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Updated Thesis Abstract

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.

My first Elephant Journal article

I’m excited to announce I have been published by Elephant Journal! Check it out here:

http://www.elephantjournal.com/2013/12/self-awareness-for-goddesses-karen-anne-wong/

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Self-Awareness for Goddesses

I recently read this thought-provoking article entitled Dating a Yoga Goddess and it’s resulting comments. I couldn’t resist responding.

Right off the bat, let’s address the term ‘Goddess’. In many yoga classrooms throughout the West, women refer to themselves as ‘Goddesses’. As a political move, there is nothing wrong with this, it does the feminist work of reclaiming our bodies and celebrating them, denying traditional patriarchal control over them. However, remember that the use of this term is to remind us that everybody has a piece of the divine/universal love/cosmic within. This means that the limber ladies who do yoga everyday are Goddesses to the same degree as those outside the studio smoking and drinking a coffee. If we really want gender equality than we should be talking about ‘Gods’ just as much as ‘Goddesses’, and realise that neither is discriminatory.

This also leads us to the idea of following an Eastern Philosophy/yogic path within a Western world. If you believe you are leading an ‘authentic’ yogic life, or are a yoga ‘purist’, you may need to look into the history of yoga more. There is no and never was one true, authentic, pure form of yoga. The first yogis to pen their practice did so in the Upaniṣads (written between 800 and 400 BCE), Patañjali’s Yoga Sūtras (between 500 and 300 BCE) and the Bhagavad Gītā (between 500 and 300 BCE). The Maitrī Upaniṣad details a six-fold yoga method, namely, breath control (prāṇāyāma), withdrawal of the senses (pratyāhāra), meditation (dhyāna), placing of the concentrated mind (dhāraṇā), philosophical inquiry (tarka), and absorption (samādhi). Five of these six elements (excepting tarka) are also found in Patañjali’s Sūtras. But Patañjali introduces three new elements: ethical conduct (yama), self-discipline (niyama), and physical postures (āsana). Mark Singleton is right when we says that modern yogis usually cite the Sūtras as the canonical text of yoga, but ‘confine their discussion of the text to the [incredibly brief] aṣṭāṅgayoga section (II.29–III.8) as if this were the sum of Patañjali’s message’ (Yoga Body 27). Meanwhile the Bhagavad Gītā lists only a three-fold path of yoga.

In fact, if you are a woman who jumped in a tardis-style time machine and found yourself practicing yoga in India 2000 years ago, you would likely feel very out of place. Yoga was a purely male practice until the 20th Century. The first women to practice yoga were not in India. They were in church halls and school gymnasiums in Britain. Caught up in the broader physical culture movement of the early 20th Century, colonialist Brits aided Indian men to bring the practice to the mother-land and meld it with calisthenics and gymnastics. This was also the first time that yoga was taught to groups of people, rather than one-on-one, guru-to-student style. At the time, the only other place that that happened was in Indian public schools, where the British introduced military-style group exercise, in a effort to raise the moral and physical ‘worth’ of the Indian ‘race’ through training young boys. Women first started to become yoga teachers only about 60 years ago, and only since 1970s feminism has it become a popular and acceptable profession.

And yes, I do mean acceptable. In her article, Alex Smith claims that yoga ‘Goddesses’ ‘don’t like societal rules and conventions. And most of us don’t adhere to them and have dedicated our lives to living outside boxes in some way or another.’ I am afraid to point out the obvious, but if you have a reasonably stable income, take money from your students/clients as they enter the door, pay rent and wear lululemon you are smack bang living within societal rules and conventions. You may have rebellious streaks which deny certain restrictions/conventions but please open your eyes enough to realise that most people do this in some way, not just people who practice yoga. Smith pins the tail on the donkey when she says that yoga ‘Goddesses’ are material girls who have grown up on a diet of fairytales featuring prince charmings. There is nothing wrong with that, they are conventional ideas but that doesn’t make them more or less valid (or feminist) than the yogic path you aspire to.

Finally, in addressing the main thrust of Smith’s article, that yoga ‘Goddesses’ challenge men in such a way that relationships become difficult, I would like to respond both yes, and no. Yes, I see many self-identifying yoga ‘Goddesses’ who cook their partners dosha-balancing meals and ask them ‘Where do you feel it?’ and ‘Have you surrendered?’. But the only relationships I see where this works are when the ‘Goddess’ genuinely doesn’t think that their partner needs raising up to the same level of spiritual devotion that she has. This is simply a yogic take on trying to improve someone rather than accept them. A good relationship, like good teaching, is about meeting the other person where they’re at, having empathy, and thinking through the world in their terms. The best relationships are founded on the knowledge that neither person is better than the other, just different, but with common concerns expressed in different ways. This is another way of reminding us of two of Patañjali’s yamasahimsa (non-violence) and satya (truthfulness). Practice the deepest form of non-violence by understanding the other person, and be truthful with yourself about who you are.

Namaste.

My dog thinks he’s human; I agree.

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He sleeps in bed with us, under the covers. When invited to lunch, we ask, ‘Is it dog-friendly?’ He enjoys chicken snichtzel and pasta for dinner. We both make sure to be home in the evening to spend time together as a family; me, my husband and the dog.

Hi, my name is Karen, and I am a dog-aholic. It started as a joke, that this rescued Chihuahua cross was our baby, but I think we may have lost the parody, and are now just downright nuts. When our parents visit they exclaim ‘How’s my Grandson?!’ I find myself constantly talking to him when no one else is there, telling him about the events of the day and what time I have to go out. I swear he’s fascinated by the state of Australian politics. He figures he should run in the next election. If he did, I can guarantee he’d be better than any of our most recent three Prime Ministers.

The funny thing is that we aren’t really caring for this little furry brown ball of fuzz. He’s caring for us. It’s his full time job, and he takes it seriously. Unlike a baby, who’s needs constantly override your own desires, this pup just asks to slot into your life. If you let him, he makes everything more awesome. A simple observation, but a good one.

Would love to hear stories of what your pet means to you, or how they’ve changed your life. Let me know! 🙂

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