krys méndez ramírez

Archive for the ‘Philosophical Musings’ Category

Alienating Geographies: Reflections on Suburban Southern California and ‘America’s Finest City’

In Decolonization, Geography/ Spatial Justice, Latin@ Politics, Philosophical Musings, Racial Politics on August 31, 2015 at 12:10 AM

When I made the decision to leave New York, I wanted to test a hypothesis: does geography play a role in one’s happiness?

If I had to describe it in a few words, I’d say that the motivation to leave Gotham was based on a multi-layered amalgam of ambivalent feelings, much of which was deeply embedded in urban alienation.

Like many New Yorkers, I had a bipolar love-hate relationship with the place: it never felt like a unitary totality that could ever be home in a traditional sense. A city in constant metamorphosis, it can be home one day and someone else’s turf the next.

In my case, my impetus to leave Gotham was driven in large part by a need to un-jade myself—that is, to keep myself from falling further along this precipitous decline I felt myself on, one that felt like a free fall towards the inevitable end of the “jaded old queen.”

Another reason was existential. I developed my roots in Brooklyn, and as much as I came to love my cosmopolitan, working-class immigrant neighborhood, I also had a profound sense of what it meant to live in a truly fragmented and atomized neoliberal playground–one where the constant battle for space and time lent itself to a paradoxical sense of loneliness amid human congestion. My ties to family and home were both strange and estranged.

20140729_155235

Mural in Sunset Park, Brooklyn


I can’t think of my years of experience in New York now without recalling sociologist Georg Simmel’s classic essay, “The Metropolis and Mental Life” (1903), in which he links the overstimulation of the built environment with the “blasé attitude” of the metropolitan human.

Similarly, I conjure up the characterizations of heartache and existential turmoil that afflicted the black protagonists of Richard Wright and James Baldwin, both of whom wrote beautifully at length about structural oppression and alienation in the big city of late capitalism.

As the queer, bookish son of two, working-class immigrant parents, witnessing the enigmatic health complications of my brothers, and personally living through the nightmarish consequences of autoimmunity and the cold indifference of the biomedical industrial complex, the urban terrain acquired a distinct set of meanings for me.

While I had numerous positive coming-of-age experiences in Brooklyn, it almost feels redundant to say that painful memories became etched into the physical environment as well.

A multidimensional mental map of the city is littered as much with tokens of joyful, ecstatic and almost-sublime experiences as it is with recollections of the solitary long walks, the spells of disappointment and wistful yearnings.

A quarter century of existence is legible in landmarks and streets: The overshadowed, gray-and-yellow playground under the Gowanus Expressway; the sooty, humid 59th St Subway Station in south Brooklyn; the silver, razor-like currents of the Hudson from a Battery Park City bench; the giant, moveable black cube on Astor Place near an old workplace; the striking emptiness of the Christopher St. Pier on a very cold, winter morning.


Two memories jump out at me as I think of my motivations for considering leaving.

The first was seemingly rather innocuous: a date with a friend to catch up. My friend invited me to a fundraiser for an organization that we both had ties with, an organization with unique, well-articulated politics that engaged queer youth of color around issues like gentrification.

As it turned out, the fundraiser was directed at alumni (such as myself) and our social networks, and it was taking place at a rooftop bar in downtown Brooklyn I had never heard of.

Unexpectedly, this time with my friend ended up sparking unease as I found myself surrounded by a conspicuously, upwardly-mobile coterie of queer men of color and white “allies.”

The surrealness of the experience was highlighted by the fact that I was at a rooftop bar—something unheard of during my many years in Brooklyn—and my disgust that evening in the gay meat market showroom.

More alienating than that, however, was the larger environment that surrounded us: a 360° panoramic view of downtown Brooklyn. To be sure, all those years of living here had never given me this level of access–the opportunity to see my home turf from an eagle-eye vantage point.

All around me were reminders of the changing topography of an early twenty-first century neoliberal city—an ever-emergent, postmodern cityscape. An insidiously spatial warzone.

Having spent my freshman year of high school near downtown Brooklyn, the micro-level changes were all-too-dramatic: a spate of new high-rises (including the development of Brooklyn’s then-tallest building, the Brooklyner), the mammoth Barclay’s Center, countless ritzy restaurants and bars, and in the distance, the multi-million-dollar Brooklyn Bridge Park.

