politics that permeate the practice of yoga, and deeply affect those who are involved in the practice. Interspersed throughout this paper are personal reflections and memories of my yoga practice, to provide some ways that these theories and ideas are tangible, true, and real.
I am a cis-gendered, heterosexual woman of colour who has been practising yoga for more than half of my life (roughly 12 years). I am also a Cultural Studies student with a strong interest in feminist endeavors and I am minoring in Gender and Women’s Studies. These facts all inform my bias and standpoint. In some ways I am an insider when it comes to yoga, as I both practice and teach yoga in the community. I began doing yoga as a pre-teen, going to a local Sikh temple and doing Kundalini yoga with my mother and grandmother. On the weekends we would do yoga at a local community center. For the most part, yoga seemed removed from capitalism, colonialism, and politics when I was growing up. It was simply a way for me to relax three times a week and get more in touch with myself. When I was 20 years old, I decided to take my 200 hour teacher training at the Vancouver School of Bodywork and Massage and I came to a sudden realization that there are many forms of yoga and different values associated with each type. Although united by a common intrinsic philosophy, yoga is largely an art of interpretation and individual resonance. Since then, I have been teaching mainly in university campus recreation settings, providing yoga to students and staff at UBC Okanagan. I do not practice every day but I do my best to share and instruct what I know.
I am twenty years old. During my teacher training, our instructor Dan asks us to do handstands and headstands. I am baffled. I have never done either before even though I have been practising kundalini and restorative yoga for nine years. As others effortlessly push up into elegant inversions, I stumble and crumble and tumble all over the floor. I feel inadequate. How can I be a teacher if I can’t even do a headstand against a wall? Ironically it is only me (the youngest member of the class) and Mary (the oldest) who cannot do the advanced poses. We settle for a more humble yoga. One that perhaps doesn’t look as impressive. But as we breathe together, I realize that yoga is not about acrobatics. It is about being in my body, quieting my mind, and hearing my spirit.
All of these experiences have affected by identity as a “yogini” and inevitably shape my perspective on the world. Since getting my teacher training I have been very interested in sharing yoga with marginalized populations, and utilizing the healing benefits of yoga for people who wouldn’t normally use it, and analyzing the potentially problematic aspects of yoga. During critical points in my life, yoga has been there for me. It has saved me on several occasions. Yoga has calmed me, centered me, and held me. This paper is a continuation of many thoughts I have had over the years and allows me to critically reflect on my own positioning within the yoga community. Similarly, discussions around sex work allow us to locate ourselves. During our class, I came face to face with many of my assumptions about sex workers, violence, and stigma. I realized that I held a lot of stereotypical attitudes and ill-founded beliefs. It is useful to realize what kinds of privilege we hold and to take those into account when we interact with others and make generalizations and judgments.
An Overview of Yoga in the West
The popularity of yoga in North America has skyrocketed in recent years. In Vancouver, where I grew up, yoga studios are almost as common as Starbucks on street corners. Statistics Canada states that 1.4 million Canadians practiced yoga in 2005 and estimates of the number of global yoga practitioners are as high as 250 million (http://www.thestar.com/life/health_wellness/fitness/2013/03/19/yogas_evolution_from_basement_studios_to_big_business.html).
Angela McRobbie, in her ground-breaking article, “Top Girls? Young Women and the Post-Feminist Sexual Contract” argues that “under the guise of equality” young women are imbued with a sense of capacity and opportunity for achievement (718). McRobbie writes, “The meanings which now converge around the figure of the girl or young women (which, from a UK cultural perspective, have global export value including films like Bridget Jones’s Diary and Bend It Like Beckham), are now more weighted towards capacity, success, attainment, enjoyment, entitlement, social mobility and participation” (721). Women are seen to be active agents in the economic sphere. Pirkko Markula examines how an ancient Indian spiritual practice reserved only for men has been translated into a vastly different context and time. Today’s market of yoga lovers are primarily young white women. They are understood as consumers. Inevitably, neoliberalism has shaped and impacted the way that yoga is consumed and produced. For example, entire business empires such as Lululemon Athletica are built upon the lifestyle and identity associated with yoga – mats, accessories, fashion, etc. Kern points out in her article that over 5.7 billion dollars is spent each year in America on yoga classes and products (30). Sometimes I feel flabbergasted at the opulence and profit-based motives of yoga studios. I grew up doing yoga in a Sikh temple (which cost $10 by donation every month for our entire family) and at a community center.
