I start teaching this week. the course is for secondary school teachers and it’s called “social foundations of education”. I was surprised that i got to pretty much design the syllabus myself. I was trying to get everything in there, you know, the history of education in BC, the social construction of childhood, the increasingly virulent reproduction of patriarchal socialization as evidenced by hyper-sexualization of girls (and boys, actually, all that camouflage and so on–though my friend L, who is a righteous Aboriginal warrior in her own right, advocates dressing all Indigenous children in camo stuff, because, well”we’re at war with you all, don’t you know, gotta look the part”) ahem. right. Never just a fashion statement. Clothing choices are a political statement. Either a capitulation to the status quo (like pink for girls and blue for boys) or resistance against it (camo for all the Aboriginal kids).
I had this great conversation this morning with a friend of mine. She and I used to sing in the same choir, we were in the tenor section–“the terrible tenors”–which did not refer to our singing but to our behaviour. Sometimes the choir director brought her “bad kitty” spray bottle to practice. heh. We realized we were from the same province, though not the same town, pretty close to each other. and we liked each other right away.
She’s a yoga teacher. Now, I like yoga, but sometimes yoga teachers and yoga practitioners can be a bit whifty, you know what i mean? They go rabbiting on about chakras and chanting and energies and that’s all fine, I guess, but sometimes it makes me a bit uncomfortable. For instance, there was this one yoga instructor at my gym for a while, and she would have us do this big long chant before and after practice. That made me all twitchy, on account of I didn’t know what the words were, or what they meant. For all I knew, we coulda been calling the wrath of whomever, the ancestors or the rivers that used to flow through this city, or the ocean gods, down upon our heads. One wrong syllable, and WHAM! curtains fer you, sister. So enough of us asked her for the words and the translation that she finally supplied them. She was a bit…oh, righteous about it, though. When she brought the photocopied sheets for us to refer to, she said, “Sometimes the Western Mind needs the words” or something like that. In that tone some people have of “i’m so much more enlightened than you are” kinda thing. pah.
She was young and white, too, by the way. pretty much as Western Mind as I am. probably she’d been to India, though, so she got all tuned in there.
Anyhow, back to my buddy today, she said, and this was really great to hear, “Some of the harm that’s being done in the name of yoga here is just….maddening. it’s really dangerous how some people practice”. I’d never thought of that before. How can yoga be bad?
“Well, take Kundalini, for example”, she said, “it’s a practice where breath is really emphasized and fast poses and it stirs up lots of energy, and when people do that they’re practically floating–” so in an altered state, that is, they are practically floating and all energetic and happy. But they are also really vulnerable and exposed. And in this city, people don’t have a guru, a teacher who keeps track of how you’re doing and what you’re learning and how the practice is affecting you, and we pick and chose too, oh, today i feel like Bikram’s, and the next day it’s this studio that does Hatha, or Iyengar or whatever, and we never settle and if someone is vulnerable or in trouble or even just ignorant, they can get in a lot of trouble.
You know, it’s another sign of our liberal, or neo-liberal times, eh. We’re supposed to just do what feels good, and take on whatever identity that “resonates” in the moment, and float around from one thing to another without attending to the contexts within which our choices are made, and our identities formed. it made sense what she was saying, that so much harm is done by this proliferation of teachers and yoga studios and this and that…people are desperate for connection and meaning, but also we don’t really want to work hard at it, cause we’re afraid. and we’re in pain. J. said that she was so filled with self-loathing and she was so anxious about drawing attention to herself and so fearful and confused when she finally found yoga that she too latched on to the New Age goop that said, “you can create your own reality” and all that. It was just as she feared, she had created her own reality and it SUCKED. But she hadn’t, not really. She had taken on the messages that said that we are responsible for how we feel and we do have an array of choices and this is the new world and we are creating the context as we are living it….but what about where we come from? and what about our ancestors and the land upon which we walk and the powerful who maintain the structures within which we have to make these so-called “choices”? As she practiced yoga, and started to be able to breathe and open up to the big world around her, and make some connections and stop being so self-involved and at the same time becoming aware of the world beyond, she could see–
anyhow. what she was describing as the harms of yoga practiced willy-nilly without context sounded to me like harm reduction. you know what, it began as palliative care for drug addicts. It emerged from medicine and it has always been only to reduce disorder, crime and overdose death. It has NEVER been to end addiction or make any systemic changes. no. so now, now that harm reduction has spread like a viral you tube clip over the land of social services there is this confusion about what it is meant to do, and how it is meant to be implemented, and it’s attended to at the expense of ANY other approach to ALL social problems. and like yoga, it is the individual practitioner who is meant to be responsible for how it all goes. The addict has to use the safe injection site and clean needles, the woman in prostitution has to negotiate condom use and refer to the ‘bad date’ sheet to keep herself safe–it is up to those who are harmed to reduce the harms done to them, and the inconveniences that others endure because of their ‘choices’– to use in public, to dispose of condoms in gutters, to die in dumpsters…you know. Same like the yogi who goes mad because all this energy has been stirred up and awareness opened and then they go out and experience the world in that new way and lose their connection to reality–
“There is so much harm being done” said J. “And don’t get me started on kharma,” she said, and I wanted to ask more about that, too, but it’ll have to wait, ’cause i have this course starting tomorrow and i’m just frantic with nervousness.