Brownstones in my old neighborhood of Sunset Park, Brooklyn. How has the brownstone come to represent a certain urban lifestyle? And who has access to it?

Brownstones in my old neighborhood of Sunset Park, Brooklyn. How has the brownstone come to represent a certain urban lifestyle? And who has access to it?

The second memory is rooted in a more sweeping experience of the city at the ground level.

It was the archetypal overcast, gray, late fall day, and an unhappy line-up of medical, personal, and work-related appointments forced me to make pit stops in four boroughs (and Long Island) within a short time period.

Driving around the traffic-clogged Belt Parkway became stressful not because I was running late all day, but because sitting for hours in a mobile, metal capsule forced me to marinate in melancholic memories.

As I drove all around the city, I was bombarded with movie reel-like scenes for each passing landmark and place.

I tried to hold it in, to think positively of what was to come, but it jumped out from an invisible crevice inside of me: so many memories


Now that I’ve lived in “America’s Finest City” for a full year, I’ve been given a number of things to think about.

As one can guess, it is much more complicated than a “thumbs up, thumbs down” evaluation of San Diego. But my situation has forced me to pause and consider how multiple layers of alienation can operate socially and spatially.

There’s suburban alienation. Academic alienation. The geographic alienation of living far from community.

Being economically compelled to live in the cheap graduate housing that lies within the super-wealthy, super-white neighborhood in which UCSD is situated—La Jolla—my life is more than just physically situated in a borderlands space.

It is filled with stentorian, everyday reminders of where I am, a fact that was striking during my first month in which I felt I was experiencing in La Jolla a selectively orchestrated bundle of the worst, Hollywood-infused stereotypes of southern California: suburban cul-de-sacs with breathtaking ocean or canyon views; limitless, box-model shopping malls and plazas that house uniform chain stores, cafés, and restaurants; a hegemonic car culture that reproduces (sub)urban sprawl; and a prevailing cult of self-fixated bodily perfection centered around the “beach body.”

A different kind of geography: A typical La Jolla intersection.

A different kind of geography: A typical La Jolla intersection.

As I understand it, the hyper-individualistic consumption ethos that is both cause and effect of this catastrophe is intimately intertwined with a long history of white supremacist dominion over colonized space.

I’m learning, through one of the most extreme examples possible, what it means to exist in  the hyperreal space of suburban hell (something I see as linked to contemporary neoliberal gentrification for numerous reasons).

It is this notion of owning or occupying a private space of “your own,” the emphatic American ideal of home ownership, that marks what race scholar George Lipsitz calls the ‘possessive investment in whiteness.”

It is an investment that produces clear spatial consequences: gated communities on one end, criminalized black and brown communities on the other. As we see in cities around the world, these ‘othered’ urban spaces are increasingly targeted as domestic threats under national security policing.

The surrealness of having been transplanted from the Brooklyn barrio to this ultra-ritzy beachside suburbia is one that never escapes me, for I am constantly reminded of the ways in which I don’t belong.

For instance, my beat-up, used 2001 Honda Civic garners the attention of police in a neighborhood where new sports cars and militarized BMW’s are the norm. (To say nothing of my first six, car-less months, during which I experienced street harassment simply for waiting at a bus stop or walking on the sidewalk.)

In a similar vein, as a low-income graduate student paradoxically living in an affluent area, I frustratingly find that my nearest options for food and services (like haircuts) are incredibly overpriced.

The signs are both subtle and not-so-subtle. The environment makes it clear that I don’t belong here.


Whether we speak of suburban, academic, or neoliberal alienation, the same holds true with respect to geography: spaces can become alienating and confining, even carceral, in the absence of community and genuine social ties.

If there is something that my experience has foregrounded, it’s the nature of the way postmodern geographies can be alienating and surreal in numerous ways: whether it takes a cosmopolitan, suburban or exurban form, there are simply exponential ways in which one can feel excluded and distanced.

It is a reality that also brings me backs to my former ethical reflections on resistance vs. acceptance: Up to what point should we continue to fight to shape our local spaces, fight to build and sustain geographies of radical democracy and freedom? Fight for our right  to mold liberatory spaces that align with the needs and interests of our communities and local environments? Fight for our right to the city?

