Thursday, September 15, 2011

Yoga, Privilege, and Academia

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."


Eco Yogini said...

Nathan; fabulous recap and perspective. I read Christie Barcelos's blog post and feel it's very appropriate to what I have observed as well.

What I find interesting- is that, although Mr. Hudak makes some interesting points, he is essentially critiquing bloggers as being not scientifically rigid enough. However, he's commenting on a Sociology BLOG. It is not a scientific journal, nor does it have peer reviewed articles or research standards. Therefore, I think it's a bit much to critique the scientific relevancy on a blog post.

I'm also not a fan of "academia-speak" that I've heard over the years. I remember being at a "Feminism book club" meeting at McGill and listening to the women analyze and critique the latest article we were reading. My main critique was that the article was written in a way that was not accessible to the regular person. They strongly disagreed, but I mean, come ON. Just the fact that we were in graduate programs meant that were weren't the norm. We WERE the exception just be our level of education.

After that I was promptly excluded from all the emails regarding time and place for meetings. "Can't have the blue collar master's student raining on our parade"

Robyn said...

Hi Nathan, You know, I think the guy has a lot of very valid points. There is much more happening in yoga than group classes in studios and Yoga Journal - two places that virtually assure a certain amount of privilege. Likewise, you make good points too...I think more and more people are noticing both the benefits of yoga practice and how it isn't always reaching those who might need it most (although I think middle class white people need yoga too).

The yoga boom (maybe it is a bubble??) is relatively new. It is good to point things out but with a sense of being realistic about the pace of change and development. I know lots of yoga teachers who work in urban public schools, for example. Will their efforts take root? I hope so, but it will take years to know. In fact, most yoga teachers I know make some effort to go beyond only teaching privately and group studio classes. As a group, I would say yoga teachers are possibly more inclined to be sensitive to what they are doing and why.

I don't have the academic bugaboo that you do, so his comments didn't grate on me. They seemed pretty well considered. That said, yes, let's please do more!

Nathan said...

Since both of you commented on academic language, I'll add a little more on that.

I actually love to read well written academic writing. Eco Yogini mentions feminism, and the first person that comes to mind for me is bell hooks. She was someone I was thinking of who includes the personal in her writing, and who sees the value of both "high" and "low" language forms. While her writing can still be challenging to read at times, it has an accessibility that is really refreshing.

Robyn, I agree with you and Hudak in questioning the focus on Yoga Journal. Perhaps, if it had been a small part of a longer article, there would have been some different reactions. I don't know. I also agree that yoga has certainly spread beyond the studio, and that some folks within the groups discussed are accessing yoga and taking it into to their lives.

Honestly, what kept me pushing on Hudak is what I felt to be a sense of cool evasiveness that I have personally experienced with other research academics. And at the same time, he used (I believe) his own yoga practice experience as an example of yoga's "openness." So, I had this sense, which could be wrong, that this guy felt Barcelos's critique was simply wrong, and he was going to use examples to uphold American yoga in solely positive terms.

Which actually gets me to my final point - that what's sexy and hot in the research world when it comes to yoga is the health and wellness benefits it provides. Research I support, by the way. But I also can imagine that if people like Ms. Barcelos attempt to push forward with larger scale studies of yoga's "underbelly," they'll get a fair amount of push back because it could wreck the "perfect" image of Yoga many folks currently hold.

Barbara O'Brien said...

I've never taken a yoga class in my life, and so I am utterly ignorant of what goes on in yoga classes. However, I do know the magazine business. I postulate that what goes on the covers of yoga magazines has a lot more to do with the magazine's advertising base than it does about yoga classes.

Magazines like to appeal to readers with leisure time and money to spend. They may also have found that women are more likely than men to buy yoga magazines and spend money on yoga-related products, so the magazine may be trying to reach a female audience. So using magazine covers to prove a point about what goes on in yoga classes seems skewed.

Nathan said...


I agree with you that using YJ as a focal point was a definite weakness in the article. And I would add, which you seem to be suggesting, that things get exaggerated in magazines to sell content.

At the same time, what I have experienced in yoga studios, and have read of others' experiences in yoga studios, is at least somewhat in line with the way yoga is presented in YJ.

It's not uncommon for me to be the only, or amongst a handful of men in a large class. The regular expenses just to attend classes is cost prohibitive for many folks. And people of color are few and far between - and I'm speaking as a resident of St.Paul/Minneapolis, which is plenty racially diverse.

I'm guessing that the article author was trying to find something to help demonstrate these issues, and YJ was an easy target. As I said above, one of the main challenges is that there really isn't - from what I've seen - and larger scale research and analysis on demographic trends in American yoga. The focus has mostly been on health and wellness benefits.

Linda-Sama said...

wow. so much I can say on this but won't.

I have been yoga-ing for more than a decade in various venues and studios and the ONLY place where there are low income people of color is at the domestic violence shelter where I teach. the ONLY place, and this includes studios in a diverse city like Chicago. yoga in America, in its current metamorphosis, is an upper middle class white thang. and it was NOT like that when I was first exposed to yoga in the early '70s.

and I agree with you on "academia speak" which I am beginning to find in more than a few yoga blogs. frankly, I can't even get through those posts. I am certainly not an idiot -- I've been to grad school for English. But if I read any more $20 words when a 5 buck one will do, I think I will pull my eyeballs out through my nose. how many times can a blogger use the word "meta" in their writing? please.

too bad we have more knowledge than wisdom nowadays.

Anonymous said...

Well done for unpacking the sociologists jargon. Mark Singleton has done the same with "Yoga Body" in building on Elizabeth de Michelis "A History Of Modern Yoga". As Linda also said, I think we need to go with our intuitions here.