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Community highlights

The Conversation receives a lot of comments each day and you can’t read everything. That’s why we occasionally end the week with a selection of community highlights: comments we enjoyed or thought interesting. Read on for five comments and discussions I thought worth highlighting.


From India, with love: cultural appropriation and 50 years of Light on Yoga

Jason Birch and the article’s author Shameem Black stretched their fingers and wondered whether some cultural appropriation is defensible and others aren’t.

Jason Birch:

A great discussion of Mr Iyengar and his first book on yoga, thank you! It’s well informed by the work of Elizabeth de Michelis and Mark Singleton. Apart from the plea for us to adopt Mr Iyengar’s universalist approach (which might also derive from the Theosophists), I think the main problem of ‘cultural appropriation’ has yet to be addressed. The traditionalists are quite happy with Mr Iyengar’s legacy and those Westerners who have embraced it. They point the finger and cry ‘cultural appropriation’ at the fitness clubs and entrepreneurs who market naked yoga, dog yoga, dance trance yoga and the like. In other words, the ire of the Indian diaspora (particularly in the US) has been directed towards those who have very little regard for yoga’s heritage.

In contrast to the crass entrepreneurs of yoga, there are many westerners who have devoted themselves entirely to the practice and study of yoga, but are not attached to an Indian lineage. Some have fashioned their own systems and styles of yoga, often combining yoga with pilates, physiotherapy and other healing modalities. Many of these practitioners are pioneering truly innovative systems. Nonetheless, the yoga police are also eying them with suspicion as the debate about cultural appropriation heats up.

So I wonder where the line can be drawn between cultural appropriation that is defensible and that which rightly seems to draw criticism (another example being some yoga commodities such as Lululemon’s ganeshan socks, etc.)? India has had secular yoga for over a century, but I wonder what Mr Iyengar thought of trance dance yoga?

Shameem Black:

Thank you for your thoughtful note. These are excellent questions to ask about when cultural exchange seems healthy and when it seems more malign – especially when, as you point out with the role of Theosophy in the making of modern yoga, the “culture” being “appropriated” was already itself somewhat globalized. What concerned me about the language of the Ottawa case was that phrases like “cultural genocide” invite us to consider yoga as a zero-sum game, where its practice by non-Indians would somehow diminish its value for Indians. This seems out of keeping with the particularly arms-open rhetoric so beautifully expressed in Light on Yoga.

Considering your broader question about how we might make ethical judgements on different visions of “yoga”: we might go in two directions here. One is to think about yoga in the context of cultural representation. In my research on literature, I’ve argued that self-reflection goes a long way when taking on practices of a culture we don’t consider our own, as well as thinking about what we offer in return. Considering those sorts of questions – in novels, at least – seems to help push against the desire to see another culture as either ripe for the taking, or as totally unknowable. Another way to approach this question would be to locate yoga within political and economic histories. I think it’s worth placing yoga within a larger framework of South Asian cultural practices and bodies in the West and exploring the tensions. When members of the Indian diaspora in the US express concern about the way yoga is sometimes practiced, that concern might be read in light of the 20th century American immigration exclusion laws, which discriminated against Asians, or in light of post 9-11 treatment of people of South Asian descent. So here, the question is not so much about a “right” or a “wrong” way to do yoga, but how yoga works as a cultural vision (or erasure) of Indianness within that larger history. I don’t have any iron-clad solutions about how to draw clear lines, but I’d see increased reflection in yoga communities as a positive.


Un-doing Design Anthropology: Uber-versities and not belonging

Donald Oats left a comprehensive comment discussing the change in how univeristies have viewed artistry:

This commodification of what were once artisan skills and talents, is relentless in capitalist systems. Those of us who were around in the 1980’s and 1990’s would have seen the nascent digitisation and wide dissemination of lectures, as well as the arrival of massive online data collection and analytics, the data being the student ratings of their courses, the lecturing and teaching staff, the material, and the assessment process. With all of this at their fingertips, the management class could deconstruct the faculties and departments, lopping off the courses and/or staff with low participation rates, or low pass rates, or too low a student/teacher ratio.

With the arrival of automated survey and analytics, it is a snap to question potential students about their study intentions, with a view to steering them towards the most profitable courses (from the university’s perspective); the surveys can even be a form of push-marketing, where the questions are loaded so as to nudge the prospective student into considering the most profitable courses over other more arcane and irritatingly “academic” (from the university perspective).