On the other hand, at what point must the atomized self relinquish designs on radical reconstruction of space in order to seek out a path of radical acceptance (if such a thing is even possible)?

Not to be confused, this is not a question of accepting or submitting to injustice or geographies of domination. It’s about acknowledging that many of my issues may not be resolved simply by moving from one geography to another; it may actually be about transforming my perception and relationship to the cities I live in. Being able to find joy and serenity even within the most distant and ‘alienated’ of places.

This leads me to a final question: Can one find home anywhere?

If a homeland can’t be reclaimed in a physical geography, how useful and necessary is it to search for home internally–be it mentally, spiritually, or psychically?

To seek, in other words–in the tackiest of terms–a home at heart?

Advertisements

Reflections on Disability, Capitalism, and Time

In Crip Politics / Disability Politics, Philosophical Musings on March 23, 2015 at 9:00 AM

“Don’t worry, it’ll happen. Just give it some time.”

“But you’re so young. You’ve got plenty of time to try things out.”

“We’re young, though. We’ve got plenty of time before we have to deal with that.”

As a single young adult with an invisible, chronic degenerative condition, these are some of the most unnerving comments that I hear all the time, however banal and unordinary they seem. I hear them especially as a first-year graduate student, a time when the possibilities are supposedly vast and unpredictable, if not entirely “endless.” And as a twentysomething, I have these comments directed at me both from other young adults as well as those who are older, often with the assumption that age is inherently synonymous with a range of life opportunities that are only possible because of time.

To me, such comments are illustrative of how a certain normative standard of temporality is so consistently invoked, rendered so commonplace, that it is beyond noticeability or scrutiny. Unless we’re confronted with clear, visible instances of a bifurcated futurity in youth—say, someone with a terminable health condition—we generally go about our day with unquestioned and prefabricated assumptions about how human life should unfold across our linear version of time.

There are, of course, obvious exceptions and counterarguments, such as that neither youth nor old age are the same for everyone, across all geographical and cultural contexts. We see instances of how standardized periodizations of age are called into question, for example, when examining the culturally divergent definitions of ‘adulthood’—of what it constitutes and when it starts—or the social construction of adolescence. But the dominant time and age-related assumptions are nevertheless there, codified into our social institutions and reproduced in our colloquial expectations.

Although we are conditioned into thinking of it as an absolute and natural given, a mere backdrop against which social events unfold, I would agree with others that time, like space, is socially constructed. We’ve made decisions on how to read it–say, along axes of terrestrial movements using a sexagesimal system and a Gregorian calendar—and how such time is to be “spent” (an allusion to the naturalized connection between productivity, consumption, and time). Histories are made and remade, and our relationship to them shapes our sense of the future as well as our identities and experiences in the present.

And as with other facets of our social existence, the political economy has been instrumental to the ways we conceptualize time, humanity, and the trajectories of life. It’s worth remembering that the production of our first time-telling instruments was driven, in large part, by the needs of agricultural production. The advent of capitalism accelerated the changes as efficiency, productivity, and time became especially intertwined—a fact that was well noted by the so-called founders of sociology, particularly Marx, Weber, and Simmel.

I bring up this social history to highlight the seemingly arbitrary nature of how we temporalize life into discrete parameters and periodizations that are far from “natural.” Capitalist time has performed an incredible feat in measuring virtually everything against time-based markers of efficiency, a fact seen most cruelly today in the way neoliberal logic uses quantifiable metrics to convert schools into test-taking factories, bodies into malleable overtime engines, and brains into calculating computers. Even in our dominant allopathic healthcare, the logic of capitalist time is used in the treatment of bodies as machines, with an increasing trend toward “specialization” turning organs or bodily systems into isolatable cogs and pinwheels.

For people with disabilities or chronic conditions, such parsing of time under this logic continually works against us as our bodies are said to “betray” us. We internalize the idea of failure when we can’t all measure up to the same standards of productivity and efficiency, and rather than devoting our limited energies to living life within a still-enriching range of possibilities, we are punished through de facto institutions of punishment and control: incarceration, hospitalization, or a regulatory “welfare” and its inordinate criteria of eligibility. (Those institutions, as it turns out, have their own alternate temporalities that involve “checking out” from the typical spatial and temporal conditions of the working masses.)