But anyhow, I know it’s all tied up with this neo-liberalism. And as we were talking, i realized we’re in the same soup together. We are looking for improvement, relief, connection, meaning. The liberal way is to look for a negative conception of freedom–the ‘you do your thing and i do my thing, we are not in this world to live up to each other’s expectations’ kinds of freedom. That’s harm reduction. That’s North American yoga. ” this will make you safer, this will keep you from dying, this will open up your energies”
But THEN what? Then you’ve got a lot of still addicted, but now dependent on all the systems that simultaneously preserve life and enthrall life, still prostituted, but now dependent on the services that open the doors to the punters and offer you condoms and referrals to services that amount to band-aids, not engagement with solutions–still lonesome and self-trashing, but now euphoric and rootless in the same world there was before the yogic practice–
maybe i need to add more sentences to that last paragraph–I think I understand the connections–it’s the same de-contextualized answer in different guises–it’s not a solution. The radical solution has not yet been found, but there are women working on it. We know, Simone De Beauvoir figured it out, we have to be responsible for the well-being of others–a positive conception of freedom (thanks Darlene R. for that insight, all your work on that has left a lasting impression on me)–we need each other. we are all of us implicated in these structures of class/race/gender and unless we are looking at the big picture, unless we are always connecting the dots, we are always going to be settling for this lonesome fruitless ‘feel-good’ emptiness.
And Hannah Arendt, you know what, she was no friend of Simone but they came to roughly the same conclusions–these difficult brilliant women, they both realized that we need each other. and no one can be free until all of us are free, and we can’t achieve freedom by just doing what we want and having what we desire. We have to DO freedom by taking care of each other and by sometimes throwing ourselves in front of the tank, and by really attending to examining our responsibilities and who is with us and how we can end the suffering of others. end it. not reduce it.
And Pierre Bourdieu, he’s the dude i’ll be teaching about mostly for the next six weeks, i’ve mostly been reading him lately, and i need to know more so i’m gonna teach about him. he was a working-class guy who became one of the most influential thinkers of all time, and he kept saying, especially in his last years, that those of us who have a little influence, a little more room to move, we HAVE to look at the structural causes of suffering and inequality. it’s our responsibility–as academics, as journalists, as teachers–we have to push and pull and make room and interfere with the downward spiral of expectations and chances–(that’s from Pascalian Meditations, 2000, p. 216 or so–“we adjust our expectations to meet our objective chances”–that is, if we’ve been poor all our lives, we are going to expect to deserve more of the same–basically). it’s more complicated than that–and really dense and difficult and French, but worth wrestling with.
and my friend, J. It was refreshing for both of us to meet and talk and realize that we are on the same kind of path, we are not content and we are not willing to settle. She uses yoga (among many other things) to help people ground and to keep connected to alleviating suffering and tapping into the connections, I use, I dunno…blogging, maybe teaching, (we’ll see i hope that works out), telling stories, making jokes, lovin’ my friends…
Context is very important. a “post-structural” analysis of anything is premature. oh dear. look, that’s the first time i’ve said ‘post-structural’ in this whole post and now i’m gonna hit ‘publish’. talk about out of context! sorry. I’ll get to it. now i’m gonna go to choir practice, though. And of course that’s political too….