Erasing Spirit? The Cultural Appropriation of Yoga


Last year in a marvellous post titled why-i-stopped-teaching-yoga-my-journey-into-spiritual-political-accountability, Andrea MacDonald laid out her reasons for leaving the “industrial complex of yoga”. She writes, “I know in my heart, my mind and my gut that what we are doing in western yoga is an entitled, willfully ignorant act of theft”.

This post created a small ruckus on my facebook yoga feed, with people vehemently agreeing and disagreeing. For some people there was no denying that contemporary yoga (as appropriated by the fitness, health and beauty industry) is a far cry from what the ancient yoga sages had intended. Others felt that chalking it up to “theft by the west” didn’t take into account that yoga was a gift – evangelized to us by eastern teachers who arrived on our shores at the turn of the century.  And so obviously, the issue is complex, resisting black and white categorizations.

Since then I’ve given it all some thought, and on the whole I have to say I’m with Andrea MacDonald. The way I see it, the great teachers like Vivekanada came with a mission, to spread the gospel of yoga far and wide. But it seems we’ve overlooked one thing.


Swami Vivekananda

These yogis did not come just to offer fitness routines or methods of self-development, but to awaken us to the great wisdom of their spiritual traditions. They came as Carol Horton writes to transform an “esoteric discipline that could only be learned through a guru-disciple relationship into a spiritual technology available to all.” 

But it seems to me that we’ve embraced only the physical and psychological aspects of this discipline and minimized the spiritual – repackaging it into a sanitized “yoga speak” of mindfulness and self actualization. And we’ve come to regard many of the mystical fundamentals of yoga – such as the omniscient nature of pure consciousness – as magical thinking.


Our modern view of yoga as a health care modality, is based not on woo-woo ideas but on the neurological correlates of meditation and nervous system function. But whether our materialist mind-set likes it or not, yoga for hundreds if not thousands of years, has been a deeply esoteric tradition filled with ideas and practices we’ve come to regard as outlandish and fantastic.

Cultural appropriation can be defined as the taking of another cultural form to define yourself or your group – then discarding the rest. And today the process of secularizing yoga has led it to become something that even the most hard-headed atheist can practice. So by stripping away the metaphysical ideas that offend our materialist assumptions are we violating the original ideas and intentions of yoga?


Of course there is no single sanctified “yoga”. But as it evolved over the centuries and in differing schools, there has been one constant –  yoga is a spiritual practice. Some claim it is part of the worlds oldest “eternal religion’  the Sanatana Dharma, which in Sanskrit denotes that which is Anadi (beginningless), Anantha (endless) and does not cease to be. It is the binding of the body and breath (spirit) with the divine.

So bypassing what does not agree with our secular mind-set, are we not only appropriating yoga – but entirely missing the point? 

I leave the final words to Andrea MacDonald.

“Yoga was brought here as a gift. People from the east wanted to share this practice with us. It is a good thing, I think, for us to practice yoga. It can even be argued that yoga’s popularity is a demonstration of our society’s longing for connection, stillness and spiritual fulfillment. That being said, I think it is our responsibility to offer a practice that holds reverence for the lineage, history and culture it arose from. Let us teach in a way that honors the complexity of yoga, in all its expressions and various paths…Critically, let us resist the commodification and cultural appropriation of the spiritual tradition to which we owe so much, so that we might pass it on to others, in the integrity with which it was brought to us.”

The Body Divine: The Biology of Immanence

When I first began practicing yoga it was all so simple. Breathe and move in a certain way and the life-enhancing benefits of yoga would flow into your body. Then things got more complicated. Yoga experts began to abound – and they disagreed about practically everything – from technique, methodology and physical alignment, to the meaning and purpose of yoga itself.

I began to question was I doing yoga wrong or right? Were my knee’s locked, was my pelvis tilted? In or out? Should I be stressing my body or activating my relaxation response? Was I a cultural appropriator or a decolonizer? Or even worse a new ager?  Was my practice congruent with my deepest beliefs and what were those beliefs  – exactly? It went on and on. Obviously, all this self scrutiny only served to disconnect me from my actual practice – i.e.  feeling the “good stuff” flow into my body.


While I love the discourse (and I really do) I’ve found its left me well, a little disembodied. So lately I’ve begun to feel a deep need to reconnect to my personal beliefs about the nature of yoga. And (thank goodness) I’ve come full circle to the premise that underlies this blog – that the body is an instrument of spiritual practice.

