Yoga & Social Awareness: the YSC & YBIC coming together to create change

June 3, 2015

By: Carol Horton. Cross-posted with permission from original post on Carol Horton Ph,D. 

What, if anything, do the “yoga and body image” and “yoga service” movements have in common?

If you believe that the former is simply about upping the number of yoga cover models who aren’t skinny, white, and conventionally pretty, and the latter exclusively dedicated to things like teaching yoga in prisons, then you’d probably assume they have nothing in common at all.

If, however, you’d had the opportunity to attend the Yoga Service Council conference earlier this month, you’d have been able to experience these movements in ways that highlight their connections, and demonstrate the powerful synergies between them. Since I was fortunate enough to have been able do so, I’m writing to share my reflections with those who are interested in the work of the Yoga Service Council (YSC) and Yoga and Body Image Coalition (YBIC), but weren’t able to make it to the conference.

Supported by the deep green spaciousness of the Omega Institute campus, those of us at the conference devoted a lot of time, thought, and feeling to the nested practices of deepening relationships: with ourselves, each other, different communities, and our larger environment. In my view, it’s ultimately this work, which YSC founding members Traci Childress and Jennifer Cohen Harper memorably characterized as “conscious relationship,” that powers both movements. More broadly, it’s also what enables us to experience yoga in ways that break free of the hyper-individualistic, commodified, and/or fundamentalist boxes that otherwise keep us unhealthily confined within psychically narrow, claustrophobic spaces.

Garden at the Omega Institute
Garden at the Omega Institute

Social Awareness in Yoga Service

During the past several years, the YSC has become committed to incorporating a strong a social justice framework into our work. While there’re many reasons for this, perhaps the biggest is the realization that without sufficient social awareness, our core commitment to making yoga truly accessible to all can play out in problematic, and even harmful ways.

This is particularly true given that the work we’re supporting commonly involves negotiating some of our society’s most entrenched social divisions. For example, having relatively affluent, white yoga teachers offer classes in places like prisons, which are disproportionately full of low-income Blacks and Latinos, raises important issues of race, class, power, privilege, and identity.

In such settings, yoga teachers who sail in full of good intentions but without social awareness can all-too-easily wind up replicating harmful interpersonal dynamics. For example, we may unintentionally re-inscribe hierarchical “us-versus-them” divisions in which “we,” the love- and light-bestowing yoga teachers, are oh-so-generously helping “them,” the unfortunate, and presumably unenlightened masses.

Despite positive intent, such actions can cause harm by perpetuating a sense of separation and hierarchy. This process can fuel a misguided sense of self-aggrandizement on the part of teachers, and alienation and/or disempowerment among students.

Sign on path at YSC conference, May 2015
Sign on path at YSC conference, May 2015

Social Awareness in Yoga Culture

When we shift such social awareness to the “mainstream” yoga studio setting, we may see parallel dynamics in play. As Jacoby Ballard and Lisa Garrett discussed in their “Teaching for Diversity” session, it’s quite common for yoga teachers to give cues that unintentionally alienate, and perhaps even harm their students. For example, gendered blanket statements such as “men usually have tight hips, so may want to use blocks in this pose” may sound belittling, or be taken as an insulting erasure of an alternative gender identity.

Even when social categories such as race or gender aren’t involved, yoga teachers can still unknowingly perpetuate a harmful sense of hierarchy between them and their students. Many, if not most sincere students tend to place their teachers up on pedestals, particularly when they’re first starting to discover just how powerful the practice can be. Teachers who aren’t sufficiently grounded and aware of such social/psychological dynamics are often swept into their own problems of narcissistic ego-inflation as a result.

Similar problems of unintentional harm being generated by a lack of social awareness surround today’s popular “yoga body” imagery, which inundates us through advertising, magazines, and social media. As Yoga and Body Image Coalition co-founder Melanie Kleinexplains in very personal terms in her 21st Century Yoga and Yoga and Body Image essays, many women in particular have been conditioned since birth to believe that if we could just manage to grab that elusive gold ring of thinness and prettiness, then our inherent worth as human beings would be affirmed – and we’d finally feel happy and fulfilled, forever.

Commercialized “yoga body” imagery plays on this false promise, cruelly. Rather than affirming our authentic aspirations and experiences as multi-dimensional human beings, it channels them back into the pernicious fantasy that our physical appearance dictates our inner experience and inherent worth. As Teo Drake and I discussed with Chelsea Roff and about seven others in a small group roundtable at the YSC conference, the fact that yoga today is simultaneously being sold as means of honing the “yoga body” that supposedly achieves happiness, and experienced as a practice that deepens our awareness holistically is creating a lot of confusion, and sometimes causing harm.

