Recently I did an interview for Words Away where I spoke about yoga, capitalism and how to build community. It was a bit of an experiment for me. Most of my pieces are drafted and edited multiple times before I publish them. This interview is pretty much my stream of consciousness – raw, unpolished thoughts and opinions. As always, critiques and thoughts are welcome. The interview is available in full below.
Andrea MacDonald on yoga and breaking it from a shallow mold
On her blog, yoga instructor Andrea MacDonald has explored how secluded much of the discipline is–at least as it’s most widely known. This may seem fairly obvious to some, but there are few words to that effect. So, here’s some more, in the form of a Words Away interview with her:
There should probably be a distinction made between what I associate yoga with — at its broadest, most commercial level — and what it is in general, along with what you think it can be.
Yoga at a broad commercialized level is most commonly associated with white, slender, flexible, often female bodies. Bodies like mine. Usually these bodies are striking poses in spotlessly clean, temperature controlled, softly lit studios. Of course there is the prominent material association with particular kinds of food (coconut water), clothing (lululemon) and culturally appropriated, often inconsistently paired iconic religious imagery (Buddha heads and women wearing bindis for example). I think Frank Jude Bocio explains it well when he says:
“Rather than question the capitalist model of consumerism, with its creation of ever more desires and false needs for product, contemporary yoga has become a more than willing accomplice. Rather than presenting an alternative to the concomitant ideology of North American individualism, which prioritizes and valorize the isolate ‘self’ over the relational matrix, it has eagerly embraced it.”
What all of this signals is a sense of shallowness to our westernized, commercialized yoga practice. Yoga’s development as a philosophy and as a fitness trend, has taken place over thousands of years, all across the globe. It doesn’t have a central coordinating body, or even a central text necessarily — though one might argue the yoga sutras fill this role. The point is that yoga is not really definable. The word yoga evokes different feelings, images, communities and intentions. It’s used by the military to teach focus as readily as it’s employed by progressive activists to heal from burn out. It knows no fixed identity. In some ways, this is what lends yoga it’s power, popularity, mystery and appeal.
How did you find your way to yoga?
For me, yoga started as a tool for personal growth and healing. I turned to the practice at 18 after being sexually assaulted at a time when I was suffering from severe anxiety and moderate addiction. You might be surprised to hear how many people have stories like mine. Most people come to yoga to heal some kind of suffering. This creates an often unacknowledged dark side to our communities, but also makes what we offer a powerful tool to build resilience, relaxation and sustainable political resistance.
Eventually my practice fell away as I took up a more than full time commitment to environmental and social justice activism. With my first experience of burn-out after the 2010 Olympics I came back to yoga. My practice was a balancing force of stillness and calm in my busy, chaotic, force-focused life. Eventually that balanced tipped so far out of whack I found myself exhausted, lonely (even while surrounded by community) and even more burnt out than where I started.
Needing to regroup and heal I took my teacher training and spent a year studying, teaching and living at Occupy Vancouver. I saw this time as “cocooning.” This year I’ve come out of the protective space I cultivated, newly inspired. I want to use yoga as a form of community organizing and open up political dialogue about the meeting places between our bodies, our breath and the realities of our lives. I founded Community Yoga Vancouver with teachers who care about making yoga more heartfelt, uncomplicated and accessible. As best we can we’re eliminating the material crap that keeps people from practicing or feeling like they don’t belong.
You’ve written some about how non-inviting yoga can be to people outside a very specific demographic, both financially and culturally. Yoga’s most financially viable element seems to be tied to traditional lookism, in the way that many health outlets are. How difficult is it to maintain a venue that’s counter to that?
Like I said before, there are many material attachments associated with yoga. The most fundamental one, and the one that is often the biggest road block to a deep, fulfilling practice, is the idea that your body needs to be a certain way for you to do yoga. Yoga studios capitalize on peoples’ insecurities about their bodies and on their deep loneliness and disconnection from spiritual fulfillment. They promise students the “yoga butt” (or some other ridiculous incentive) that simply keeps people trapped in a cycle of self-hatred, judgement and grasping. Not all studios do this, but many do, particularly those that see the practice as simply a fitness trend. It’s a frustrating trend to watch grow and one that demands a consistent critique — I feel.
For us it was completely natural to open a space that celebrated and offered sacred protection to bodies that fall outside the norm, which really, is most bodies. We don’t promise our students they will magically transform into someone else. We offer them space to be exactly as they are. In practicing self acceptance our students support each other to do the same. Hopefully this ripples out to the broader community as well.
We really do believe that everyone can benefit from practicing yoga and we work to challenge the commonly held definition of what that sentiment means. We teach our students to find contentment and acceptance in their bodies. We teach them skills to balance fierce presence with deep surrender. We want them to acquire love and reverence for each moment – even when that moment demands struggle.
This was natural to us politically, but also personally. My partner in the project is a self-identified fat-femme-queer teacher. As her allie I willingly identify the anonymity, access and privilege I have in a regular studio. I can blend in if I want because I’m thin and flexible, but that is not what my practice is about. Also that is not to say she isn’t flexible. She can open her hips waaaay wider than I can.
My practice and teaching is about honouring truth and discovering authentic embodiment. I think it’s dangerous to take steps away from that understanding, to make your practice conditional on your body looking and performing a particular way. Doing so will take you away from the fundamental truth that this practice, this life, is ultimately grounded in your breath and that is something almost anyone can access. It is not always an easy process because we don’t have a well-rehearsed business plan, like most other studios. We have to be creative and willing to take risks. We are lucky to have mentors and a quickly growing support network of senior teachers lifting us up, celebrating and encouraging our work. We are by no means dong this work alone.