Despite the current trend towards the desacralization of yoga – I still believe yoga means recognizing, as the great modern guru B.K.S. Iyengar put it, that “the needs of the body are the needs of the divine spirit which lives through the body.”  But I’ll go one step further, because the way I see it, the divine doesn’t ‘live’ through the body – it is the body.

For modern seekers accustomed to seeing the body as a house in which their spirit resides – I realize this idea may seem strange. The popular yogic rhetoric of ascension and transcendence speaks to an assumption that the divine lies outside of us, especially our corporal “meat suit”.


But if we go back to yoga’s earliest roots, to the vast ancient body of esoteric knowledge contained in the earliest Tantric, Buddhist, and Taoist traditions – the goal was not to leave the flesh behind like an old suit, but to ascend in the body – to a higher level of being. As an old sage expounds in a Taoist fable, “There are two paths, that of lesser people who leave the body and go, and that of greater people who go with the whole body.”


The practitioners of this early yoga believed that with dedicated practice, we could ‘refine’ and ‘perfect’ the ordinary body into an immortal, illuminated, rainbow or diamond body – the body divine. This was, as J.C. Cooper, writes in Chinese Alchemy: The Taoist Quest for Immortality “not merely a matter of arresting the normal processes of ageing and decay, but through a life time of practices creating a new subtle body, capable of flying on the wind, of being in more than one place at once, immune from harm and able to assume invisibility; in fact having all the supernatural powers.”


Today the goals of Transhumanism (merging man with cybernetics and robotics) have much in common with the ancient enlightenment agendas; the acquisition of superhuman powers, a perfected body, the achievement of immortality. We are still being driven by the same impulse to transmute ourselves – but c’mon do we really need all the hardware? Because the ancient sages did it au naturel. And in my totally amateur personal opinion, they left two main premises to follow.

Properly harnessed, our mind, emotions and thoughts constitute a ‘body technology’ that can alter the physical dimensions of reality. There is no division between consciousness and flesh – so when one transforms the mind, they transform the body – and vice-versa.

Secondly, in order to have more time to achieve enlightenment one must extend longevity. This was done by communing with and enhancing the life force energies (qi, jing, shen, prana ) that permeate the universe through breathing and meditation techniques, ritual body postures and yoga, the utilization of astronomical and geomantic forces, and the consumption of magical herbs and foods.


Whether you want to dismiss this ancient spiritual art, science or technology as superstition or one big fat placebo, science is increasingly demonstrating that the ancients were right about one thing. Our minds, bodies and the cosmos – are deeply linked.

We may seem like solid flesh and bone, but we are animated by invisible energies. At the very ‘ground’ of our being, we are waveforms of energy spread across time and space.  Here, the separation between body and consciousness dissolves, the energy forms of your thoughts and emotions are one with the energy waveforms of your fingers and toes.


Further, the body is constantly, sending, receiving and storing information from the universe.  At an energetic level, our electromagnetic fields flow continually, intermingling constantly, without separation, with the electromagnetic fields of the sun, moon, earth, mountains, streams, plants and lichen. And shifts in any one part of the system affect all others.

The ancient Tantric, Buddhists and Taoists already understood that everything was one. The goal of yoga and spiritual practice was not to reject the natural world or the body, but to consciously access its eternal energy aspect. And the way I see it, they did not seek to escape from the dross matter of the body, but to awaken to its truest nature. It was not to be either spirit or matter – but both at once.


Is the body really just a vehicle that we drive along the path to enlightenment? Or are we are already here? Could it be that what separates our ‘meatsuit’ from the immortal realm of spirit – is our minds?

Maybe we don’t need technology, cybernetics or a magic pill to achieve the “body divine”? After all hundreds of pharmaceutical funded medical trials have already shown the power of belief (placebos, sugar pills and sham treatments) to heal disease, rejuvenate cells, reverse tissue damage, cure warts and even enlarge breasts.

Studies in epigenetics demonstrate that our minds, thoughts and psychology create an information pattern, or “bio-field” that produces either stress or healing responses which echo through our biological system, turning disease related genes on or off.

And in a landmark study conducted by Harvard University, researchers placed a group of seniors in an environment that recreated the 50’s – a time when they were all in the prime of life. After two weeks their cardiac functioning, strength, hormone levels, blood pressure, eyesight and hearing had all improved. In other words they were able to reverse the markers of aging.

Standford Studies

And best of all, consider this. Medical research on telomerase (the enzyme in cells that repairs the shortening of chromosomes that occurs throughout life) reveal that long time meditators like yogis and Buddhist monks are aging at a slower rate than the rest of us!