That said, when speaking of the ways in which time doesn’t “work in my favor,” I speak of the perverse ways in which social institutions and everyday expectations of normalized life trajectories make it difficult to live life with my particular set of abilities, skills, and interests. Being coerced into making decisions that align with certain pre-planned futurities, I find it difficult to peg any decisions around future-bounded notions of “climbing the ladder” or “starting the journey” of a career—not to mention those temporalized notions of partner-finding and family-making—when I can’t even be certain of my ability to wake up or pull myself out of bed the next morning. Living with a degenerative condition, I exist in a much different temporality marked by daily, sometimes hourly, unpredictabilities–a temporality that relates unevenly with the presumed “willing and able” logic of long-term work projects or social expectations. Given the nature of the condition, I’m unlikely to see the sort of “rewards,” like certain job opportunities or social accomplishments, that capitalist time tells us to wait for.

Sure, we can talk about how such “uncertainty” is true for all of us, that we can all get struck by a bus tomorrow. But with a disabling chronic condition, those questions of the future are always weighted against the very real possibilities of a changing body in an unaccommodating world. Although I have dreams for the future like everyone else, when I’m reminded of how my in-pained present was the future at one point, I’m also reminded that the future is far from being a limitless or delayable abstraction.

Indeed, it is this tendency toward ‘delay’ that permeates our social life that I see as pivotally hinged to the logic of capitalist time. We justify excessive and exploitative work conditions in the present using obscure promises based on ‘delayed’ rewards and ambiguous futures. (“Don’t worry, you continue working this hard, and you’ll get there.”) We ‘delay’ our attention to issues like climate change or death-promoting destruction in the global south, pointing to all the work that needs to be done before we get to those luxurious issues. If we only had all the time in the world, we would provide that helping hand.

All of which leads me to wonder: why are we so busy in the first place?

Oh, right. All that work.

Clocks have become the universal metonym for time. Even the notion of time "running out" uses a particular able-bodied ideal measured within a capitalist frame.

Clocks have become the universal metonym for time. Even the notion of time “running out” uses a particular able-bodied ideal measured within a capitalist frame.

That Thing About May Day

In Geography/ Spatial Justice, Identity Politics, Philosophical Musings, The Revolution on May 1, 2014 at 2:34 AM

Image

There’s something about May Day that still does it for me.

Jaded as I am about many of the current leftist political formations in the U.S.—particularly when it comes to the ritualized dilutions of identity politics and political nuance–I still find myself drawn to the basic message of the big ol’ General Strike.

As I re-examine the May Day poster circulated by Dignidad Rebelde two years ago at a peak of revolutionary revival, there is something very material, very real, very primal about its messaging: “TOMA LAS CALLES” and “Ni Trabajo, Ni Escuela, Ni Compras, Ni Actividades Bancarias” (“Take the Streets” and “No Work, No School, No Shopping, No Banking”).

I’m ambivalent, of course. In thinking about the post-Occupy landscape of New Left movements and their linkage to the radical origins of May Day, I feel a faint nostalgia and sense of loss. Behind me are the days of organizing against gentrification or police occupation or wage theft …and ahead? After all is said and done, where has endless critique taken

Into this downward spiral, I wonder:

  • Where am I in this new swirl of discombobulated movement activity?
  • How did I survive a traumatic auto-immunological assault on my midbrain, the torture of endless head pounding, and a dragnet that nearly sucked me into a suicidal black hole?
  • How did I survive the soul-crushing loneliness wrought by my positionality as a sick and queer working-class second-generation immigrant with roots in the global south?

These questions have plagued me in such a way that they challenge my pursuit of an impermanence-appreciating dharmic temporality. I become lost in this haze of old wounds and a pessimism about the future. And as another May Day rolls along, I am made aware of the stark reality: I have become another one of those revolutionaries who’ve receded into the shadows. The disaffected New York City leftist.

But maybe there’s room to hope. After all, May Day has something to it, something that captivates my often-schismatic and contradicatory personas and sensibilities.  Being a bit older and weighed down by a baggage of pain-induced awareness, I appreciate the simplicity of a call to take the streets and stop working. In a city like Gotham, it’s simple…yet complicated.