The grand irony is that the universities trade on the good name of the most intellectually demanding subjects, and yet these are the very ones which get given the shove over the funding cliff. Apart from a few decorative subjects retained for that lofty appeal, the subjects that offer more than words and symbols on a page, the ones that make you think deeply about the material (and inevitably, to reflect upon our own understanding of our intellectual place in the world, and what we might one day contribute in turn), the ones that you remember all those years later—they are being culled, killed off quietly and with no comprehension as to what is being lost.

Every generation of people who live in a capitalist system get to experience, even if only indirectly, the wave swelling and breaking, washing by. The automation of content delivery and assessment was inevitable; in fact, the sequence has been the loss of individual printing and weaving, power production, compact engines and transport, factory automation, calculation automation, and computing devices, mobile communications, etc, and this surge of technological development has displaced one category of human skills after another. The day had to come when intellectual pursuit and teaching were challenged. Teaching and assessment are the low hanging fruit in this relentless drive to commodify, but intellectually creative endeavours will have their moment of existential threat soon enough. I guess this is where nostalgia comes from.

Elizabeth Dori Tunstall:

Nostalgia implies that these practices are all in the past. They continue to exist today. It is just finding the right place(s) that nurtures such practices.

Nothing is inevitable. The Struggle continues. It is a matter of where you want to take the fight.


The right words matter when talking about pain

Sam Papillo and Michael Vagg expanded on the article’s points on how doctor-patient conversations can affect recovery and pain.

Sam Papillo:

“That which we call a rose…”

Changing words used to describe something doesn’t actually change the thing being described, I think. And using more ‘positive’ language can only alter an attitude if one perceives a direct association between words and what they’re attempting to describe. They’re just words. I think the connection between hearing a word and the attendant emotional/physiological response is neither automatic nor universal.

“You will end up in a wheelchair.” This is useful information if it’s true. Perhaps some quantification of the likelihood could be added. I struggle to accept that ending up in a wheelchair would be more likely if a doctor said this to me than if s/he believed it was true but chose to embellish his/her language so as to be more ‘positive’.

Michael Vagg:

Consider the phrase ‘wheelchair-bound’. What ‘binds’ you to the wheelchair? Many wheelchair users have times when they use it to get around, and times when they can walk using other means. And why is the automatic assumption that using a wheelchair is a tragedy? It may be that the wheelchair is providing access to friends and locations that otherwise wouldn’t be available. By using that throwaway loaded term you are implying many things that may well not be true for that person you are referring to.

Sam Papillo:

I’d prefer my doctor to be as honest as possible rather than purposefully using equivocal language as an attempt to cause a more ‘positive’ perception. If s/he actually thinks I might need a wheelchair to help my mobility in the future, I think s/he would be negligent not to discuss this with me.

I like your point about “wheelchair-bound”. I just think that honest comminucation of the message–doctor to patient–is more important than careful use of language which might limit some doctors’ ability to get what they think across to the patient. I prefer my doctor to be better at medicine than English, and to be as truthful as possible.

The problem is with the throwaway attitude and the indirect implications, not the words themselves (if they’re the truth).

Michael Vagg:

I don’t disagree with you about honest communication Sam. I’m often in a position where I know only too well what is likely to lie ahead of some of my patients, and I’m scrupulous to be accurate without using culturally loaded terms that may be misinterpreted. I also respect that people need to come to bad news in their own time, and sensitivity may dictate that the news is drip-fed rather than tipped over the patient like a ice bucket.

Sam Papillo:

(Now seems a good time to mention you’re one of my favourite TC authors!)

I know it’s just anecdotal, but I just recently sort of recovered from chronic pain. It drastically effected my life, so perhaps I’m a bit sensitive about this stuff. Personally, i strongly dislike the idea of being ‘positive’ for the sake of it. The crucial thing, for me, as the article mentions, is for the inner monologue to be realistic. Realistic doesn’t necessarily mean ‘positive’. I also think it’s hard for some to accept the fact that they’re wont to being unrealistic.

I hated the word “catastrphising”! It elicited a kind of insulted/offended emotion in me. I’ve learnt, though, that it’s just the good doctor’s best efforts at communicating what et think is best for me to hear… usually.

Trust between doctor and patient is vital when dealing with chronic pain.