So I’ve decided to place my faith in the ultimate spiritual technology – belief itself. What we believe about who and what we are matters. Are we dust in an oblivious cosmos destined by time and genes to rust and decay? Or perhaps we have as yet undiscovered – and still evolving – realms of human potential? Forgive me for using this new age cliché, but just as a pupae becomes a butterfly and discovers new paradigms of flight, what may we yet discover?


Whether we arrived here by sheer random mutation or premeditated design, one thing is pretty clear, nature took vast millenniums of time, eons worth of effort, to evolve the individually unique bodies many seekers are eager to dispossess.

That’s why, after all the of years of questioning, I’m still placing my bets on the body divine. Like the ancient Tantric and Taoist yogis and sages, I see the divine as immanent, alive in every thing we experience and behold – even ourselves. I choose to see the body – not as a predetermined closed system, but as an open one in which anything and evolution is possible.

And I believe that waking up to this greater, higher, wider, deeper reality, is the purpose of yoga. Now that’s an adventure!

That’s why I’ve decided it no longer matters whether I’m doing or thinking about yoga wrong or right. What matters, whether my pelvis is tucked in or out, is my continuing faith in yoga as a practice to connect with the divine in myself and the universe. And voila, it lets the “good stuff” flow.


Introducing The Yoga Apothecary: Exploring The Healing Arts of Yoga & Herbs


Come and explore my new venture at The Yoga Apothecary!  Here I bring together my passions for the healing practice of yoga and the healing power of herbs. From ancient yogic traditions to 21st century therapeutic practice, from sacred plant medicine to modern herbalism, to wildcrafting and rewilding your yoga practice – I explore it all.

Plant medicines have been used for rejuvenation, healing and spiritual development in yoga for thousand of years. The Yoga Apothecary merges this ancient wisdom with modern day science, to explore the many ways herbs can enhance your yoga practice and revitalize your well-being.

So take a boo – it’s brand new and still evolving. Let me know what you think!

The Yoga Apothecary

Yoga Apothecary: Nourish Your Third Chakra With This Autumn Tea for Digestive Health

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” Herbs are powerful aids in the practice of yoga…They are useful not only for treating diseases and for rejuvenation but for awakening all our higher faculties.” Dr. David Frawley, The Yoga of Herbs.

I want to share a little background of how this warming, healing tea came to be – and how in conjunction with yoga practice (and even without!) it can be used to soothe even the most disgruntled tummy.

As many of you know, for the past three years I’ve been completing my yoga therapy certification – meaning I’ve been exploring the many ways yoga can be used to support health, recover from illness and manage chronic disease. And through my recent herbalism studies and apprenticeship with herbalist Betty Norton, I’ve been discovering the many ways plants can do the same. And its become obvious through both fields of study that fusing the therapeutic benefits of herbs with the therapeutic benefits of yoga – just makes good sense.


After all, both have been demonstrated to offer profound benefits for physical and emotional health, from supporting digestion and detoxification, balancing hormones, reducing inflammation and boosting our immune system to soothing anxiety and creating feelings of well-being!

And besides, it isn’t anything new.  Herbs and herbal medicines have been used in yoga for thousands of years. References in ancient Tantric and Vedic texts to the use of herbs and sacred plants abound.


In yogic tradition the physical and subtle body is likened to a tree with different branches and different herbs were believed to interact with these branches in specific ways. Some cleansed and vitalized, others nourished and balanced the chakras and others facilitated the flow of prana through the bodies energy channels (or nadi’s).


And according to Dr. David Frawley, some plants (especially wild ones) were believed to be particularly high in prana or life-giving essence (often called soma) which extended longevity and created “an exhilarating effect that promotes healing and transformative processes on all levels”.


I find this especially intriguing because many plants with similar medicinal qualities to those used by yogis (and even direct relatives) grow all around us in the Pacific Northwest. And because our bodies, like trees, are subject to the same energetic forces and seasonal cycles that flow through the landscape we live in, I personally believe that consuming locally growing plants can bring us into “healing harmony” with our direct environment.

So from wild botanicals to backyard weeds to garden herbs, I’ve been exploring the many ways common seasonal plants can be used in simple teas, infusions, tinctures, salves and essential oils to support therapeutic yoga practice.


For example, digestive aliments are epidemic today. This is pretty bad news considering that over 80% of our immune system is housed in our gut, and that digestive health shapes every aspect of our emotional and physical well-being. But the good news is that both yoga and herbs have been shown to be effective in helping manage everything from irritable bowel syndrome to heartburn, to our ability to digest and detoxify.


