This is a draft of the paper I will be presenting at the Cultural Studies Association of Australiasia Conference in December. The slideshow to accompany is here:
Minor Bodies: How Disability Is Figured In Children’s Yoga Classes
In this presentation I will present a final chapter of my PhD thesis, on children’s yoga. In this discussion I address how the concept of minority is used to represent children’s bodies, and particularly disabled children’s bodies. I will examine how these representations function in the yoga space, and whether yoga either reinforces or challenges existing representations of (disabled) children’s minority status. I will focus on individual participants who may, in some way, be understood to be especially marginalised either in or outside of the yoga classroom. I will examine how children, parents, teachers, and peers use terms such as ‘dwarfism’, ‘ADHD’, ‘autism-spectrum’, ‘Asperger’s’, and ‘sensory processing’, and what relationship these terms have to constructing individual children’s identities as ‘disabled’. I will utilise Alan Prout’s suggestion that such terms cannot be understood as purely biological, yet nor are they entirely social constructs. Instead, as Prout argues, they develop as heterogeneous assemblages produced through society, technology and biology (139). This means that while there are biologically driven differences between children’s behaviours, these are only significant within an educational context which compares and relativises children with one another. I will consider whether (and for what purposes) yoga reconfigures behaviours which might be associated with either the majority of children, and/or a disabled minority, such as being unable to pay attention, control impulses, or sit still. This reconfiguring may have the potential to change social circumstances, and historically associated meanings, for individual children.
We are now creating mentally disabled young humans in epidemic – perhaps even dominant – numbers. ADHD, Asperger’s, bipolar disorder, depressive and anxiety disorders, and their resulting addictive behaviours such as binge drinking or drug use, are now affecting 10 to 20 per cent of all young people. …The sudden epidemic of mysterious brain abnormalities is almost certainly the result of this disrupted parent–child interaction. We can blitz the child with medication, but the success is partial, temporary and sometimes harmful. We can ameliorate the deficiencies with love and care, but they are hard to undo. – Steve Biddulph, Love and Money 113
As a popular author on parenting, Steve Biddulph, demonstrates there is a perception that children in the 21st century are plagued with disorder. Parents are under pressure to appropriately prevent, diagnose and/or treat any and all ‘abnormalities’ with a combination of ‘medication’ and ‘care’. Children’s yoga is sometimes offered up as one part of the solution to this problem, providing opportunities for healthy development (prevention) as well as alternative therapy (medication) and nurturing (care) to remediate a range of ‘abnormalities’. However, not all forms of children’s yoga approach disabilities and/or disorders in the same way, and the differences in approaches signal wider debates in critical studies of disability and childhood development. As exemplars of the different ways that children’s yoga approaches disability and disorder, in this paper I will provide evidence from interviews with yoga teachers, Lisa, Carinda and Bess. The different perspectives of these teachers demonstrate that yoga is sometimes seen as a way to medicalise, diagnose and treat disorder or disability; at other times seen as a way of embracing difference and enabling multiplicity; and other times functions as an separatist practice that disallows particular students from access to ‘normal’ children’s yoga practices. Each of these three approaches reacts against the other, and plays into wider discourses surrounding disability and childhood development.
The first perspective on disability and disorder that I discovered amongst yoga teachers in this study revolved around a concept of separating disabled and disorderly children from other ‘normal’ children. This approach was exemplified by my interview with Lisa. Lisa termed children with either disabilities or disorders as having ‘special needs’, and being very different from other children. Lisa was a yoga teacher in Sydney and single mother of a her four-year-old son, at the time she was interviewed. Lisa owned a children’s yoga business and contracted out several other teachers to work in studios, halls and preschools. She explained to me:
I would never have a challenging child in a class, any kind of special needs in my public class, because I think that would distract. If you’ve got ten kids, to have a special needs class it would have to be separate. If anyone rings me with any kind of special needs I always say, ‘look, I would rather create a class separate and really focus on that behavioural issue’, or whatever it is. That’s just too hard to manage.
Lisa made a distinction between physical and intellectual differences:
It’s behavioural for me. It’s ADHD. It’s Autism. I’ll take a little girl with Down Syndrome, they’re just beautiful. They’re flexible and they love the movement, and I never would exclude. So it’s more physically, fine, if mentally they’re able to follow instructions and join in the with other children. But if it’s behavioural and it’s really going to disrupt the class, and I really feel like, you know, a lot of Autistic children, you really can’t engage in the same way….I feel like they need a different structure….I’d love to put on special needs classes, but haven’t gotten to that point yet. I’ve definitely had enquiries.
Lisa’s view of children who have been labelled as having ‘ADHD’, ‘Autism’ or ‘Down Syndrome’ is very singular. ‘Down Syndrome’ children are universally ‘beautiful’ and ‘Autistic’ children universally ‘can’t engage’. There is very little room for understanding a spectrum of behaviour. Lisa’s assumption is that a ‘normal’ class will be structured and tailored for a uniformly ‘normal’ child, revealing that her concept of normalcy is just as static and singular as her concepts of various kinds of difference. This view is in contrast to Alan Prout’s suggestion that disorder labels like ADHD use behaviour to diagnose as part of a continuum, with no point of disjuncture between ADHD and how other children act (The Future of Childhood 138). In this way, having ADHD or Autism, or delayed motor skill development, is a variable judgement – seen in comparison to other children. The ability to pay attention, control impulses and sit still varies between children, and ranks children according to the demands of mass, compulsory schooling (139). Lisa’s view is a demonstration of ‘popular vernacular’ referring to disorder as ‘constitutional deficit’ (Wappett and Arndt 170). Unfortunately, Matthew Wappett and Katrina Arndt may be correct when they claim that the tendency to ‘reduce individuals to their assumed deficits in the process of identification, intervention, and remediation has overridden the largely competence-based, strengths-focused narrative’ that counters it (185).
