“Health is wealth. Peace of mind is happiness. Yoga shows the way.”
–Swami Vishnudevananda (www.sivananda.org)
As a serious Yoga and meditation practitioner for twenty years, I entered into the PhD program in Performance Studies at UC Davis to research how Yoga, as a mind-body practice, inspires women to effect social change and build community. I wanted to interrogate how women integrate the lessons, skills and potentialities of their private spiritual lives into larger social and political worlds, to inquire what struggles ensued in this process, and to explore how those challenges were met.
My research project straddles three academic fields–Performance Studies, Feminist Theory and the Yoga Studies field within Religious Studies. I am attempting to move forward feminist Performance Studies discourses of embodiment, practice, purpose, and community, by demonstrating how women doing Yoga full-time enhance our understanding of these concepts in new and interesting ways. The key questions have been focused on the context of the United States and include: How has Yoga evolved today beyond what the academy has analyzed of its practice in the historical context? What does Yoga practice look like for women today? How do feminism and Yoga intersect? What is the relationship between practice and performance in daily life? What changes do women undergo when they become Yoga teachers? And–can women who do Yoga become empowered activists?
This dissertation is also a product of my personal experience as a spiritual seeker, academic and activist, and so this is where I would like to begin, by describing personal reasons for utilizing a phenomenological approach to this research. During my high school years, I began to read Eastern religious texts, and left the Christian church I was raised in, to walk a new spiritual path. I practiced chi gung, went to see many gurus and continued my spiritual studies during my college years. In the summer of 1994 after graduating college, I took my first Yoga asana class in Santa Barbara and travelled on a six-month pilgrimage to Buddhist sites in Nepal and India, taking Yoga classes and studying Tibetan Buddhism while living in nunneries and monasteries. I subsequently lived in Southern Africa for the next 18 months, and while on a Fulbright fellowship working with a women’s theatre group, I also studied Yoga with a private teacher and helped to build a Buddhist meditation center. Returning to the U.S. and living in New York City, I studied meditation with Tibetan monks and continued my Yoga practice, studying a variety of styles. In 1999, I returned to my home in the foothills of Northern California and began to study with Swami Sitaramananda at the Sivananda Ashram Yoga Farm in Grass Valley.
Looking back at the age of forty, I can see how I came increasingly to value my spiritual practice as the foundational practice of my life, even while I was doing other things, like working a job, living with friends and family, doing community work, or creating art. My progression in other areas of life perhaps suffered at times, because of the importance I placed on my spirituality. But it was the umbrella that sheltered everything else, and provided meaning for my life experience. Since going to India at the age of 22, I was actually a little bit unhappy with working, paying the bills, and being a part of “the system.” I had experienced another side of life, and I wanted to get back to it, if I could. So this project became a process for me, mid-life, to find a way to bridge the positive feelings that Yoga gave–with the other things that were equally relevant, but were more deeply troubling to me–such as social justice, equality between people, taking care of the natural world, and feminism.
In 2005, I was an aspiring academic, teaching U.S. Government and International Relations at local state and community colleges. As a political science teacher, I was struggling with teaching college students about tough political realities and wondering how the Yoga part of my life could better inform my teaching. I decided to stop teaching college, and became a Yoga teacher, training under the Sivananda tradition and receiving mantra initiation with Swami Sita. This question of how to integrate my two worlds culminated in a PhD proposal for a study on Karma Yoga, submitted to the Performance Studies program at UC Davis. Within a year, I was deeply invested in researching this project and found that many of the questions I had about my own path as an academic and activist were being answered in the workshops I was attending. At the Yoga Peace Ambassadors retreat with Elaine Valdov (former Undersecretary for Youth at the United Nations) I shared, “I’ve been consciously working on this. I spent the last year, overturning every structure in my life, enabling me to become a peace worker, to understand how Yoga can empower activists. My problem is keeping up with the pace of developments and trying not to crash and burn.” Elaine responded, “You’re on the airplane, but you need to make sure it has some gas.” This dissertation is really an explanation of that process—what it is that women who do Yoga put into that tank, how we keep our tank filled as Yoga teachers, and what does it mean for ourselves, our families, and our communities?
