Although Pandit Rajmani Tigunait’s The Secret of the Yoga Sutra and David Gordon White’s The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali: A Biography could not be more different in terms of core message and approach, both share the same underlying problem. Essentially, this is that each in its own way replicates the dominant paradigm that divides our studies of the Yoga Sutra (YS) between 1) practitioner-oriented studies that are reverentially devoted to explicating it as a timeless truth, and 2) narrowly empiricist academic studies that are utterly dismissive of the concerns and experiences of practitioners. This split between lived practice and scholarly inquiry is unfortunate in that it narrows the scope of ideas and information in ways that impoverish both.
To be sure, both books make notable contributions to their respective fields. Tigunait, the Spiritual Director of the Himalayan Institute, writes as a lineage holder in the Sri Vidya tradition. The Secret of the Yoga Sutra offers a user-friendly entry into the complexities what I found to be an essentially religious approach to the text. White, a chaired Professor of Religious Studies at the UCSB, writes as a “just the facts, ma’am” scholar who’s openly skeptical of contemporary yoga culture. The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali: A Biography evidences a prodigious amount of archival research, which attempts to trace the most important references to the work made during the past 1,600+ years.
Due to the singular lens each book uses to look at the YS, however, I found them more interesting considered in tandem, rather than independently. It’s ironic that although the Secret and Biography approach their shared subject matter from polar opposite perspectives, they actually inform each other reasonably well. For example, Tigunait explains that he’s part of a tradition that interprets the YS using a combination of yogic, Tantric, and Vedantic philosophies. This would have struck me as strangely arbitrary, except that I knew from reading White that this sort of syncretism has, in fact, represented a well-established tradition in India since at least the 16th century.
That said, there’s no question that White’s Biography is designed to debunk precisely the sort of claims to timeless interpretative authority that Tigunait’s Secret explicitly makes. Consequently, despite the fact that they complement each other in some ways, one might ultimately feel that it’s necessary to choose one approach and reject the other, given that it’s logically impossible to embrace both perspectives at the same time. However, I don’t believe this to be true. Other alternatives can be created. Personally, I’d like to see some sort of new synthesis between them, one which takes the experiences of practitioners seriously, but that also contextualizes them in the broader perspective that a cultural history of the YS provides.
Before going into a more detailed discussion of each book, I’d like to provide a bit of background regarding where I’m coming from in reading them. On the whole, it’s always been true that discussions of the Yoga Sutra in contemporary yoga culture generate a certain sense of inner conflict for me. On the one hand, I’m very much drawn to the project of engaging with this ancient, cryptic, compelling, and mysterious text. On the other hand, I’m really turned off by the all-too-common tendency to want to put it into some neat-and-simple conceptual box.
This reaction is rooted in my dual background as a yoga practitioner and social scientist. Like many practitioners, I’m enthralled by the fact that some parts of the YS feel highly resonant with my personal experience of yoga. Unlike most, however, I’m equally fascinated by the fact that other parts of the text feel utterly foreign, and don’t resonate at all.
I believe that any work that has spoken to so many so deeply across the centuries must have something unusually compelling about it. As a social scientist, hwoever, I also assume that any claim to know its true meaning as universally understood by adepts across the centuries is necessarily wrong. Whether it’s the Yoga Sutra, Bhagavad Gita, Pali Canon, Bible, or even the U.S. Constitution, there are always multiple interpretations of the essential meaning of iconic texts. And, although certain interpretations will emerge as more compelling than others at any given time, such meanings will also always change over the course of history.
Given this perspective, I’m interested in the interplay between the enduring resonance of the YS and the constellation of culturally specific interpretations that have surrounded it historically. I’m looking for insight into what has made it so enduring, as well as how it’s been understood in radically different ways in different places and times.
Yet, our tendency today is to reject such complexity in favor of readings that claim to explain the entire work as a split package deal: either as an unchanging guide to spiritual practice, or as a transient cultural artifact. Hence my frustration with both the Secret and Biography: like most contemporary discussions of the YS, the core questions I have about it are never asked, let alone investigated.