In yoga, certain postures and breathing techniques work to stimulate the fiery metabolic energy of digestion (agni). This assists the body to assimilate food while eliminating wastes and toxins (ama). So before a digestive enhancing practice that massages, compresses and opens the abdominal area (more on this later) I’ll use wild local plants and herbs like Wild Fennel, Chamomile and Dandelion which are renowned for their digestive supporting abilities.

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(left to right) Lemon Balm,  Chamomile, Wild Fennel, Dandelion

I might take a few drops of Dandelion root tincture or drink Fennel, Chamomile, Lemon Balm and Wild Violets in a tea – all of which are known to support the digestive organs, aid metabolic processes and the elimination of waste products.

Chamomile and Lemon Balm are also known to calm the nervous system, which helps when digestion is adversely affected by stress. Restorative yoga and meditative practices help calm nervous agitation and an overactive parasympathetic nervous system. So whenever I (and my belly) get particularly stressed out I use a combination of gentle relaxing postures in conjunction with mild sophoric plant tinctures (like California Poppy and Wild Lettuce) to help me chill – and get some sleep.

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California Poppy, Wild Lettuce

Another fascinating way to utilize yoga and herbs is in harmony with seasonal and astrological cycles. Early herbalists observed the connection between time of year, celestial cycles and cycles of plant growth. They believed that the same cycles that affect plant growth affect our bodies as well, so they correlated systems of the body with certain planets, which governed specific medicinal herbs.



For example, last month was governed by Leo (July 23rd August 22nd) which oversees the cardiac system and upper back – so I practiced heart openers and backbends (Cobra and Bridge) in conjunction with heart supporting herbs like Calendula and Hawthorn.


This month is Virgo (August 23rd to Sept 22nd) which governs our abdomen, intestinal track and digestive organs, so using Fennel ( A virgo ruled herb) long renowned for it’s tummy soothing abilities is one obvious choice.  (For more info on Fennel click here). I’ll also be consuming Dandelions, Plantain and Yellow Dock in salads and pestos, all of which help cleanse the body and remove toxins from the internal organs.


Wild Fennel

And while it all sounds a bit woo, I’m excited by the possibility that we can integrate ancient astrological knowledge with herbal and yogic traditions to achieve optimum levels of health, vitality and well-being.


So in tandem with the celestial and seasonal cycles of the natural world – I offer you an autumnal recipe for a digestion enhancing wildcrafted tea. It utilizes the plants growing around you right now under the auspices of Virgo – which of course governs the entire digestive process.


In yoga, the digestive system is under the dominion of the third chakra, the centre of command and control. This is the home of our gut feelings, and it not only gives us the will power and strength to carry out our intentions – it helps us fully digest the physical and emotional experiences of life.

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(left to right) Supine Twist, Knee to Belly, Boat, Bridge

So get in touch with power of your third chakra – and the energy of the season. This month, drink this tea before a practice of digestion enhancing postures like Pawanmuktasana (knees to belly) and gentle twists (like Bharadvaja) which compress and massage the abdominal area. Belly opening postures like Bridge and Bow pose can be used to help bring blood flow to the internal organs. And if your’e looking to fire up the empowering energy of the solar chakra, try Boat or Breath of Fire.


 Autumn Herbal Tea For Digestion

Note: This is a list of local herbs and wild plants that promote good digestion (besides many other good things). Since this tea or infusion is meant to be “wildcrafted” you may not find all of the ingredients nearby, so just use the plants from the list that are growing near you. This will help bring you into harmony with the seasonal and energetic forces of your local landscape.

Ingredients (To make a one pot or about 16 ounces of tea)

About a tablespoon of:

-Fennel fronds, blossoms and seeds
Yarrow leaves
Skullcap leaves
Linden leaves
Mint (Wild if you can find it)
Lemon Balm leaves
Chamomile blossoms
Queen Anne Lace blossoms
Chrysanthemum and/or Aster blossoms
-2 cups of hot water


-Muddle your plants (meaning gently crush them with a mortal and pestle or the back of a wooden spoon)
-Boil water
-Remove water from heat then place your herbs in the hot water
-Let infuse for 10 -20 minutes
-Strain and drink

Note: For more on how you can use plants and herbs to enhance your yoga practice you may wish to visit my new site The Yoga Apothecary.