The second approach to disability and disorder uncovered in my research involved the incorporation of medical and psy- discourses into yoga discourse, in a push to diagnose, treat, enable and manage children’s behavioural “symptoms”. Carinda’s interview typified this approach. Carinda was a yoga teacher in Tasmania, and owned her own business travelling to schools and studios to conduct children’s yoga classes. Carinda and Lisa’s business were different franchises of the same business, so were united by similar programs and company structures, but their pedagogies were still very different. Carinda had left a corporate career to pursue teaching yoga so that she could have more time with her eleven-year-old son, Conor, and seven-year-old daughter, Mia. Carinda told me that her particular teaching philosophy surrounding disability and disorder was heavily informed by her experiences with her son, who had been diagnosed with Sensory Processing Disorder.
Carinda had an informal method of diagnostic criteria which she used to identify programs of yoga poses that she could prescribe to individual children. In this way her practice beared striking similarity to medicalised discourses which attempt to label and treat children’s symptoms. Yet I would also argue that Carinda understood “disorder”, as Prout suggests, as an assemblage of the biological, physiological, social, cultural and material. Carinda did not discussed medication at all, but if we can accept yoga poses as a form of technology on the body, or a Foucauldian technology of the self, then the assemblage also includes technology. Technology, in this understanding, could apply to many other forms of alternative therapies as well, such as massage, acupuncture, aromatherapy and herbal medicine. However, I also want to suggest that Carinda empathised with the “disordered” children she discusses. She attributed more than just “bad” behaviours to the children, as she said that they ‘enjoy’ certain poses and are probably able to hold them ‘longer than other kids’. She gives reason to behaviours such as ‘bouncing around’, as an attempt to gather information. This offers a way of understanding “disorder” which sees it as something other just deficit, or a problem to be solved, it has potentiality.
Yeah, the kids that I work with, they have a whole range of other issues going on [laughs]…. I do a lot of work with kids with special needs because that’s just such an issue so close to my heart. Whether it’s motor delay, or hyperflexibility, or low muscle tone or whatever it is, there’s usually a suite of things that go along with that. It’s like a herd. It travels in a herd. You might have an issue around low muscle tone but very often that will also come along with behavioural issues and possibly ADHD or something on the spectrum, something in their Sensory Processing Disorder, for example. Things very rarely happen in isolation. So after a while you kind of get a sense of the likely groupings without trying to pigeonhole kids. They’re not cookie cutters. Of course they’re not, but you do sort of heighten your radar to look for certain things as an explanation for behaviours that you see.
Carinda predominantly seemed to function within the biomedical model of disability, understanding there to be “normal” and not-normal behaviours, and diagnosing a child’s body accordingly. Yet she also acknowledged that children could not be so simply categorised. Carinda is driven to diagnose disabilities and disorders, but she also tries to avoid understanding those diagnoses as simply evidence of children’s failures ‘to meet standardised developmental targets’ (Watson, Roulstone and Thomas 415). Yoga teachers like Carinda seem preoccupied ‘with measuring children’s bodies and minds’, but the purpose for it seems to be ‘facilitating their inclusion in society’ (415). The end to this means is entirely the opposite of Lisa’s perspective – where Lisa wanted to separate disabled and disordered children from ‘normal’ children, Carinda wants pedagogy to adapt to suit the needs of all children, disabled, disordered, disturbed, distressed and ‘normal’.
Carinda’s approach takes a step away from Lisa’s in moving towards more inclusive pedagogical practice. Yet there was another approach, that extended beyond Carinda’s approach, to try to deconstruct an understanding of difference, and normalise disabilities and/or disorder. This perspective on disability has the potential to change historical representations, of both disability and children. Disabled children are arguably in need of new forms of understanding and embodied education, as Lindsay Stephens, Susan Ruddick and Patricia McKeever found in their ethnography where disabled children expressed feeling ‘excluded’ because ‘the teachers understand every other perfectly able-bodied person in the classroom but when they get to us it is a mystery’ (195). If we are to move beyond the conception of both children and disabled people as ‘less capable’, or ‘less mature’ (199), we need to stop constructing ‘difference as a problem or an abnormality to be resolved’, and be ‘more open to unorthodox movements’ as children negotiate space (210). Yoga teachers, parents, other adults and children would stop talking about the disabled body as signalling ‘some exceptional lack or failure, but simply one mode among multiple ways of becoming’ (39). I do not claim that these approaches to children’s yoga completely revolutionises ways of conceiving disability and childhood, because it will inevitably fall short of that. Instead, I suggest that this approach to children’s yoga offers one, among many, explorations in this direction.
The approach was epitomised by an interview with Bess, who saw great advantages in incorporating ‘special needs kids’ into ‘regular kids classes’ because it sent the message that:
You are different, and so is everyone else. Like, that is what yoga is about, and who cares if they are different from everyone else? So is everyone else.
This particular approach can also be conceptualised as an extension and appropriation of an arguably Romantic drive to appreciate what children are in the present, rather than what they might become. However, unlike the Rousseauian child, as seen in Emile, who develops on the margins of society, this child is an active agent contributing ‘to shaping and changing culture’, ‘not simply restrained by the structures they encounter, but also shape them’ (418). We can hope that yoga classes are one place where children may not wish to identify with the disabled and disordered diagnostic labels that they may experience elsewhere, because in these environments they do not seem relevant. This echoes Bess’ suggestion that children with ‘special needs’ should learn that they are ‘different, but so is everyone else’. In this way ‘we cannot understand disabled children lives in isolation from the adults that they interact with’ (421), since adults and children together create the environments in which these identities are formed and maintained. I do not suggest that all children’s yoga practices will function in this way, or even any of them, but some have the potential to do so. The process of facilitating inclusion is also problematic. Indeed, it would be foolish and naive to claim that some yoga teachers are entirely free from the drive to diagnose and treat children’s differences.