“This Is What a Yogi Looks Like”: YBIC 2015
“This Is What a Yogi Looks Like”: YBIC 2015

Cultural Deconditioning

As Mircea Eliade explains in his classic, Yoga: Immortality and Freedom, practices of cultural “deconditioning” were traditionally understood to be an intrinsic part of yoga. This experience of deconditioning is way of reverse-engineering the intrinsic nature we have as human beings to be profoundly conditioned by our culture. It’s natural for us to believe certain things so deeply that we taken them for granted as indisputable facts, rather than recognizing them as provisional human beliefs. Yogic practices enable us to progressively unwind these layers of cultural conditioning. This process, in turn, strengthens our connection to that deeper source of awareness that undergirds all beliefs, whether we hold them consciously, as ideational commitments, or unconsciously, as reflexive taken-for-granteds.

While it may seem presumptuous to see the unraveling of cultural biases regarding body image in light of this traditional idea of cultural deconditioning, I believe there’s an important connection here. For example, as I’ve engaged with the “yoga and body image” movement more deeply, I’ve found that I’ve had to work through resistances to it that I hadn’t previously realized I’d had. Because there’s definitely a reactive part of me that feels bored, impatient, and dismissive when I see yet another round of impassioned discussion over the pros and cons of this or that yoga cover girl. From an emotional distance, it seems so dismayingly trivial. I feel sick and tired of the whole thing.

Yet when I connect with people enough to feel the deeply personal issues that fuel such debates, everything shifts. Rather than belittling their concerns as shallow, I’m able to connect them to parallels in my own experience. And this process doesn’t really feel that different from what I’ve experience in yoga service. Teaching yoga in a jail and homeless shelter, for example, has similarly caused me to confront biases and assumptions that I wouldn’t necessarily have encountered in the same way otherwise. At the same time, the practice of yoga has given me the personal resources needed to confront, process, and transform them in ways that feel educational, empowering, and good.

Carol 4
Sign on path at YSC conference, May 2015

Unexpected Connection

One of the many memorable encounters I had at the YSC conference came when I was representing the “Yoga and Body Image Coalition” with Teo Drake, selling t-shirts off a folding table and chatting up anyone interested about our work. (I serve on the YBIC Advisory Board; Teo was a contributor to the book.)

As we were talking to interested conference goers, a pretty young woman with strikingly light blue eyes came up to our table. She simply stood there, quietly listening. But, she was doing so with such complete presence and undivided attention that my focus was soon drawn toward her. Quickly, we became absorbed into talking with each other in that way where it feels like the rest of the world has just temporarily dropped away.

She told me that she was a fashion model, in on a visit from Japan. She had never heard of the Yoga Service Council or the Yoga and Body Image Coalition. She was simply at the Omega Institute for the weekend, and had happened to wander into our exhibit. But she did practice yoga. And, she made it clear that she did suffer from body image issues, as well.

This revelation caused me to do a quick double-take. I looked at her and thought: She’s so perfectly pretty – blonde hair, blue eyes, flawless skin, beautiful face. But the feeling I’m getting from her is one of quiet distress and confusion. “I want to do work that helps other people,” she told me. “But I’m not together enough yet. I need to work on myself first.”

Confessing this, she looked entirely sincere, very young, and a little ashamed. I had a momentary flash of imagining what it might feel like to be a beautiful 20-year old model, inexperienced, uncertain, and, perhaps, surrounded by vultures who treat you as a thing to enjoy and exploit, not a person. I don’t know if this picture I intuited was true to life, or not. But it came to me very strongly.

I assured her that simply being aware of the fact that she needed to take care of herself on a deeper level was fantastic, and important. That to see that clearly was to be way ahead of the game. She looked at me like I’d said something that mattered. I felt something shift.

As has happened many times in parallel instances in the past, I suddenly realized how deeply I’ve been conditioned to assume that someone who looks like her could not possibly suffer from body image issues. And that talking to her in a way that felt truly connected, rather than looking at her and making unconscious assumptions, had broken through my formerly taken-for-granted paradigm, and revealed it as a false lens that had initially given me a distorted picture of the person standing right in front of me. And that having this shift happened enlarged my world in ways that were liberating, and good.

The moment passed. We both moved on to the next thing. But that brief exchange was one of the most memorable of a day that was full of beautiful encounters, and yoga-sparked magic. Self-study. Conscious relationship. Social awareness. This, for me, is yoga in practice – taken off the mat, and into everyday life. This is how we connect more deeply with our selves and each other to uplift and transform our world.

Sign on path at YSC conference, May 2015
Sign on path at YSC conference, May 2015

You can learn more about the Yoga Service Council, and join as an individual or organizational member, here. If you’re interested, please also mark your calendar for next year’s conference now: May 13-15, 2016, at the Omega Institute, NY.


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