Rox Does Yoga

Musings on Everything Yoga

Yoga in the News: Last Night’s Episode of The Voice November 19, 2013

Filed under: TV,yoga — R. H. Ward @ 12:22 pm
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My husband F and I have been noncommittally watching this season of The Voice – we never have time to sit through a whole episode, but it’s fun to watch, Cee-Lo’s clothes are hilarious, it’s seemingly always on, and even when it’s not on it’s available on demand, so even if we only have 15 minutes to sit down and relax, we can see what’s happening in the competition. So last night we were watching from 9:00 to 9:30 or so, and what a nice surprise it was to see Christina Aguilera making one of her contestants do yoga – and it was even normal yoga, not space-cadet woo-woo celebrity yoga! Christina had noticed that this singer was really tense, so she brought in her own yoga instructor for some stretching and relaxation. The one stretch they were shown doing was a seated twist, with the intention of opening the chest and opening up space in the lungs – which totally made sense, both as a description of the action in the pose and as an appropriate pose for this singer to be doing. How nice to see yoga presented in a realistic way as a practical solution! Kudos to Christina, who has, to be honest, been surprising me all season with how smart and down-to-earth she is. I don’t know if I’ll be adding “Genie in a Bottle” to my next yoga playlist, but I might just check out her next album.

 

How Yoga Changes Your Body October 31, 2013

I’m loving this roundup of information from HuffPo on how yoga improves health and well-being. Click on the infographic for more information!


yoga infographic

 

On Cultural Appropriation, Part 2 July 25, 2013

Filed under: reflections,yoga,yoga philosophy — R. H. Ward @ 12:44 pm
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Last week, I posted my initial response to s.e. smith’s article “Like it or Not, Western Yoga is a Textbook Example of Cultural Appropriation“. I limited my initial response to a discussion of my own practice of yoga for physical and spiritual health; in attacking the appropriation of yoga by Western culture, smith’s article felt like a personal attack as well, whether it was intended that way or not, since my yoga practice is such a big part of my life and is woven into many different areas of my life. In processing what smith had to say, I had to think through how it affected me personally first. Today, I’d like to consider the larger issues that smith brings up.

I think smith is largely objecting to the commodification of yoga in Western culture, and there I think smith has a point. However, if you look at the history of yoga in the US, it was brought here not by people who wanted to sell it, but by people who believed in it and wanted to share its message. Religions, and religious practices, have a tendency to grow beyond the people who originate them. When Christianity started spreading to the Greek and Roman population a few decades after Jesus’s death, the original Jewish Christians really had to think about the meaning of their faith, but considering that Jesus said “spread the good news,” the spread of Christianity was unavoidable, and considering how he made an example of himself by having all kinds of people over to dinner, you can assume he would have wanted all those converts to be welcomed. Buddhism spread from its roots in India eastward into China, and while I’m not well informed on the subject, I’m sure Indian Buddhists, Chinese Buddhists, and zen Buddhists in Japan  all have some different religious practices within the same religious tradition. And it’s not as though Hinduism has tried to stay separate and apart. For example, in the late 1800s, Swami Vivekanda traveled the world and preached his message, making a huge impression at the Parliament of Religions in 1893 and really bringing Hinduism onto the scene as a major world religion (which it already was, of course, but his work brought recognition and interest from outside India). After Vivekananda, a number of teachers and yogis strove to promote yoga in the US, most of whom set out to do the work from an altruistic perspective. It could be argued that the spread of yoga as a practice beyond its Hindu roots was perfectly natural given that that’s what religions do, and given that Hindu yogis and swamis either traveled to deliver the message themselves or were happy to participate by preaching to those who wanted to bring it.