Wildcrafting Soma: The Bright Shining Elixir of Life


                             We have drunk Soma and become immortal; we have attained the light, the Gods discovered.                        The Rigveda (8.48.3)

Lately my passions for yoga, herbalism and plant magic have been merging.  I’ve been experimenting with wildcrafted elixirs, tonics and infusions inspired by the mystical legends of soma, a sacred nectar reputed to grant both immortality and enlightenment. Described as “green-tinted” and “bright-shining” in the Rigveda, soma was made mainly from wild herbs and plants, whose rejuvenating potency or “life giving essence” was strong. And most telling, it was meant to be drunk not from the mouth— but the heart.


Some scholars believe soma was single plant, others a group or type of plant (texts like the Susruta Samhita mention twenty four soma plants and eighteen soma-like plants). Many claim soma was an entheogenic substance made from mushrooms or a vine, others say it was an inner elixir produced by yoga and meditation. But according to Dr. David Frawley whose analysis of soma reflects forty years of study of Vedic texts, and author of Soma in Yoga and Ayurveda: The Power of Rejuvenation and Immortality the most potent soma was made mainly from wild plants and herbs which combined with “ojas” the soma or life essence of the body to create “an exhilarating effect that promotes healing and transformative processes on all levels”.


From yogic mystics to Taoist sages, to western alchemists, sacred plants have long been entwined with our sacred anatomy. In yoga the physical and subtle body is likened to a tree with different branches and different plants and herbs interact with these branches to vitalize our chakras and facilitate the life-giving flow of prana through energy channels or nadis. Evidence for the use of soma to energize both the physical and energetic body and expand consciousness is found in countless sacred texts – the Soma Mandala contains 114 hymns praising its qualities.


The rejuvenative properties of soma may be relegated to the realm of myth but science is discovering many of the herbs and plants used in soma preparations affect our telomeres, the caps at the end of each strand DNA that get shorter each time a cell copies itself, causing them to age.


Studies show that chemical compounds found in soma-like plants (Astaxanthin, Polyphenols, CoQ10, Vitamin K, to name but a few) actually help rejuvenate and lengthen our telomeres— suggesting some of these ancient soma preparations may actually deserve the appellation “anti-aging” after all.


The beneficial effects of many soma type plants are also well known to herbalists. Some, according to Dr. Frawley, are “tonic” plants used to increase physical energy, stamina, musculoskeletal function, circulation and coordination.  Other plants are known to possess nervine properties which act on the nervous system, stimulating concentration, perception and clarity. Nervines can also be calming, slowing the mind for meditation–and in yogic tradition they are said to nourish the higher brain centres.


Some yogic traditions tell of a soma chakra or Amrita or Bindu chakra. Located near the pineal gland and Ajna Chakra (third eye) the Amrita Chakra – which means ‘the Nectar of the Crescent Moon’ it contains the inverted triangle, symbol of feminine energy, and the great seat of Shiva & Parvati consciousness.

So it was this intriguing mix of yoga mysticism, herbal healing and anti-aging science that inspired me to create my own soma. But where to begin?


Through my herbalism studies with well-known herbalist teacher Betty Norton, I knew that many plants with soma-like qualities grow in wild abundance right here on Vancouver Island. Many are well-known tonics and nervines with medicinal benefits, like Nettles, Wild Mint and Wild Chicory. Syrian or African Rue is an invasive weed whose seeds are commonly used as a spice but are also slightly narcotic, hence one of it’s common names: soma! Wild Carrot (Queen Anne’s Lace) flowers and seeds are also psychotropic.


Queen Anne Lace

Many of these plants, like Yarrow leaf, Wild Ginger root, Wild Sarsaparilla root, Wild Bergamot leaf are known to contain adaptogens which improve the health of adrenal system helping us cope with stress, anxiety and fight fatigue. Devil’s Club is also a native plant with adaptogenic functions and it is still used by local First Nations, who have their own indigenous sacred plants and healing traditions. 

Devil's Club

Devil’s Club

And according to Dr. Frawley it was not only wild plants that were best for soma potency, but those growing in particular areas where natural energies were strong. He writes “soma ingredients are most prevalent among plants growing in the mountains, particularly by streams and lakes”. So off to the mountainous wet wilds of Vancouver Island I would go!


While inspired by eastern, western and indigenous herbal healing traditions, I decided the wisdom of wild mother nature would be my primary guide. For example, last year our early lush spring brought us nettles in profusion. Bursting with compounds that reduce inflammation, nettle has long been used to treat allergies and hay fever. Because the same climatic forces and natural energies that flow through our landscape flow through us as well, mother nature knows best when it comes to providing the medicines we need to thrive each season.