In a time when political questions around space have commanded the public imagination, when neoliberal gentrification has turned neighborhoods into war zones, and when Facebook event invites have become poor substitutes for wheat pasting and door-knocking …there’s just something about an event that does the damn job of bringing workers, immigrants, students, and the unemployed together into the same physical space.

In an alienating metropolis like New York, where “business as usual” equates to postmodern isolation, there’s something powerful in simply standing our ground, together, in a space we can claim.

Image

Two Years ago at Union Square

After all, how often to the disparate groups of the NYC Left physically congregate, separated as they are by ideologies, positionalities, boroughs and neighborhoods? For all its ugly shortcomings, I think my slight nostalgia for old labor politics stems from a basic appreciation of taking the streets.

And although many rallies at Union Square are admittedly redundant and stale, I appreciate the importance of such convergence. Even if only temporarily, the centrifugal machine-logic of the city is arrested as otherwise far-flung people chant, commiserate, gossip, and bullshit.

Even when the chants become repetitive to the point of irrelevance, it is the very real, material gathering of people that sparks possibility. For who knows what will spark the next revolutionary moment?

I might have become disillusioned with many things, but I also understand that the ongoing capitalist wreckage won’t be stalemated by cynicism. Neither will it be arrested by an imprisoned imagination or a blasé mentality. And it most certainly won’t happen with business as usual.

Image

Pigs protecting the heart of the heart of capitalism: Wall Street.

James Baldwin on the Nature of Dreams

In Creative Writing, Philosophical Musings, Racial Politics on August 2, 2013 at 5:15 PM

baldwin_criticism_america
Today, on the anniversary of James Baldwin’s birth, I felt a need to say something about a man who is indisputably one of Amerika’s most influential writers. Although he was a queer black Amerikan who was so disaffected with Amerika that he expatriated france, his writings have had mass global appeal–a fact that speaks to his incredible finesse at capturing the struggles and hopes of black lives. For better or for worse, his writings still resonate with the racialized Amerika of today.

Since he’s one of my favorite fiction writers, I don’t think I can do any justice speaking for or about him. His novels, and his life more generally, encompass too many themes to adequately address here. But as someone who’s recently reflected a lot on the meaning of dreams, the necessity of dreams, I was particularly moved by an excerpt from one of his novels. As always, his wisdom diffuses past the page and into your soul, revealing the this ineluctable, blurry wall between fantasy and reality, hope and unease.

The world he describes is almost too real to bear. But that’s just how it is.

“The trouble with a secret life is that it is very frequently a secret from the person who lives it and not at all a secret from the person who lives it and not at all a secret for the people he encounters. He encounters, because he must encounter, those people who see his secrecy before they see anything else, and who drag these secrets out of him; sometimes with the intention of using them against him, sometimes with more benevolent intent; but, whatever the intent, the moment is awful and the accumulating revelation is an unspeakable anguish. The aim of the dreamer, after all, is merely to go on dreaming and not to be molested by the world. His dreams are his protection against the world. But the aims of life are antithetical to those of the dreamer, and the teeth of the world are sharp.”
– from Another Country (1960)

Making Sense of Medicinal Yoga

In Health Justice, Multiple Sclerosis, Philosophical Musings on June 11, 2013 at 10:12 PM

For the longest time, I’ve been a fitness enthusiast. It started when I was a teenager trying to overcome severe depression, when hitting the gym to boost my confidence and self-esteem.

Since aesthetics didn’t factor in until later, I simply enjoyed the way working out made me feel in my own skin.

The law of impermanence would ensure that wouldn’t last. It just didn’t occur to me that it could happen so quickly.

One summer afternoon, sometime after my sophomore year in college, I was in the gym as usual and sweating profusely after a few sets of an abs workout. Suddenly I noticed stars flashing in my left eye. I didn’t think much of it at first. I assumed it was an after-image from the bright sun that day.

When the after-image persisted and intensified over the course of the following days and weeks, I became concerned and consulted an ophthalmologist in Brooklyn.

Before long I was being shuffled between facilities and doctors, had blood and fluids drawn, had my head thrown into an MRI machine. Within two months, the life-altering diagnosis: MS, or multiple sclerosis.

Fast forward five years. I’m as dreadfully skinny as I was before hitting the gym. The Universe has tested my resilience by putting me through a number of flare-ups, including a heinous one just this past month.

