Thursday, September 15, 2011
People sometimes wonder how someone with the level of education I have has such an ambivalent relationship with/towards academia. Well, the following discussion demonstrates some of the reasons why.
Doctoral student Christie Barcelos posted this really interesting article on issues of exclusion in American yoga. If you read it, it's obvious that she has had first hand experience of feeling "out of place" in yoga classes. Unfortunately, you might say, her decision to primarily focus on how the covers of Yoga Journal might represent issues of classism, racism, and heterosexism might lend itself to easy criticism from folks who require a broader sense of proof that such things are actually occurring.
Here is a set of exchanges between myself and a research sociologist. Forgive the length. I believe it's worth reading in full.
Richard Hudak 19 hours ago
Yet the feature article of one recent issue of Yoga Journal was devoted to women's leadership. Has the practice become feminized in the West because alternatives are constrained? Does yoga offer women a place to distinguish themselves? Do we denigrate the vocation of K-12 teaching because it is feminized? Why denigrate a space where women do excel and are leaders? Are we really critiquing the cultural context in which Yoga Journal must have mass appeal for its growing audience?
Why focus on covers? What about content? Do we need to look beneath the surface? Do we need to look deeper than description to explanation?
There are all kinds of practitioners: some practice only at home, and others take classes with varying frequencies. There are all kinds of styles. Some are more conducive to a diversity of students and abilities than others.
Looking more deeply into yoga philosophy we realize the religious underpinnings do exhibit greater tolerance for LGBT than other religions. One need look no further than the tale of Ila, recounted in several places and in several ways, for a transgender hero. More generally, in some traditions, in the realm of the sacred, the feminine principle is the active one (Parvati) and the masculine is more passive (Shiva).
Yoga for the People attempts to offer bare bones, style-agnostic, fashion-simple and sliding scale classes for the masses.
I match neither the sex nor income most of the people described by the market survey, though admittedly I match them on education. I have always found my way, particularly in a style that is at once uniquely American and ancient. The benefits to my well-being have overcome what might otherwise be obstacles to my participation. I think we need to look underneath the magazine covers.
Nathan 17 hours ago in reply to Richard Hudak
I write about classism, racism, and heterosexism in American Zen and yoga communities on my blog. http://dangerousharvests.blogs...
Although some of the points you make are very valid, including the diversity of kinds of yoga practices going on out there, it's still the case that race, class, gender and sexuality are major markers in American yoga. Finding something like the tale of Ila isn't terribly easy for a newcomer, and I can't recall in all my years of classes ever hearing a teacher or student bring it up. Furthermore, when you consider not only the average studio class, but also DVDs, magazines like Yoga Journal, books, etc., the predominant intended audience is middle and upper class, heterosexual, and probably white. It's not just access that is an issue. It's also how yoga practice is presented, and the kinds of things that are, and aren't discussed. For example, how often do you hear yoga teachers speak about ways to practice with the difficulties of facing racism, sexism, or other oppressions?
The many yoga traditions are quite expansive enough to handle such issues, and support people in facing them head on, but that has to be done in a more direct manner in my opinion. Just talking about bliss and happiness doesn't cut it.
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Richard Hudak 16 hours ago in reply to Nathan
I think what's necessary is some decent naturalistic inquiry, that is, fieldwork and intensive interviewing, to understand the lived experience of practitioners. I don't think we can just slap together a marketing survey and some Yoga Journal covers and make a blanket statement about Yoga's exclusivity. I think the fact that it is trendy (again) makes it an easy target for this kind of critique.
Stefanie Syman's "The Subtle Body: The Story of Yoga in America" (2010) demonstrates how particular characteristics of yoga on these shores have waxed and waned over time. Currently there seems to be an alignment between the current constellation of characteristics and the post-industrial values identified by Inglehart (e.g., quality of life). Nothing about yoga precludes the articulation of other post-industrial values (e.g, status of women).
I think there have been movements of personal change which have prevented the articulation of private troubles as public issues. I have argued that this was true of 1980s-era Twelve Step movements for "adult children of alcoholics." While I would put a finer point on it than this, in the interests of time suffice it to say I don't find yoga's narratives of personal change to be as rigid.
Nathan 1 hour ago in reply to Richard Hudak
You know, I agree with you that just focusing on something like Yoga Journal isn't going to get at what's happening on the ground. Furthermore, I already said that yoga is expansive enough to address the kinds of issues I pointed to above.
However, I'm speaking from personal experience, experiences shared with me by friends and others who know I'm into yoga, and also numerous experiences that have been shared on blog posts about attending classes by men, women of color, poor people, and sexual minorities. And while the author of the post here used Yoga Journal as a prime indicator, what I'm saying is that her conclusions seems pretty damn accurate from what I have experienced and heard others experience.
Richard Hudak 1 hour ago in reply to Nathan
And therein lies the problem. I have personal experiences of yoga, too, but as this is a sociology blog, and I am also a sociologist, it is not enough for me to say that this post lacks experiential commensurability.
Nathan 0 minutes ago in reply to Richard Hudak
That's a fair criticism, however I'm not sure how to receive it. I struggle with finding the right balance with these kinds of issues because on the one hand, making blanket statements with little evidence or only a few personal examples is greatly problematic, but on the other hand, requiring massive research studies that demonstrate some kind of broad trends is also questionable. Maybe such work could get funded, and maybe not so much. However, beyond that, there's a long legacy amongst privileged folks of demanding nearly impossible amounts of "proof" of bias and/or prejudice from those who are or say they are oppressed - often doing so knowing full well that the work required to obtain that proof will take a hell of a lot of time, money, and/or resources that may or may not be available. I see it as a stall tactic at best, and as a part of maintaining the status quo power structure at worst.
I'm aware that you probably disagree with me, or perhaps that my examples and those of others, including the author, don't constitute enough for you and other probably to agree with any statements we are making. That's fine. I'm not in a position to do the kind of research and fieldwork necessary to support my statements in the way that sociologists might desire. Neither are most of the yoga practitioners who are experiencing the kinds of issues we're talking about. Therein, for me, lies one of the major issues. Unless someone who is linked to a large, well funded organization or set of organizations chooses to conduct this kind of research, it's probably not going to happen. And even if it does happen, it still can be ignored and dismissed.
*Post-script - I'll be honest. Over the years, I have grown more and more weary of what I call the "academic gaze." Specifically, the myriad of ways in which well educated people distance themselves from everyday realities, even the very realities they claim to be spending their lives studying. Not only does this kind of distancing tend to reinforce status quo power structures, as I spoke of above, but it also tends to reinforce distancing itself as a process. Standing back and getting some sort of "objective" view to make claims about the truths of the world is elevated above everything else, something I can't swallow anymore, if I ever did.
What I also find totally fascinating is how those academics who choose to blend personal and anecdotal experiences within their research, writings, and studies that also use more broad-based scientific practices are often deemed tainted or invalid. In fact, personal and anecdotal experience itself is often rejected as a form of analysis and critique, even though sometimes it's the main form of information currently available. Or perhaps is the only form of information that's really possible to gather, at least as of now.
There's much more I could say here, but I'll stop for now, and allow for others to chime in.
*Photo is from the blog Radical Montreal, which describes itself as "Rejecting capitalism and overconsumption with DIY lifestyle. Connecting community and activism. Living cheaply and eating well. Challenging preconceptions and social norms and having fun. Radical events and living in Montreal, Canada."