Scorn and Fetishization of Food: Gender Norms, Bacon (mmm… bacon), and Pumpkin Spice Lattes (like, yum!)

AUTHOR’s NOTE: This blog entry includes image captions that are rich image descriptions to convey the most relevant content to readers who don’t perceive the same content in the images as does the author, for whatever reason. As they do contain content, I recommend reading them where you might otherwise skip captions.

Feminist philosopher Sandra Bartky has written that femininity is a disciplinary regime that not only subjects women to the judgment of the male gaze but also, in a modernization of patriarchal power, causes them to internalize those judgments and recast them on both other women and upon themselves whenever they turn their mind’s eye upon their own bodies and behaviors.  Masculinity also functions in this way, preventing men from being their full selves and penalizing them for deviating from gender norms. However, as Marilyn Frye has observed, men who restrict themselves in order to conform to gender norms gain social power (taking up more space, dominating discussions, exerting power, etc.) by doing so while women lose social power (becoming smaller, giving way in discourse, attaching themselves to those in power, etc.). In this blog entry, I am going to take these ideas about the power of gender norms, which includes food behaviors, and apply them to a bit of internet culture that has come across my radar recently in the form of a meme.

blog-1-image-1

CAPTION: The image shows a screenshot of a discussion forum in which a user says “the social acceptability of bacon culture vs. the hatred of pumpkin spice culture” and “this is an example of misogyny. because male interests are always cool and female interests are always shameful.”

Now, it is certainly possible that the simple fact that many women like bacon and many men like pumpkin spice is a counterexample for this argument. However, almost none of the images and text I have found in internet culture associate bacon with femininity and pumpkin spice lattes with masculinity, while many do the reverse.  I believe there is something to this claim however simple it’s presentation here.  It is not simply who has the interests. Rather, it is that the interests pertain to food. And food is highly gendered. Indeed, the positive valence of bacon in internet culture, combined with the negative valence of pumpkin spice in internet culture, indicates that something else is likely at work.

Consider the following series of images which illustrate these valences and some of their content.

blog-1-image-2

CAPTION: There are 4 memes in a 2×2 grid.  One shows actor and action movie star Liam Neeson looking very serious with the text “If you try to pass off turkey bacon as real bacon one more time I WILL FIND YOU AND KILL YOU.”  A second shows celebrity chef Gordon Ramsey yelling at an Asian woman in the kitchen and saying “This bacon is so undercooked it’s trying to pull me over for speeding.” A third shows a picture of rapper Xzibit smiling and laughing with the text “You dawg I heard you like bacon. So I put bacon on your bacon so you can eat bacon with your bacon.”  The fourth and final image shows the Dos Equis beer brand’s spokesman (The Most Interesting Man In The World) with the text “I don’t always eat bacon. But when I do, I put extra bacon on my bacon.”

Note how the visual and textual content is masculine: not only are men overwhelmingly pictured, but many are aggressive, as in the Liam Neeson image in which he delivers a bacon-related threat while maintaining a stoic face, and the image of a celebrity chef yelling at kitchen staff for improperly preparing bacon. Note also that the Neeson meme specifically not only lauds bacon from pigs, but demeans the lower salt, lower fat bacon made from turkeys. I doubt it is a coincidence that lower salt and lower fat turkey bacon has a connotation of being better for dieting, and dieting in turn has a feminine connotation. Consider the experiments conducted by Luke Zhu and his colleagues on priming—how culture imprints concepts in our minds—and food.  Zhu’s team asked 93 adults to consider the following foods and say whether they were masculine or feminine: baked chicken vs. fried chicken, baked potatoes vs. French fries, light potato chips versus regular potato chips, and baked fish versus fried fish.  People tended to see healthier options as feminine and unhealthier ones as masculine.

The images above also involve excessive consumption, itself a kind of unhealthy risk-taking: would you like bacon on your bacon? Xzibit is ready to offer you some and the Most Interesting Man In The World always has extra!  Compare this with the classic image of women eating small salads alone with apparently great joy.

blog-1-image-3

CAPTION: This image, a screen shot of Google search results for the term “women eating salad”, shows many women eating small bowls of salad smiling and laughing, alone, while they move food towards their mouths, but never actually chewing. Most appear to be white, though there is one who may be racialized as Asian. None would be deemed black, and few could be racialized latina on appearance alone.