The Biography: 1
Be that as it may, I do appreciate the prodigious research effort that obviously went into White’s “biography.” At 236 pages (not including notes and index), The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali: A Biography is a sprawling, ambitious work, providing detailed discussions of the various ways in which the YS has been interpreted 1) in ancient, medieval, colonial, and post-colonial India; 2) among influential Western individuals and movements the British Orientialists, German Romantics, and Theosophists; and 3) by key commentators in the Muslim world. On top of this, While provides detailed discussions of the significance of Swami Vivekananda and Sri T. Krishnamacharya in the modern “revival” of the YS, as well as extensive discussions of many other significant Eastern and Western writers, philosophers, and spiritual teachers.
Unfortunately, the high level of detail devoted to sketching out this sweeping history is not tightly organized around a set of simpler thematic points or embedded into a clear narrative structure. This makes it something of a challenge to pick out precisely what the central points of White’s “biographical” story are. By my reading, however, the main point is to prove that the understanding of the YS as a timeless guide to yoga philosophy and practice that’s widely taken-for-granted among practitioners today is factually wrong. The most important reasons for this include:
- Philosophical inconsistency. White emphasizes that Patanjali’s original understanding of yogic philosophy was eclipsed by very different, Vedanta-based interpretations by at least the 16th century. “In a complete reversal of Patanjali’s and Vyasa’s original position,” he explains, “the Ishvara of the Yoga Sutra had come to be equated with the Krishna of the Bhagavad Gita” (49-50).
- Historical discontinuity. Although the YS “enjoyed the status of a classic” in India during the 7th-12th centuries, it subsequently fell into obscurity (235). Ironically, this only changed when it was “rediscovered” by British Orientalists in the early 1800s. Subsequently, the YS was widely popularized by Vivekananda – who, in turn, further “severed it from its original cultural and historical context” – beginning in the late 19th century (16, 124).
Weaving various iterations of these claims through many, much more particular historical discussions, the Biography appears dedicated to debunking the “ongoing fetishization of the Yoga Sutra by the current yoga subculture,” which is more than happy to have it be “venerated without being understood” (215).
I believe that White is right that such “fetishization” exists, and to some extent share his impatience with it. That said, I had major problems with the way that he attempted to address this issue in his book. First, White never makes any serious attempt to analyze contemporary yoga culture. As a result, it’s easy for him to set up a straw man argument about it: that is, that there’s widespread belief that the YS has provided an unchanging guide to yoga theory and practice from the 5th-21st centuries that needs to be debunked.
However, it’s questionable to what extent contemporary practitioners are really invested in this as a serious historical narrative. In my experience, most wouldn’t care if it were pointed out that, in fact, the YS has been interpreted in different ways at different times. Because really, what they care about is simply that it’s a meaningful text for them now. Plus, to the extent that they believe in the tradition of Parampara, the “problem” of historical discontinuity is solved by investing interpretative authority in a series of designated lineage holders (which is, again, precisely the position that Tigunait’s Secret takes).
Conversely, from a social science perspective, no cultural historian would ever take the claim that the meaning of some iconic text has held constant across the centuries seriously. It’s simply too self-evidently wrong to be worth debunking. As a result, there’s a profound mismatch between White’s central argument, which is organized around a non-academic debunking project, and his research method, which is basically an enormous amount of fine-grained archival research. The result is that we have neither a nuanced discussion of how the YS figures into yoga culture today, nor a compelling analysis of what to make of all of the historical data White has so assiduously assembled.
The Biography: 2
To make matters worse, the vast array of historical data White presents doesn’t consistently fit his key claims of philosophical inconsistency and historical discontinuity. For example, as noted above, White claims that the Vedantic reading of the YS “completely reversed” Patanjali’s original understanding of Ishvara (50). Later, however, White writes that if “Patanjali was a practitioner of Yoga and a devotee of a personal god like Krishna, he may well have been thinking of ‘devotional to God’ when he employed the term ishvara-pranidhana” (180). Finally, he concludes that “it is unlikely that there will ever be a final word on what Patanjali meant by ishvara-pranidhana” (181).
