Mary King talks to Carol Horton about her two new exciting projects, how she fell into yoga and why tuning our minds into our practice can help save the world. ~ ed.
Writer Interview: Carol Horton
Mary: Soooo…just to get started, tell me a little bit about yourself. You know, the general background info and whatever you think is most relevant to answer the question: Who is Carol Horton?
Carol: Hmm, that’s a loaded question…I’ve been practicing yoga long enough now that defining “who I am” no longer seems simple at all! But I’ll take at stab at it anyway.
Right now, I’d describe myself as someone in transition. I’ve been working hard on two yoga books for some time now and they are finally—slowly but surely—moving toward completion. Both should be published this September.
It’s been a long haul and I’ve loved the process. But I’m also nervous about what comes next. How will they be received? Where will I go from here? It’s completely new territory for me ahead, which is very exciting—but also kind of scary.
Being at this point also feels very surprising. I never, ever imagined myself as someone who would become serious about yoga—let alone teach and write about it—until relatively late in life. I didn’t even start my first weekly class until I’d already married, earned a Ph.D. and started working as a college professor. At that point, I had assumed that my adult trajectory in life was well established…boy, was I wrong!
To find myself as an author and co-editor of yoga books, rather then a tenured professor as I’d planned, feels kind of crazy sometimes.
Mary: Wow! Two yoga books at once?! Tell me more…
Carol: OK! I’m very excited about both. The first, Yoga Ph.D.: Integrating the Life of the Mind and the Wisdom of the Body explores the nature of contemporary yoga—where it came from, how it works and why it became so popular—from my own rather unique perspective as a political science professor-turned-yoga teacher. As such, it combines stories drawn from my personal practice with more sociological analysis of the relationship between yoga and American culture.
The second book, 21st Century Yoga: Culture, Politics, and Practice, is a collection of essays on contemporary North American yoga that I co-edited with Roseanne Harvey, blogger at It’s All Yoga, Baby. We have an incredible collection of writers, half of whom are EJ contributors (Frank Jude Boccio, Angela Jamison, Melanie Klein, Matthew Remski, Chelsea Roff, Tommy Rosen, Be Scofield, Michael Stone, Nathan Thompson and Julian Walker). They discuss yoga’s relevance to a huge range of contemporary issues, including commercialism, feminism, body image, addiction recovery, community, activism, ethics and spirituality.
Mary: What made you decide to try yoga? Of all the experiences you’ve had doing it, which ones have stuck with you the most and affected your life today?
Carol: Well, I literally just wrote a book about that—Yoga Ph.D. tells the story of how I started practicing with no bigger ambition than adding some stretching into my workout routine. Eventually, of course, yoga came to mean much more to me than that. But it took awhile for me to move beyond seeing it simply as exercise.
After about five years of on again, off again practice, I’d come to the point where I knew that yoga was doing something important for me on a holistic level—although I wouldn’t have been able to explain that at the time. Then, I accidentally fell into studying Forrest Yoga (a method developed by Ana Forrest, author of Fierce Medicine) when one of her senior students started teaching at the gym where I used to take classes. At that point, I wasn’t even going to a studio—I practiced at this gym only because it was convenient, offering lunchtime classes right across the street from my office.
Learning the Forrest method really shifted the paradigm for me. Soon, I left the gym for more classes at a studio. Then, I started having some really intense, breakthrough experiences that showed me that the real power of yoga comes through working with the mind—or, more accurately, the body/mind. I realized that yoga is an incredible tool for psychological and emotional healing, as well as exploring different states of consciousness and what I call (for lack of a better term) the “spiritual” dimensions of life.
Mary: From teaching political science to writing about yoga seems like quite a stretch (so to speak, ha ha). Do you see these phases of your work life as completely separate, or are they connected in some way?
Carol: For me, writing Yoga Ph.D. was very much a work of self-integration. I wanted to synthesize the rational, analytical skills that I’d spent years developing as a social scientist (first as an academic and then in a second career as a policy researcher) with the extra-rational, intuitive experiences that I’d started having as a yoga practitioner.
