A Social Justice Project: The Reclamation of the Yogini

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Tamil-Nadu Yogini

The identification of the human woman with the Universal Goddess is most explicit in tantric theology- yet the very existence of female masters, lineage holders and tantric adepts, although referred to repeatedly by tantric texts, is still doubted by some…Here there is no quarter given to feminist spiritual yearnings, or for women mystics to seek to follow the liberating footsteps of the ancient yogini who dared to think themselves divine.”  Rita DasGupta Sherma

Women’s history month is a good time to remember the spiritual foremothers of yoga – the Tantric yoginis.  After all we rarely give them much thought. Their erasure from history is an injustice that lies silent at the very heart of contemporary yoga – and one with far reaching implications today. Because without questioning a history of yoga written by men, solely for men, can yoga ever be an equitable, “socially just” practice?

Now lets be clear, I’m not referring to yoginis as celestial beings or goddesses of the chakras, – but as real flesh and blood women who practiced and taught yoga for hundreds, if not thousands of years. While mainstream yoga scholarship does little to enlighten us about their historical reality, medieval Tantric texts abound with references to yoginis thought to possess exceptional powers, women who were transmitters of tantric doctrine, and were “initiators” along with men.  So who were these women? What did they teach? What happened to them? And why aren’t questions like these being asked more often?

Giti Thadani’s book Mobius Trip: Digressions from India’s Highways documents the complete neglect of historical evidence of the yogini in contemporay India. She claims there are hundred of Tantric texts and yogini statues which still lie collecting dust “hidden in vaults in museums and universities” and she cites many examples of written texts where the feminine of the original Sanskrit has been translated as masculine.

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Eleventh-century yogini sculpture from Uttar Pradesh, India, 

While conventional scholarship tells us that Tantric yoginis were exploited for ritual purposes, scholar Miranda Shaw  unearthed a very different history, one in which yoginis were not “helpful attendees in the male enlightenment process” but powerful gurus held “in awe, reverence and obeisance”. The presence of female Buddhas like the “beautiful, passionate and untamed”Vajrayogini in Tantric iconography and literature demonstrated that women could attain Buddha-hood in her present lifetime, in her present female body.

So why do we know so little of these women today? It seems clear that women’s role in yoga has been obscured by centuries of patriarchal control over written texts – but it doesn’t explain why endless analyses on the history of Tantra today continue to use almost exclusively male pronouns.  And while it may be a linguistic convention, it also renders women invisible. So is it a wonder we barely remember -or even care -that yoginis actually existed?

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As a female practitioner I’m deeply interested in these yoginis, and I dont understand why there is so little scholarship on the role of women in yoga before patriarchy demonized them as witches, harlots and the bearers of disease . While there is much research and commentary regarding how the male yogin utilized women’s bodies, energies and fluids for their enlightenment – there is almost nothing about where these ideas of women’s bodies possessing “powers” actually came from.

Could it be that women’s bodies and their functions remain just as troublesome to us today as they were for ascetic sages? Maybe, if you consider ‘alternative’ historians such as Vicki Noble, Monica Sjoo, and Uma Dinsmore Tuli whose contentions that yoginis were the “power-holders” and inheritors of a widespread shamanic female-centred yoga practice that laid the foundations for Tantra and Hatha – are mostly ignored by the yoga community. (For more information click here).

Noble writes “My research suggests that women had invented yoga by the 7th millenium B.C.E. and that the varied poses shown in these early sculptures, as well as frescoes, murals, and rock art through the ages, are expressions of an ancient and widespread female-centered communal practice of yoga which was eventually codified into the formal schools that we recognize today.” Noble’s assertions that yoginis were the first to raise Kundalini Shakti by channeling their biological powers, their life-giving sexuality, their power to bleed and give birth through ecstatic rituals of trance, dance and body posture,  are far from embraced – they are deeply problematic to contemporary feminism.

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Tantric yogini-Rajasthan

But what is in dispute is not just whether these yogini and these teachings actually existed. The issue at stake is that Noble’s interpretations of this female-centred yoga are essentialist – meaning that by celebrating the biological power of the female body, they glorify the idea of gendered difference – an idea equality feminism has been working to eradicate for decades.

An example of this is Dinsmore Tuli’s book Yoni Shakti: A Woman’s Guide to Power and Freedom through Yoga and Tantra which explores the role of women’s bodies have played in the development of yoga. She invites women to reconnect to their “cunt power” through the practice of yoga that “honours and respects femininity, womb cycles and the deep cyclical wisdom of women’s cycles”. Critics believe ideas like these are dangerous because they threaten to reinforce old patriarchal notions that reduce women to just their biology (i.e. having a womb means one is lesser than, less smart, less rational, less divine etc. than men).  