Needless to say, this is a major problem given that much of the earlier part of the book were devoted to demonstrating that “virtually every modern-day yoga guru beginning with Swami Vivekananda” has “fundamentally misconstrued…the heart of Patanjali’s system.” Again, how did they “fundamentally misconstrue” it? By interpreting Ishvara as “the universal Self of Vedanta,” as opposed “an object of meditation” in service of “the ultimate goal of the isolation of the individual person from universal Matter” in line with the original philosophies of Yoga and Samkhya (47-48). White’s argument undercuts itself: It’s a logical contradiction to state that we can’t know whether Patanjali was “a devotee of a personal God” and that “virtually every modern-day yoga guru…fundamentally misconstrued” his understanding of Ishvara. Both statements can’t be true at the same time. Yet, they are presented as such without qualification or commentary.
There are similar problems with White’s claim of historical discontinuity. As noted above, White reports that the YS only “enjoyed the status of a classic” during the 7th-12th centuries (235). Earlier, however, he states that its “glory days” lasted up through the 16th century (44). Sixty pages after that, he qualifies this statement by adding that “yoga philosophy had been effectively dropped from the traditional north Indian brahmanic curriculum by no later than the 16th century” (100, emphasis added). Ten pages later, he notes that “there was a Yoga revival” in northwest India during the 17th-18th centuries (111). Yet, the second to last page of the book emphasizes that the YS “improbably, miraculously” recovered “the status of a classic” after “a hiatus of nearly a millennium”! (235). Again, while this claim doesn’t logically correspond to White’s own data, it’s nonetheless stated boldly, without additional clarification.
Pandit Rajmani Tigunait’s The Secret of the Yoga Sutra is the first volume in a planned series of commentaries in the YS. It focuses on the first chapter of the YS, the Samadi Pada. Written by a self-described lineage holder in the Sri Vidya tradition, it offers an exceptionally thorough exposition of how to read the YS from this particular, essentially religious perspective. Although not a position that I personally find compelling, Tigunait does an excellent job at systematically building what gradually emerges as a complex doctrinal system with steadily ascending levels of detail and complexity. His clear exposition of a wide array of complex concepts enabled me to apprehend the internal logic of his position reasonably well – a notable feat, given the difficulty of many of the ideas discussed.
The Secret’s method of devoting multiple pages of commentary to each Sutra allows Tigunait to dig deeper into the substratum of beliefs that support his interpretation of text. For example, Sutra 1:26, which is translated as “He is the one who has been the preceptor of all previous teachers for He is not limited by time,” is followed by four pages of commentary (which represents about the average length for each verse). Here, he explains many points that seemingly go far beyond the statement at hand. These include:
- the human tendency to put spiritual authorities on pedestals rather than “to turn to the One who is eternal and immortal – Ishvara”;
- what happens after death (“buried in the deep tomb of non-being, we are virtually non-existent”); and
- the process through which we are “born again” (“The light of the Omniscient Being guides us to the right place and the right time to begin our life”).
And this is only a highly simplified snippet of the full discussion, which also includes explanations of the interplay of Prakriti and Purusha, the multiple dimensions of Ishvara, and the nature of the gradual process of becoming “free from our karmic bonds and the ignorance that sustains them” (128-132).
The deeper I got into the Secret, the more it struck me as an essentially (if non-traditionally) religious work. It should be noted, however, that this interpretation in no way comports with Tigunait’s intent. On the contrary, he emphasizes that “God and liberation as described by Patanjali are quite different from God and liberation as described by most institutional religions”:
Patanjali’s God takes away all our fears, for it is an exalted state of consciousness – pure, pristine, all-pervading, and eternal. God is our inner guide, the source of inspiration. Even the prospect of experiencing this divine presence fills our mind with indescribable peace. The God of religion, on the other hand, evokes fear, and the religious concept of heaven kindles greed. Fear and greed fuel inner unrest; they agitate the mind and can never be the ground for peace . . . The purpose of Yoga sadhana is to cultivate this inwardly flowing, peaceful mind (67).