The first time I try hot yoga it is for a hot guy. I am going on a first date and I am taken aback by the beautiful art, the impressive desk, the extravagant change rooms and showers at a well-known hot yoga studio in town. I walk into the heated room and before I begin sweating I cannot help but notice the wall of mirrors reflecting my image back at me. For the entire class I am concerned with the way my body looks in the mirror. “Will he think I’m fat?” “Does my sun salutation look flowy?” “Am I sweating too much?” I am so concerned with my appearance staring back at me in the jam packed class that I forget to breathe. As I glance over at his fit glistening body and his breathtaking abs, I realize I am not doing yoga, this is some kind of strange mating ritual instead.
Pirkko Markula is concerned with the way that certain bodies are privileged on the covers of Yoga Journal in her article, “Reading Yoga: Changing Discourses of Postural Yoga on the Yoga Journal Covers.” She states in her abstract, “However, on the Yoga Journal covers, postural yoga also developed into a practice of finding one’s ‘‘true self,’’ creating a lithe yoga body, and becoming a conscious consumer. When read through the covers of a popular magazine, postural yoga Americanized, feminized, and commercialized into a Western fitness practice increasingly governed by the neoliberal rationale.” (143). Markula utilizes a historical perspective within a Foucauldian framework to analyze how the covers of Yoga Journal have changed over time. She discusses the discourses of a lean, fit body being marketed as well as a lifestyle brand. She also seeks to understand the ways that yogis are constructed as “conscious consumers” and define themselves in regards to their purchasing power.
A section of Markula’s article is entitled, “The Performing Body.” In her introduction to this part of the paper, she writes, “The visible representations of the yoga body, similar to the media representations of other fit bodies, drew elements from aesthetics of the healthy looking body. The ‘‘looks’’ was, nevertheless, intertwined with advice on correct performance, prevention of physical illnesses, and with sexuality. These themes characterized a distinct yoga body.” (Markula 162). A specific image emerged in the 1990s of the ideal female body, slender and lithe doing advanced poses such as headstands, handstands, deep back bends, and arm balances (Markula 163). What kind of repercussions does this have on the general populous? I have known many people who are too intimidated to attend a yoga class, they are afraid of wearing tight lululemon pants and a sports bra. Many refuse to try yoga because they are inflexible and afraid of putting their body on display. The performative aspect of yoga places the emphasis on how one is perceived and seen. A hyper consciousness of being watched then arises and the attention is taken away from the practice.
Alternatively, I grew up doing most of my yoga poses with my eyes closed. The idea of yoga was to unite body, mind, and heart, so it didn’t matter what anyone else was doing. Quite often in Kundalini yoga I couldn’t keep up with ladies much older than me, so I just sat quietly or stretched out on my back when I was tired. It makes me sad that people decide to miss out on all the possible benefits of yoga because they are so concerned with what others think. I can relate to that fear, though.
I am on exchange in New Zealand at the University of Canterbury. Free yoga classes are held in a giant gymnasium. The floor is hard and there must be at least 70 people in the room. The teacher is incredibly flexible and incredibly beautiful. I am in awe as she effortlessly glides into her poses and provides options for advancing our practice. I cannot do any of the advanced poses. Once again, that familiar feeling of inadequacy rises like vomit. I can’t bear to be surrounded by all these beautiful people with beautiful bodies. I am less than perfect. I don’t fit in, I can’t keep up. So I leave and I don’t come back.
While yoga may be marketed towards a certain audience, there is still a diversity of people who practise yoga. For example, Edward Field’s essay, “Yoga and Body Consciousness” reveals the way that an older, gay man uses yoga as a way to love and understand his own body. Within the article, Field describes standing in front of a mirror, naked, and through yoga altering the appearance of his body. Yoga supports body consciousness for Field, and allows him a new and unique way to experience his body. As Field writes, “If our bodies are the record of our lives, my history was clearly built into mine.” (22). During my teacher training I learned that we “store our issues in our tissues” meaning that memories are embedded in our bodies. So are emotions, stories, and traumas. The body serves as a tool to explore the self, in yoga. The body is a gateway to the infinite, a glimpse into the divine, a chance to make friends with who we really are.
