by Matt Sheedy
While sitting in the waiting area of local yoga studio the other day, I read through a book that the studio had recently published entitled, Moksha Yoga: Expressions of Accessibility, which contained a mission statement along with pictures of local practitioners in a variety of poses, replete with pithy quotes in their own words on what Moksha yoga means to them.
The mission statement contained 7 pillars, which claim to “root our practice on and off the mat.” They include,
Be Healthy – We work to support lifelong health for the body and mind
Be Accessible – We endeavour to be accessible in our language, postures, and systems
Live Green – We live to protect and serve the natural world
Sangha Support – We believe in the power of community
Outreach – We use our creativity and effort to help others
Live to Learn – We commit to lifelong learning
Be peace – We offer the benefit of our practice to the benefit of all beings everywhere
The statement goes on to note that these pillars are symbolic and “unite every Moksha student and teacher,” while pointing out that the book itself reflects what every practitioner is doing – “working hard, sweating lots, and caring deeply about creating a more peaceful, fun, healthy, creative, inspired world one posture at a time.” Following this are 37 pictures of different practitioners in a variety of poses along with their own personal reflections on what yoga means to them. All of this, it is made clear, is meant to emphasize the book’s mantra that, “Yoga is accessible to everyone—creativity should be too.” Here the notions of accessibility and creativity are presented in such a way that individual choice and free expression are said to represent the ultimate authority for this studio and it’s particular ethic or practice. The doxa, in short, is that yoga is all about you and what you want it to be.
Before offering some thoughts on some of the ways in which this doxa of free expression serves to mask and reinforce authority, I have provided two quotes from practitioners on what yoga means to them and distilled the remaining 35 responses into 5 categories, with several sub-categories in brackets accounting for variations:
Example 1: “I discovered that my breath can foster a compassionate response instead of a reaction.”
Example 2: “I always use to focus on the outside first. With my yoga practice, I discovered myself from the inside.”
Aggregate taxonomy of all 37 responses
Fitness (posture, healing, endurance, flexibility, health, longevity)
Meditation (calmness, equilibrium, mindfulness, compassion)
Knowledge/wisdom (humility, self-acceptance –awareness –confidence -discovery, overcoming adversity, individuality)
What interests me here is not so much how this taxonomy aligns with some larger generic category within the field, but rather how the very notions of individual choice and free expression are circumscribed by the studio’s own 7 pillars, where each “individual expression,” while no doubt freely given and presented as one’s own, just happens to correspond with the doxa that is laid-out at the beginning of the book.
My point here, quite simply, is to draw attention to an instance of how discourse and doxa functions within a particular social formation toward the selective privileging of certain ideas or representations of yogic expression and to police boundaries of what is deemed acceptable behaviour, despite the professed mantra of individual choice and creativity. While it may be perfectly true that practitioners do embody and perform what they say they do—I personally find that yoga does do for me at least some of the things mentioned above—the professed ideals of openness and flexibility are limited by the same sort of constraints that are familiar to most (if not all) social formations.
In this case, authority is simultaneously derived from both the tenants of the practice (the 7 pillars) as well as from the (relatively) closed community itself that purports to revere certain beliefs and practices that are ostensibly of their own making. And so while participants were presumably “free” to say that they practice yoga in order to ogle all those fit bodies in tight spandex–a professed motivation that I’ve heard on more than one occasion–most end up parroting what has already been deemed acceptable by the community itself. In this way, the illusion of individual choice and free expression serves to mask the authority behind the practice and creates a sense of autonomy while the rules remain in place. This type of process may be also be true of other purportedly “autonomous” social formations, such as so-called “new age” movements and even more diffuse groups like Occupy Wall Street. In all cases, it is worth considering how social formations that claim to offer individual choice and free expression will always find ways to enforce the rules. That is, after all, how they become “formations” in the first place.
Matt Sheedy recently defended his PhD in religious studies at the University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, and is associate editor of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion. His research interests include critical social theory, theories of secularism, as well as representations of Christianity, Islam, and Native traditions in popular and political culture. His dissertation offers a critical look at Jürgen Habermas’s theory of religion in the public sphere.