Uncharitably, one might say that such statements amount to the same “my religion is true and yours isn’t” perspective that anyone who’s been exposed to any sort of exclusivist religious tradition will be familiar with. More generously, one could say that it invokes the difference between spiritual experience that’s rooted in a yogic process of progressively quieting the mind and deepening awareness, as opposed to internalizing slews of pre-determined religious doctrine. However, the Secret itself is brimming with detailed answers to key questions that religions traditionally address: the nature of God, what happens after we die, etc. As such, it is difficult to read it as anything other than an essentially religious work.
While this may (ironically) sound blasphemous to some, I personally don’t have a problem with it. I believe in respecting different religious traditions, provided they are being interpreted and practiced in ways that generate more positivity than negativity in the world. Given that many of the most dedicated, skilled, and service-oriented yoga teachers I know have some affiliation with the Himalayan Institute, it seems that to the extent that the faith that informs the Secret has impacted their practice, it’s been in exceptionally positive ways. Consequently, although characterizing the interpretation of the YS provided by the Secret as “religious” rejects its own self-understanding, it doesn’t carry the same negative connotations that Tigunait’s own use of the term would imply.
Ostensibly, White’s Biography aims to debunk precisely the sort of “timeless” interpretation of the YS that Tigunait’s Secret claims to offer. On closer reading, however, it actually provides evidence that to the extent that there has been a tradition of YS interpretation, it has been one of reading the text through whatever mix of philosophical, religious, and cultural influences conjoin to form a compelling narrative at the time. Of course, to a cultural historian, this isn’t the least surprising: one wouldn’t expect the popular understanding of any such iconic text to stand without change across time and space.
By the same token, however, the Biography illustrates how seemingly arbitrary and erratic this ongoing process of reinterpretation can be. It shows both how much such “timeless” meanings are changed, and how closely these changes track with the dominant patterns of power, culture, and belief of their time. If unsurprising from an historical perspective, having so much such evidence of this collected in one work offers an important corrective to contemporary yoga practitioners accustomed to taking authoritative pronouncements on the “timeless” meaning of the YS at face value.
Ideally, knowing more about the constellation of meanings that has historically surrounded the YS can enable us to see more clearly how our own cultural biases may be informing how we read and interpret it today. For practitioners, having such heightened cultural self-awareness may be helpful in the process of cultural deconditioning that is part of the historic yoga tradition. More immediately, it may also enable us to orient ourselves better in the often confused and confusing context of contemporary yoga culture.
Conversely, yoga scholarship would benefit from taking the experiences of practitioners more seriously. Whether investigated using the framework of neuroscience, mind-body integration, or comparative mysticism, it’s evident that Patanjali’s exploration of yoga as “the stilling of the changing states of the mind” is profoundly important. It’s possible to recognize both that the Yoga Sutra has been interpreted in radically different ways in different times and places, and that it’s an exceptionally compelling and important work. Although the core of what makes it so can’t be definitively answered by scholarship (or, for that matter, by anything else), investigating the question nonetheless remains a powerful means of deepening human knowledge.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair . . . – Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (1859)
The “Worldwide Survey of Fitness Trends for 2015” just released by the American College of Sports Medicine once again placed yoga on their Top 10 list. Fitness industry experts noted that the staying power of yoga is remarkable. “The yoga folks surprise me every year,” study author Walter Thompson confessed to NPR:
He thought yoga would’ve gone the way of Pilates, quickly dropping off the top 20 list. But people who promote yoga, he says, have figured out ways to get new people to try it. Whether it’s Bikram yoga or power yoga, “they reinvent themselves so it continues to be popular.”
Ah, yes. Isn’t it great? From Ashtanga to Polga, yoga covers the waterfront. Whether you seek an ascetic spiritual practice or hedonistic yoga party, we’ve got it all. This incredible flexibility (pun intended) is what’s enabled yoga to remain a “recession proof” $10.3 billion industry. Viewed from a strictly commercial, big business perspective, the yoga world is in exceptionally great shape. The best of times!
