a collection of pills

Making meaning together

I ran the first session of the Yoga Studies Reading Group this month, and I’m so glad I’m doing this. It was a small but engaged group, and the conversation flowed really nicely. If you’re thinking of joining us, sign up with Nourish, drop into the Google classroom to pick up the relevant reading, and turn up with a cuppa.

For our first meeting, I chose a thought-provoking article by Dominik Wujastyk titled Medical Error and Medical Truth: The Placebo Effect and Room for Choice in Ayurveda. The article is described as an attempt:

“to promote Daniel Moerman’s concept of the medical “meaning response” as a preferable conceptualization of the phenomena usually subsumed under the name “placebo.”

(Wujastyk, D. 2011, p.221)

In other words, Dominik draws on the statistical evidence for what actually helps and harms within conventional medicine to suggest that a patient’s worldview and beliefs are at least as important to the success of a therapeutic intervention as the active ingredients in the prescription they are given. And that this understanding might give us a way to more fairly compare traditional systems of medicine with modern and mainstream ones.

I chose this article for two reasons. Firstly, it’s deliberately provocative and ambitious, and we had a lot of fun deciding on how much we were convinced by its claims, and then finding all the caveats we would like to apply to it. But after that, we had an even more interesting and valuable discussion about the process and experience of meaning-making itself as we understood it. This is an ongoing fascination of mine – the fact that meaning-making often isn’t a rational or deliberate process, but an illogical, often subconscious one.

Yoga and similar practices are important to practitioners partly because turning up every day for the practice encourages the slow accretion of meaning, fuelled by self-reflection and in the context of intimate relationships with other beings and the world we are part of. A sun salutation becomes a sacred act not the first, but the hundredth time it is practiced. Meditation deepens with time, but also with the daily, mundane frustrations of observing the mind’s chatter.

I’m hoping that the reading group will grow and settle to be a home for these kind of conversations because I find they mostly happen in the edges of study, research, training and practice, over tea or on the way home. These are the conversations to relax into, to speculate on and idly wonder. They are often the conversations in which a spark of real inspiration is born.

I want to help participants gain skills in critical reading, but I also want you to have time to think with me about what these scholarly ideas might mean for us, and how they resonate with our lives. This means that you don’t have to be good at reading academic articles to join us, but just bring a curious mind and a willingness to explore new things. You might leave the session with something fun to tell your students next week, or with something that slowly grows to shift your whole worldview.

I’m just about to upload the article for next month’s session. I’ve chosen Daniela Bevilacqua’s article asking Are women entitled to become ascetics? Daniela has spent many years in India, hanging out with sadhus, and her research is both fascinating and evocative. I have no idea what debates this article will provoke next month, but I’m looking forward to finding out.

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