Both aggression and excessive consumption are traits associated with what RW Connell calls hegemonic masculinity. This form of masculinity is the one that is dominant in a given culture, and generally promotes the dominant social position of men while subordinating the social position of even gender-conforming women and of other people with subordinate or non-conforming gender identities. In US culture, it tends to be characterized by violence/aggression, emotional restraint except with respect to anger displays, dominance displays, risk-taking, and competitiveness.  All of this helps to make sense of why eating fatty, salty meat in large quantities lines up with hegemonic masculinity quite so well.  As writer Juliana Roth has said,

Embedded into our very cultural fabric is a connection between meat and the stereotypical masculine realms of American life: sports, weight lifting, bar culture, cars, running a family. Imagine the Super Bowl without buffalo wings, or watching March Madness over salads instead of burgers and beer.

Now consider the scrutiny that women fall under when they eat in public, where women’s eating is too often seen as shameful.  Indeed, the constant notion that one’s behavior, like one’s body, is subject to the gaze of others—and the internalization of this gaze—is classic Bartky-style disciplinary regime. Such regimes are meant to control, not to benefit the one who is disciplined.

As I have written elsewhere: “There is some pretty good evidence that dieting and food surveillance do indeed result in disordered eating and in unhealthful weight-control behaviors.  Emphasis on food control and shaming as a means of meeting social expectations has serious pitfalls…”  With this in mind, let us return to the subject of the original comment that sparked this reflection, and consider how pumpkin spice latte consumption is often—not always, but illuminatingly frequently—framed.  Consider the following illustrative memes, how they interpolate the consumer of pumpkin spice latte as female, and what attitudes or behaviors or dress or other characteristics are associated with that consumer.

blog-1-image-4

CAPTION: These four images are common internet memes about pumpkin spice latte consumption. The first image shows Ryan Gosling, whose “hey, girl…” has amusingly been adopted for feminist Ryan Gosling memes. This, however, is not perhaps so feminist. Over Ryan Gosling’s image, stoic-faced in a plain white t-shirt with his arm muscles showing, are the words “Hey girl, I got you a pumpkin spice latte, let’s stay home and talk about our favorite parts of fall.”  In the second image, a background of an autumn tree has upon it the words “If you look in the mirror and say ‘pumpkin spice latte’ three times, a white suburban girl in yoga pants will appear and tell you everything she loves about fall.”  In the third image, there is only an orange background and the words “I spilled my Pumpkin Spice Latte, and now a bunch of ants are making brunch plans and doing yoga.”  In the fourth image, we have a version of the “first world problems” meme type which always uses the same image of a white woman crying; the overlying text says “I want a pumpkin spice latte. But Starbucks doesn’t sell them until September.”  In the final image, a Tampax box is pictured with an orange stripe across it, orange wrappers seen through the transparent portion of the box, and the words “pumpkin spice” across the orange stripe.

As we can see, all four of these portrayals of pumpkin spice are heavily gendered—is there anything more gendered than feminine hygiene products? They also tend to conceive of the pumpkin spice latte not just as female, but as a “girl” rather than a woman, thus implying immaturity.

However, the above images are also raced and classed: “white suburban girl” in “yoga pants”, and the implicit “first world problems” nature of the fact that these beverages cannot be consumed at Starbucks until September.  This complicates matters somewhat. I would be interested to hear the reader’s thoughts on the role of race and class, as well as gender, in social judgments on food.  I am sure we can think of types of food or ways of consuming food that are raced, classed, and gendered.  One of the most distressing stereotypes of black southern folks is the “fried chicken and watermelon” allusion, which is also associated with inarticulate, lazy, easily frightened, useless buffoons. This racialized food imagery has been used in the media by some people to re-center President Obama’s and Michelle Obama’s blackness (search “Obama” in the previous link) and was used by a private girls’ school in Northern California to incorporate Black History Month into lunch time with a lunch of these items and cornbread.