At first, I wasn’t at all confident that this could be done. There was definitely a period of false starts, second thoughts and what felt like random experimentation. Eventually, however, I found that it worked really well. Now, I love the process of moving up and back through my on-the-mat experience—where so much of what occurs takes place on a level that’s without words—and my off-the-mat project of reflecting on and writing about yoga.
Mary: That makes sense…but it’s very abstract. Are there more concrete connections as well?
Carol: Sure. Personally, I’m very committed to the project of developing more socially engaged forms of yoga. This means finding ways in which yoga can speak to the sorts of problems that I used to study as a social scientist, which includes everything from the spiritual vacuity of consumer culture to the growth social division and inequality in the United States.
By and large, yoga has been taught and practiced in a very individualized way, one that detaches us from the larger social collective. Today, however, I believe that there’s a profound need for us to connect—not only to our deeper selves, but also to each other—all living beings—and the earth itself.
In a rapidly globalizing world threatened with environmental devastation, the reality of our interconnection with each other and the world has never been so pressingly evident. Yoga, I believe, can be a powerful tool to help create positive connections and thereby promote healing and positive change.
In order for that to happen, however, we have to actively cultivate the desire and knowledge needed to work it that way.
Mary: If you could share only one thing with every elephant journal reader, what would that be?
Carol: There’s a lot of talk in yoga circles about how you need to “turn off your brain” in order to access some deeper truth. While I understand that there’s positive intent behind this directive, I’m afraid that it’s horribly misleading and even damaging in practice.
After all, even if you could “turn off your brain” (which you can’t), this would mean that you were deliberately disconnecting from an incredibly important part of your being. In my view, that runs counter to what yoga is really about: holism, connection and integration. Plus, I see many misguided attempts to “turn off the brain” working to reinforce psychological problems such as narcissism and denial.
Rather than shutting down our brains, we need to learn to work with the incredible multi-dimensionality of our minds more skillfully. Yoga (and, it must be added, meditation) offers incredible tools for developing this capacity. Again, however, the intent to work the practice this way must be cultivated—otherwise, it probably won’t happen.
We talk about yoga as a body/mind practice but tend to be fixated on the body. In the historic yoga tradition, serious study and critical reflection were also considered important forms of practice. I’d like to see that ethic revitalized in ways that speak to the many urgent issues confronting us and our world today. While that’s starting to happen, I believe that we can and should do more.
Mary: Interesting! One final question: You’ve done a lot of writing in many different venues—but if you had to choose, what would be your three-to-five favorite posts published on elephant journal in particular?
Carol: Hm, that’s a bit of a tough call! Not to sound conceited but I still do like many of my EJ posts a lot. Still, if I had to chose, I’d say that my top two would be “Yoga Teacher on a Pedestal: Psychological Conundrums of the Teacher-Student Relationship” and “Shopping Right (Wing): Lululemon’s Political Values.” These, I think, were particularly successful in meeting my goal of bringing a social science perspective to bear on issues of contemporary yoga in ways that are helpful to the practitioner community.
I’m also very fond of my posts on “Yoga and the Commodification of the True Self” and “The Beautiful Babe and the Fierce Guru” because they zero in on some of the cultural myths that we’ve built up around yoga that seem helpful but really aren’t, in a fun and interesting way.
Carol Horton, Ph.D. is the author of Race and the Making of American Liberalism,(Oxford University Press, 2005) and the forthcoming Yoga Ph.D.: Integrating the Life of the Mind and the Wisdom of the Body. With Roseanne Harvey, she is co-editor of the forthcoming 21st Century Yoga: Culture, Politics, and Practice. Carol blogs at Think Body Electric, and enjoys social media via Facebook and Twitter.
Mary King is a recovering corporate hardhead. After accumulating a few years of running injuries, she stumbled into a hot yoga studio. “These people are insane!” she thought, but her stubbornness prevailed, and she was soon hooked without any clear idea how it had happened. She recently certified in a 200-hour teacher training program and is growing comfortable with the idea that it might take two million hours to understand how yoga works. Through this journey she is learning to love life and, slowly, herself. Mary is a woman with incurable curiosity and wanderlust, an avid reader, and the best aunt in the whole wide world.
Editor: Bryonie Wise
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