Does practicing a yoga that acknowledges women’s bodies have different needs, functions and abilities than men, really threaten to return us to a time when women were discriminated against on the basis of biology? After all, we practice a yoga that is hardly gender neutral, it has been historically shaped by men, for men. Isn’t practicing a yoga from which women’s bodies (and vaginas) have been censored, oppressive to those who possess them?

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Vajrayogini (image source here)

Essentialist or not, there is plenty of textual evidence supporting contentions that the yogini’s inherent biological powers of birth, menstruation and sexuality, were the very source of her siddhis (yogic or occult powers). As Shakti incarnate, her physiological functions and fluids are envisioned as the material manifestation of the power of the Goddess. “The shakti’s yoni is analogized to the ‘great yoni” (matrix of the universe) and her menstrual blood is a sacred substance”. In the Shri Shankara it is said: “The first menses appearing in a woman who has lost her virginity is Svayambhu blood -the substance causing the granting of any desire.”

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Yoni Shakti -Image source unknown

Does acknowledging that there may have been a female-centred yoga which revered the sacred powers of the women’s body really threaten to send women’s rights back to the dark ages? Or could it promise a tide of ‘body positivity’ in its wake – one in which women’s bodies and their functions – are powerful and demand respect?

The Yoni Tantra is a classic of Tantric literature and it states quite clearly that “No man may raise his hand, strike or threaten a woman. When she is naked, men must kneel and worship her as the Goddess. She has equal rights with men on all levels. Miranda Shaw in her book Passionate Enlightenment:Women in Tantric Buddhism quotes the great female buddha Vajrayogini in the Candamaharosana tantra “Wherever in the world a female body is seen, That should be recognized as my holy body”.”

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And in a society where female sexuality and nearly all our biological functions from menstruation to breast feeding are still considered taboo, I think these teachings are, well, pretty progressive.  And lets remember too, that it was these very ideas, according to Monica Sjoo, that became so deeply threatening to the rising powers of patriarchy which saw the body, and especially women’s bodies, not as holy, but as evil and defiled.

Violating the strict class and caste structures of the ascetic Brahmanic priesthood, the yogini’s ecstatic practices became dangerous“transgressions” and they were forbidden to teach. But according to Sjoo, the Brahmanic priesthood not only wanted the yogini gone – they wanted her yogic powers for themselves. And so in the original act of cultural appropriation, what was once an embodied ritual practice and ecstatic encounter with the divine feminine, became a new ascetic knowledge reserved for a male spiritual elite – and it changed the nature of what we call yoga forever.

 Whether you accept Sjoo’s interpretations or not, it’s hard to deny that the yogini or a female tradition of yoga once existed. So by limiting our search for the historical roots of yoga within “acceptable” narratives – are we perpetuating the misogynic ideologies that sought to erase the yogini in the first place? 

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Ancient Mothers (Sapta Matrikas), Tanjavore, Tamil Nadu

It may well be that the yogini and her history raise many uncomfortable questions -but does that justify omitting her from the official timeline of yoga history? Maybe it’s time to reclaim women’s bodies as sources of power? Because without confronting the profoundly anti-woman bias that permeates historical yoga – can we truly provide “safe spaces” for practice today?

So this women’s history month let’s remember that there is a whole history of yoga that awaits exploration. And while it may be politically incorrect to say so – one in which women’s bodies were respected and revered. Maybe it’s time we started paying attention? Because maybe, just maybe, the Tantric yoginis have something to teach us.  

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Erasing Spirit? The Cultural Appropriation of Yoga

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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

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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.

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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”.

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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.”

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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

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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, Magical Thinking and Depression

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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. 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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?

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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…

Bashing Yoga Barbie? Guilty As Charged

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This is a response to recent comments left on my last two posts.  Comments accusing me of ‘thin bashing’, comments that have got me thinking and questioning myself deeply.  Am I, despite my zeal to promote “body love”, being exclusionary, judgmental and even mean?

One woman writes “Please be aware of the feelings and perceptions for those of us who are thin. As a 100lb petite yoga instructor, I am constantly bashed then idolized for my figure. Somehow in the culture to take back the “woman” body, it has become okay to make nasty comments to someone for being small.”

Another chides me “ judging women’s bodies (i.e. assuming you know what blonde, thin yogi pictured above has been through spiritually) is *not* the way we’re going to progress as a gender. I challenge you to keep bringing these thoughtful, intellectual messages without throwing a woman (or specific body type) under the bus to get your messages across.”

