Yoga in Services to Others: A Call for Black Embodiment
Yoga: Theory, Culture, and Practice
Jeffrey A. Suiter
May 2, 2011
This paper will explore the relationship of Yoga for the social good of a society as part of national health agendas both in Eastern and Western nations. I will also explain both the physiological and psychological health benefits of Yoga in response to prevailing health disparities within the Black or African American community, and the importance for merging Karma Yoga practice with other forms of modern postural Yoga practices commonly used in the U.S. Lastly, this paper will explore issues of faith or religion that conflicts with the practice of Yoga within the Black community.
Yoga in Services to Others: A Call for Black Embodiment
With the increasing prevalence of numerous mental and physiological health disparities amongst Black or African Americans, government officials Black political and religious leaders, and the barely visible Black intellectuals or the educated elite are scrambling to competently address these prevailing issues as it relates to motivating a apathetic community to take better care of its physical self. As each of these individual entities convalesces around public health awareness campaigns within the Black community, they fail to address a key component of disease or dis-ease in the body, which is mind-body dualism embedded in most treatment modalities within Western societies. Safer sex outreach where condoms are shoved into the hands of the masses and health fair screening lined with pharmaceutical vendors will not address the disembodiment within the Black community that creates suffering and illness, nor does it help shift apathy into action. In response to the issue of childhood obesity in America, which disproportionately affects African American adolescents, First Lady Michelle Obama has taken on a vigorous and ambitious campaign to end the “plague” of childhood obesity in a generation. She remarks, “We want our kids to face a different and more optimistic future in terms of their lifespan," but like many other community health based interventions models this type of campaigns focuses on the physical characteristic of good or optimal health, while ignoring the motivates behind people’s poor health choices around nutrition and exercise. (Obama, 2010) Sure we can teach children a few new tricks to keep them from being overweight and encourage them to live a more athletic lifestyle, but if we show them how to be in their bodies and encourage embodiment as a daily practice, concerns around obesity, high-blood pressure, stress, unprotected sex, and depression, I believe we will have to revisits less and less with each generation.
Yoga for Social Good: A Review of Transnational Yoga in Brief
There’s sufficient empirical evidence to conclude that modern postural Yoga, which is the most commonly practiced style of Yoga here in the U.S., materialized both in Eastern and Western nations as a nationalistic call to redefine each nation’s cultural identity under the premises that “a great nation” is not only great based on its economically, intellectually, and morally strengths, but also it’s true prowess lies in the psychical strength of its citizenry. This promotion of national and cultural identity through moral and physical strengthen is echoed in the following excerpt barrowed from John Singleton (2010) book, The Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice (pp.81):
You were meant to have a fine looking strong and super healthy body. God cannot be pleased with the ugly, unhealthy, weak, and flabby bodies. It is a sacrilege not to possess a fine, shapely, healthy body. It is a crime against oneself and against our country to be weak and ailing. Our own future and that of your Nation depend upon good health and enough strength.
(Mujumdar, Encyclopedia of Indian Physical Culture, 1950: ii)
By emphasizing the importance of the physical physiques as one “fine looking and super health” show that India like its Western counterparts had bought into the idea that a great nation must look the part and promote the ideal body as fit and lean amongst its citizens. To further cement this notion Singleton (2010) claims, “To a large extent, popular posture Yoga came into being in the first half of the twentieth century as a hybridized product of colonial India’s dialogical encounter with the worldwide physical culture movement.” (pp.81) During this time in history many Western nations showed an increased enthusiasm for creating a new physical cultural movement often based on European athletic and gymnastic disciplines. This transcultural movement for somatic nationalism is deeply rooted in the scheme that what makes a nation great is the physical athletic health of its people or in most cases the social elite within each society, and was meant to foster “a means of regenerating the moral and physical mettle of [each] nation.” (Singleton, pp.82, 2010)
The physical global cultural movement of the early twentieth century is not only symbolic statement that crystallizes a physically healthy citizenry as for the good of the nation, but it also speaks to my earlier stated argument that embedded in the practice of modern postural Yoga is this idea that the practice itself is intended to be for the good of society. The relationship that transnational Yoga has with the psychical cultural movement of the 1800’s is one of innovation and experimentation, as each nation attempted to address the “perceived imbalance of body-mind-soul,” it is high time that we begin to use Yoga in innovative ways to address the health disparities of communities colors considering that our Yoga four fathers as they were, weren’t able to this message of self-fulfillment through an embodied experience to their shores. (Singleton, pp.84, 2010) Sarah Strauss (2002) further laments the idea of the transcultural production of Yoga as for the social good by summarizing Swami Sivananda’s reproach towards addressing rifts between Hindus and Muslims in 1947 as he toured his birth country, “His [Sivananda] approach to solving the world’s problems, as well as India’s, was fundamentally grounded n personal reform, both physical and spiritual, and the notion that if each individual made him or herself in a better person, the world would indeed be a better place.” (pp.239) Even Laura Douglass (2007) notes that Vivekanada’s went to great lengths to stress “Yoga as something accessible to all, and of central value to anyone concerned with health and freedom,” as way to diffuse tensions between Yoga associations and Christian institutions in America in the 1800’s. (pp.37) What is undeniable is the essential belief and evidence that supports the notions of “Yoga [as] a system that brings greater physical and mental health,” while improving the moral and social welfare of the “One Spirit Universal” that intractably links all of mankind. (Douglass, pp.37, 2007)
The Benefits of Yoga as it relates to African American Health Disparities
The gravity of the amount of health disparities that plague the Black community have not only become a part of our national discourse on public health awareness, but these disparities have also made us face the reality that accompanies the social inequalities rooted in our historical racial national identity. When attempting to create a sense of national resolve around the concept, as President Obama affirms, “The State of the Union is only as strong as it most vulnerable citizen,” we cannot ignore the historical (and current) role that race, gender and class inequality plays in dictating access for each of us to achieve optimal physiologically, psychologically, and yes, spiritually health.(Obama,2011) However, because we are a diverse nation credited for having unlimited resources as it relates to problem solving social issues that create “vulnerable citizens,” it is imperative that public health officials begin using all tools available to them, which includes the usage of Yoga as a treatment modality to address the psychological and physiological ailing health of the Black community.
