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The transcendence of yoga

From conducting international fieldwork to studying texts dating back centuries, scholars at Elon are taking a closer look at the meaning of yoga in modern society. 

Sarah Collins ’18  

The ancient tradition of yoga has been carried down through centuries and adopted around the globe. What originated as a religious tradition in India has grown into an international phenomenon. In the United States alone, the number of yoga practitioners increased to more than 36 million in 2016, up from 20.4 million in 2012, according to the 2016 Yoga in America Study conducted by Yoga Journal and Yoga Alliance. But the widespread nature of yoga in modern society has raised questions regarding the true meaning of the practice, and Elon scholars are looking to answer those questions through different lenses. 

Anya Fredsell, a religious studies and public health studies double major, is conducting research on yoga with her mentor, Amy Allocco, associate professor of religious studies.

“These changing times beg the questions of who has the authority to decide what yoga is and who has the authority to teach yoga,” says senior Anya Fredsell, an Elon College Fellow and Lumen Scholar who is exploring yoga’s changing role in global society through an ethnographic study of yoga communities. After completing a 200-hour yoga teaching certification course while in high school, Fredsell came to Elon with the desire to answer these questions. She set out to do this by tracing yoga back to its roots in India. Her travels have been made possible by the Lumen Prize, a $15,000 scholarship to support and celebrate academic and creative endeavors. 

During the course of her Elon experience, Fredsell has had the chance to travel to India four times. Her first trip to North India, through a partnership with Loyola Marymount University during the summer of 2016, gave Fredsell the opportunity to study yoga and Jainism, a minority religious tradition. She returned to the country in January 2017 through Elon’s Winter Term course “India’s Identities: Religion, Caste and Gender in Contemporary South India.” On her third trip to India last summer, Fredsell went solo: she conducted participant-observation and engaged in fieldwork that examined gendered authority and the political, religious and social dimensions of contemporary yoga traditions. She returned for a fourth time in January with her research mentor, Associate Professor of Religious Studies Amy Allocco. 

Fredsell’s findings have the potential to illuminate an area that has been somewhat overlooked. “While some of yoga’s gurus and its transnational reception, adaptation and commoditization have been the subjects of recent monographs and edited volumes, yoga as it is conceived, categorized and contested in India has been relatively understudied,” says Allocco. “This is an extraordinarily interesting moment to undertake such a research project.” The past two years have seen remarkable developments for yoga, she adds, including the inauguration of International Yoga Day as well as questions about to whom yoga “belongs” and competing claims regarding its potential “religious” character and political resonances.

Yoga is also a deeply personal experience for Fredsell. After conducting dozens of interviews in India, Fredsell is comparing her findings to her own yoga communities in Atlanta. Growing up in the Georgia capitol, she developed a different yet parallel understanding of the practice. Her research reconciles the changing perceptions and meanings of yoga for populations around the globe. “Coming into Elon and into the Fellows Program, I had a notion that research had to be data-driven and scientific,” says Fredsell, who plans to attend Emory University after graduation. “It was exciting for me to learn that research could be interacting with people and observing them and interviewing them. And now, research has really become my central focus.” 

MAY 15, 2015: Ben Bridges '17 does yoga as part of an experimental communications course taught by Julie Lellis. Ben, an anthropology major with minors in art and psychology, is featured in I Am Elon in summer 2015. A Charlotte, N.C. native, he's also an Honors Fellow and the Kenan Scholar for the class of 2017. (photo by Kim Walker)

In total, Fredsell’s research has entailed hundreds of hours of participant-observation, resulted in more than 60 interviews and will culminate in eight academic conference papers and two article manuscripts. “Anya’s Lumen project will lay the foundation for her future graduate work and career as a teacher-scholar of South Asian religions,” Allocco says. “Her findings offer promising and important new insights and are a significant contribution to the yoga studies subfield, especially as it intersects with feminist ethnography.”

Associate Professor of Communications Julie Lellis seeks to further the modern study of yoga through multiple academic courses at Elon. In 2013, along with Professor of Dance Lauren Kearns, she began team-teaching an honors course titled “The Reincarnation of Yoga in America.” The course, which now Lellis teaches alone, challenges students to examine yoga through an interdisciplinary lens by studying ancient texts, learning about the written language of Sanskrit, conducting independent research and, of course, practicing yoga. Students also study the ways in which media has commercialized yoga and the greater implications this characterization plays on societal perceptions of yoga. 

During the past few decades, yoga in America has rapidly evolved into a multibillion-dollar fitness industry. The 2016 Yoga in America Study found practitioners spent $16 billion on yoga classes, clothing and accessories, compared to $10 billion in 2012. But the traditional practice of yoga extends far beyond the physical element, and includes ethics, self-discipline, breathing and meditation. “Students like uncovering the fact that yoga isn’t just physical,” says Lellis, who completed a 200-hour training certification at Boston Yoga School in 2014. “They get a lot out of meditation or breathing. Some students are intimidated at first, but they quickly learn that they can all do yoga.”

Students and Associate Professor of Communications Julie Lellis (top, second from the right) during the 2017 Winter Term course, “Mindful  America, Mindful Elon.

Yoga has also been absorbed into a modern understanding of mindfulness. A therapeutic technique focused on physical and mental awareness, mindfulness has become a central theme of American discourse surrounding health and well-being. In January 2017, Lellis led the Winter Term course “Mindful America, Mindful Elon.” Students traveled to Massachusetts for nine days to study at the Benson-Hentry Institute for Mind Body Medicine in Boston and also completed a mindfulness retreat at the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Stockbridge.

Those experiences gave students the opportunity to practice their own mindfulness while studying the attitudes and beliefs about mindfulness in America. A primary goal of the course was to consider the influence of mindfulness practices on trends in higher education. Students met with a variety of faculty, staff and students who host or participate in mindfulness-based on-cam-pus programs at Elon. They also learned about contemplative pedagogy, or the use of mindfulness to benefit student learning. With a better understanding of what might enhance programs already existing on campus, students prepared strategies to create a more “mindful Elon.” They then pitched their recommendations to university staff and administrators, along with a written proposal. As Elon continues efforts to promote the well-being of students, these ideas are shaping the university’s student resources for years to come. 

For Lellis, yoga as an interdisciplinary entity is right at home in the world of academics, particularly at Elon, whose mission is to transform mind, body and spirit. “Through these learning opportunities, we can look at how yoga is portrayed in different spaces,” she says. “We talk about moral and ethical codes. Concepts like self-discipline and nonviolence are applicable to every-one. It’s an opportunity for students to learn how encompassing yoga is and to learn about the other dimensions of yoga.”

Keren Rivas,
5/3/2018 10:50 AM