But for the moment, let’s leave what I believe to be the clear fact that pumpkin spice latte is a food that is raced, gendered, and classed.  Let’s look at some of the demeaning responses to pumpkin spice latte consumption.

blog-1-image-5

CAPTION: There are four images. The first image is a modified cell from a Batman and Robin comic book. It shows a costumed Batman slapping Robin across the face as though to snap him out of some delusional state. Robin is saying “Pumpkin Spice Latte, Pumpkin Spice Cookies, Pumpkin Spice…” and Batman, while hitting him, is saying “PUMPKINS ARE FOR CARVING!” in much bigger text as though yelling. In the second image, celebrity chef Gordon Ramsey is seen leaning forward, bent at the waist, face fully forward, yelling “PUMPKING SPICE?!? The only ‘flavor’ I want in my coffee is whisky!”  In the third image, a deliberately stereotypically dorky looking man is smiling and laughing in self-mockery.  The words overlayed on the image say “I like pumpkin spice. F*ck me, right?” In the final image, we see a light-skinned woman with long dark hair, smiling with her chin resting on her hand. The superimposed words say “If liking pumpkin spice lattes & wearing uggs makes me a basic white girl, than [sic] please, just call me Becky.” This latter is a reference to a line from a Beyonce song in which the narrator tells her lover that if he is going to treat her badly he can just call “Becky with the good hair,” whereas Urban Dictionary defines a “basic girl” as “your run of the mill white girl that has no identity of her own… like a cracker-jack house in a middle class neighborhood.”

Like the bacon responses to turkey bacon, these demeaning responses to consumption of pumpkin spice latte are masculinized, aggressive and sometimes even violent, in one case valuing alcohol consumption over flavoring in a clear kind of risk-taking, and even in one case self-directed (for failing to meet masculinity norms). Note the reoccurrence of a certain celebrity chef who seems to crop up in masculine food memes. Disliking pumpkin spice latte is strongly associated with masculine ways of expressing dislike, as in these popular memes. And like the images of pumpkin spice latte consumption more generally, they are not only gendered but also classed (Uggs) and raced (“basic white girl”; “call me Becky”).

I’ve tried to show how gender, class, and race are working in reinforcing ways to frame our thinking about pumpkin spice latte consumption, but I think that bacon is framed almost exclusively in terms of gender.  Agree or disagree with respect to my claims about these particular foods, it is clear that there is some loaded rhetoric here, carrying a heavy cargo of gendered fetishization and scorn. And even when bacon and pumpkin spice lattes are long gone, some foods will continue to carry such cargo.

Now, I am off to eat bacon with my hands and drink me a pumpkin spice latte while wearing trousers and a good bra.

Why the “headless fatty” photo has got to go (and other headless images, too)

Sometimes headless images are powerful.  It’s September 25, about 5 weeks before Halloween.  I remember reading and hearing “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”as a child, and being about as scared as Ichabod Crane, the schoolmaster who encountered the Headless Horseman.  That image is a sure sign of fall and foreboding.

 

Headless horseman of the Legend of Sleepy Hollow

 

But other headless images are scary in a different way.

Samantha wrote about the “headless fatty” several years ago on this blog.  Several of the bloggers have commented in posts about this phenomenon.  Here’s some of what Sam said:

I hate it when I try to share stories about obesity on social media, the image that almost inevitably appears is one of a headless fat torso. It’s as if there were no fat people, just fat torsos. Or as if no fat person would be willing to have their face associated with their body next to an article about fatness. But that’s just not true.

That was 4 years ago.  However, like the headless horseman, the “headless fatty” just won’t go away.  Last week, Huffington Post Australia ran a story called “Tackling Obesity Takes a Conversation with Yourself”.  It’s another one of those stories combining dire warnings about the effects of obesity and type 2 diabetes (which are two very different things) and encouraging people to exercise more (arguably  a good thing for people of all weights).  Okay, I’ve read worse stories.  But their featured headline image was this one:

 

Fat woman holding soccer ball; image is headless

Really?  In a story on the need to have a conversation with ourselves, one would think that having one’s head was a requirement.

I was alerted to this story by Aussie friends, and one of them– Christopher Mayes– along with his colleague Jenny Kaldor, wrote a great response piece for Huff Post Australia called “‘Headless Fatty’ Pics Don’t Protect People, They Dehumanise Them”.  Check it out.

So what’s bad about “headless fatty” images?  They are stigmatizing and dehumanizing.  Here’s what Mayes and Kaldor say about it:

The use of “headless fatty” imagery has been criticised by activists and public health researchers for almost a decade now. Such images contribute to the stigmatisation of fat people, in a way that would be completely unacceptable in other public health contexts. Consider whether equivalent pictures would be used with an HIV/AIDS story today.

