The series “Reflect your practice” is mainly build around the idea of combining two spheres that often are perceived as seperate: The reflection on societal relations (including the ways they are embodied) and the practice of yoga. The approach is to both study and discuss texts that deal with a wide range of crucial topics – such as body norms, types of privilege and cultural appropriation, forms of discrimination and exclusion – and to research possibilities to connect intellectual and personal insights with body work, namely the practising of asanas and some exercises on meditation and (self-)awareness. The project therefore defines itself as a chance to study, to share and to search, to ask questions and to find answers together. In order to include as many perspectives and experiences as possible, it is of genuine interest to have a diverse group and to provide a safe space for all participants.
During our first meeting in February 2016 the main focus lay on getting to know each other and to establish a comfortable and relaxed situation. We started by sharing our names and pronouns, which brought up the first of what could be called a societal moment – when norms become visible for an instant: the neccessity (and practice) of not only telling your name but also your pronoun was brought up, contextualised and looked at closer.
The group - five participants and two facilitators – was quite homogenous: every person was positioned white, able and cis.
We shared how each of us got into yoga, how the practice might have changed over time, what we expect from this series and how we experience and perceive regular yoga classes (while questioning if these impressions can be generalized). Some of the wishes and needs seemingly not to be considered in yoga classes experienced so far were:
Moreover, some statements made – such as “In yoga classes I mostly see white skinny female people, and I wonder: Where are all the others?” or “I sometimes feel quite awkward in the yoga classes I attend cause of all those beautiful people next to me.” – almost automatically led to the topics of the text that was the foundation of our discussion and which most of us had read beforehand: Melanie Klein´s “How yoga makes you pretty: The Beauty Myth, Yoga and me”.
In this text Klein not only shares her personal story of getting in contact with both yoga and feminist & sociological theory but also discusses a range of aspects that all are intertwined with the implicit yet constantly broadcasted idea that beauty is connected a) with happyness, b) with success and c) with health. The participants of “reflect your practice” divided into three smaller groups and discussed one of these connections each. Moreover, the question arose, what is meant by the term “beauty”, who takes the position of defining it (i.e. filling it with a specific content) and which consequences follow for those trying to achieve and reproduce it.
Deeping the Discussion: Beauty and Health, Beauty and Happiness, Beauty and Success
Since health was an aspect that for many of the participants played a major role in taking up yoga in the first place (e.g. after an injury, or due to the wish to get rid of a constant back pain caused by working on a desk most of the day), it prominently showed up both in the introduction round and the discussion of the text. Not only seems health to be equated with a slim and fit body for which everyone is responsible by oneself – which also concludes that it is our personal fault if we are not happy/slim/fit as much as it excludes non-slim people. Moreover it seems that the making and training of this very body is a classical example for the practice of self-optimisation (plus the fact that we will never achieve the “perfect” goal). This self-optimisation again is a key strategy of the neoliberal societal project which increasingly shapes society and our personal view. (The rapid growth of mainstream-yoga and its promises is just one of many examples.)
On the other hand, all participants expressed their need for self-care or even cure and how yoga potentially may provide a space of self-support and self-awareness – or simply enjoyment and “time with one-self”. We therefore seem to be constantly faced with an ambivalent situation and it is a thin line to walk between listening to our (bodies) needs and the fulfilling & (re-)production of dubious beauty norms.
Another aspect we took a closer look at was the association of beautiful with happy and vice versa. Both are seemingly big and abstract words that nonetheless are the vocabulary for a permanent influence on the perception of ourselves and others, our behaviour and decision-making, our judgement and (not-)well-being. As much as we realised that both beautiful and happy seem to be sort of “empty terms” that withhold everything and nothing and can almost be replaced by one another, we also found many episodes of everyday life on how it is fairly impossible to take a position that is not influenced by them. An example for this is the story of how one participant tried to live without mirrors for some time and moreover tried to refuse to “check” if one “looks good” when walking by a shop window.
Similarly, the discussion of relating beautiful with successful was disguised as a self-fulfilling prophecy (“If you are not beautiful, you probably won´t be successful. If you do not succeed, it is probably cause you aren´t very beautiful.”), which quickly led to the question if a life beyond the logic and rules of success (and therefore: of competition) is hardly possible – and how it could manifest changes in our day to day routine.
Our first meeting showed that time-keeping is important. Both during the introduction round and the closer discussion of the text we ran out of time quickly, especially since we also wanted to focus on the practice of asanas after the “theoretical” part without rush and provide the opportunity for exchange thereafter.
Many aspects of the personal approaches to yoga and the topics discussed had to be put aside, such as the interesting observation Klein made in her text, that the self-perception of one´s body (and its alleged shortcomings) often has a lineage or heritage in one´s family and social peer group.
The deeper analysis of social norms and dynamics via certain categories – e.g. such as ‘race’, class and gender – should be used more often in the upcoming meetings. This can raise a more complex view (e.g. the question on how beauty norms might have different impacts depending on a person´s gender) and support a better and more crucial understanding of the various interrelations of body perceptions, structures of dominance and discrimination, and the impacts of societal norms on the personal level.
Moreover, the role of yoga as a possibility, potential and “alternative space” to gain awareness, mindfullness and sensitivity towards oneself and others deserves a closer, precise look.
Given these observations for the upcoming meetings we will:
try to establish a more versatile group to include more perspectives and experiences
extend the time of the gathering from 2, 5 hours to 3 hours
not only send the text for discussion a week before the meeting but also the questions related to it
We hope to learn and grow during the process of the group and look forward to the next round of “reflect your practice” with you!
Vincenz & Diana
Vincenz Kokot, born 1980, grew up in East Germany and moved to Berlin in the late 1990s. He studied Cultural Studies, Aesthetics and Social Anthropology. Moreover, he works as a musician, singer and author and organises cultural events such as concerts, screenings and readings. In 2012 he took up yoga and deepened his practice over the years. His interest in bringing together political and societal topics with the field of somatics led him to co-develop the “reflect your practice” series with Diana Thielen. Being white and able, being read as male and coming from a background of education, Vincenz tries to remain aware of the privileges of this position while attempting to contribute to social and political changes.