Yoga is deeply intertwined with concepts of embodiment, as many types of yoga encourage breath awareness and present moment body consciousness. For the purposes of this paper I will borrow a phrase from a medical sociology reference book, “embodiment refers to the lived body, our body-being-in-the -world, as the site of meaning, expression, and experience.” (Gabe 73). We are often encouraged to feel emotions and let them go in the practice, and are similarly encouraged to not get attached to any thought in particular. Often in yoga, a teacher will encourage students to feel into their muscles, to become absorbed by the sensations. A constant reminder throughout class is to avoid getting attached to any particular thought. When I teach, I use imagery of clouds in the sky as metaphors for thought. I say something like, “Imagine you are lying on your back in a field of green grass observing the sky. Watch the thoughts pass like clouds across the sky, simply sit back and observe, without getting caught up.”
For survivors of trauma, this disassociation may be harmful. As Anastasia Kirtiklis writes on her blog, Popomo Yoga, “If you have trained yourself to detach from your emotions (through meditation or otherwise) you lose the ability to feel even when you want to feel. Unfortunately, you can’t just turn off the painful emotions. The good ones shut down too.” (Yoga, Meditation, and Disassociation). Kern argues that bodies are sites of emotions and indeed, during my own teacher training I learned about the deep connection between emotions and bodies – I was taught that people store trauma in the tissues and muscles and that certain poses can activate particular memories. I have also undertaken trauma sensitive yoga teacher training with Yoga Outreach in Vancouver, and we were also instructed not to teach specific poses because they risk triggering people (particularly survivors of sexual trauma) and can require large amounts of vulnerability. For example, happy baby pose, which consists of lying on your back with your legs spread wide open in the air, grasping the outsides of your feet with your hands, can bring back memories of rape or sexual assault. To be exposed in such an explicit way may be upsetting, and even harmful.
I am 16 years old. I cannot understand the phrase “sweet sixteen” because all I feel is misery. I am in the trenches of depression, or a far reaching sadness that tinges my heart. I drag my butt to yoga. When everyone lies down for savasana (deep relaxation) I do not get up. I hear all the sounds around me but I shut my eyes and remain motionless on the carpet of the temple. I don’t want to wake up. Everyone around me thinks I have fallen asleep. One woman even says that falling asleep is the marker of a spiritual soul and that I must be very advanced in my practice. I smirk at the thought of that. I am just lazy and pathetic. Yoga doesn’t always make me feel better. Sometimes I cannot quiet my monkey mind. Sometimes the pain lingers after the practice is done and I have left the mat.
So is yoga helpful or harmful when it comes to embodiment? Does yoga facilitate transcendence of the body or immanence? Ultimately, it depends on which tradition the yoga is rooted in. Tantric practices see the body as a vehicle to the divine, embodiment is viewed as a form of connection to God. God is in everything and in everyone. Other modes of meditation and yoga encourage going beyond the mind and the body to the realms of the spirit. Embodiment is also fundamental when analyzing yoga, as asana (physical) practice undoubtedly has the possibility of changing the appearance and quality of the body. Doing yoga is often associated with a wealth of other habits including eating healthy and being environmentally conscious. People often buy into a collective identity when they become “yogis” and this has significant market repercussions as well as social belonging and community effects as well.
Impett et al. conducted a study about the relationship between embodiment and self-objectification – and discovered that body awareness and responsiveness was correlated with positive affect. To me, this indicates that yoga has important contributions to make in the arenas of mental and emotional health. The body can be an invaluable tool in creating stability and calm in the mind, as is evidenced by the recent surge in mindfulness research and other Eastern –based modalities. Psychology and other fields are starting to recognize the legitimacy of practices such as yoga in helping people heal.
I am twenty two years old. Due to circumstances beyond my control, I am in the hospital, on the psychiatric ward. I felt incredibly alone. I am locked into a jail like room and I hug my knees into my chest. Calmly I remember my yoga practice. I can put my legs up the wall. I can do a sun salutation. I can bend my body into comforting shapes. I can find stillness and peace within. So I do. The nurses may think I am strange, but I don’t care. Yoga helps me. Yoga heals me.