Sociologist Erving Goffman describes stigmatisation as the process through which we come to “believe the person with a stigma is not quite human”. Images, words, and beliefs contribute to processes that transform a behaviour or characteristic into a stigma, that in turn disqualifies and discredits the bearer from full participation in the community.

“Headless fatty” images are commonly defended for respecting the person’s identity — the idea being “what face would want to be identified as belonging to that body?” Another kinder, though still misguided, defence is that they are “protecting” the person, in the same way that we might obscure a child’s face in a newspaper story — the implication being that the fat body is childlike, not fully competent.

But removing a person’s head reduces their humanity and their citizenship. It makes them a mere body-object that can be discussed in the abstract, ridiculed or openly abused.

Mayes and Kaldor  say that headless images would not be acceptable in any other health context.  Yes, they are certainly right about that.  Unfortunately, there are other contexts in which headless images get used to stigmatize persons.  Economist Emily Oster wrote a book called “Expecting Better” in which she argues that a lot of the medical guidelines for activities during pregnancy aren’t based on strong evidence.  In particular, she argues that advising pregnant women not to drink any alcohol is not based on evidence.  There was a huge outcry over this (small) section of her book, and Oster writes in Slate about it here.

But of course the head-line image was, once again, headless.

 

headless pregnant woman pouring a glass of red wine

One of our guest bloggers, Rebecca, has written a lot about this phenomenon and I have her to thank for reminding me about the headless pregnant woman images and how they are used to stigmatize and dehumanize women.

There are lots of options for depicting people of all shapes and sizes and stages of life doing all sorts of activities.  The Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity has an image gallery (last updated 6 YEARS AGO– this is not a new thing) of fat people shopping, running, talking to other people, working, eating, etc.– all with heads completely intact.

The need to feature, isolate and depict fat people doing some activity is another issue for another day, but for now, my message to the media world is clear:  leave the heads on, folks!

 

Mother Daughter Biking Once More 

bc1

bc2 bc3 bc4 bc5bc7

My daughter Mallory and I bike together a lot. We’ve done some Quebec trail trails twice. We’ve ridden the Central Otago Rail Trail on the South island of New Zealand. We’ve biked to the Pinery Provincial Park and to United Church family camp many times.

So no surprise when I visited her in her new city of Vancouver this past weekend that we went out and rented bikes together. A large frame for her and a small frame for me. We had a fun ride around Stanley Park. We had to watch out for people who had rented bikes but who clearly hadn’t ridden since they were kids. We had fun watching all the shipping traffic and the rowing shells and recreational sailboats and ferries negotiating the shared space in the harbour.

I miss her while she’s living in another city but it was fun to reconnect on bikes! 

Mommy and Me: Childcare as an Access Issue (Guest Post)

Sometime in the hazy overnight hours of my son’s first weeks of life, I decided to become a runner. I place the blame squarely on postpartum hormones that conjured up the words “role model” and sent me into a life-changing panic. I chose running because I bought into the dominant narrative of fitness that includes running as an Acceptable Aerobic Activity for Ladies. But that’s a post for another day.

Prior to this moment, my fitness experiences were limited to a few years trying to make a roller derby team, a handful of fitness videos, paying for gym memberships that I didn’t use, and a brief stint with a boot camp program. In other words, if I wanted to commit to lasting change in order to model a fit life for my son, I had to start from scratch. I Googled “exercise after pregnancy” and “fitness tips for new parents.” Advice ranged from “hire a personal trainer” to “take advantage of post-partum exercise videos.” One article suggested that I could walk up and down the stairs during “those precious 20-minute nap times.” Other articles suggested exercising with my baby by taking him out for a walk around the neighborhood or following along one of many “mommy and me” workout tutorials available on YouTube.

In the beginning, I considered this sound counsel and happily packed up the stroller for our daily walk around the neighborhood. I made a habit of wearing him in a sling while I did my powerwalking video to lull him into an afternoon nap. I congratulated myself for such efficient multitasking. When I was ready, I borrowed a jogging stroller and added running intervals to our walks. I joined a gym with complimentary childcare so I could add strength training to my routine. When I learned about a beginner’s running program sponsored by my local running club, I had to make sure my husband was free to mind the baby before I signed up. It was during one of my first training runs that I realized how privileged I was to have this time to myself, and that time alone to exercise should not be a privilege.