For those of you who might be wondering what my research is about, here is my most recent abstract 🙂
Child’s pose: Children’s Yoga, Embodiment and Relationality
My research is an ethnographic study of children’s yoga practices, investigating how childhood and individual children are understood within the yoga classroom. I have conducted focus groups, interviews and/or questionnaires with approximately 70 child and adult participants. Being a children’s yoga teacher myself, I have also conducted in-depth participant observation. I also filmed much of this fieldwork, and have created a short ethnographic film representing practitioners and their views on yoga. I am using this data to analyse how child yoga practitioners in this study understand their own practice, relationships with their own bodies, and relationships with their wider communities. I consider how the relationship with self is embodied, as children learn specific bodily techniques and practices which alter their understandings of their own capabilities. However, I also investigate the discourse of yoga classes, and how they may posit participants in relationship with institutions, peers, adults, the concept of ‘childhood’, society and the future. I look at how individual children may or may not be understood as responsible for not just their own individual futures, but the future of society itself, and the self within institutions. I argue that some of the more subtle narratives in yoga classes interplay with existing debates about the role of education in children’s lives, the development of citizenry, and what it means to build ‘resilient’, productive children. These debates come into conflict with New Age appropriations of yogic philosophy, intermingled with Rousseauian theories on human development. I examine how individual children navigate embodied responses to these debates, and subscribe to them, or challenge them in certain ways. In the final chapters of my thesis, I particularly explore how children’s yoga classes address the cases of disability and gender, as examples of unstable and contested power relationships between individual children, the adults and institutions that surround them, and wider society.
Australia is reviewing its policy on IVF sex selection, compensating egg donors and egg banks. They have asked for submissions with our thoughts on this. My submission is below. The Working Committee has developed a range of case studies that illustrate the issues that arise. You can read more about each of these case studies here:
You can also make your own submission here:
Also, I invite you to read this illuminating article by Tereza Hendl on the topic of sex selection in The Conversation:
Appendix 3a Sex selection for non-medical purposes
I am heavily in favour of the existing laws remaining as they currently are. This is largely due to the inherently forceful application of gender norms upon children whose sex has been chosen. I wholeheartedly agree with the 2007 guidelines which state that admission to life should not be conditional upon being a particular sex. I address the case studies in the following ways:
Family Balancing: none of the four scenarios in this case study present a strong enough argument for sex selection, in my opinion. Rather, all four of the scenarios demonstrate an assumption that gender is tied to sex, and expectation that an child of a particular sex will display particular gender characteristics. This is a problem because it reinforces gender norms.
Replacement of a Child: While this case carries much more sympathy that the scenarios in the Family Balancing case, they essentially come back to the same problem – that there is an assumption that a child of one sex with ascribe to a particular gender, and will be somehow similar to the previous child who was or was not of that gender. I cannot support sex selection in this case.
Travelling Overseas for Sex Selection: In these scenarios we are presented with good evidence for why IVF in Australia should be more readily available and cost effective, but not good evidence for why sex selection should be allowed. While some patients will continue to travel overseas for treatment, in order to gain sex selection, it is my opinion that Australian clinics should counsel patients as to WHY they wanted sex selection, and continue to offer them safe and regulated treatment NOT including sex selection. This would mean that more parents might be encouraged to stay in Australia for their treatment, and have the opportunity to address any assumptions they have about gender and their future child.
Respecting Parental Autonomy: These scenarios present exactly the problems I have been outlining in the previous three case studies. Parents should be counselled to realise that their happiness does not depend on their child fulfilling certain gender expectations, and to try and do so is potentially detrimental to the child’s own mental health.
Other potential Uses: The is an obvious flaw here in that sex selection will not determine whether the child will or will not inherit the condition that the parents do not desire. However, there is a more significant problem, in that parents and society more generally are not able to value individuals who are seen as ‘disabled’ in some way. We must work against this assumption, just as we are with gender norms, to realise that those who have been diagnosed with some form of ‘disorder’ are not limited, or lacking potential. Rather, these people possess incredibly valuable personal qualities that can make them hugely significant contributors to our communities.
Appendix 3b Compensation of Australian women for the reproductive effort and risks associated with donating their eggs
It seems that the important distinction to be made is how much egg donors are compensated and what constitutes the difference between compensation and inducement. I would suggest that it is currently common practice for donor-recipients to compensate their egg donors all the costs referred to as ‘reasonable out-of-pocket’ expenses, including medical, counselling, loss of earnings, travel, accommodation, insurance and legal advice. It may be useful then, to have some kind of regulation around these costs, to make the line between ‘reasonable’ and ‘unreasonable’ costs clearer for all parties. So long as the egg-donor was only reimbursed, and not able to actually make a profit from donating, I see no reason why these regulations should not be brought into place. This would increase options for donor-recipients greatly, as more women might be willing to donate, particularly to not-previously-known donor recipients. However, I suspect that the numbers of voluntary donors might still remain low, since this system would not essentially be any different from the current system based on altruism, just more regulated.
Appendix 3c 3c Establishment of an Australian donor egg bank
An egg bank would have the benefit of regulating how children may continue to access their donors, and information about them throughout their lives. Donors would also be able to continue to access information about any children that were born as a result of their donation. However, donors should not be able to contact children unless parents and children have specifically requested this.
I am in support of the establishment of an Australian donor egg bank, under certain conditions. Eggs which have been frozen, but unused, by women who undertook their own IVF cycles, should be available for donation, but not for any compensation. This should only be the case once that woman has completed her own family, to reduce the risk of her regretting the decision to donate. Since the woman’s costs involved in the procedure have already been covered by herself, she should not incur any further costs in choosing to donate the eggs that she no longer wants to use. This would essentially mean that she would not be compensated more than other egg donors, who would be provided with nothing beyond ‘reasonable out-of-pocket’ expenses.