I’m not sure that real diversity makes for something as easy as people would like it to be, nor that it makes for the kind of serenity people who practice yoga generally associate with its natural environment. At its simplest level, it’s just fairer. As a yoga instructor who wants to tap into that, what are your thoughts on the kind of diversity that’s perpetually lacking because it isn’t easy?
I think most studios see diversity and accessibility as most directly related to class prices. Sometimes they will offer a free class or two or do energy exchanges for free passes and they consider this opening up their studio. It’s also tied to the attitude that “whoever comes in the door is welcome,” but what this forgets is all the people who aren’t coming in the door. All the people who wouldn’t even come close.
The barriers are more complex than price. Some studios intentionally create, though usually don’t acknowledge, the barriers they set up to accessing their space. They want their studio to have a sense of a prestige. They aim to increase the sense of belonging for a select, privileged group. Some of this is related to “just paying the rent,” but much of it is masked elitism and classism.
There is an implicit and sometimes explicit suggestion that yoga studios are places of serenity and therefore are not political, but this simply isn’t the case. The politics of belonging play out in every class where every students look, dress and move in the same way. We are grooming people into the status quo and calling it liberation.
In some ways, these dynamics make our work at Community Yoga Vancouver easier. By taking a stance against exclusion people can see what we are not. There is a growing resentment toward corporate yoga culture and in a way we make use of that. The physical space for our classes is sparse, unevenly lit and strangely shaped. It’s a typical East Van anomaly and we chose it on purpose. We want to embrace the strange, the unpredictable and the unpolished. We value raw honesty over pedicured pretense and it shows in our space, our politics and our classes.
Some neighborhoods are just more stressful than others, and I’ve heard the sentiment of how great yoga could be for the people who live in some of the harshest ones from people who have some familiarity with those places while fitting in well enough with the typical yoga demographic. I’ve felt like this was one of those obvious sentiments that generally ignores the way the world often works. The financial and cultural divide between the two worlds is a great one, so where do you think the border is? And how out of the way is it for people on either side?
There is some incredible work being done to offer yoga to marginalized communities — prisons, women’s shelters etc. Street Yoga, Yoga Outreach – they do wonderful inspiring work to offer yoga without all the glitz and stuffiness of a studio setting. In terms of neighbourhoods though, I think yoga teachers and studio owners, people who have personally benefited a great deal from learning about yoga, often take the attitude that yoga will always be welcome and helpful, wherever they offer it. Frequently there is a sense of perceived need and yoga is offered as a solution. The problem is that often we aren’t asking — what is the actual problem here? Is it a lack of yoga? Or are we looking at a community shaped by a history of racism, colonization, violence against women and institutionalized poverty? When we don’t ask the broader questions we can’t possibly give informed or helpful answers.
All that said — I think yoga can work to increase well being and deepen connection to spirit, if people want to learn the practice. Even so, for yoga service to work well we need to be conscious of the context, the historical and political realities, within which we make our offerings. Without this knowledge we’re imposing solutions that are not grounded in understanding. We run the risk of reinforcing and deepening the divide between server, service and served.
For Community Yoga Vancouver it was important to acknowledge a service gap that exists between very marginalized people and middle to upper class people. Both these populations have people working to provide them with yoga, though in starkly different ways. What this produces is a gap between the two groups, where the working class is underserved. We created a pricing structure that makes yoga accessible to people who are living pay cheque to pay cheque, but aren’t necessarily experiencing life-altering poverty. This approach was hugely influenced by the Community Acupuncture movement, which seeks to serve the same population and also utilizes a community based model.
Is it a necessity to practice yoga in a group? Is there anything that you think is gained from it as a social endeavor?
Fundamentally, yoga is a journey inward, sometimes to a fault. It has often been used as a transcendental, individuating practice. “Turn inward to find the divine.” This approach lends itself simultaneously to reinforcing attachment to the self, in the short term, and on the other hand, supports empty rhetoric about discovering oneness. Actually discovering “one-ness” takes more dedication that the average yoga practitioner possesses – myself included, though it’s not for lack of trying.
Can you see the contradiction here? You come to yoga alone, leave alone and then wear a t-shirt that says “We Are All One.” If we really believe that, if we really want to honour our connection to divinity and therefore to each other and existence in general, why not do so both in our practice and in our politics? It’s not an automatic connection, but it’s one we can cultivate.
That’s a pretty heady answer. So let’s break this down a bit. Yes, you can practice yoga alone. I have an at-home practice I find invaluable. The limits of this, though, are that we perpetuate self reliance over community ties. We don’t learn to release tension and holding in a trusted circle of our peers: people who are hoping for the same release, release that can only come with trust. Trust in the safety of our bodies, the safety of space and the safety we find in community.
We don’t offer our presence up in service to others when we practice at home. We lose the potential for connection. When we practice together we offer ourselves up as examples of people in process. We might be turning inward to discover peace and stillness, but we do it together because part of our practice is developing unconditional support for ourselves and by extension, for others. When we practice together we build empathy because whatever patience we show ourselves, we extend to everyone else in the room. This kind of radical empathy and space-holding makes for rich, lasting community ties … and hopefully solidarity as well.