[The post below was contributed by guest blogger Ali Kenner, and is part of a series on the relationship between academic precarity and the production of ethnography, introduced here. Read Ali’s prior posts: post 1 & post 2]
In this post I’m going to diverge a bit, writing not about my work for Cultural Anthropology, but about that other project of mine: an ethnography of breathing, and how the breath registers embodied signs of late capitalism (in the contemporary asthma epidemic and U.S. yoga industry). It’s a project grounded in my own yoga practice, a risky set-up, I think, for someone already working on the margins.
Deepa’s weekly prompt asks us about the relationship between form and content in our work. This prompt called to mind the way I position myself to my project, leveraging embodied practice for ethnography. Rereading Carole McGranahan’s post on teaching ethnography, I keep coming back to Ortner’s understanding of ethnography as “the attempt to understand another life world using the self—as much of it as possible—as the instrument of knowing.” Tomie Hahn’s ethnography of dance transmission, Sensational Knowledge (2007), is a powerful example of how body and self become instruments of knowing. Working in the Japanese tradition of nihon buyo, Hahn shows how cultural knowledge is embodied through her own experience and practice of nihon buyo, a practice sustained over three decades. What I find most interesting about Hahn’s work is the way she translates movement and sensation into graspable material for analysis. The argument that culture flows through dance transmission is performed back to readers through Hahn’s own transmission; thick descriptions of sight, sound, and touch.
Hahn also speaks to the challenges and drawbacks of embodied ethnography – studying her own culture, wearing various hats, and negotiating multiple identities. Although my project, and my relationship to it, is quite different from Hahn’s, Sensational Knowledge is an enduring touchstone that inspires my work. It’s important to have one or a few of those in reach.
In the sections that follow I put yoga in conversation with ethnography. In the first section, breathing becomes an instrument of knowing; in the second, I consider how my yoga practice situates me as ethnographer.
Just about every morning, at about the same time, I start the day with a series of meditations that involve pranayama, a yogic breathing practice. There are dozens of breathing exercises to choose from, perhaps even hundreds. In the Kundalini tradition, breath is measured by mantra, a rhythmic repetition of sounds. Practice a particular meditation every day for three months (or for three years, as the case may be) and you will begin to notice things – how far you can pull your belly button back towards your spine, where you overworked your body the day before, the difference between sleepy and exhausted, and of course, the quality of your breath. You will also notice your surroundings, like the early morning smell of businesses down the hill and what time your neighbors leave for work and school. With a consistent daily practice you may begin to associate disparate observations, drawing tentative causal relationships between body and environment. On nights when I eat ice cream before bed, for example, I find I’m more congested in the morning, my breath shallow.
Daily pranayama will make you more attuned to air quality. The difference between the high desert of Northern New Mexico and the guest bedroom of a Woods Hole cottage is striking, as I discovered in my travels last month. The New Mexico air dries you out to the extent that your breath stops short, an involuntary visceral measure to protect the nasal passages. On the coast of Massachusetts, on the other hand, the air is so thick with matter you can’t get the oxygen you need. Although the length and depth of my inhale was the same, the air felt like mud, sticking to my air passages, reducing the flow of breath. It’s one thing to know this from looking at EPA generated maps or by talking with environmental engineers. It’s another to know air quality in your body.
The high desert of New Mexico and the Southern coast of Massachusetts make for a fascinating climate contrast. Experiencing these two extremes back to back gave me embodied insight into how air quality matters for those with breathing disorders, like asthma. Most asthmatics I talk to reference their environment a lot – dust, mold, humidity, pollen, temperature. That’s a good sign since asthma care today is as much about avoiding environmental triggers as it is using an inhaler. Attuning to sensation in environmental context is critical for asthmatics. It’s also knowledge gained over time, by living in the body and paying close attention when the body is talking at you, or screaming, as the case may be. This is a tall order when you’re fighting to breath.
Most of us are not fighting to breathe. Most of us are not even conscious we’re breathing. How many times a day do you say to yourself, “Hey, look at me! I’m breathing!” But there are many people (asthmatics and yoga practitioners are two prominent, contrasted, examples) who are very aware of their breath, albeit for different reasons, in different contexts. Analysis of breathing in the U.S. today reveals a lot about class, race, and gender; health assemblages and environmental imaginaries; late industrial culture, and its hoped for cure. This analysis is made using my breath – as a vehicle that provides access to sensations and situations; as a space for reflection and analysis; and as a constant medium that gives firm ground to stand on. Asthmatics do not get this kind of stability from the breath – for asthmatics, breathing can be the ultimate form of precarity.
As described above, sadhana, a daily yoga practice grounded in the breath, provides the kind of long-term relationship I’d like to have as an ethnographer. Exactly the kind of relationship that is so difficult to maintain in the contemporary academy.
FIGURING OUT ALIGNMENT
The first time I found myself noticing alignment I was standing in line waiting to board a flight home from New Mexico. When the man in front of me set his bag down, rolled his neck, and then stood at attention, I noticed his shoulders – his right shoulder rose about two inches above his left, the scapula bulging to a degree unmatched on the other side. Moving my gaze down to his hips, I could not detect further asymmetry (ultimately due to my lack of training and the man’s clothing), but it would undoubtedly be there – misalignment in one sector of the body indicates misalignment in other areas. The hips and shoulders are like roommates in a dorm, proximity matters; the state of one will impact the state of the other. Of course, surface analysis is never sufficient. If you’ve got shoulder problems, it’s probably effect that should be read as sign. Referent is a bit trickier to track down. This I learned from my own misaligned, pained, body, and the bodyworkers and yoga teachers who I’ve studied with over the past four years. Time spent with my dear friend and teacher Tanya Zayhowski, for example, taught me volumes about structure, freeplay, and history. Our lessons always took place around a yoga mat.
In the Albuquerque airport, I found myself wanting to strike up a conversation with the man in front of me, hoping that I could somehow tell him his alignment was off. I remember being at once horrified and curious – amused by my observation of a stranger’s structure (clearly, my yoga practice and training was cultivating a new kind of sensibility), and concerned by my desire to do something with that observation. Here is a moment where “critical distance” would be most useful (see Deepa’s reflection on Kelty’s quote). Although this whole experience was unsettling – witnessing myself seeing the world in a different way, or perhaps just a different slice of the world (shoulders?) – that’s part of the job, right? Wait, which job – yoga instructor or ethnographer?
While the Albuquerque airport scene offers an acute example of how my yoga practice provides perspective – and the inclination to intervene – it also speaks to the flip side of being an instrument of knowing. Teaching vinyasa (a flow of physical postures that constitute asana, the third limb of yoga) means looking at student alignment and providing corrections. It also means that when a student comes to you with tight hamstrings, a bad back, or after recovering from wrist surgery, it’s your responsibility to provide that student with postures that will be safe and can address their needs. “Distance” may be long gone, but in front of a yoga class, it’s best to carry that “critical” stripe in your back pocket.
For me, “joining in and becoming part of the field” has been productive and rewarding. Admittedly, its not becoming part of the field that makes me nervous – it’s turning my yoga practice into ethnography that gives me pause. But the play between these pairs, ethnography and asana, writing and breathing, has been too interesting and rich not to engage.
I wonder how my situatedness will translate into writing, as it must. Kerim’s post on dissemination has me wondering if my position today will produce a sunflower or bougainvillea in the future.
Ali Kenner is managing editor and program director at Cultural Anthropology, and Adjunct Assistant Professor of Science and Technology Studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. She also teaches Vinyasa and Kundalini yoga in Upstate New York.