Egg sharing, where women are compensated costs for IVF in exchange for donating some of their eggs should not be allowed. Women who need IVF to conceive should have completed their own families before being able to donate to the egg bank, particularly if they have not been able to conceive easily themselves. This will reduce the likelihood of women who are currently undergoing IVF, donating their eggs, and later feeling that they ‘lost’ the ‘good’ eggs to a donor-recipient. This is a separate issue to women who wish to donate to an egg bank prior to choosing to start their own families. This should be allowed, so long as they have received significant counselling about the impact of potentially donating eggs, if natural conception does not come so easily for them later. In this case, women should be compensated, just as they would be if it were an altruistic donation to a known donor-recipient.
I was super lucky to get this one-on-one time with the amazing Rick Everett! Here he is effortlessly guiding me through what was my first try at most of these tricks 🙂 🙂
It’s been an illuminating past few weeks for my husband and I. We have been in negotiations with the four different agencies that facilitate adoption in NSW, and having our initial interviews with each, as potential adoptive parents. It seems that not many people know much about this process, so I thought a quick post on the situation, as it currently stands, would be useful.
The four agencies who facilitate adoption in NSW are Barnardos, CatholicCare, Anglicare and the Department of Family and Community Services. There are several differences between these organisations. Barnardos is the only agency who exclusively deal with children who are forcibly removed from abusive or neglectful parents. These children are often traumatised, and require continuing contact with their birth families, who are also given the opportunity to repair their lives, and have their children returned to them. Adoptive parents with Barnardos need to consider the significant added difficulties of adopting a child who may not remain with them permanently, and who needs to have continuing relationships with birth families who may not be in the best situation in their own lives.
Anglicare and CatholicCare both deal exclusively with children who are voluntarily given up for adoption by their birth parents. Anglicare is currently not accepting any applications from adoptive parents, as they have many parents and not enough children to meet the demand. CatholicCare is accepting applications, but they have only had two children in the last four years to place. There are many reasons for the decline in the number of children offered for adoption, and we are now at a moment in history when there are less unwanted children and more people desperate to be parents than ever before. Contraception, abortion, welfare services for new mothers, increasingly accepting societies of mix-raced and mix-culture children and increased numbers of women delaying having children until they have established careers all mean that there are actually very few children who do not stay with their birth families.
The Department of Family and Community Services is the only government-run agency of the four. They are also the only agency which facilitates intercountry adoption. The current average wait period, from putting in an initial application, to taking home a child, is six years. There are also age limits on being adoptive parents, usually in the early 40s, and it is not uncommon, across all four agencies, for parents to be ‘aged out’ of the program, just waiting to be assigned a child.
The other thing to consider is that once adoptive parents decide to place an application with an agency, they can only apply with ONE, and are entered on a statewide register of potential parents to ensure that this is the case. For this reason, most applicants go to the Department of Family and Community Services, as they have the most number of children offered each year. Across all four agencies, only 20 children were voluntarily given up for adoption in NSW in 2014, and more than 15 of them were with the Department of Family and Community Services. The Department is also rather chronically understaffed and underfunded. The Abbott Government has made some effort to try to increase support in this area, introducing a new service, Intercountry Adoption Australia in May 2015. However, this is primarily a counselling and support service to comfort potential adoptive parents DURING the wait, rather than an actual fix to the bureaucracies that cause the wait. The hard truth is that adoption takes time, whether it is local or international, to be processed through the courts and for birth families to be given all their appropriate rights.
Brendan and I are just at the beginning of this journey, and have much more research to do, but I hope this quick summary has given some insight to others who are thinking about the process, and considering their options.
I will be speaking at UNSW’s upcoming Reason Plus Enjoyment Conference with quite a philosophical paper about how children experience yoga classes. The conference is all about the ideas of being, thinking and enjoying and I argue in my paper that children do all three in their classes!
You can see the presentation I have created for this paper here:
You can also read the transcript for my paper here:
Hi all, thank you for coming. The paper I am presenting today is part of the final chapter of my PhD thesis, for which I am also in my final year of candidature. My research is an ethnographic investigation of children’s yoga practices in Australia. To do this I interviewed over 60 children, teachers and parents who participate in children’s yoga classes, at preschools, schools, after care centres and yoga studios. I am also a children’s yoga teacher myself, so I conducted literally countless hours of participant observation in my own and others’ yoga classrooms. The paper I am presenting for you today is about the notion of becoming, as I saw it being played out through individual children in this study. I will particularly address individual children’s phenomenological experience of being and becoming, whether that is in tiny moments, as particular yoga pose, or more extended beings and becomings, as in a supposed imperative for children to constantly ‘grow up’ and become, or even be, adults. This is quite an unusual chapter in my thesis, because it engages with theory, and where most of my work has been comparing histories and lineages of thought about childhood and yoga to the actual practice I found in my studies. Because this work is unusual, I am still working and thinking through exactly how to apply the theory, so please bear with me, as you see the cogs in motion.
One of the dominant questions throughout my study has been how participants approached the concept of ‘The Child’ and ways in which they value it. I have been considering whether The Child was seen as more valuable as a child, where childhood itself was considered a worthy state, or alternatively, as an adult-in-training, where The Child is most valued for their future potential as an adult. In this paper I have characterised these two perspectives as either valuing The Child as Being or Becoming. This is where the child as Being treasures the state of childhood, in often quite nostalgic ways, idealising it above adulthood. The Child as Becoming sees no value in childhood as a state unto itself – its only purpose is to educate the individual in how to become adult, that is, to become not-child. The opposition of these two perspectives pits the value of present children against that of future adults, and extends into many other questions about the purpose and aims of education, the nature of citizenry, the imperative that children be tested against standardised measures as well as each other, and definitions of appropriate children’s labour and achievement.