Over time, however, yoga has become a product to be sold. The majority of those in the yoga community would agree with smith that that’s not a positive thing. Yoga was never meant to be big business by those who wanted to share it in the first place; there’s a difference between people using the popularity of yoga to make a quick buck and people who’ve made yoga their life’s work. In India, the ancient yogis or wandering sages (sadhus) depended on charity for their livelihood: common people knew that if you didn’t provide for the sages, then they couldn’t live the lives of study and meditation that they were being called to live – they couldn’t search for wisdom, and therefore wouldn’t be able to share and teach that wisdom. It was understood that charity and hospitality towards the holy men was required. In modern times, yoga and spiritual guidance don’t require wandering the countryside barefoot, but they don’t pay for themselves either. People like my teachers N and J at EEY aren’t making tons of money on their business; I’m sure they’re happy to be paying their bills, but they didn’t get into yoga with dollar signs in their eyes. They teach yoga because they feel called to do it.

smith looks at the commercialization of yoga from one large-scale perspective, without taking into account all the individuals that make up the whole. So many books and products and classes exist for the yoga market, so many people wanting to make money, but there are also so many well-meaning people genuinely trying to do good work, who believe in the power of yoga to help others, even if just for the physical benefits. I don’t think you can talk about one without the other. But even recognizing the fact that yoga didn’t originate in the US for commercial gain and isn’t being used that way by many who “sell” it, what we need to address is what should be done about it. smith makes us all feel guilty about buying a new mat or getting a class pass at our favorite studio, but what alternative does smith offer?

I can understand why smith, after some soul searching, decided to abandon a personal yoga practice. But I don’t think it’s viable to give up every good thing that comes from a non-European heritage, or to assume that the presence of those things in Western culture must be classified as “cultural appropriation” in a negative way. After all, the USA is a melting pot: people from many cultures came here in the hopes of building a better life, bringing all their history and traditions with them. If Indian Americans are practicing yoga traditions here, then they are American traditions, and if we say they are not American traditions then I think we’re devaluing those people and their experiences. They, like all other Americans, are part of this country.

In some of the comments on smith’s article, people were making statements to the effect of, “Oh no, yoga is a form of cultural appropriation? Do I have to give up Chinese food too?” Which is ridiculous: sweet ‘n’ sour chicken does not equal a spiritual practice. But those commenters do have a point. Yoga, like Chinese food, is here to stay in Western culture. It’s not everything it could or should be, but it’s here. You can give it up, like smith did, the same way you’d give up wearing fur or eating factory-farmed beef: as a form of protest. Personally, though, I don’t think it’s in the same category. If you attend a yoga class, even a really Westernized aerobic power yoga class, you’re not participating in violence being done to a living creature in the same way you would by eating a steak or wearing a fur coat. The comparison just isn’t the same.

If we try to practice ahimsa, or nonviolence, then we abhor not just physical violence but all violence, so we have to ask whether we are engaging in some sort of violence by appropriating the spiritual practice of another cultural group when we attend that yoga class. Does my practice of yoga represent a form of violence if no member of the injured group knows about it, or would care or feel injured if they did know? Here’s another question: does the act of two men getting married somehow injure my heterosexual marriage? Or, more to the point, does my engaging in heterosexual marriage, or choosing not to do so, have any effect whatsoever on homosexual people who aren’t permitted to marry? smith strikes me as the sort of person who would abstain from a desired legal heterosexual marriage in protest until all gay people can get married too, but in the end, that protest would only help the movement for the 30 seconds it was a headline, or not at all. Ultimately that sort of protest would only hurt the protester.

In my opinion, since yoga is here to stay in the US and isn’t going anywhere, it would make a more powerful statement to practice yoga in the way you would like to see it practiced. Teach yoga in the way it should be taught. Show people what yoga really means by your example, and continue to seek, learn, and expand your knowledge about the history and true meaning of not just the physical asanas but the deeper spiritual practice. Instead of opting out of something wonderful just based on principle, be a part of the community and a voice for change.

 

Yoga Myths Dispelled at HuffPo July 23, 2013

Filed under: yoga — R. H. Ward @ 1:28 pm
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Love this post for those new to yoga over at Huffington Post: 5 Things About Yoga That Just Aren’t True (And The Cats To Prove It). Some excellent dispelling of yoga myths (i.e., if you’re not flexible, that means you should take yoga, not that you shouldn’t!). Nice to see this on a site with such a wide audience. (And the cats are pretty cute too.)