Yet as J. Brown recently noted, “it’s hard times for yoga teachers.” Whoever’s making those billions, it’s not your local studio owner or teacher. On the contrary, most are finding it harder than ever to make a living in what’s become a badly over-saturated teaching market increasingly dominated by corporate studio chains.
Things may be rocking for the Core Power Yogas of the world (up to 25 studios and counting in my hometown Chicago), but it’s a different story for the little guy – perhaps even the worst of times in recent memory.
A New Low
Unfortunately, however, the problems plaguing the yoga world today get much, much worse than that.
Just when we thought we’d seen the last of the high-profile yoga “scandals” (Anusara, Kausthub Desikachar, Bikram), a new one hit the headlines. And as bad as the others were (not to put them all in the same pot – to be fair, each must be considered separately), this one, which involved the ongoing sexual, emotional, and physical abuse of children at Australia’s Satyananda Yoga Ashram during the 1970s-80s, is even more tragic, shocking, and deeply disillusioning than the rest.
True, the crimes at the Mangrove Mountain ashram are decades past now. The fact that it took this long for the survivors to be heard and that the center was under the auspices of the prestigious Bihar School of Yoga that entire time, however, is yet another disgracing stain on what had long been seen as a venerable yoga lineage.
Piled on top of the earlier history of reported abuses by prominent yoga gurus, one can only wonder why anyone would remain loyal to the guru-based lineage model. Because whatever valuable role it may have played in the past, it’s evident that it’s produced unacceptably high levels of dysfunction and tragedy in our world today.
To be sure, not all modern lineages have been plagued by abuse. But the most important of those that stood untainted by scandal are gone: B.K.S. Iyengar passed in 2014, Pattabhi Jois in 2009. Further, the all-too-human foibles of these venerable teachers are being openly discussed in ways that was simply not done in the recent past. In today’s jaded, commercialized yoga culture, the godly halo that was once projected onto such leaders is gone.
The upshot is that the narrative that once assured sincere practitioners that a series of great gurus had arisen – men with the power to plug us directly back into the power and wisdom of an ancient spiritual practice – has cracked. In fact, it appears broken beyond repair.
This generally isn’t a concern for the newest generation of students, most of whom have no clue whosoever what the significance of the lineage model might be. For many longtime practitioners, however, its breakdown has produced a profound sense of disorientation and loss – as well as, in some cases, grief, anger, and shame.
At least in some quarters, then, there’s a painful sense that yoga writ large has fallen into very bad times indeed – a veritable season of Darkness.
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
- “Anthem,” Leonard Cohen (1992)
When you put these two trends together – the boom in corporate yoga and the bust of the lineage model – the state of yoga today can look quite bleak. Of course, if you’re only interested in “workout yoga,” none of these bigger picture issues matter. The more that you’re invested in yoga as a meaningful mind-body-spirit practice and/or an ancient (if diverse and evolving) tradition, however, the more there’s cause for concern.
Nonetheless, I personally feel much more hopeful about the future of yoga than I did a few years ago. In part, this is because I’ve become more accepting of things that I don’t like about the field. I’ve also become more confident, however, that what I love about it really does matter. Plus, I’m in the fortunate position of being able to connect with a lot of great people who are doing exciting, inspiring work in the yoga community, both in Chicago and beyond.
From this vantage point, I see the breakdown of the guru-based lineage model as opening important new avenues for yoga teaching, philosophy, ethics, service, community building, and more. I’m jazzed by path-breaking collaborative writing projects (Yoga and Body Image, 21st Century Yoga); newly ambitious social service and activist organizations (Yoga Service Council, OTM); and unprecedented studies of the lived experience of contemporary practice (WAWADIA, Survivors on the Yoga Mat). I’m also excited about the explosion of interest in the healing power of yoga for trauma, and in bringing yoga to major social institutions such as schools, hospitals, and prisons.