According to Australian law and social structure, the children who participated in this study are not full citizens. Daniel Thomas Cook characterises this as children remaining ‘situated in their “becoming” status as part and parcel…of their position in multiple social and institutional structures’ (3). As a simple example of this, children required parental consent to be participants in this study. The institutional structures that maintain children as minority citizens are heavily weighted in favour of the idea that children are Becomings – their value is in the future contribution they will make to society, as adults. I read this institutionalised value on childhood as a Becoming, against Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus. Here Deleuze and Guattari describe becoming as a mediation between things, such as self and other. Introducing Deleuze and Guattari to this discussion also has the benefit of bringing the notion of experience to the forefront, in a way that practitioners of children’s yoga have so far been unable to satisfactorily address. The most predominant discussions around children’s yoga to date have been in teachers’ training manuals and books, such as Shakta Kaur Khalsa’s groundbreaking Fly Like a Butterfly, Helen Purperhart’s The Yoga Adventure for Children and the Rainbow Kids Yoga Teacher Training Manual. Typically these kinds of texts describe teaching techniques which have “worked” with children. The authors do not give clear definitions for what “worked” means, or how the teacher was able to tell that that technique did “work”. I turn to Deleuze and Guattari because I want to understand more about what a child’s experience of being in a yoga class is, whether they feel something “worked”, what that means, and how they can tell that. Further, I want to know whether the techniques used in yoga classes “work” because they have achieved some goal towards valuing children as children, Being in the state of childhood, or because they value children as Becoming future adults.
All of this probably sounds very wordy and intangible right now, and it is, so let’s now overcome that by diving into some of the real world examples that I came across in the course of my fieldwork. Let’s hone in on one particular technique that the teacher training manuals recommend for teaching yoga to children, storytelling. Storytelling is a major feature of many children’s yoga classes, particularly for younger children. The story drives the class, it is the overarching structural device, which determines the choice of poses and how participants use their imaginations. For example, the class might tell the story of visiting the zoo, and seeing various animals. The kinds of animals that the class encounters determines the poses that they do, so you might do poses for the lion, elephant, giraffe or panda. I wanted to know whether children found stories to be effective or “worked” as well as the teacher training manuals suggested. In interviews, I asked children whether they liked ‘going on pretend adventures’ throughout their classes. Their answers varied, mostly depending on age. Children under the age of about 6 or 7 years generally told me that they liked going on pretend adventures in class, and that it made the yoga more fun.
When asked I asked 5 year old Eliza why she liked going on pretend adventures, she responded:
E: Because you get to do stuff, do actions that really happen. Like a rainbow, you might pretend you’re sliding down, the rainbow or…. getting colours on you, and you a bit messy!… Until the rainbow’s all white.
K: Oh, because you mixed all the colours together?
E: No, because you took all the colours with you, green on top of green, and you took all the colour.
For Eliza the story of the class allowed her to engage with more than just her body. The class became a creative journey, where she could explore new possibilities.
Although younger children tended to value the narrative of their class very highly, older children seemed to like exploring other ways of engaging. Eight-year-old twins, Helen and Simone told me, during class, that they wanted to practice in a way that focused more on the poses and alignment, as an adults’ class would. When interviewing Helen and Simone I asked them about this:
K: We’ve talked before in class about how sometimes we’ve gone on pretend adventures – remember we did countries and, you know, all sorts of places and then at some point we talked about it and I asked you guys, ‘Do you want to keep going on pretend adventures?’, and you said no.
S: We actually said, um, we said, um… ah that a little bit of both, so sometimes maybe and other times no….
H: I love when we’re just stretching but working with your imagination, that’s why we asked for a little bit of both.
K: That’s true we should do a little bit of both.
S: So poses sometimes, our imaginations and our poses sometimes.
Helen and Simone told me that even as they got older, they still wanted stories, even if it were less prominent throughout the class. I want to consider how, in Deleuze and Guattari’s terms, children’s experiences of storytelling in yoga relate to the idea of Being and Becoming. In the process of telling a story during yoga class, children embody poses such as the half moon, dancer’s, downward-facing-dog, dinosaur or kangaroo. I suggest that children like Eliza, Helen and Simone do this by relating the experience of their own bodies to an imagined other. Deleuze and Guattari’s discussion on becoming is useful here because it approaches how negotiation happens at the border of self and other. The authors describe becoming as not:
a resemblance, an imitation, or, at the limit, an identification…. Above all, becoming does not occur in the imagination, even when the imagination reaches the highest cosmic or dynamic level.
When I first read this statement, it confused me – as a lot of Deleuzian and Guattarian theory does when I first read it. It seemed to me that Deleuze and Guattari were contradicting conventional wisdom, and what my own participants were telling me – that students were using their imaginations when they focused on storytelling in their yoga classes. However, as I looked closer at what Eliza, Helen and Simone had said, there were actually only two times that they mentioned the word ‘imagination’. The first is when Helen describes ‘working with’ her imagination, and the second is when Simone says that she wants our classes to be ‘our imaginations and our poses sometimes’. Neither say that they “use” their imaginations – for Helen the imagination is almost a disembodied entity, which she enlists to ‘work with’ her, while Simone’s imagination is something completely separate from her yoga poses, and she can and does choose to include both in her class. Whether Eliza, Helen and Simone are being or becoming their poses, they have the choice to enlist their imaginations in the process. They can be or become their poses without storytelling, without imagination, or they can use it if they choose. Imagination is not integral to the process, but often increases the enjoyment of the pose.