During the research process I personally participated in approximately 75 classes, workshops and lectures and observed at least 100 women Yoga teachers engaging in their own practice as well. Throughout the course of this project, it was important to me to respect each woman’s personal choices and beliefs. My own positionality as a Yoga teacher led me to create this project, fuel it, finance it, bless it, nurture it, and find a way to make academic sense of it. For, while my life as a woman who believes in Yoga makes perfect sense to me, I needed to find a way to articulate this in a professional way, to make it acceptable to the academy—to performance specialists, religion scholars and feminists. These disciplines were additional bridges that needed connecting, across rivers that were running parallel to each other.
I did find it difficult to separate my personal belief in Yoga (it feels strange to describe it as such) from a research analysis of the leading practitioners. This was primarily because of the respect that I have for the privacy and sacredness of personal spiritual practice. I also felt, however, that a certain level of critique was important, because a majority of academic theses written by Yoga practitioners had fallen short in their ability to bring certain contentious issues to the fore.
I do not believe that it is my job as an academic to judge the validity of anyone’s personal spiritual beliefs, though I have definitely tried to find a way to build a polite commentary that attempts to extend the discussion a bit more, build on the narratives, and find some new ground. On the whole, as a Yoga teacher and supporter of women’s rights, I am supportive of the developments in this community regarding greater acceptance of women’s bodies and healing from emotional and mental trauma. On numerous occasions, when my advisors have pushed me to be “more critical” of practitioners, I have endeavored to ask deeper questions of the practice, while not pushing into personal criticism. Many women shared vulnerable stories with me or in group workshops, and with Yoga being a major part of their healing process, I did not feel compelled to justify or criticize that impact. I have tried to let them tell their own stories, and to provide some history and theoretical reflection around them, as a framing device to explore larger questions about healing, personal truth, and empowerment.
The phenomenological experience of spirituality can be difficult to articulate, and I also wanted to open up a space for that, without demanding too much from my research subjects or creating the burden of having to tell everything about any one of them, while at the same time, keeping an adequate distance that allowed me to interpret the data from a feminist and historical perspective. And so, this dissertation is more of a theoretically-based survey, founded on discursive approaches from Performance Studies, than a focused ethnography or series of case studies. From the beginning, I was sure that there were certain themes I wanted to approach—the body, practice, service, and community—from both a feminist and yogic perspective. Covering these areas while utilizing a wide variety of examples has been the challenging part, and though my advisors knowingly warned me against it, I forged on because I knew the examples were there; I just had to gather them and focus on these important themes.
I attended yoga classes, workshops, events, festivals and conferences in a variety of places, led by both availability and funding. Thus, while I primarily focus on women Yoga teachers in North America, I also studied Yoga in Canada, England, Slovenia, and Chile, and describe gurus and adepts in other places and times. This approach has helped construct a larger picture–that Yoga has become an extremely relevant, productive, and reliable means for women in many countries outside of India to achieve health, balance and self-esteem. In order to do that, I personally felt, that to make this case, the work needed a lot of different examples to highlight my four major points, concerning the body, practice, service and community.
For me, Yoga has become a frame for life, creativity, and research practice. With Yoga as my philosophical base, and feminist research as my main theoretical mode of inquiry, my positionality is that of a woman interested in women’s bodies and lives. Critical engagement with Yoga practice, and extending theoretical discussions of feminism into practical lives are, to me, much more productive, theoretically and socially, than attempting to impose a scientific, or even a social science method, onto what I see as the very personal and experiential field of Yoga. Most of the more scientific work I have seen in this area does not fully articulate the embodied experience of Yoga. While that work has its own place of critique and historical contribution, as someone who moves through life with and via Yoga, I cannot really go back to a point twenty years ago, where I do not think, move, and speak from this practice. Performance Studies has several vocabularies for speaking about the phenomenology of experience, and I will draw on these during this dissertation. Having established my standpoint, I am at the same time very interested in the many ways that critical theories of both society and Yoga–in ethics, philosophy, and practice–can speak with and influence each other.