Yoga as a treatment modality according to Trisha Feuerstein article titled The Health Benefits of Yoga directly confronts the number one cause of morality amongst Black Americans, Cardiovascular disease. The practice of Yoga helps create a “Stable autonomic nervous system equilibrium,” which not only reduces blood pressure but also ensures greater cardiovascular efficiency. (Feuerstein, pp.6, 2001) Modern posture Yoga is also well-known for aiding in normalizing body weight and lowing caloric consumption, when excess of either contributes to obesity, diabetes, and heart disease and each of these afflictions are indicators morbidity and mortality within the Black community. (Dressler, pp.325-28, 1993) While we as nation seek solve the growing prevalence of health disparities amongst African Americans it is imperative that we do so using a multilateral approach that only seeks to treatment the immediate disease or disorder, but also treats “the whole person [requiring] an understanding of the personal and social values which guide the individual’s thinking and behavior…essential for creating the context for lasting change.” (Douglass, pp.28, 2006) It is clear that the current biomedical model has not been successful in creating “lasting change” as it relates to growing rate disease amongst African Americans, and in this case “one size does not fit all.”
The research on African American psychological health is still burgeoning, but over the last two decades there has been a significant increase of mental disorders such as suicidality, depression, and generalized anxiety, all of which attributed to stress. (CDC,2010) Through the intent of “the physical practice of Yoga (such as asana or pranayama)” is not meant to solely to address “physiological changes in the body,” it has been considerably effective in decreasing levels of cortisol or “stress hormones” responsible for activating neurotransmitters “flight or fight” response to stressful conditions. (Douglass, pp.128, 2009) Douglass infers that, “From a yogic perspective, relaxation is essential because it is in moments of stillness and peace that we are able to experience ourselves untarnished from our own self-definitions; we have the experience of being harmonious and at ease,” and helping African American cultivate this embodied experience can be equally beneficial on a personal and communal level because it employs more positive coping mechanisms in response to stressful situations and breeds a more harmonious environment/community. (Douglass, pp.128-29, 2009)
The Spiritual Aspects of Yoga: Fostering a Sense of Black Embodiment
Arguably the Black community is not monolithic when it comes to spiritual identity. However, the teachings of Christ and salvation are widely held cornerstone beliefs embedded in the African American cultural identity since their arrival to the Americas as misbegotten primitives built for the servitude of others, predominately Anglophone White Americans. In spite of what is believed to be the Christianity authority over African American spirituality many spiritual tenants of Yoga correspond with the teachings of Christ, such as the embodied experience. I would argue that the belief that the practice of Yoga leads to self-transformation and self-transcendence directly correlates with numerous African American’s take on spiritual salvations resulting from personal development of the “true self” as predicated by one’s devotional beliefs in something great than himself. However, there are fundamental distinction between the spiritual practice of Yoga and the practice of Christianity, yet the creation of discourse that explores their similarities between the two can deliberately bridge gap that causes loads of African Americans to questions their alliance and faith in the “one path to God,” which requires religious pluralism. (Douglass, pp.36, 2007)
Perhaps another viewpoint in placing emphasis on escalating momentum behind cultivating a Black embodied experience through the physical practice of Yoga should not be curtailed by divisive sectarian beliefs, but instead the emphasis for cultivating a sense of Black embodiment should appeal “to the modern individual’s struggle” as it relates to social-racial inequalities and institutional oppression that contribute to individual suffering. (Douglass, pp.36, 2007) After all Joshi (1965) affirms that Yoga encourages the development of “…an awareness of the nature of the self and its relation to the external world,” which key in helping Black American develop a better sense of self in spite of life’s many obstacles. (pp.60) Ravindra (2006) remarks that “Yoga place constraints on the usual activity of our desires, inclinations, body, breath, senses…so that they me be brought under control of something higher,” and this control quiets the “various aspects of ourselves” removing the veil of ignorance that clouds our true identity, “misidentification broken… leads to the removal of sorrow and its underlying cause, and to the cultivation of a deeper and silence, and finally to the aloneness of pure awareness” (pp.57-58) This pure awareness of self garnered through the physical practice of Yoga is arguably a salient reason for its use as a treatment modality in regards to African American health in light of the religious pluralism in brings into question, because enables individuals to create context around how their bodies experience the world and how those experiences shape their thinking and ability to cope. Finally, Smith (2007) confirms that “no other solution but practice…oneself, to become one’s own informant, to penetrate one’s own amnesia, and try to make explicit what one finds unstateable in oneself” leads to long lasting change and spiritual efficacy. (pp.31)