I wanted to know more about how Helen and Simone conceived of themselves when they were in particular yoga poses, so I asked them about this. Helen replied that in yoga ‘most of the poses look completely different of what you’re actually trying to be’. Simone commented that ‘you can be what you are in the poses’, to which Helen added, ‘instead of actually trying to be what you are’. Yoga made the girls think differently about the things they were ‘trying to be’. The girls use the verb ‘be’ here, rather than ‘become’. This implies that yoga poses, for them, are not just constantly unrealised attempts to transform into the pose, they are fully realised, achieved transformations. They understand themselves to ‘be’ something when they do a yoga pose, and that thing is not just ‘trying to be’. Helen used the example of tree pose, vrksasana, her her, doing tree pose meant being a tree, not just trying to be a tree. Helen also suggested that ‘trees do actually kind of look like that [pose] with their branches sticking out.’ Helen’s concept of a tree had also been altered by being a tree in yoga. The process of becoming a tree in yoga affected how the girls imagined a tree – which is not the same as the becoming itself occurring within the imagination – as Deleuze and Guattari suggested. Helen’s process of becoming tree pose was not Helen imagining herself as a tree, nor was it just Helen, or just a tree, it was a new entity, Helen-as-tree. This becoming produced the being Helen-as-tree. Helen-as-tree then worked with imagination after the fact, to redesign Helen’s concept of a tree.
Eliza’s drawings further supported this idea. I asked children to draw ‘what you think of when you think of yoga’. Eliza decided to ‘draw a rhinoceros and me pretending to be a rhinoceros because sometimes you can act like a rhinoceros [in yoga]’. Drawing the rhinoceros, or stegosaurus as it became, meant drawing herself, and ‘the thing that I’m copying so you know I’m copying that… so I can draw a stegosaurus and me in it but not like putting my arms out and pretending I’ve got three horns’. Eliza’s self-as-stegosaurus drawing shows both her own body and the body of the stegosaurus, amalgamated together, to have the one head. The speech bubble emanating from this head states ‘I feel happy’. The drawing does not depict Eliza as a stegosaurus, or a Eliza in the process of becoming a stegosaurus, it represents the final product, a new being, Eliza-as-stegosaurus. demonstrates how students perceive of their becomings as amalgamations of self and other. The picture is not of Eliza imagining herself in a stegosaurus’ body, nor does it depict Eliza’s body, using her arms and legs to create the shape of a stegosaurus. Rather, it shows that Eliza and the stegosaurus’ body come together to create a new creature, Eliza-as-stegosaurus. The becoming here has already happened, we are presented with the new being.
Read in this way, children understand storytelling in yoga as a sequence of becomings, which lead to the creation of new beings. These beings are constant reinventions of self-as-other. The new entity, self-as-other, in turn, works with imagination, as a separate process to the ‘poses’, to affect how children conceive of others. What I find most significant about this, is that children’s concepts of being and becoming throughout the class, affect how they understand the aims, goals and effects of the class. Often parents and teachers intend that yoga classes with help children develop skills required in adulthood – such as body control, motor skills and concentration. We can understand this as a way of prioritising children’s futures as becoming adults. Here yoga is one of many forms of education aimed at developing a child’s future potential. However, yoga is also unlike many other activities that children participate in, in that it allows for imagination, storytelling and play. In this way, yoga values many qualities which are associated with childhood, or being a child. That Eliza, Simone and Helen experienced their poses as beings is also encouraging of the idea that they felt they could achieve a level of satisfaction, that they had become their pose, rather than constantly feeling that they had to push to continually become their pose, without ever reaching that goal. Eliza, Helen and Simone seemed to be feel that it was valuable to experience their poses as beings, as achieved states, rather than continual becomings. Perhaps this translates into their feeling like, in their classes, they were also valued for being children, rather than constantly demanded to become adult. I am not sure about this relationship, between individual beings and becomings within class, and the overarching being child and becoming adult that these children experience in their wider lives, but I would like to have a stab at trying see the parallel between the micro and the macro here.
So, I am not suggesting that yoga classes are free of the imperative for children to become adult, nor should they be. What am I suggesting is that my research indicates that yoga classes provide some space and opportunity for children to be valued as beings, as children, alongside their necessity to also become. More significantly, children enjoyed and appreciated this space, it made their experiences more fun. This is important because understanding that children appreciate the opportunity to both be children, while learning to become adults, affects the ways we choose to educate our children, far beyond just yoga classes. I would particularly suggest that it has implications for how we approach physical education, which applies not only to how children move, but also how children think about their bodies and the ways they can use them. Thank you for listening, and I look forward to your questions.
(Please note: I use this image ironically.)
Yesterday, Professor William Ledger wrote an opinion peice in The Age on fertility and the problem of an aging population. Ledger is head of UNSW Medicine’s School of Women’s and Children’s Health and professor of obstetrics and gynaecology. You can read the opinion piece here:
I also attended Ledger’s lecture last night, entitled, “The Ticking Clock: Demographic Change and Future Families” presented with social researcher Mark McCrindle at UNSW. I appreciated how Ledger’s discussion of IVF in older women was preceded by McCrindle’s thoughtful analysis of demographics in Australia and how they have changed. There were moments, particularly at the end of Ledger’s question time, when he seemed to be suggesting that it was a simple thing for women to choose to have their families earlier, that they should be prioritising finding their partners and ‘settling down’ over career or other goals. I found this uncomfortable on a number of levels, not the least of which was the suggestion that women should settle with a partner they might not otherwise have wanted children with, just because they feel the pressure of their ‘ticking clock’. McCrindle’s demonstration was a welcome relief to this simplistic idea of young women’s lives. McCrindle argued that society is changing, and that the pressures of housing and income make the fairytale of ‘a house and kids’ less available to most young people.
Of course I am not ignoring the fact that while our generation can expect to have a longer lifespan than any before it, and therefore to spread out our life experiences, a woman’s window for fertility does not change. Certainly, I am taking what I consider Ledger’s most helpful piece of advice to dinner conversations with friends: if you are over 30, and not sure when you plan to have kids, get your AMH tested so that you have some idea of how many fertile years you have left. The AMH test is a simple blood test, and should cost less than $100. For giving yourself some indicator of when menopause will happen, this seems like a good investment. If you find out that you are one of the unlucky ones who will run out of eggs sooner rather than later, then you have the option to freeze some eggs, and keep them in the bank for later.