In this one, the lethargy and weakness were beyond what most of you temporarily healthy folks could imagine. A walk to the pharmacy felt like a hike up a canyon. Bedridden and constantly sick, I knew something had to seriously change.

After getting treated for my relapse, I made a decision to analyze my habits (again) and see if there was something else I could do that I haven’t already done.

I’ve done yoga during sporadic periods of my life, never consistently, but always understood it was a “healthy” thing to do. I pursued this course of thought.

Now a few weeks in of assiduous practice, with as many as two to three sessions a day, I can optimistically report a number of improvements that confirm the widely reported health benefits of yoga I had previously only read about.

First, I’ve been able to attain levels of flexibility unthinkable when I was an amateur bodybuilder. More importantly, I’ve seen an upsurge in energy, stamina, and libido, and find myself feeling more at ease with (and even enjoying) my newfound unemployment. A

nd once again I am writing and returning to long ignored interests. Like millions of practitioners worldwide, I’ve become completely enamored with the millennia-old tradition of yoga.

Not one to be complacent with yoga-as-exercise, I decided recently that I wanted to investigate this ever-alluring science as thoroughly as possible.

After all, why should I not invest some months learning about yoga when it can potentially revamp my quality of life for decades? With a chronic condition that is poorly understood and over which I feel little control, doing yoga gives me a desperately desired feeling of control.

But my awarenss of the health benefits of yoga were rudimentary. Although I knew of research studies pointing to health benefits, the abstracts I read were unhelpful in explaining the actual substance of yoga.

When I set out to investigate the literature on yoga more thoroughly, however, I was impressed by its nuanced complexity and sociopolitical history—aspects of yoga that are rarely, if ever, explored in the context of general courses. Per usual, I was left with more questions than answers.

Image

The Sanskrit symbol “Om,” inscribed within a mandala.

One of the things that has impressed me the most vis-à-vis yoga is the vast proliferation of schools, styles, and practices that fall under its name. For something as new to the West as yoga (having first been introduced to europe and the united states in the 1890s), it is fascinating that one can now find a yoga class, or even a yoga studio, in virtually every major amerikkan city.

The many schools of yoga include such disparate styles as Power Yoga, Bikram Yoga, Astanga Yoga, Kundalini Yoga, even Naked Yoga and Laughing Yoga. Moreover, according to the New York Times, the number of U.S. practitioners rose from 4 million in 2001 to a whopping 20 million in 2011 (add link). Having experienced first-hand the variations in yoga, from the highly exercise-oriented Astanga to the breath-centric spirituality of Kundalini, I was fascinated by what seemed to be an ever-growing trend that churned out classes faster than you can finish chanting ‘Om.’

Quite naturally, my skepticism led me to wonder whether a rigorous traditional and spiritual discipline, said to be thousands of years old, was going the wayside of other traditional, non-white customs co-opted and bastardized by a dominant consumerist culture.

To be clear, I can emphatically say that I’m not against modernizations or alterations of tradition, especially when such changes are necessary or beneficial.

Yet, when something becomes a trend in our media-saturated profit-driven society, with corporatized yoga being retailed in niche markets that engender highly lucrative careers for certain charismatic self-professed gurus, I have considerable reason to be skeptical. But this self-righteous skepticism is mixed uncomfortably with an insatiable curiosity to plunge the depths of a science with purported healing capabilities. And why wouldn’t I?

Living with MS, I am lured by the idea that I can foster the healing power of my body and mind to keep disabling flare-ups at bay. So this brings me to the central questions I sought to answer: What exactly is yoga, and how do its supposed medicinal properties work? Is there a deep, uncovered wisdom in this practice from ‘the ancients,’ or are we being hoodwinkeden by a marketing ploy that exploits our exoticized fantasies?

