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.