The thing that surprised me the most about sitting in this lecture was watching the audience’s reactions. I had not realised how few people understood that IVF does very little to fix the age of eggs. In fact, women in their 40s usually have the same chance of conceiving naturally as they do with IVF. So long as there are no ovulation or fertilisation issues, which there usually aren’t, IVF cannot yet do anything to solve the fundamental problem in getting pregnant at this age: that a woman’s eggs are not as chromosomally capable as they once were. This means that the egg is unable to develop an embryo, which needs all of the power of the egg to combine the DNA from egg and sperm into a new baby’s individual DNA.
Ledger mentioned some emerging research looking at how to help older eggs repair DNA more efficiently, which may reduce the aging process, but is still in the early stage of development and a long way from clinical applications. It was all too clear listening to Ledger that the research needs more funding also, and the research that is being done is primarily directed at this ‘older egg’ problem, rather than younger women’s fertility issues such as Polycystic Ovaries and Endometriosis. While I wholeheartedly agree with the fundamental premise that women and men need more education about fertility, I am also wary that pressuring young women to think about their fertility may cause unnecessary anxiety, particularly in women who are likely to have no problem conceiving once they decide that that is a life course they want to take. Ledger mentioned that, to date, the overwhelming majority of eggs frozen by young women have not been used, suggesting that these women did not need the procedure in the first place. One cannot help but be curious what advantage it is to the business model of IVF clinics to be able to extend their market into the entire demographic of women in their 20s and 30s, not just women who have been unsuccessfully trying to conceive. Perhaps I am synical, but how many more patients and cycles can be marketed and invoiced if this huge new population of women were enticed into the market?
Ledger’s one piece of advice that he would give to a woman in her 30s right now, if she wasn’t in a relationship, would be to freeze her eggs. While I think this suggestion is rather extreme, I would suggest that if you are in your 30s, and definitely know that you want a child, but don’t know how or when that will happen, at least get your AMH test done. It’s quick, it’s simple, and will more than likely let you know that you have another decade of reproductive years ahead of you. If that test tells you that you would be better off to freeze some eggs, then at least you have that option, and those frozen eggs will be ready for whenever you and your uterus are ready to use them.
The Australian Boradcasting Corporation recently did an interview with doctors and industry professionals on the efficacy of different IVF clinics in Australia. You can hear the segment here:
I really appreciate how much thought and effort the interviewees make to demonstrate how complex the issues are here. I may be biased, but it seems to me that they are working hard to convince the interviewer that the situation is not so black and white as it appears. In addition to the interviewees comments, I wanted to add a few more concerns.
At least at the beginning of the interview, the interviewer seems to make out that IVF clinics are hiding some raw data number that indicates clinic success rates. On the contrary, just about all clinics self publish their own success rates, as advertising. It is true that there is no way for the public to access the collected and collated data on all clinics, but they can certainly get information on individual clinics and compare those that they are considering using.
One of the biggest factors overlooked by the interviewer, at least at the beginning of the interview, is that the procedures and processes of the clinic are only one (relatively small) factor which will affect a couple’s ability to conceive. Far more significant are the couple’s overall health status, age, existing hormonal problems, etc. Each of these factors usually outweighs the influence of variations between labs and clinics.
The other thing the stats don’t take into account is that there are two very different types of clinics in Australia, publicly and privately funded. The public, Medicare funded clinics typically perform worse than the private, expensive clinics. Part of the reason for this is the demographic of the patients at each clinic. People at Medicare clinics, often have lower socio-economic status than those at expensive clinics, and correspondingly also have lower overall health rates. Further more, even those that do start at the expensive clinics, and find themselves having to go for multiple cycles, will run out of money and end up at the Medicare clinics. By default, these are often the harder cases to get babies from, since they are the cases that have had to go through more cycles, because the problem is not so easily fixed. Medicare clinics also have the same disadvantages of all public health systems, being under resourced to deal with a huge volume of patients, and lacking sustained individualised attention for patients who are treated by whoever is on duty, rather than any one doctor they have chosen to develop a relationship with. This is a problem in something like fertility, where treatment is often long term, and having a doctor who can readily recall the patient’s history is an advantage.
Further more, there are potential problems in ranking clinics, and developing competition in their published success rates. There are accusations that American clinics have raised their pregnancy rates by doing much more risky treatments, like transferring embryos to women who are overstimulated (which risks a potentially fatal condition involving built up fluid in the abdominal cavity) and transferring more than one embryo at a time, which brings all the complications of twins and higher miscarriage rates. In these clinics, increased pregnancy rates come along with increased rates of complications, endangering both the woman’s current health and her potential to continue trying to conceive. Publishing pregnancy rates also means very little, since pregnancy rates mean nothing if they are not followed by live, healthy baby birth rates. Finally, doctors and clinics who are more concerned about their published success rates are more likely to turn away couples who they think will be ‘too hard’ to treat, preferring not to risk lowering their published stats, and advertised reputation.
The long and the short of the situation is that it is not as simple as it may seem, and requires detailed and thoughtful attention, like so many of the issues in this area.
I am very proud to present this beautiful blogpost written by a dear friend who is also courageous, inspiring and one of the most wonderful people on the planet. Enjoy her words 🙂 xx
Somewhere along the line doctors must have figured out that it wasn’t nice to call people infertile. No one in the medical community has ever called my husband or I infertile, according to them we suffer from ‘subfertility’. After four years, seven IVF cycles, twelve cycles of oral and injectible hormone therapies, three pregnancies lost and the cost of a mid-sized new car, we have little hope of ever being able to have genetic children.