Being relatively new to the study of Yoga as a bona fide discipline, I make no claims to being an authority in this field. Nevertheless, from what I’ve been able to cull from the literature, here are some basics:

  • The word ‘yoga’ is used to refer to a number of distinct disciplinary practices that have their roots in ancient India, and that are encompassed within Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism. Many scholars postulate an origin in Dravidian civilizations as far back as the 7th millennium BCE.
  • The very term ‘yoga’ is popularly interpreted from the Sanskrit as meaning “union” or “a bringing together”—an allusion to the Hindu belief in an ever-present connection between individual self (jivatman) and Absolute, or cosmic, self (paramatman).
  • Yoga has many definitions. For instance, Timothy McCall, a doctor and writer of the book Yoga as Medicine, defines yoga as “a systematic technology to improve the body, understand the mind, and free the spirit” as well as a “series of practices that allow you to steadily gain discipline, strength, and self-control while cultivating relaxation, awareness, and equanimity.” Jean and Doriel Hall, writers of Astanga Yoga & Meditation, refer to it as “an inner journey to the true centre of the soul,” while Yogi Bhole Prabhu defines it as “an experiential science of self-study.”
  • The term ‘yoga’ appears frequently in the Bhagavid Gita, one of the oldest scriptural texts in Hinduism. In it, the deity Lord Krishna tells Prince Arjuna to “[p]erform your duty equiposed…abandoning all attachment to success or failure. Such equanimity is called yoga” (2.48). According to A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, this aphorism can be interpreted to signify yoga as a “means to concentrate the mind upon the Supreme by controlling the ever-disturbing senses.”
  • The first writings to formally systematize the practices of yoga were the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (C. 100BC – AD100), which defined it as a state wherein “there is stilling of the movement of thought.” It is the foundational text of what is now called raja yoga.
  • The first known written introduction of asanas [bodily postures] come from the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, written in the 15th century.  It is believed that hatha yoga became the dominant yogic practice in India after the turn of the first millennium, and it is the basis of what we commonly refer to as ‘yoga.’
  • Much of what the mainstream calls ‘yoga’ (i.e. a set of postural movements) actually refers to a specific type of yoga, hatha yoga, and specifically within that, the asanas. Yoga has traditionally included meditation, breath work, and various practices aimed at taming the mind with the goal of self-realization. In classical texts, yoga simply refers to communion with the Absolute; consequently, there are forms of yoga that do not involve asanas, such as bhakti-yoga (yoga of devotional service) or karma-yoga (yoga of action).
  • While many of us have been taught that the asanas come from ancient knowledge passed on through the ages, research into the literature suggests that the vast number of the postures used today were invented in the 20th century, if not more recently, by a relatively small number of gurus (to see one treatment of this issue, read yoga expert Alanna Kaivalya’s article in the Huffington Post. In fact, much of what is taught in the different modern yoga schools can be traced to Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, a yogi said to have learned the ‘original’ asanas from an unpreserved (and unverified) text. The only known asanas preserved in the writing of classical texts still with us today are the mere fifteen shown in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika.
Image

Warrior I pose

Researching the historical and philosophical underpinnings of yoga gave me added reason to doubt certain claims (such as that it never hurts and always heals 123) while feeling validated in my belief of others.

For one, I think it is necessary to acknowledge the modernization, commercialization, and yes, the colonization of yoga. The possibility that most of the known asanas were created after introduction of yoga to the West, as well as the known reality that certain yoga schools (such as Power Yoga and Phoenix Rising Yoga) were founded by Western yogis, makes it evident that yoga, in the broadest terms, is not simply an ‘ancient’ discipline.

The most obvious changes, such as the invention of new asanas like “airplane pose” and the popularity of music-thumping yoga classes in sports clubs, make it clear that many amerikkans are not averse to the blatant evisceration of spirituality and philosophical inquiry from classical Yoga. Personally, I can respect some of the asana-focused courses of corporatized yoga—given, of course, that it is advertised as the exercise-centric activity that it is. So let’s at least make the terms clear.

As far as medicinal yoga is concerned, such clarification is needed if we are to genuinely understand its healing properties. After all, how best to disaggregate research data or understand the ideological substrate of yogic practice than to know what, in actuality, we’re doing?

Putting Yoga Inc. aside, there are actually many reasons to take yoga seriously as both an ancient spiritual science and as a form of body-mind discipline. For one thing, yoga works. I’ve experienced firsthand its potential to heal, and this is in addition to the reports many of us have likely read or heard regarding its health benefits (McCall, 2007):

  • increased flexibility;
  • stronger muscles;
  • improved immune function;
  • increased oxygenation of tissues;
  • relaxation of the nervous system;
  • an activated prefrontal cortex;
  • lowered stress hormones, blood sugar, and blood pressure;
  • pain relief;
  • improved psychological health;
  • an elicited placebo effect and many others.