 

On Cultural Appropriation, Part 1 July 18, 2013

Filed under: reflections,yoga,yoga philosophy — R. H. Ward @ 2:32 pm
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So here’s something that’s been bothering me for a while. I read this article by s.e. smith: “Like it or Not, Western Yoga is a Textbook Example of Cultural Appropriation“. Coincidentally, the open letter “Why I Don’t Want to Talk About Race” also showed up in my news feed last week. Reading these two pieces in close proximity really got me thinking about something I don’t think about very often (and definitely not as often as I should): my identity as a white person and how it affects my perceptions.

The cultural appropriation article bothered me very much, because I love yoga and genuinely hadn’t considered this issue before. I looked up the term “cultural appropriation” and found that Wikipedia has a very nice and detailed article with lots of examples. My initial sense was that smith’s article is pretty biased and doesn’t tell the whole story; smith’s bio on xojane describes smith as an “agitator” and someone who likes to “rile people up while also informing them about ongoing issues in the world around them”, so I’m going to assume that was intentional. I certainly feel riled – and although it’s not a pleasant feeling, I have to grudgingly agree with smith that getting riled isn’t a bad thing and often is a good and necessary thing. Being riled made me ponder this issue a lot this week, which can only be good for myself and my yoga practice, but I wanted to spend some time thinking over the perspective that smith is putting forth, because I do think smith’s perspective is biased.

The first issue I wanted to investigate with myself was whether my own yoga practice is culturally appropriative (is that a term? it is now). Am I personally offending Hindus everywhere every time I roll out my mat? After thinking about the issue from a variety of angles, I decided for myself that no, my yoga practice in itself isn’t offensive. My asana practice isn’t only a part of my physical fitness routine, it’s a part of my spiritual practice, and I approach that spiritual practice as respectfully as I can. I completed my yoga teacher training at a studio where meditation, spirituality, and the ancient Hindu roots of yoga are emphasized; I’ve read several of the sacred books that discuss yoga and I plan to read more. I may not be as informed or educated about Hinduism as someone born to the faith, but I’m working on it.

Spirituality isn’t (or shouldn’t be) limited by the color of one’s skin or one’s country of origin. The religion I was raised in never really resonated for me, so I needed to reach farther to find the path that did. Should I be limited to only Christian spiritual practices because I have white skin? Are my spiritual practices fake or empty in some way because I wasn’t born to them? That seems unnecessarily restrictive. The Wikipedia article on cultural appropriation notes that elements borrowed from other cultures “can take on meanings that are significantly divergent from, or merely less nuanced than, those they originally held”, and cites Native American traditional spiritual practice, among others, as an example. For myself, I do my homework and try to learn what yoga really means. That was part of why I undertook a yoga teacher training in the first place: to learn more about the spirituality underlying the physical practice, and to do so in a structured way. For smith to discount “everybody and their mother” for undertaking yoga teacher training is to discount a lot of honest, and earnest, searching, and a lot of people who genuinely want to learn the history and deeper meaning of their yoga practice.

Ultimately, unlike smith, I’ve decided that my personal use of yoga to improve my physical and emotional health and as a key part of my spiritual practice may be “cultural appropriation”, in the technical sense that I have appropriated these practices from another culture, but it isn’t cultural appropriation in the negative sense that smith means. I have never pretended to have all the answers, or to call myself a Hindu or an expert in Hinduism. When I have to call myself something, I call myself a Unitarian Universalist and I acknowledge my strong interest in Eastern religious practice. I think that’s an honest assessment and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. I read, I research, I constantly try to improve my understanding. I learned what karma yoga means and I try to practice it. I’m doing my best.

However, yoga as it’s used and practiced in Western culture is not the same as yoga as it’s used and practiced by me personally, and I do agree with smith on a few points, which I’m going to have to discuss further in a separate post. Check back next week for more.