Furthermore, ideas of accessibility when it comes to embodied experiences are key to understanding yoga as well. In Kern’s article regarding yoga, embodiment, and gentrification, she draws on the concept of embodied social capital. To me, this refers to a type of lifestyle privilege where certain embodied practices such as yoga require a particular amount of social capital. Yoga is not available to many populations due to its ever increasing price tag. An average yoga class costs $20, the price of two inexpensive meals. Those who do yoga can afford it, those who can’t, don’t do it. Although there are ways to learn yoga through books and youtube videos, yoga classes are the primary way that people engage in yoga.
My personal goal is to bring yoga to marginalized populations so they can experience the healing potential of yoga. I would like to be a yoga therapist. My big dream is to see yoga offered in mental health treatment, alongside and perhaps for some people, instead of mere medication. I want there to be complementary healing modalities available to people suffering from depression, psychosis, anxiety and other kinds of suffering. I want them to be able to find peace within their bodies, which can lead to a quieting of the mind. Western medicine does not take a holistic approach. We cannot fix the mind by ignoring the body. I would love to teach yoga at women’s shelters, in hospitals, in anxiety centers, and to people struggling with eating disorders. Awareness of the breath can lead to so many positive changes for people. Awareness of posture can improve physical and mental well-being. Awareness of the mind can help us to get in touch with our inner voice. Everyone deserves the opportunity to do these things, not just those with money.
Last week I led a brief yoga exercise in our studio time. It was beautiful to be able to witness the change in energy and ambience after the breathing exercises. Students reported feeling more calm and relaxed after only a few minutes of breathing deeply. I am continually amazed at how quickly we can “re-set” our bodies and minds. Why don’t we do it more often? It was nice to work with a partner and breathe into their hands. It brought a new dimension to the breath and someone said they felt the desire to synchronize their breath with someone else’s. I had never tried asking people to say words while they are in a pose. It was interesting to hear the diversity of responses. The partner poses were a lot of fun. I could sense the joy exuding from everyone’s body. It was such a privilege and an honour to share something like yoga with the class. Yoga is close to my heart and I love bringing it to new groups of people.
Most of the time I do not concern myself with arguments surrounding appropriation, as I think that yoga is for everyone. I believe that some things like music, art, and yoga, hold universal value for human beings and while it is important to acknowledge their roots and traditional sacredness, it is great to bring it to new places. Many Gurus (teachers) specifically asked their students to bring yoga to the West. Now it is here, and I am grateful. I straddle two worlds sometimes – being of Indian descent, living in Canada. Yoga is a site of connection for me – a bridge between these two worlds, a way of understanding the complexities of culture, and the complexities of me.
I taught my last yoga class of the school year today. We laughed a lot. It was wonderful to see the students interacting in partner poses and I did a lot of hands on adjustments. The most touching part of the class was at the end. Everyone came up to me and shared how yoga had helped them, calmed them, and how they had come to trust yoga as they would a kind friend. I felt blessed to share the practice. I knew that it wasn’t me that they were celebrating, it was a practice that goes back 5000 years - a lineage, a tradition. They were grateful for something that they were now a part of - a practice of uniting body, mind, and heart. It was never about me. Before every class I pray to my Creator that I can be clear, that I can be a vessel for the Divine to come through. I try to speak from that place.
Overall, this paper has aimed to unpack how yoga is linked to embodiment and dissect its role in today’s society. I have looked at the economics of yoga, how it relates to neoliberalism. I have tried to uncover the complex ways that yoga connects people to their bodies, through trauma or body consciousness. Most of all, I have tried to share my story surrounding yoga, and detail the ways that I have been profoundly impacted by the practice. I am so grateful for the opportunity to reflect and better understand my subjectivity regarding yoga and embodiment. In the process of writing this paper, I have gained clarity on why I practice and why I instruct. Ultimately, I know that yoga will continue to connect people to their bodies and therefore, to themselves. Yoga encourages us to engage with the university within. One of my mentors often shares a beautiful quote with me from Swami Kripalu. I will share that same quote with you to conclude, “Self-observation without judgement is the highest practice.” May we all come to observe ourselves without judgement and live from a place of love.
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Kern, Leslie. "Connecting Embodiment, Emotion and Gentrification: An Exploration through the Practice of Yoga in Toronto." Emotion, Space and Society 5.1 (2012): 27-35.
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