Karma Yoga for Educated White Woman
The challenges facing Yoga as a treatment modality to improve physiological and psychological functioning for African Americans facing a multitude of health disparities is not so much predicated on religious pluralism or the lack empirical evidence of its health benefits supported by biomedical industries, as much as it is on the fact that currently modern postural Yoga is predominately marketed to well-educated White women in urban setting. Recent surveys reveal that out of the ten million recorded Yoga practitioners 76% of the overwhelming majority are more likely to be White, college educated, women, in their mid to late thirties. (Bridee, et al, pp.1653, 2008) If we truly to seek to change the discourse about Yoga from being an athletic physical exercise intended to change only the outer body, into a healing embodied experience that results in personal transformation both externally and internally, than it’s imperative that we closely examine how Yoga is marketed in U.S. and who is it’s targeted demographic and what potential changes must happen to the transcultural production of Yoga in order “…to ensure that Western innovations rest on a thorough knowledge of the theory, methodology, and practice of Yogic principles of consciousness and therapy, including concepts of spirituality.” (Douglass, pp. 21, 2006)
One potential structural change to the commonly used practiced of Hatha Yoga here in the U.S. which could lead to greater social inclusion amongst all of our nation’s citizens, is the integration of different spiritual Yogic teaching, especially those of Karma Yoga. According to Mulla and Krishnan (2006) what Karma Yoga exemplifies is salvation of the cycle of birth and death through services, which is clearly articulated in the following;
“…if we could be free of all such emotions or desires that lead us t action, there would be no fuel (in the form of joys or sorrows to be experienced) to propel us into another birth and we would be free of this eternal cycle. The Gita builds on these three beliefs and suggests a way out of the cycle of birth and death by selflessly performing one’s duties depending on one’s position in society.” (pp.27)
Integrating these types of concepts into the commonly used Hatha Yoga practices employed by well-educated White women could undoubtedly increase their awareness around the use of Yoga as a lifestyle practice that in essence is permeated by “the sense of connectedness coupled with our striving to live a moral life for the benefit of society, [which] creates in us a sense of duty or obligation toward others.” (Mulla & Krishnan, pp.29, 2006) This sense of duty towards others could dramatically change the paradigm that breeds social inequalities and widens the gaps between how and who are able to accessible knowledge based on their socioeconomic status. Regina Benjamin, former US Surgeon General, states that “Our success in eliminating health disparities…will not be done simply out of acts of charity or social justice, but because it is our moral obligation and it benefits the entire nation,” which crystallizes the notion that in order to bridge the gaps between the vulnerable (African American of low socioeconomical status) and the non-vulnerable (educated White women) members of our society, we have to begun to integrate spiritual practices into our daily living that echoes the belief of communal obligation and services to others as a part of personal physiological, psychological and spiritual development. (Benjamin, pp.S7, 2010)
The modern postural practice of Yoga and the transcultural production of Yoga here in the U.S enable us to take certain liberties, which translates into the tailoring Yogic principles to suit our needs as it relates to the social well-fare of our society, but history has proven that this won’t be the first or last time that some Western nations manipulates or appropriates Indian Yogic concepts as their own. However, I believe we can honor this cultural exchange of ideas when used these kinds of traditions to address the social concerns of our society. Americans are quick to assert that “our way is the best way,” but in the case Yoga we have found some common ground with other members of our global community, and we should pass on this knowledge to those who are suffering from physiological and psychological illness, which metaphorically speak to a disembodied nation. We simply have to use all the tools in our arsenal to address the growing number of health disparities that wreak havoc on poor communities of colors. In order to do so we have to give ourselves permission to appropriate and innovate on ancient traditions such as Yoga, because by doing so we create a multitude of opportunities for each of us to harness and integrate all aspects of our individual and collective identities, which overcomes the shortcomings of a capitalist society that predominately mainly values the production of material goods over the wealth of the human experience. At the end of the day, all we have is ourselves and our bodies, and Yoga allows each of us to find refuge in this sense of self/embodiment.
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