Side note: I fully recognize that this post itself may reinforce the depth of my cultural appropriation and entitlement to some readers. I read about a cultural issue and immediately looked at it from my own, privileged perspective, not the perspective of the minority; I did not consult with any actual live Hindus in the writing of this post; I am self-centered and I use the word “I” a lot. To which my response is: it’s a blog, it’s supposed to be self-centered; and smith didn’t mention consulting any actual Hindus in that article either. We are two white people writing about how white people feel about other cultures! I can’t go too far down this track or I want to punch myself, but I have to conclude that I am trying in good faith to explore and to understand, and that has to be good enough for now. Actual Hindus reading this, please know your opinion would be welcomed.

 

Yoga and Brain Stimulation June 27, 2013

Filed under: yoga — R. H. Ward @ 1:48 pm
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Here’s the latest yoga news from the science world: A 20-Minute Bout of Yoga Stimulates Brain Function Immediately After. Researchers found that a single 20-minute session (“bout”? who wrote that headline?!) of hatha yoga improved participants’ speed and accuracy on cognitive function tests – basically, it improved their memory and their ability to stay focused on a task and to take in, retain, and use new information. The subjects who did yoga performed better than subjects who walked or jogged on a treadmill, indicating that the results aren’t just a reflection of burning energy to improve focus, or of exercise being good for the mind: it was the yoga itself that improved mental function. Yoga’s breathing and meditative exercises calm the body, allowing the mind to focus, and apparently this effect applies beyond the mat and into activities after the yoga practice is over. The lead author theorized a few possible explanations for the results, including enhanced self-awareness and reduced anxiety and stress. Conclusion: yoga makes you smarter!

 

Yoga in the News: Yogi Protesters in Turkey June 13, 2013

Filed under: yoga — R. H. Ward @ 12:58 pm
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My husband F sent me this link: Turkish Protesters Hold Mass Yoga Demo. I’m not really aware of the full extent of what’s going on in Turkey right now, besides just a general sense of “bad shit is happening” (busy full-time job plus busy toddler at home doesn’t exactly foster much knowledge of current events – I knew that a building fell down in Philly only because I was two blocks away from it at the time), but I thought the video was cool. I am glad to see that, in the midst of what’s going on in Turkey, some people are finding a little peace and maybe making some spectators smile.

 

Yoga: The Art of Transformation May 31, 2013

Filed under: yoga — R. H. Ward @ 11:38 am
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Yoga: The Art of Transformation

 

I’ve been taking a bit of a blog break this week after traveling for the Memorial Day holiday, but I just found out about this and had to share: the Smithsonian will be running a ground-breaking special exhibit called Yoga: The Art of Transformation this fall. I haven’t had time to look at the materials in-depth yet, but the planned exhibit looks amazing. I’m excited because I have a potential business trip to DC on the calendar for this fall and so I might actually be able to view the exhibit in person – but even if I can’t see it myself, they’re planning an in-depth online exhibit as well.

The Smithsonian is hoping to crowdfund most of the costs, so if you’re feeling so inclined, check out their fundraising page!

 

yoga in the schools December 18, 2012

I heard on the radio yesterday morning that parents of schoolchildren in California are preparing to sue their school district over a new program of yoga classes in the elementary schools. I looked it up and, while I’m not sure why this was showing up on my radio now, it is in fact true: ABC News and HuffPost reported on it back in October.

Considering that this is a yoga blog, my opinion on yoga in schools is probably obvious, but I’m trying to look at this issue from the perspective of the parents in question. I know how I feel about, say, including the words “Under God” in the pledge of allegiance. I think that it forces a religious question into something that’s not a religious subject, because many people are patriotic and proud of their country without identifying that country with a deity. And I think inserting those words into the pledge of allegiance could serve to make children who are in the non-Christian minority uncomfortable and uncertain, and could lead to bullying if that non-Christian child is singled out for not saying those two words. I don’t think you should force any set of religious beliefs on anyone, and I think doing so can be particularly hurtful when children are involved.

