Thursday, April 4, 2013

Yoga Ph.D.: A Q&A with Carol Horton

Carol Horton's writing often makes me furrow my brow--in a good way! She always seems to be able to make me think about things in a new way. It's no wonder--Carol was a political science professor so she once made people furrow their brows on a regular basis for a living. But she's way more relatable than I remember my poly sci professors being when I was in college (or maybe I'm way older so I can relate more now than I could then? But that's beside the point.)  

Her experience in the academic realm colors the way she views the yoga phenomenon in a really interesting and thought-provoking way. I'm so glad she decided to share that experience in her new book, Yoga Ph.D.

I wanted to learn more, so I asked her to tell me more. Learn more about Carol and buy her book, here


What makes Yoga Ph.D. different from all the other yoga books that have been released lately?
Yoga Ph.D. offers a comprehensive rethinking of what contemporary American yoga is and why it matters based on social science research and personal experience. It presents a new interpretation of the history of modern yoga and explains why that matters to me as a practitioner in very concrete, personal terms. Similarly, it discusses the psychological, spiritual, and cultural dimensions of American yoga today in ways that are both sociologically and personally meaningful.

Normally, scholarly work is very abstract and impersonal. Conversely, yoga memoirs and other forms of personal writing about practice are usually not very scholarly. Yoga Ph.D. is unusual in that it brings both social science and personal experience to bear on some really big questions about yoga today, including where it came from, why it’s become so popular, and what it offers us as individuals and a society.

How as your experience as a political science professor influenced how you view modern "yoga culture"?

There’s no question that my experience as a political science professor is central to how I understand modern yoga in general, as well as contemporary American yoga culture in particular.

As I explain in my book, I was already working as a college professor when I started my first weekly yoga class. This meant that when I became curious about questions such as the origins of modern yoga or the nature of American yoga culture, I naturally approached them informed by the years I’d spent studying social and political theory, as well as American history, politics, and culture.

What could the yoga community learn from the academic world? What could academics learn from the yoga community?

Great question! I think that academics could learn a huge amount from the yoga community – in fact, taking yoga seriously could revolutionize many fields of study, including psychology, biology, and religious studies. Most academic disciplines tend to approach studying the mind and body in ways that are isolated and mechanistic, rather than integrated and synergistic. Once you start taking yoga’s ability to integrate mind and body seriously, however, all sorts of fascinating research questions pop up that wouldn’t be on your radar screen otherwise.

I’ve also found that the stereotype that academics tend to live so much in their heads that they’re personally unbalanced is generally true. Certainly, this was the case with me J. Yoga has been an incredible tool of self-discovery and self-integration, giving me access to parts of myself I wasn’t previously aware of and experiences I wouldn’t have formerly imagined possible. 

Conversely, I think that the yoga community would be much better off it embraced the value of critical thinking, which is, of course, highly respected in academia. The recent wave of scandals that’s rocked the yoga community is only the most obvious indication of the need to become more thoughtful, reflective, and informed about the type of culture we’re creating. More ambitiously, I think that we need to become much more thoughtful about the extent to which we’re actualizing the positive potential of yoga in our lives and the world at large. This requires becoming more aware of and concerned about what’s happening in our society beyond the yoga community, and seriously reflecting on what we can do to help a world in crisis.

What was the most surprising thing you learned as you researched this book?

I was very surprised by what I learned about the history of modern yoga. While I had always been skeptical of claims that yoga is an unchanging 5,000-year old discipline, I had previously assumed that what we’re doing today is a wholly Westernized version of what had previously been a purely Eastern practice. What I discovered about the historical development of modern yoga, however, was much more interesting – as well as exciting and inspiring – than that.

Basically, I became convinced that master Indian teachers from Swami Vivekananda to Sri T. Krishnamacharya developed a distinctively modern approach to yoga that deliberately synthesized ideas and practices drawn from both modern Western and traditional Indian cultures. In my view, modern yoga has embodied a creative synthesis of East and West, ancient and modern, and the traditional and the revolutionary from its inception. This means that rather than feeling discouraged by the fact that modern yoga is “only” a little over 100 years old, we can feel inspired by the fact that we’ve inherited a practice that was designed to work in the historically unprecedented conditions of modernity, which is the world that we’re living in today. 
What's next for you? Are there more books in your future?

I’m developing a set of book talks and yoga workshops that build off ideas presented in Yoga Ph.D. and 21st Century Yoga (a recently released collection of essays that I co-edited with Roseanne Harvey). Specifically, I’ll be presenting a workshop on “Socially Engaged Yoga: Indian Roots, American Developments, and Personal Practices” at the Serendipity Festival in April, and several talks on “Making Sense of Modern Yoga” in Chicago in May. Hopefully, more opportunities to present this material in innovative, interactive ways will develop from there.

I’m also working with my neighborhood yoga studio, Chaturanga Holistic Fitness, to develop a community outreach program serving the South Side of Chicago, where I live and the studio is located. Our neighborhood is very racially diverse (about half African American) and relatively affluent. (It’s where the University of Chicago is located and where President Obama used to live.) But, we are very close to some of the tragically troubled neighborhoods that have recently made headlines about Chicago being the “murder capital of America.” We hope to find ways to bring yoga to nearby communities that would otherwise not have access to it, and to cultivate students who could become teachers themselves by developing a yoga teacher training scholarship program.

I’m also working with a local nonprofit, Yoga for Recovery (YFR), that teaches yoga to women in Chicago’s Cook County Jail. We recently expanded from teaching non-violent offenders in a minimum security setting to serving women convicted of more serious crimes in the main part of the jail. I’m be attending James Fox’s Prison Yoga Training at Chicago’s Moksha Yoga Studio in April, and writing about that for Yoga Chicago, as well as helping YFR develop a protocol for teaching trauma-sensitive yoga to incarcerated women based on that and other trainings and research we’ve done.

I’m also working with Chaturanga to develop a module for their yoga teacher training focused on the specifically modern dimensions of yoga history, philosophy, and ethics. Ideally, I’d like to be able to offer this to other YTTs in the future. As far as another book goes, I’m hopeful that this will happen at some point in the future. For the time being, however, I’m focused on promoting Yoga Ph.D. and 21st Century Yoga, and bringing some of the ideas they embody out into the world.