It is well documented that women bear an unfair burden when it comes to childcare responsibilities, and I definitely felt the pressure. None of the articles I read about exercise and new moms included advice like “find out if your gym offers childcare” or “schedule time to exercise when a family member or friend is available to care for your baby.” Consider the answer to the question “What are some ways to start exercising?” from the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology: “When you are ready to start exercising, walking is a great way to get back in shape. Walking outside has an added bonus because you can push your baby in a stroller.” As pragmatic and useful as this advice might be, it assumes that mom is already caring for the baby, and that incorporating an infant into your (perhaps new) exercise routine is a desirable default.*

In some cases, including mine, taking a stroll with the baby in those first weeks can offer additional benefits (like battling boredom) and is likely less effort than finding a babysitter to take a walk. But as my son grew, it became more difficult to include him in my workout plans even though I was still responsible for coming up with a solution and making concessions. I felt frustrated with the few options I had. Do I take him with me on a training run even though it will slow me down? Should I try to organize a childcare co-op with other running moms? Which is worse—the logistical nightmare of taking a squirmy toddler to an early morning race, or the guilt of depriving him of time with me, the fresh spring morning air, and a chance to see a squirrel? Childcare became an issue of putting aside what I needed from a workout (focus, adult conversation, and/or SILENCE) or dealing with additional pressure rather than a choice between equitable solutions.

Certainly, modeling an active lifestyle by bringing my son to exercise events when I can has its benefits, but despite my best intentions, not all gyms have childcare, not all races are stroller-friendly, and weekday evening group training runs always conflict with bedtime. My son is now an active preschooler, which makes it more difficult to include him in my fitness plans. In part, this difficulty comes from his limited attention span and desire to do anything other than sit in the stroller for an hour. Still, it warms my heart when he gets excited about a kids’ fun run, or says he wants to “look for our running friends” when we drive near our familiar park trail route. It seems that my efforts have yielded some positive outcomes for his perception of how exercise contributes to our quality of life, but I wish the decisions on when and how to include him were easier to make.

There are no easy solutions given the wide range of variables that make exercise and childcare a complex personal issue, but I think that it is important to acknowledge that childcare can be a legitimate (and often unfairly gendered) access barrier in our fitness communities. Parents who want to incorporate exercise into their lives can benefit from being supported by having fair choices about if, how, and when to make fitness a family affair.

 

*The “walk outside” advice also makes a lot of other assumptions like, 1) you have a stroller, sling, etc., 2) you have access to a safe outdoor space with sidewalks or paved paths, 3) you are able to walk when another activity would be more suitable for your health needs, and 4) etc etc etc. There are many more intersectional access issues to consider when talking about childcare and exercise.

A child wearing sunglasses in a stroller with snacks, a water bottle, and a book.

How my son gets ready for a 5K

Kate Browne is less than 200 days away from defending her dissertation on Foucauldian notions of subjectivity in weight loss memoir. She runs slow, lifts heavy, and owns a tri singlet. You can find Kate at her online fitness home Ramp and Stair Exercise Club.

The Art of Small Steps (Guest Post)

One of my heroes is a Canadian playwright, mathematician and educator named John Mighton. While trying to make ends meet as a playwright, Mighton worked at a tutoring agency and found out that despite (or, more likely, because of) his prior struggles with math, he was good at tutoring the subject.

A little later, he started tutoring kids from a local elementary school and worked with some who were very far behind, including a sixth-grader who couldn’t count by twos. Teaching such students, Mighton hit on a method that focused on building confidence and breaking mathematical procedures down into tiny steps, sometimes starting with drawing a fraction bar in the right place.

As students progressed, it wasn’t necessary to make the steps so tiny anymore. Kids started figuring out more on their own and surpassing their traditionally-taught peers. By breaking initial learning into tiny steps and then gradually making the steps larger, Mighton’s program, called JUMP Math, both allows students to progress much faster than standard teaching methods and closes the gap between faster and slower learners.