Licorice Fern

Another illustration of mother’s natures pharmacy is Licorice Fern, which begins to flourish when the cold dank rains of autumn set in. And as First Nations healers well know, Liquorice Fern root is an ideal medicine to treat colds and congested lungs. Coincidence? I think not. There is a balance in nature and we are a part of it.

Finally, as a wildcrafter, I wanted to incorporate a little old fashioned plant magic. There is an the old herbalist axiom that the plants we need “speak to us”. On a wild medicine walk Cowichan Medicine Woman and ethnobotanist Della Rice Sylvester, told us – watch for the plant that calls you, you will notice it – it may even “move without wind” to get your attention. So for my Soma, I would go into nature with a trusting heart and an open eye. I would follow the plants that called to me.


In Hinduism, the god Soma (Chandra) is a lunar deity, thus the full moon is the time to collect and press the divine plants. The moon is also the cup from which the gods drink Soma, and a waxing moon meant Soma was recreating himself, ready to be drunk again. So true kitchen witch style, I will be busy harvesting and brewing my soma under the phases of the moon.


9th–10th century granite Chola statue of Matrika Maheshvari

And my first creation? A Wild Yogini Elixir, in tribute to the Matrikas, the seven great mother goddesses found in the Rigveda and Mahabharata who were said to control the preparation of soma. Designed to get prana flowing, this wildcrafted elixir will not only fire up the solar chakra, open the heart and ignite the third eye—but bring me into ‘healing harmony’ with the natural energies of the land I inhabit, body and soul.

I’ll let you know how it goes!

Yoga, Magical Thinking and Depression


Hemalayaa’s now infamous post “Shocked by Yoga Teachers Who Take Meds” sparked a lot of heated debate in the yoga community.  Her original post (now removed due to the hoopla) has been replaced by a heartfelt apology—so I can’t quote her directly. But her view, as summarized by Matthew Remski, that “people who practice yoga should really manifest better moods through dancing and naps so that they can get off their inauthentic anti-depressant medications” – has been widely criticized as insensitive, ill-informed and even dangerous.

I have no argument with this. Yes, Hemalyaa’s post was facile. But I take issue with those who insinuate Hemalayaa’s “anti-medical viewpoint” (her words) promulgates a kind of regressive magical thinking that threatens to overwhelm yoga and leave practitioners befuddled and vulnerable to faith healing hucksters.  For those who are filled with certainty that we cannot fix a chemical imbalance with a mantra or by thinking good thoughts real hard – this is what I wish Hemalayaa had said…

anti-depressants-250x250According to the National Centre for Health Statistics and the International Review of Psychiatry, antidepressant use in the United States has “gone up by 400%” between 1998 and 2008. This means nearly one-in-four Americans have taken a course of antidepressant medication.

Today prescriptions continue to climb, leading Psychology Today to ask the million dollar question.  “When do we reach a number or percentage so sizeable that concern about undertreatment tips appropriately into unease about overmedication?”

Despite our faith in pills and the efficacy of medical science, there is loads of peer-reviewed evidence that suggests many antidepressants (as well as many other pharmaceuticals) function as placebos! And much of  this research is conducted by the drug makers themselves. I’m not going to delve into these studies, they are easily found through a few taps of the fingers and search engines.

My point is that placebos harness the thoughts, feelings, beliefs and expectations of the individuals thereby triggering bio-chemical responses in our bodies that lead to improved function, even healing. This lends credence to that bugaboo of skeptics everywhere – magical thinking – the notion that how we think, feel and perceive our world, affects our health and well-being.

anti-anxiety-drugs-250x250Even CSI (Committee for Skeptical Inquiry) acknowledges that people’s persistent belief in magical thinking “gives individuals a sense of control, hence an important increase in self-confidence in a confusing and impersonal world. When the objective is relief from some personal ailment, such confidence may generate feelings of improvement, albeit perhaps temporary, through the placebo effect.”

I’m not advocating depressed people throw out their prescriptions and think themselves into wellness (our understanding of how placebos actually function is still poor) but I think there is enough evidence to suggest that we shouldn’t throw the “mind over matter” baby out with the bath water just yet.

And I’m tired of that most fallacious argument, so frequently trotted out, that believing we can “cure ourselves” through “positive thinking” stops ill people from seeking medical treatment – that could save their lives!  Lets face it modern medicine is hardly a cure-all.  In fact, according to a recent paper called “Death by Medicine”, the American medical system is the leading cause of death and injury in the US!