Michael Vagg:

Cheers Sam thanks! You’ve highlighted two very important words there. I think mindless positivity is as unhelpful as mindless negativity. Accurate and realistic cognitions are the most helpful ones.

As far as ‘catastrophising’ goes, I tend to agree that it’s a prejudicial term, since it really refers to a systematic cognitive bias of tending to exclude the middle emotional ground. Things are either as good as they can be or as bad as they can be. There is some evidence that this type of cognitive pattern is hard-wired and can be detected fairly accurately from fMRI patterns. Once more, people get blamed for emotional responses they aren’t necessarily in control of.


Young driver crashes: the myths and facts

Sue Gaffney had some thoughts on how we can better encourage young people to drive safely:

Thank you Teresa for your article

Given the physical and psychological developments occurring within the age group, and therefore understandable behaviours exhibited, it is confounding that vehicles, which encourage speed, continue to be manufactured and sold.

My experiences working with young people indicate that logic, supported by data, is an effective approach with this demographic. Law breaking often occurs when the law is not logical. It makes little sense to have smooth roads and possess vehicles then limit use. Deaths and injuries are consequences of road use - mitigating the risks needs a logical approach to be successfully applied and adopted by all users. The current dictatorial approach, of doing as you are told, lacks veracity. This undermines the effectiveness of achieving any goals other than revenue raising.


Why ‘binge watching’ is to blame for kids not learning

Finally, Stefan Gruner shared what he’s learned about self-directed learning for German kids in the early 1900s.

Stefan Gruner:

Thanks, Craig, for your interesting contribution! In these days I am reading quite a lot of stuff about the self-guided German youth movement (Jugendbewegung) and German youth culture (Jugendkultur) in the years 1900-1932 (i.e.: before the NSDAP and NS state flushed all the good things down the drain).

Unlike the Scouts in the Baden-Powell tradition, who were adult-controlled and organised in military style, the more independent German Jugendkultur put a lot of emphasis on youth self-education away from the established adult structures. One of the mottos was to try to be “first-time-creators”, in contrast to being merely “repeaters”. What you have decribed in your article of above is exactly this phenomenon: the youth as being mere “repeaters”, firmly fixed and embedded into adult structures who are “providing” the gadgets and the knowledge and everything ‘ready-made’ for them.

As far as I know — please correct me if I am wrong — South Africa thoughout its history never had any social phenomenon comparable to that kind of German Jugendbewegung of 1900-1932. In many aspects those guys and girls from the Jugendkultur of 100 years ago were far more advanced in their individual, mental and social development, in their creativity, in their freedom and in their self-responsibility than many of the youth of nowadays who are permanently glued to their electronic ‘gadgets’ whilst their protection-obsessed ‘helicopter parents’ are continuously hovering above their heads and bring them by car from A to B, by car to school, by car from school to the Violin lesson, by car from the Violin lesson to the Ballet class, etc — whereas the youth from the Jugendbewegung went hiking on their feets for miles and miles — during the 6-week summer vacations sometimes as far as into Norway or Sweden — with hardly any adult-control imposed onto them. In the tent camps on their independent hikes they also developed their own forms of leisure time entertainment, composed their own songs for singing, staged improvised theatre plays, choreographed their own dances, etc., and so they also learned a lot of knowledge “on the way”.

Currently I am trying to find some good and inspiring books in English language about the German Jugendkultur of 1900-1932; alas in the English language those books are hard to find; (most ones are written in German). Kind regards and best wishes!

Craig Blewett:

Hi Stefan. Thanks for sharing this fascinating insight into the Jugendbewegung. I had not heard about this before. I think what you are saying, and what I am trying to say, is that there is so much potential in our kids to be creators, innovators, engagers - but sadly the school system, now with the help of technology, is “teaching” it out of them.

The worst part is that we are celebrating this. We celebrate our shiny tech classrooms. We celebrate change, yet nothing has changed. I’m not anti-tech - I hardly could be living in an age with tech everywhere, having laptops, phones, smart watches etc…but I am aware of the seductive and deceiving nature of it. Tech offers huge opportunities to change how we do things - it equally has the huge opportunity to entrench what we’ve always done.

If we are going to do new things, we need to think in new ways. And as you point out, this culture of thinking new, giving independence, can be done in any environment, from online to in the mountains. What is important is encouraging this new way. Thanks again for your interesting comments.