Am I guilty of disparaging my more slender sisters? Or is my message about the yoga body being misconstrued? And after some contemplation I’ve decided – yes, maybe its a little of both.

While I have not slung a single insult to any individual, my derogatory tone towards the yoga body as personified by ‘Yoga Barbie’  is clearly being taken personally. But please understand, I have nothing against white, blonde, size zero women. One of my best friends fits this exact description. And she, like I, has measured herself against an ideal relentlessly held up as an icon of beauty, and found herself wanting.

For years she has hid her “protruding collar bones” and “skinny arms” behind long-sleeved blouses (just as I have hidden my own more fleshed out biceps). She padded her bra and ate too many croissants (just as I have avoided them) in search of a plumper derrière. And I believe that even real life Barbies are not immune to such self judgement. There is always a flaw, no matter how small.

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Personally I understand that this ‘fatness’ of mine exists in my head – but it has nonetheless cast a long shadow of shame and self loathing over my body – and my life. And this perception of never being pretty enough has been the experience of my thin friend – and so many of us.

My attack is not personal but political. Barbie may seem a harmless out of date cartoon, but she has been a very formative icon. She has taught and is still teaching little girls very specific messages i.e. there are wardrobes and shoes for every occasion. She preps us for a life of shopping, of buying the necessary accoutrements (clothes, bras, sexy panties, make-up, jewelery, creams, shampoos etc.) for displaying our wares.

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And ever since we held her ridiculously tiny waist in our childish hands we’ve understood that her (completely unrealistic) body is the lynchpin from which all revolves. Without the right color, size and shape – you can’t have the rest.

Yoga Barbie is no different. As an icon of consumer culture, her work-out gear and yoga pants are now a gazillion dollar business. And whether she is sexily demonstrating a mind-boggling pose or sitting in Lotus smiling as blissfully as a Buddha, her taut abs and cellulite free thighs are the latest tool in the corporate arsenal to keep us buying, buying and buying some more.

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Today her white, young, and usually blond image is selling everything from fitness gear, natural foods, headache pills, depression relieving pharmaceuticals to cruises, meditation retreats and lifestyle magazines. And the price we pay? Never feeling we will have the power, strength, freedom or happiness that these ads promise – without the yoga body.

It’s easy to blame corporate media for exploiting our physical insecurities but we’ve got ask why are we still buying in? Why in a time when western women enjoy more freedom than ever before do they spend so much time, energy and money living up its lithe, Lululemon clad image? Why do so many yoga teachers and yoga studios promote classes, workshops, retreats (and selfie Instagram feeds) through some version of the glowing, acrobatic yoga body?

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What are they selling?An empowering ideal of inspiration? The natural outcome of self-discipline and dietary control? The result of a wholesome, healthy lifestyle? Maybe. But from where I sit it looks like the yoga body is all about the self-control, willpower and hard work. Not to mention the moral and spiritual fortitude necessary to achieve it.

I think the yoga body is selling dangerous and dis-empowering messages – that we exist to be looked at, that we must constantly strive to keep our bodies in shape, that we are not right as we are. Have we come to believe that perfecting our bodies is how we succeed in the world? But lets face it, we will never find control over our lives, through controlling our bodies.

That’s why I’ve decided, step one in this campaign to ‘give the yoga body a make-over’ is to acknowledge its powerful hold on our psyche. My intention is not to pick on thin blond women, I only want to remind us of everything this privileged white icon represents.

So sisters no matter your color, shape or size, I ask for your help in answering these questions. What unrealized aspects of ourselves allow the yoga body to thrive? What accounts for it’s appeal and allure? What messages are we buying into? How can we disentangle what is being sold to us – love, power, freedom and strength – from the image itself?

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I believe once we pull out these threads – we can begin to consciously identify how our deepest desires are manipulated to fill corporate coffers. And we can begin to understand that what we are looking for,  we already possess. We do not need to work for nor buy beauty, pleasure or power – we can merely claim it . Yes, it’s as simple as that.

So in closing I want to acknowledge Janne Robinson’s important points in This One’s for My Skinny Sisters “Size zeros are real women too…our world might be sick of media shoving glorified, thin, air brushed models down our throats..but is the solution to throw all skinny women under a bus because they don’t have hips to hold on to?”

No Janne, certainly not. I wholehearted agree with your beautiful words “If we want to radically shift our world we need to begin stepping over body image—trivial measurements of our worth and beauty, and relentlessly love ourselves. So let’s all get on the damn bus together and build a world that isn’t measured by the width of our hips.”