I’m willing to wager that modern medicine has harmed way more people than positive thinking ever has. Maybe Hemalayaa has a point, maybe we need to think twice before medicating ourselves with pharmaceuticals with serious side-effects too numerous to list here. 

Doctors Warn That Anti-Depressants Can Lead To Suicide

From what I recall reading Hemalyaa’s post, she was advocating yoga as a tool, a modality by which we can access our thought/feeling complex, and change our lives for the better. Is she wrong?  There is a great deal of evidence that “positive thinking” may actually be beneficial to our physical and physiological well-being. (for more on this see my post Magical Thinking: A Defense )

And I’m not blaming or shaming those whose lives are being helped or have been helped by antidepressant medication. I have many amongst my own family and circle of friends. I know the anguish of depression. And as someone who has been heavily involved in the medical system for the past fifteen years due to my husband’s progressive Multiple Sclerosis, I just want to say that depression is very familiar to us.

And sometimes magical thinking is all we’ve got. Informed by medical professionals that there is no cure, we’ve been given no hope, we’ve been told all we can do is place our faith in a whole pack of pharmaceutical drugs in order to slow symptoms.  And after several courses of chemotherapy treatment that damaged my husband’s heart, new research suggests that it might not work to slow MS progression after all. So we trust less.


And we’ve come to the conclusion that there is a lot more to healing that modern medicine wants to recognize. Like the power of our mind, emotions, placebos and yes, magical thinking to shape our health. When medical professionals told us with absolute confidence, that we must prepare for the worst – they delivered a powerful nocebo (a placebo with negative effects) that induced in us a dark sense of powerlessness and despair. Then, guess what? We were told to consider antidepressants as a way to ‘cope’.

I’m not saying that MS drugs haven’t helped people! I’m saying that magical thinking was -and is -our light in the tunnel, the faith that maybe the medical system doesn’t yet know everything there is to know about healing MS.  And we think carefully before embracing the latest pharmaceutical drug being pressed upon us by the industrial medical complex.

So when it comes to antidepressants, I’m not claiming that they don’t have a place, nor am I advocating that we don’t listen to health professionals. I’m just suggesting that we have to stop acting as if medical science has it all figured out. There is no certainty in science. There are studies, research and statistics and they have proved themselves to be amazingly fluid.  Especially in the hands of researchers with varying agendas to uphold. But when the bulk of our science seeks materials causes with pharmaceutical solutions, well, then that is what we find.

Just because the material is what we can measure, doesn’t necessarily mean there is nothing else ‘out there’ or ‘in here’. So, coming back to Himalayaa’s post, this is my two bits.  Lets be more sensitive before we disparage those that cling to so-called “magical” beliefs.  There is no such thing as false hope.

Interoception & The Yoga Body: Why We Feel “Fat”

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Like many body positivity activists, I’m committed to creating more inclusionary and diverse images of women in mainstream media. I’m concerned that the increasingly unrealistic, unattainable images of beauty in popular culture are contributing to rising rates of body image and eating disorders in young women. That’s why I’ve been busy developing a documentary that seeks to give the latest icon of “thinspiration” — the yoga body — a makeover.

But lately it hasn’t been going so well. Because after watching the recent “This Girl Can” video (which featured women of all shapes, colours and sizes, leaping, dancing, jumping, gyrating and jiggling with abandon) I’m beginning to suspect that all this focus on image itself may actually be counterproductive.


Part of a British health initiative to promote physical activity, this video sets out to overcome the most cited obstacle in getting women to the gym, the fear that their butts will not look good in tiny shorts. Its shots of heaving breasts, quivering buttocks and bouncing bellies, overlaid with text like “hot” and “foxy” have been hailed by many in the body positivity movement as ground breaking and visionary. But I am not as enthused.


I admit, when I first watched the video I wanted to leap to my feet and cry “You Go Girl!” Almost.  I couldn’t understand why the text didn’t reflect the joyful exuberance being seen onscreen — why not words like powerful, free or strong? Sure it’s revolutionary in bringing bodies of differing sizes and colors (and cellulite) to the screen, but it’s still about being sexy.  This ad isn’t selling exercise because it makes us happier, healthier or more resilient, it’s about exercise as performance, one in which sweat and jiggling are the new signifiers of desirability.


But here is the critical point — it reinforces old disempowering stereotypes i.e. that women exist to be looked at — even when pushing weights. And it conditions us to see our bodies as observers, through the lens of a camera, a mirror and/or other people’s perceptions. This is important because when we view ourselves from the outside in, we dissociate from what our body is feeling, a quality or state of being that neuroscientists call interoception.


