Monday, October 27, 2014

Yoga Fieldwork Paper - Josh Gibbs

Josh Gibbs
Mid-term project - Yoga Theory, Culture, and Practice
October 15, 2014

The Yoga studio I attended was Samara Yoga located on Elm Street in Davis Square in Somerville, MA. The studio is easy to miss if you’re not looking for it. The studio is on the second floor of a busy street, near pubs, thrift shops and various other store fronts. Samara describes itself as “An urban oasis in the heart of Davis Square” , and this description proves accurate in contrast to the business going on outside of the studio. 
The bulk of the classes offered at Samara are based in Vinyasa, which stems from the Ashtanga tradition. “The practice of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga is based around several series of  āsanas (‘postures’ or ‘poses’), tied together in a ‘garland’ (ma ̄la ̄) of poses by a series of movements (vinya ̄sa).9 These movements and poses are coordinated with a breathing technique (ujjay ̄ı pra ̄ ̇na ̄ya ̄ma, ‘victorious breathing technique’), which is practiced throughout the sequences of a ̄sanas and vinya ̄sa.” (Smith, 2007). Samara does not participate in Groupon’s or Living Social promotions, and because of this they have a more dedicated community. with fewer people going just once or twice. 
They cover a variety of styles, such as Anusara, Forrest and Power Yoga. They offer classes which range from Restorative, Yin, Form and Flow and Anusara inspired. The classes are scheduled to meet the needs of every type of practitioner. There are early morning classes, lunch hour, evening and weekend classes, as well as several offered throughout the day.  
What peeked my interest in this studio, other than the location, was that it did not look flashy or overstated. It just felt like a humble studio that served a single purpose. I suppose the most important aspect to me in choosing this studio, is that I didn’t feel intimidated.  I felt that as a novice, I could go here and not feel judged or concerned about my lack of experience and skill. The class I chose was the all levels Vinyasa class at 7:00AM. My teacher was Rachel Barringer. 
That morning I woke with a dull  Tamas energy. I hadn’t done Vinyasa in a very long time and had some anxiety about it, as my recollection of it had been grueling especially when out of practice. I have never kept a consistent yoga practice for longer than a few weeks, and because of this I haven’t ever felt very confident with my yoga practice. 
When I arrived I was the first one there. Within a few minutes a group of older Caucasian woman arrived with their mats in hand. They appeared upbeat and it looked as if they had been there several times before. They knew the sign-in process and when the teacher arrived one of them thanks her for the referral of a massage therapist who worked on an issue she had with her leg. I noticed right away that this isn’t just a drop in class, but that there is some sense of community. The recognition of the student-teacher relationship is interesting. It’s not an authoritative one, it’s more friendly and causal. As more people arrived I noticed it was mostly woman, but with a variety of ages. Most looked to be in their 20s and 30s. There were only two men including myself, and we looked to be of similar age. The attire was similar for everyone. The woman wore athletic clothes, mostly a single colored tank top with black athletic pants. The men wore shorts and t-shirts. It did not appear that anyone else knew each other. We kept to ourselves until the class started. 
The physical appearance of the studio is very clean and organized. There are few spiritual objects, but a large picture of a Buddha statue, as well as a statue that looked to be a hybrid between a hindu deva and a buddha. It was hard to say. There was also a large white crystal-like bell.  The hall smells of lemon and is meticulously organized and simple. I noticed the lack of religious symbolism and artwork. In Mark Singleton’s book, Yoga Body, he explains this phenomenon. “What is initially striking about the kind of transnational hatha yoga commonly taught today is the degree to which it departs from the model outlined in these texts”.(Singleton, 2010:29) There wasn’t any reference to the history or meaning behind the objects that were there, and the religious and philosophical components to yoga looked to be almost absent entirely. 
The teacher, Rachel Barringer has been teaching at Samara for six years. She has a way about her that suggests non-conformity. Her appearance is somewhat different that what I have associated with yoga teachers in the past, and she does not look to possess the ideal style you might see on the cover of Yoga Journal or in an instructional video. She has a piercing though the center of her nose, a very unique hair style and many tattoos. Her demeanor is strong and direct. Her age is unknown, although likely around mid to late 20s. She is a former classical Cellist who took up yoga to help with her anxiety on stage. She also teaches at another studio in South Boston. 
We start the class seated with a very brief silence; our hands together at heart center. The silence lasts for less than a minute, and then we go right into the asanas. Rachel turns up the heat and puts on some rhythmic music. She demonstrates the movements for us as she talks. Her teaching style is direct and at times sounded forceful. The idea of being gentle with ourselves did not translate in her instruction. She encouraged us to push ourselves. Phrases like “you can do this” and “come on, it’s only chair pose” were meant as playful encouragement, but may not have been for everyone. She tended to those who needed adjustments, such as myself. Personally, I did not enjoy her approach, but that’s not to say it’s not effective for some people. There is a tone of impatience in her voice, and this comes through in her demeanor as well. Regardless of her tone, she is an active teacher. She makes her way around the room and is present and  engaging. 
After the class, I asked Rachel if I could ask her some questions for this assignment and she agreed. I asked her how she thought the physical practice as taught by her at Samara informed the spiritual practice of yoga. She talked about how when you connect with the physical body, it helps you align with the internal processes. We also discussed the types of yoga and how she likes that Vinyasa is very focused on the movements and dedication to perfecting those movements. We talked about Bikram and Baptiste and she commented that she thought they were “silly”. She has experience with them, but did not think one could get the same effect from those studios than one’s that teach more traditional forms of yoga. She didn’t see them as negative, but i sensed that she was suggesting they were insincere and diluted in comparison to the original intent of yoga. She sites a teacher, Anna Forrest whom she related to. She appreciated her tough approach, and you can see the influence this had in her teaching style. 
I asked Rachel what she tough about the profitability of yoga and how it is such an enormous business now. She said it was an inevitable result in a society that values material wealth. She was optimistic about where yoga is heading, and thought it might be stabilizing. She was happy that yoga is being taught in schools and health care facilities, but made sure to mention the differences between what’s being taught in those places and the yoga in the studios. 
When asked why she incorporates such a minimal amount of spirituality to her class, she replied that she doesn’t like being force fed these ideas for herself, so with that she doesn’t want to be the one to deliver it to the class. I was especially intrigued by her response because personally I have felt disenchanted by the diluted and often superficial spiritualism that is found in pop-culture. Its my own perception that has turned me away from yoga for so long. I embrace it now with a healthy skepticism and a better sense of what to look for, but it is hard not to run into it as it can be found in most yoga studios and retreat centers in the USA. This particular studio caters to both sides, those who like their yoga as a simple physical practice to improve one’s well-being, or for those who want to go a little deeper there are intensive workshops on finding peace in urban living, mindfulness meditation and chakra work. Reflecting on all the various kinds of yoga we’ve learned about, I consider one extreme where hip-hop yoga, Bikram and Baptise have there place on one end, and the anti-authority people like Krishnamurti on another end, Samara looks to land respectively right in the middle.
Smith, B. (2007). Body, Mind and Spirit? Towards an Analysis of the Practice of Yoga. Body & Society, Vol. 13(2), 25-46.

Singleton, M. (2010). A brief introduction of yoga in the indian tradition. In Yoga body: The origins of modern posture practice (p. 29). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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