I went through a similar experience with physical training and both it and my own struggles with math have informed my teaching. As a college freshman, I started going to the gym after more than two years of inactivity — and “inactivity” means something very different to a powerchair user than to someone who walks to get around. The rowing machines caught my eye because I could transfer to and from them without asking for help. Rowing it would be, then. I decided to start with five minutes and rowed three times that week, for five minutes each time.

The following week, I upped my game — to six minutes. The difference between five and six is barely detectable. If I could do five minutes, I could do six. And I did. The next week, I did seven minutes. Then eight. On reaching ten minutes, I was ready to increase my rowing time faster — by two minutes a week instead of one. By the end of ten weeks, just one academic quarter, I had worked my way up from almost nothing to a respectable twenty-minute workout. And I had done it all in barely detectable steps.

I went through the same process five years later, when I started weight training. Starting at whatever weight felt moderately challenging, I trained until that weight started to feel pretty easy and then went up five or ten pounds. Moving to a heavier weight made for a visible and objective measure of progress, which was a great motivator. A few months into this process, I noticed that when I got on many machines, I was moving the weight up instead of down. It felt amazing to realize that I could handle more weight than many people without disabilities. “I may be in a wheelchair, but I can leg press more than you,” may not be the most enlightened thought, but it sure is fun!

These days, when I describe training BJJ or doing a 50-mile cycling trip, many people say they could never do that, as if I’m some kind of natural athlete. But 10 or 15 years ago, I couldn’t have done it either. It took many small steps and a lot of support (described in an earlier post) to get to where I am. For a beginner, “start where you are, move up in barely detectable steps, and keep track of your progress” are practical and empowering principles. They open the door to fitness and much else.

 

person with shoulder length brown hair, black tshirt and blue pants, using the pull down weight machine in a power chair

Jane S. is an ecologist currently doing curriculum development in mathematical biology. She enjoys climbing, Brazilian jiu jitsu and any activity that involves thinking with your body. She also put way too much time into choosing the color of her most recent powerchair.

Sam tried Kombucha and she liked it!

BOOCH Organic Kombucha made in London Ontario

Cate inspired me. It’s her fault. Blame Cate. See her post What the hell is Kombucha? 

I’m not usually a friend of trendy super foods. I don’t like kale and I don’t like quinoa. I expected kombucha to be the same, that is, hip but ultimately unpalatable. 

It was because of Cate’s post that I walked up to the Booch Juice display at the Halton Epic Tour.  I tried their Watermelon Mint and loved it. Turns out they’re also local to me. Their store is in London and it’s even sold in our University Community Centre.

Next up: Lemon Lime.

I was worried at first that it was alcoholic since it’s fermented and I think of fermented beverages as booze. But it’s only a little bit. Not so much that they need to include it on the label. It’s got about the same amount of alcohol as organic orange juice or any other freshly pressed fruit juice. So that’s not something I’m going to worry about.

 

Yoga as comedy! Yoga as pleasure!

I’ve been doing yoga for about 10 years now. I began, somewhat skeptical, because others I knew were doing it; I got serious when a great new studio opened in my neighbourhood. (The Yoga Shack is now a London, Ontario institution, but it’s almost exclusively devoted to hot yoga, which I do not love. See below…)

I then tried a lot of things. I did what we might call “conveyor belt” yoga – the kind sold by  chain studios that run a pre-planned, branded “flow”– until I realised that the goal of CBY was to pack as many supplicants into the room as possible, in order to turn a profit. As a result I was getting no individual coaching – as if the instructors at those particular studios were likely to be able to coach me effectively anyway, given my challenging, specific needs (Ankylosing Spondylitis, isolated muscle strain from cycling and rowing), and the limits of their training and experience.

(Do I sound bitter? Sorry if I sound bitter. I know some CBY instructors are amazing teachers stuck on the conveyor belt. I do. But many – MANY – are not.)

Then I began practicing at a studio in east-end Toronto. My teacher there was Terrill Maguire, and she taught me three things I won’t ever forget:

  1. Yoga is for all bodies, all ages, wearing all kinds of clothing. There were physically and cognitively disabled people in our class, as well as people wearing sweatpants and T-shirts (I was one of them). There were younger people and older people. There were elderly people. Everybody was included and all bodies were considered “normal” and treated with respect and specific care.
  2. Props are useful; use them! This is, admittedly, an Iyengar Thing; the practice involves the use of props to get form right. Doing yoga incorrectly can lead to injury, just like riding a bicycle badly can lead to crashing (or, less extremely, to wasting energy and not getting enough positive benefit). Props help form; if you can’t reach the floor, no big: use a block! The normalisation of props in Terrill’s class reminded me how ashamed I secretly felt in CBY classes when I decided *not* to strain to reach the floor. And how utterly wrong that entire scenario was…
  3. Yoga can be a place of laughter. It should be a place of joy! When stuff went wrong we giggled about it. We tried again, of course, but the laughter broke the tension, loosened our bodies, lifted our hearts.