So now to apply those principles to something I do believe children should be taught. I can sympathize with parents who want to ensure that religious beliefs aren’t being taught in a public school, because teaching religion to a child is the parents’ job. I wouldn’t want my child being taught beliefs that I don’t share. And gym class and fitness are important for children, but why does it have to be religious stretching?!

You don’t have to pray to Krishna to get value out of a yoga practice. The physical benefits of yoga are myriad, and new studies are published all the time describing the benefits of yoga for, say, heart disease. For this reason alone one would expect parents to welcome a school yoga program in a nation where lack of physical activity and lack of healthy food choices are making obesity and poor health an epidemic among our children. Beyond the physical, yoga also has proven mental benefits. Yoga includes techniques that help the practitioner achieve a calm, focused mind, the advantages of which seem obvious for schoolchildren learning study skills and test taking, and that’s before you even get to the benefits of yoga for conditions like ADD, ADHD, PTSD, and depression.

When talking about a yoga program in schools, it’s hard to state a definite opinion, because we’re talking about an entire curriculum taught across several grade levels for 30 minutes twice a week (versus the addition of two words like in my example above). Without having any direct experience of the program, I would imagine that the yogis who created it would have anticipated a negative response from some parents and proactively removed any Sanskrit and any reference to spirituality, focusing specifically on yoga for fitness. That’s what I would imagine, anyway. I’ve read only a bit about the Tudor Joneses, but I would not imagine them to be so blinded by their love of yoga and desire to share it that they would create a program that would fail on this front. The principal and school board as well would hopefully not have accepted the money if they’d had any thought of the program being contested (but then, principals and school boards have to find money wherever they can). Overall I want to believe that the program they’ve adopted has been sufficiently de-Hindued so as to be acceptable to a mainstream audience.

Yoga is a truly multifaceted system. You can use it to advance your spiritual practice, or you can do physical postures for years without ever knowing that there’s an eightfold path. There’s no true parallel within Christianity – you could say that praying the rosary calms and focuses the mind, but the rosary in essence is still a prayer and always will be, because that is its purpose. Yoga is not a prayer, although some people use it that way. It is a systematic and holistic approach to personal health and wellness, which can include spirituality, but does not have to.

I would hope that, before pressing forward in a legal battle, the the parents in this school district will learn more. Review the full program plan, attend and observe some classes. It is foolish to judge something you haven’t taken the time to understand. That’s what I hope I will do someday if an issue arises at my child’s school that worries me.

Coincidentally, a friend who lives in another state sent me a photo the other day of her five-year-old son practicing yoga. He’d learned it in school. He was doing a mean triangle pose and was obviously having a great time.

 

First Hindu Congresswoman in the US November 9, 2012

Filed under: bhagavad gita,yoga lifestyle — R. H. Ward @ 1:00 pm
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Among the many interesting victories in this week’s election, Democrat Tulsi Gabbard’s win in Hawaii caught my attention. Gabbard will be the first Hindu-American to serve in Congress, and she’ll take her oath in January on the Bhagavad Gita. How awesome is that?

Huffington Post reported on Ms. Gabbard last week – their article describes her background more fully. HuffPo also quotes some of the senseless hate that’s been strewn against non-Christian politicians, from Gabbard’s opponent in the race, Republican Kawika Crowley, as well as the American Family Association and the ever-evil Rick Santorum, who according to HuffPo stated that equality was a uniquely Judeo-Christian concept that “doesn’t come from the East and Eastern religions.” Which is completely erroneous, by the way. I’d venture that Eastern religions are actually far more egalitarian than some forms of Christianity, many of which have that whole “I’m saved and you’re not” thing going on. Anyway, I think it’s fantastic that Gabbard is following her Hindu values (and, I’m guessing, what she perceives as her karma yoga duty) by serving her country.

Hawaii also elected Japan-born Mazie Hirono, who was previously one of the first Buddhists to serve in Congress, and will now become the first Asian-American woman in the Senate. Rock on, Hawaii.

 

 
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