‘Sociology in general is about taking a critical mind to the world around us. Students will come out of this class thinking more deeply, and not just about yoga.’
Class has begun, and the day’s topic is “decolonizing yoga.” The subject raises questions:
What is colonization, and what does it mean to “decolonize” something? Beyond taking land, what other aspects of a culture can be colonized? And what does this have to do with yoga?
With each question, students leap in to offer wide-ranging answers and to respond to other students' points of view.
Lori M. Hunter, professor of sociology at the University of Colorado Boulder, has spent a semester prompting students to grapple with such questions. The course is called “Yoga, Culture & Society,” an upper-division class designed to hone students’ critical-thinking-skills.
Students are eager to discuss the topics, and their essay-test questions were “beautifully” crafted, displaying broad understanding of the material and the ability to analyze disparate themes, Hunter says, adding: “It’s one of the most engaged classes I’ve taught.”
The course covers lots of ground, but it avoids questions outside the realm of sociology. It is not a class in yoga technique nor specifically on yoga history.
It is, however, an examination of yoga as it manifests in modern, Western culture. That reflects sociological inquiry, Hunter emphasizes.
For instance, in contemporary Western culture, yoga is generally practiced by women. “Why is that? Is there something about masculinity in our culture that keeps men away from yoga?”
There’s also race. People pictured in American yoga magazines are “almost always white, almost always young,” Hunter says.
Along with dynamics of gender, race and age, modern yoga raises questions about exclusivity. In historic India, doing yoga did not require money. But today, the cost of yoga can add up, not just to join a class, but also to acquire the standard gear, including trendy yoga pants costing as much as $100.
As an ancient practice, yoga was focused on mindfulness, Hunter notes. In modern, Western culture, yoga has morphed into a physical-fitness pursuit.
“So there’s class, there’s race, there’s gender, there’s age, there’s culture,” Hunter says.
Examining such things in the context of Western culture essentially applies a sociological lens to the modern practice of yoga.
“Sociology in general is about taking a critical mind to the world around us. Students will come out of this class thinking more deeply, and not just about yoga.”
It’s about unpacking that crazy world out there and thinking about why it works the way it does. And when it works the way it does, who’s included and who’s excluded. It’s about inequalities and privilege and race and class and gender. It’s all about critical thinking.”
Most of the course’s students practice yoga and keep yoga journals, which they share with Hunter. In the journals, Hunter observes, students who practice yoga in local studios are paying close attention to who’s in class, who’s not in class, how a teacher presents the material, even what others are wearing. Some students have experimented with attending a yoga class in sweat pants rather than pricey yoga pants, just to see if they feel welcome or ostracized.
“So they’re walking through their own yoga practice with a more-critical lens, and reflecting on yoga as a privilege, especially living in Boulder.”
This is an unusual course. The idea emerged when Hunter completed yoga teacher-training a few years ago. The training covered the business side of yoga, the philosophical underpinnings of yoga and even inclusivity with respect to yoga.
“I started to think about all the different sociological elements of it, and that’s when I began toying with the idea” of teaching a class on yoga as practiced in modern, Western culture.
Hunter wondered if any other college or university offered a sociology-of-yoga class. She couldn’t find any. “So I think it might be the first-ever sociology class of yoga.”
Given that the field is “nascent,” as the course’s syllabus notes, there is no textbook. Hunter relies partly on essays by sociologists and other scholars. She also has the students read several clinical research studies on yoga's health effects. Several guest speakers have touched on topics such as yoga in jails and the connection between yoga and activism. Altogether, the course material is intended to foster reflection and careful discussion of the social dimensions of modern yoga.
Though the course’s focus is unusual, its sociological lens is not. “It’s about unpacking that crazy world out there and thinking about why it works the way it does. And when it works the way it does, who’s included and who’s excluded. It’s about inequalities and privilege and race and class and gender,” Hunter says. “It’s all about critical thinking.”