Interoception is our ability to sense our bodies internal states (whether it is hungry, cold, in pain or tired). It is not ‘thinking’ about your body — as if contemplating our physical image in a mirror, but on experiencing what our body is feeling inside. And here is the kicker.  Growing research suggests that poor interoception is linked with body dissatisfaction and body image disorders!


Vivien Ainley and Manos Tsakiris of Royal Holloway, University of London found that low interception is linked with self-objectification (experiencing our body as an object in our life) and leads to a preoccupation with outward physical appearance. They suggest women with low interoception lack an internal sense of self and this can lead to a false sense of their own body, i.e. they may be slender but view their bodies as large.

In a 2012 paper submitted  to the Psychology of  Women Quarterly,  researchers Marika Tiggemann and Elyse William suggest that young women with eating disorders have, on average, lower levels of self-awareness and interoception than healthy controls. And those women who most frequently thought of themselves from other people’s perspectives – had the most eating disorder symptoms.

In fact, just looking in a mirror, as a study in the January 2015 issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology found, can hinder how you listen to your body — especially when it comes to food. Researchers asked two groups of women to watch a movie on a computer — but only one group had a mirror placed in their room. There was a bowl of M&M’s placed next to the computer. Researchers found that the participants with the mirror consistently ate more M&M’s than the participants without a mirror.

This research challenges the commonly held notion that self-objectification, disordered eating and eating disorders are due to cultural factors like media and advertising. It suggests instead that women with eating disorders think of themselves as objects because of their impaired interoception.  And this leaves them even more vulnerable to messaging telling them how they can get their “best body”.

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Even more fascinating — and suggestive — is another study from 2006 which found that women preoccupied with how others perceived their bodies were more likely to be distracted and unable to focus on cognitively challenging tasks. Umm —  like critically analyzing the constant onslaught of advertising selling them the latest fat blaster core workout or butt sculpting yoga pants?

So is helping young women develop interoception the real key to developing body positivity?  A recent study in the International Journal of Women’s Health suggests so. It found that adolescent girls with good interoceptive skills had lower rates of body image and eating disorders.

And does this explain why yoga has been shown in countless studies to be a such a powerful therapeutic tool in the treatment of eating disorders? Because doesn’t yoga encourage interoception by directing us to pay attention to what our body is feeling, moment by moment, breath by breath?  Obviously some women in yoga do get caught up striving for the “yoga body”, but I’m curious if any statistics exist as to whether practicing yoga in a studio with a mirror has any impact on interoception or self-objectification?


And so I’ve been asking myself – is giving the “yoga body” a make-over going to help promote interoception?  By  portraying yoga bodies of differing shapes, ethnicity and abilities (a la this Girl can — without the sexualization) am I not keeping women entrained in a way of seeing their bodies as exterior to their inner selves and inner experience?

Of course it’s important to help young women become more critical and media literate about the thousands of images they are besieged with daily. But is the project of diverse representation enough? Many, many women who already understand how body image in mainstream culture functions to uphold the beauty myth, white privilege, gender stereotypes, the male gaze etc. still suffer from disordered eating and body shame.

Is this just the result of overexposure to one too many unrealistic images of bodies in media? Perhaps. But what if “looking” sets us up to compare ourselves to images (whatever their size, color, age or ability)? Does this encourage us to dissociate from our bodies, predisposing us to self-objectification? Does this suggest that the deeper work of body positivity is about breaking the cycle of images — period?

This presents a challenging quandary – because how do I as a filmmaker use images to bypass image itself?  Do I, on a black blank screen, ask the audience to take a moment to breathe into their belly, to experience one by one (Yoga Nidra style) the sensations occurring in their body, heart, fingers and toes? Could creating this simple moment of being present in our bodies, help connect us to the real yoga body? The one that waits inside each of us, ready to be felt and called into being?

I’m not sure. But lets face it, when comes to visceral impact, it just ain’t going to compete with the “This Girl Can” video – or its message.  For young women already convinced that they need to “look good” in order to feel good, this soft approach is a hard sell.

That’s why my work on the documentary has ground to a halt. Because I need a new direction, one that doesn’t focus on remaking the image of the ‘yoga body’ but on convincing women to get themselves to a yoga class.  And so, once again, dear readers, I ask for your help. What kind of film would be most useful in promoting interoception? Ideas, suggestions -and critiques are most welcome…