I left Toronto (and Ontario) in 2012 to move to the UK. Once settled there, I joined a chain fitness club that had, remarkably, some really great, independent yoga instruction attached to it. I found a class that I can’t describe as anything other than challenging: it involved me learning to do Crow for real, and at one point I almost did a tripod headstand (the “almost” is the key bit here). There were no props in this class, and the instructor was neither funny nor forgiving; this wasn’t chain yoga of any kind, though, and I learned from the class to push my practice to a new level of challenge and start attempting inversions.

Last year, I took a fresh leap of faith and spent 10 days in an ashram in Kerala, practicing 4+ hours of yoga a day. I had never before been the kind of person who could imagine herself at an ashram, let alone at one in India; I soon realised, though, that the regimented  days married to an otherwise relaxed life-way suited me well. I quickly befriended my roommate, another woman unaccustomed to the ashram life (a lawyer from Mexico City), and we worked together on aspects of the house yoga practice we found difficult, supporting each other as yogi partners in the open-air main hall.

(It was moving, and spectacular, and peaceful, and the food was simple but incredible. I’d go back anytime – right now in fact.)

When I came home (which is now the OTHER London, in Ontario), I realised I needed my practice to continue growing, and growing in the right directions, but that the options in LonON were limited. There was CBY, which I’m never going back to, and there was a pretty good independent studio, the aforementioned Yoga Shack, but it was now committed to hot yoga serving a primarily student demographic, and I just do not agree with hot yoga as a practice.

It doesn’t suit my body type, for one. I sweat a lot when I work out, and hot yoga is designed as a workout above all. When I do hot yoga, I’m instantly uncomfortable; I find holding poses properly to be difficult because my body is slippery with moisture.

For another, well – I could (and may yet) write a whole other post on the ways hot yoga encourages the mirage of weight loss on the mat (thanks, sweat!), and the detriment that causes to both yoga and the humans (especially young, female humans) who practice it.

Where to go, then? I turned to Tracy, who has been doing yoga for ages, and ended up at Yoga Centre London, an Iyengar studio with all the features I remembered from Terrill, and more. This year, I’m in a regular Friday class taught by Sue Brimner, and Sue has reminded me of all of the things I learned from Terrill were true but underappreciated in North American yoga practice on the whole:

  • That it’s about many different bodies working in harmony toward their individual needs;
  • That there will be loads of props, and that is part of the pleasure of it;
  • That sometimes – in fact, OFTEN! – we’ll laugh at how hard it is, we’ll laugh at ourselves, and then we’ll try anyway. And then we’ll laugh some more.

My favourite thing about my new practice at YCL is the extent of the accommodation available. Anyone injured, or struggling with chronic pain, is accommodated instantly, and as a matter of course. There are bolsters and planks and trestles and blankets everywhere, and instructors begin each class making sure students in special need have everything required set up perfectly for them. I’ve lost a bit of skin on both elbows recently as a result of bike injuries, and I cannot do a traditional headstand without significant pain. But no problem! YCL has a rope wall, and so I just hang, fully supported, in the inversion instead, sparing my skin the ache and strain. Best of all, we ALL hang sometimes, during our restorative practice weeks, when it’s understood that all of our bodies need a break and a bit of R&R.

And did I mention how much we laugh together? Because bodies are funny old beasts: smelly and gangly and awkward and hard to bend to the will of the titans. Iyengar yoga gets that, and gets that every body deserves the benefits of stretching and strengthening as part of a community of imperfect, normal bodies.

I couldn’t have imagined such a thing when I did my first corporate “flow” 10 years ago – and I just hope the young women in those classes now snoop around a bit, and discover that yoga is so much more than expensive stretchy pants, competitive triangles, and awkward reaches. In fact, that’s not yoga at all.