∂r/∂y (gastronomy, yoga)

Lately, it seems that a lot of people who are doing (or have completed) a PhD in food want to go and open a yoga studio instead. By “a lot” I mean three. And by “three” I mostly mean me. (Actually, there have been two others who mentioned something similar to me at one point or another, but I might be projecting.)

On initial reflection, it seems like an ordinary enough reaction to the mind-fuck that is doctoral studies. (I’ve had enough, I just want to do savasana for the rest of my consciousness… I want people to stop asking me to do, I just want to be… I like that little Buddha in the niche by the window: he never asks me how chapter three is coming along.) But as my own experience—and reflection thereon—has progressed in the years following my dissertation defence, I’ve started to note a lot more detail and richness in the parallels between yogic practice and transdisciplinary food work.

Some of these connections are more straightforward: the holism of minds and bodies and emotions; the need to listen to internal reactions as much as external instructions; the reality that all is process, rather than there being a ‘final’ outcome. If transdisciplinarity is about creating hybrid understandings, both inside and outside of formalized knowledge frameworks, then it certainly jibes with the ways yoga crosses practices both inside and outside of the body, the studio, society, and the self. Similarly, if yoga can be hot or power, vinyasa or hatha, with or without balls and blocks, accompanied with music or practiced in silence, then food work can be as plain and fancy as we want as well.

There is something very reassuring about the one informing the other. Yoga is immensely grounded in heritage and culture and ecology. Transdisciplinary food work is not, being risky and messy and underfunded, but maybe at the brink of a new way forward. Yoga can be modish and dumbed-down and criticized as being cultural appropriation (in North America anyway), becoming stripped of that which anchors it to place and people. Transdisciplinarity, however, accepts that bodies and ideas migrate, that histories are always evolving, and that all practices is are assemblages of matter, meaning, movement, place, time, and transformation. The parallels between yog’stuff and trans’stuff trace toward a meaningful and mutual undergirding. (Not to move towards reductionism… or comparison, either, lest we murder the joy in both.)

I recently had a one-on-one consultation with one of my wonderful teachers at the studio where I practice. I wanted to check in on some of the poses I find more challenging, and also on ways to bring my yoga habit home. (I have two mats that remain determinedly rolled up in my closet, yet I am able hoof off to the studio five or six times a week. Why do I need to change locale to stay constant to myself and my almost ten-year practice?)

Suzanne suggested that, when I travel, I put a yoga session on my calendar, like any other appointment during my day. She suggested I write down a sequence of statements about “why I do yoga”. She reminded me of the ways she practices sometimes—on the metro, buying groceries, doing the dishes—that is, by being present to breath and sensations, not by turning herself into a pretzel. She brought me back to myself with this conversation, and as we talked, I found myself wanting to tell her that I already knew all this somehow, because of the way I approach gastronomy. I was already answering my own questions about yoga, because I had spent so much time on them within food.

Lately, I have become increasingly interested in yin yoga practice, and what it might mean for dealing with the (post)colonial problematic of studying other people’s and other peoples’ foodways and food systems. Instead of focusing on muscular extension (as in yang yoga), yin involves poses that put compression on joints, ligaments, tissues, and fascia. The poses are held for many minutes—generally much longer than in yang practice—and the aim is to remain, to receive, to witness. Yin practice doesn’t seek out, it seeks in. Rather than moving towards a pose—erect, tall, directed—you wait and sense yourself, low to the ground, in tension between maintaining and accepting. It can be uncomfortable. It can make you unsure. The results come after you release the pose, and they are not explicit. Energy, blood, oxygen rush towards that which was compressed. You have to pay attention differently afterwards in order to interpret what might have happened.

In food studies (and elsewhere), a certain amount of debate has been taking place about ‘settler’-heritage scholars doing research on ‘indigenous’-heritage people. This tension is important, and highlights really uncomfortable issues about recolonialization. Though I’m not super keen on the indigenous/settler dualism (too simplistic, and ignores slavery, forced migration, and other non-intentional displacements), it does pose a key question: Who is qualified to study, analyse, and tell of a given person’s food? (A version of this question also applies to many themes beyond food, of course.)

This discourse hangs around under the umbrella of “indigenous research methods,” an area of examination that is difficult and necessary to address. Who should research Indigenous and indigenous subjects? Is it just about white people laying off what isn’t ‘theirs’? Or is there also a problem with, for example, a Cree person doing research on a Coast Salish person? Where does ‘the other’ start and stop? And if you follow that question to a logic-oriented ‘end point’, can one do research on anyone other than oneself? (Cue the conventional anthropologists’ snorts of derision.) Probing that subsequent question through the lens of multispecies ethnography, if humans are both more-than and less-than human (cf. microbiome, cyborg culture, new materialism), then who’s the who doing research on which what? (Oh fuck, get us out of here!)

Back to yoga and trans’food work: Yin is about remaining and receiving. What about a food practice that does the same? That is, an approach that does not seek out research questions and methodologies, that does not strive for conclusion, that does not assume that there is a truth to be winkled out or a reality that existed in the past (or that can be futured together through food hackathons)? What about simply waiting, sensing, feeling, and allowing? Embedding oneself in a system and being with it. And then reflecting on what was felt and, perhaps, sharing what was experienced?

I have a tough time spending periods of my life in the not-knowing. My ex-ex and the therapist who helped us get that way both suggested that I try not knowing for a while—that is, during the time after our split. I did, and it helped me find the last twelve years of work in food, including a lot of great knowing (and doing and making and feeling). Now, I’m trying to be back in the not-knowing again, following two years of culminations and goals and powerful experiences. It’s a kind of remaining and receiving phase, and it’s just as hard as having my knees and shoulders and thighs and ankles under compression, quietly and not-so-quietly telling me things. I breathe, meanwhile, and trust that there will be some effects afterwards. At the same time, I try not to think about the afterwards effects too much, and just observe what is present, now. (Sometimes I write blog posts, too.)

What is comforting is that this has all been done before, as it will be done again.