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.
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.