A Harvest of Fieldwork

As I recover from another academic conference, and contemplate the news that I’ve been awarded university funding to go full-time on my PhD here with the Open University, I’m looking back over an epic summer. This was my first sustained fieldwork experience after a number of exploratory visits to sites in previous years.Theo article

My research project investigates diverse, post-lineage forms of modern yoga practice, in some unusual environments. My focus is in part the practice itself – what it looks like and how it is experienced – but also the culture that sustains it. Mostly, that means immersing myself in a series of camps and small festivals held over the rather short British summer. It’s a culture I knew already a little, but this summer took my understanding of my subject, and the process of fieldwork itself, to a whole new level.

Looking over the data, in the form of hours of film clips and audio interviews; and many pages of notes and flyers, it all began to feel like an abundant autumn harvest. So as a brief escape from my transcription, I thought I’d share the scale with you before my second stage of research – a more in-depth investigation of the shape of the practice itself.

I had an unexpected early start to the fieldwork season at the Beltane Bhakti Gathering early in May, which I volunteered at and attended and found myself having to make notes and take snippets of film for all the wonderful data coming up. I also connected with some great new contacts. It was a perfect start.

Then in June, I arrived at Colourfest, with my tiny tent, my well-battered yoga mat, notebooks and pens, Go-Pro camera, Zoom audio recorder, and a deep charge battery and solar panel. The fieldwork began in earnest.

Throughout the summer, each day onsite included an hour or two of writing up my notes, participation in multiple yoga sessions, and often 18 hours awake. At Colourfest, I attended opening and closing ceremonies and a ‘celebrating yoga’ ritual, but somehow missed the wedding that took place. I took yoga sessions with half a dozen teachers of Hatha, Vinyasa, Ashtanga and Scaravelli traditions; and workshops with about the same number of teachers in ‘Contact Improvisation’, ‘African Dance’, ‘Shakti Dance’, ‘Authentic Movement’ and more. I sat in and sang for kirtan (Hindu-influenced sacred singing) with various groups, and had a delightful lesson in Japa (the yoga of sound) with an Integral Yoga reverend. The weather was glorious, and I managed about a dozen sessions of diverse and distinct yoga and dance in three and a half days, coming home exhausted and sunburnt.

At Sundara there were also opening and closing ceremonies, as well as daily morning meetings. I enjoyed Laughter, Dynamic, Kundalini, Hatha, Anubhava, Calma and Integral yoga. I did movement workshops called ‘Dancing the Heart Path’, ‘Somatic Flow’, ‘Dance Mandala’ and ‘Biodanza’, a drawing yoga art workshop and a ‘Naked Voice’ workshop. I listened to talks on the theme of ‘Stepping Up’ and taking positive action in the world by yoga practitioners taking their skills to the Amazon, the UK police service, and the Calais Jungle, and encouraging as much direct action as peaceful mindfulness. I sang more kirtan, and attended the most delightful dawn havan fire ceremony, led by Babaji devotees. I danced the early morning ‘Dance of Life’, and snoozed through a gong bath. This camp was two days longer than Colourfest, and I had a bit of an emotional moment on the Saturday and hid in my tent for a couple of hours. Female readers may understand what I mean when I say I realised then that each of the three main camps I visited were exactly 28 days apart. That was an unexpected complication to an active summer! But once again, I averaged three or four active movement sessions a day. And at Sundara, it was lovely to be at a new camp with so many of the same friends there.

My next trip was more epic in scale. I zoomed up to the EarthFirst! Gathering for a couple of days, where I hung out with eco-activists and led a couple of sessions myself, including one sharing skills for somatic burnout. Although I wasn’t there as a researcher, just as at the Bhakti Gathering, I was grateful for taking my notebook everywhere. I also loved the dedication of this particular gathering, the strong boundaries and deep accessibility and diversity they try to hold themselves to, the sense of humour and the radicalism.

From there, I had a few hours at home on my way to three days with little-known and yet legendary yoga teachers Angela Farmer and Victor van Kooten, in a long-anticipated retreat where we spent many an hour sitting with our eyes gently closed, rocking in place. It was such an honour to study with people who have a century of post-lineage yoga exploration between them. We also learned to interlace our toes together, just for fun.

theo article And then to the Santosa Living Yoga and Bhakti Camp, for a full week of fieldwork and the last trip of the summer. This was my third year of taking a notebook with me to this event. I also had two breaks; one because I had to zip up to Milton Keynes for the funding interview, and another just for time out. I took part in more opening and closing ceremonies. I inevitably enjoyed a lot more yoga: Yin and Yang, Swara, Chi, Scaravelli again, Embodied, Reflex, Vinyasa and Soma yoga and a lot of yoga nidra relaxations. I delivered eight yoga nidras myself, and two yoga sharing sessions. I also chaired a discussion on post-lineage yoga, which was a great opportunity to sound out some emerging theory. I still found time to dance, and learnt the fundamental difference in hip and heart movements between African and Arabic dance. There was more kirtan, as well as a sacred voice session and more Laughter Yoga. I listened to Hanuman and Krishna stories, and baked in the sun after a women’s sauna. I even enjoyed a Cacao ceremony.

Threaded through the summer have been mini-interviews and informal discussions on ethics and appropriation, food and self-care, innovation and tradition, the counter-culture and the mainstream, gender and race politics, authority and inner wisdom, abuse and trauma. I’ve felt my way into the networks and connections; the norms and the rules. I’ve checked blackboards, responded to conches, attended morning meetings, said the holy names of my sangha, hugged, namaste’d and laughed more than I thought possible. I’ve deepened some friendships, and made more. All this won’t just form the basis of my PhD thesis, it will keep me warm through the winter.

Now I just need to sort through the data!

By Theo Wildcroft