Most people that I see on a daily and weekly basis know that this is my reality. There comes a time when it affects so much of your life that you have to be honest with people and let them know why you have to cancel at the last minute, to rush to the clinic, or can’t attend their function at a particular time, when you need to be injecting or taking a suppository and letting your body absorb the (hopefully life-giving) medication. Yet there are only a few people who actually know the full details of the journey. These people are special. Some of them learn along with you, riding the tsunami of emotions as you wait, hope and grieve together. The family and friends who choose to take that intimate ride with you are more precious that words could ever express. Another special group of people don’t need to know the details, having been there themselves, they can go for months without seeing you and still read the lines on your face to know what every moment has been like. The majority of people have a generalised kind of empathy, or sympathy, for the situation, but can’t really get their heads around it. It is for these people that I have decided to write, not because I am looking for sympathy, but so that you can step into someone else’s ‘subfertile’ shoes for a moment, and be more sensitive to their situation.
Yet this is also a kind of love letter to all the past, current and future women and men who have and will be labelled ‘subfertile’. I feel for you. One of the best pieces of advice I can offer you is to find a community, a tribe of people who you can be honest with, and who are going through the same thing. For almost a year now, I have been teaching fertility yoga at Genea, one of the biggest fertility clinics in Sydney. In that time I have been privileged to meet and become friends with subfertility patients of all different ages, lifestyles, experiences, beliefs, diagnoses and outcomes. Teaching is a magical renewable resource. You give to your students but somehow always receive so much more back. More than anything else I have done on my own fertility journey, connecting with and supporting other patients has given me perspective, empathy and a community. Not only does it release me from the feeling of profound loneliness in the struggle, it rejuvenates hope, when hope seems impossible. Like many IVF patients, I used to see other women’s pregnancies as a threat, an enraging aggressive act of god sent to remind me of my own failure to conceive. Working with pregnant patients helps me remember, as I see the ‘happy pregnant woman’ on the street that everyone has their own struggles, whether it be around conceiving or not – there is no such thing as an easy life. Except for, perhaps, my dog’s. That doesn’t seem like too difficult a life.
As much as I can now celebrate other women’s pregnancies, they still hurt. They are a bittersweet pain, like my birthday, or Christmas, both being reminders of another childless year. They hurt on the same level as attending our friend’s children’s birthday parties, particularly those who were conceived since we have been trying. It is similar to the pain of interested inquiries from friendly acquaintances about ‘when we will start trying’ or if ‘we’ve thought about kids’. The answer is yes, we have thought about it. A lot.
Most people who have never been through fertility treatment can empathise with the difficulties of the treatment itself. The countless internal vaginal ultrasounds, literally thousands of bloodtests, surgeries to pierce ovaries and remove eggs, run dye through fallopian tubes and scrape or burn away uterine lining that has somehow found its way outside the uterus. The process desensitises women from their bodies enough to be able to give themselves multiple injections daily, insert creams and pessaries through the vagina and take nasal sprays and pills that can feel like poison, literally making them sick. The hidden reality is that none of this compares to the pain of losing hope after hope that you will soon hold your baby in your arms. I have had five embryo transfers meaning that the beginnings of a genetic code for five individual babies have entered my uterus but failed to become children. Yet none of them hurt so much one little frozen embryo that looked perfect, but never survived the thawing process to make it back into my body. Somehow this loss felt more personal, like I had spent months looking forward to meeting this frozen baby-beginning, to only be rejected by the child who couldn’t even make it back from the petri dish to greet me. Of course this is ridiculous. Of course there is no personal in this process, there is no child refusing to rush into my arms. But that is part of the problem.
They say there are five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. For patients going through seemingly endless fertility treatments there are only four stages; acceptance is impossible until there is resolution. Each lost fertilised egg, each lost embryo, each lost pregnancy is grieved for as you would grieve the loss of any loved one, or any cherished future. Acceptance is consistently delayed by the onset of the next cycle, offering new hope, and new chances to have that hope devastated. Finally acceptance is achieved in one of two ways, either a baby is born, and all the previous lost babies can be fully grieved, or the couple decides to move on. I have seen patients crushed by this cycle of grief. Unable to work, unable to leave bed for days at a time, unable to continue their lives as they knew it before.
My husband and I are rapidly falling into the incredibly frustrating, ambiguous category of ‘unexplained infertility’. Approximately 25% of all couples who seek assisted reproductive technologies (anything from a simple ovulation-induction pill to full blown out IVF-ICSI cycles) are eventually diagnosed with ‘unexplained infertility’. In more practical terms, the diagnosis means that the doctors don’t know why we can’t conceive. Couples like us are usually quite young (late 20s or early 30s), fit and healthy (neither smokers or heavy drinkers, eat healthily and have healthy BMIs), have no genetic mutations that would prevent embryos from developing, and eggs and sperm look perfectly normal under the microscope. The woman’s fallopian tubes and uterus look perfect, and there is no endometriosis (abnormal growth of the uterine lining). Sometimes there are underlying issues, as in Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome, but this condition is so common that one in four women suffer from it, and obviously, most of them conceive without problems. In reality only one in six couples will ever seek fertility treatment, and the majority of these are overcome without needing to resort to IVF at all. In the cases of ‘unexplained infertility’ doctors, embryologists, scientists and researchers are unable to answer the question of why embryos don’t grow. They simply know that they don’t, or haven’t yet.
One day I hope to be able to update this story. I hope to be one of those ‘success stories’ that offers others inspiration that ‘miracles can happen’. This doesn’t necessarily mean I will have my own genetic children. Some of the most inspiring people in my world have found their children through donors, surrogates and adoption. One of these women gave me the best gift anyone has ever given me, in a few simple words. She said:
‘No matter what happens, I am here to tell you that there is light at the end of the tunnel. Relief is coming, either way.’
It is that that I cling to in my darkest moments, when I am no longer sure it is all worth it. That is also what I want to offer to all the women and men who ever feel utterly, desperately lost to this process. Relief is coming. In the meantime, through the wait, try to dance. Dance literally and figuratively, especially in the rain. It really helps.