Recently, it was uncovered that yoga has a beneficial impact on the genetic expression of immune cells. This latter finding is worth emphasizing, for the fact that yoga can tap into the molecules that formulate the fabric of our very being is a very powerful realization, indeed.

One of the factors said to contribute to yoga’s success, even as evidenced in the realm of empirical evidence-based studies, is its ability to unify body and mind (and for believers, the cosmic soul) through the breath.

Whereas Western science has only recently uncovered the role of mental force on bodily responses through such disciplines as psychoneuroimmunology (PNI) and positive psychology, this connection has long been axiomatic to yogic philosophy. In fact, the vinyasa flow of the physical postures is believed to help relax the nervous system enough to facilitate meditation, known for easing excitatory responses and producing mental clarity.

Because the ultimate goal of classical yoga was to produce serenity through a quieting of thoughts, the goal of which was self-realization and commune with Brahman, our cosmic self, breath work and meditation were always integral to yoga practice. In this day and age, when stress contributes to a disproportionate number of medical conditions, yoga can help us modify our bodily reactions to environmental stressors through a deactivation of the sympathetic nervous system and a “rewiring” of neural networks.

At the macro-level of medical philosophy, yoga also provides a much-needed holistic approach to the body. Incorporating a corporeal ontology that links mind, spirit, and energy, yoga’s relation to medicine is arguably distinct from the dominant allopathic model that treats the body as a compartmentalizable machine. Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras do not mention asanas, but rather, such concepts as pranayama,  yamas (abstentions such as non-violence or non-stealing), dharana (concentration), and dhyana (meditation), all of which are necessary for the ultimate goal of self-realization.

Although they lacked the imaging technology to study the endocrine system, yogic scholars were nevertheless able to identify what they called chakras, centers of energy aligned with specific plexuses (nerve clusters) and endocrine structures in the body. Their studies also highlighted the importance of the breath in facilitating changes in energy throughout the body.

This alternative to the dominant Western medical model, which has been with us in its modern form only since the 19th century, may become increasingly necessary as the years advance. In my own experience, yoga as an all-body, whole self discipline has provided me with benefits that the dominant medical model would have achieved only through excessive risk and costs: pain relief, nervous relaxation, aerobic conditioning, energy improvement, improved libido. By way of contrast, my own experience with doctors makes evident the alienating dynamics of capitalist medicine. Having seen various doctors for my neuropathic pain, the atomizing tendencies of the established medical field became apparent when the different neurologists I’ve sought for help all provided distinct explanations of my condition with corresponding, distinct remedies and treatments. The fact that four different doctors with the same specialty (neurology), three of whom share the same sub-specialty (pain management), could offer such disparate treatments is telling.

While Yoga is no panacea, it might be the perspective we need in the face of austerity medicine, environmental degradation, factory farming and other forms of systemic violence that threaten the viability of our species.

While acknowledging the breakthrough achievements of allopathic medicine, we should also be cognizant of the deteriorating effects of the neoliberal impetus to turn everything—including land, clean air, and water—into commodities. And I anticipate a rise in more young people, like myself, finding themselves with unexplainable autoimmune conditions. In this age of empire, we might just need yoga if we are to survive.

Ramp Your Voice!

A Self-Advocacy & Empowerment Movement for People with Disabilities

Xicana Ph.D.

Pedagogy of the Defiant: Writing Without Permission or Peer Review

David A. Shirk

Associate Professor, Political Science, University of San Diego

chris selzer's HSCT quest

no chemo, no cure

Not Without a Fight

My Journey Through HSCT Treatment for Multiple Sclerosis

Caroline's HSCT stem cell transplant for MS 2017

A month at Clinica Ruiz in Mexico to stop MS

To Puebla and HSCT

A blog about receiving HSCT for MS

ChangeLab

Strategy, Research & Vision for Racial Justice

Todd Miller

Todd will no longer be posting on this site. Please visit www.toddmillerwriter.com

National Pain Report

What You Don't Know Can Hurt You

andrea smith's blog

The 18 year plan to end global oppression

PhD(isabled)

What it's like doing a PhD with disability or chronic illness

Enero Zapatista

decolonize! towards local and global autonomy