There’s also a lot of great work going on that I’m less directly involved in. The Bhakti Yoga/Kirtan scene is vibrant. The field of modern yoga studies is slowly but surely gaining a foothold in the academy. New approaches to understating anatomy, movement, and the physical body promise to enhance our knowledge of asana tremendously.
In these and other creative, yoga-inspired initiatives, I see people integrating their passion for yoga with the rest of their lives – and their communities, and the world. This is exciting, promising, and badly needed in a society that’s inundated with physical, emotional, and spiritual malaise and suffering. Plus, I believe this new wave of work is well in line with the spirit of the modern yoga represented by leaders such as Swami Vivekananda and Sri T. Krishnamacharya. Many of the leading figures in the development of modern yoga in early 20th century India were revolutionaries. And they weren’t afraid to change tradition in order to keep its deeper spirit alive.
My hope for the yoga world in 2015 is that more and more practitioners will make the warrior’s choice to practice in ways that seek the Light and stare down the Dark. That strive for wisdom while accepting the inevitability of foolishness. That keep the faith without doing so blindly. That inspire hope while having compassion for despair. And that learn through hard-won experience that no matter how bad the times may be, the human spirit has infinite capacity for renewal.
This post was written for YogaDork’s “State of the Union 2014-15″ series and is cross-posted with permission here.
I watched the video footage of Eric Garner’s arrest and death last night after I heard the verdict, which shocked me. And now I can’t get those images and the feelings they generate out of my mind and heart.
I find myself thinking back to when Obama gave his acceptance speech in Chicago in 2008 and how those of us who had supported him and worked for the campaign felt that we were witnessing history, that this election was a pivotal event we’d collectively created together. I remember how that night felt suffused with a sense of joy mingled with disbelief. I remember seeing two women in the crowd at the rally at Grant Park hugging and spontaneously falling onto their knees together, laughing and crying, overcome with emotion. They were African American and I’m White but I felt their feelings were my feelings, and that we were both part of a bigger wave that was carrying this country up and out of our history of racial tragedy toward something brighter.
Now it’s six years later and I’ve never felt so dispirited about the state of American society. I read comments about Eric Garner and Michael Brown on social media and am unspeakably dismayed to see endless strings of excuses about why they deserved to be choked or shot by police, as if reasonable people should easily see that this is all perfectly acceptable, not out of line at all. I can’t find the words to adequately express how I feel about this; everything sounds trite.
I want to change those beliefs, but I don’t know how. I think that denouncing people as racists only fuels more reactivity and hate. I believe that education can change hearts and minds, but it takes a long time and supportive circumstances. And that’s very hard to come by today.
I thought through this territory years ago back when I was in grad school and came to the conclusion that until a critical mass of Americans understands that our problems of race and class inequality are and always have been intertwined, and takes action to address both at the same time, we’ll never be able to unwind the patterns that fuel those divisions. Racist beliefs have historically been bound up with the larger gulf between wealth/power/status and impoverishment/disempowerment/marginalization, and that remains true today. But these class dynamics are legitimated and hidden from view, while the racial ones are amped up and distorted.
Seeing this pattern doesn’t give me the answers I want about how to change them. When I was younger, I’d assumed that it would, but it didn’t. I’m still looking.
I so appreciate the people who are out in the streets protesting while keeping it peaceful because they’re showing me that it’s still possible to transform rage and grief into hope and determination. Meanwhile, I’m just sitting here at my computer, feeling lost and depleted and sad. But sometimes we need to take some time for grieving. And so for the moment, I’m OK with that.
But I can’t imagine how enraged and scared for my children I’d be right now if I were Black. My oldest son is 16, and I’m well aware that in the past few years, I’ve felt a sense of worry when he goes around the city with his Black friends that I don’t feel otherwise. There’s no question in my mind that he’s much more likely to get in a confrontation with the police when he’s with them. One, the son of two doctors, was already stopped by the police while driving in Lincoln Park, one of the whiter and wealthier neighborhoods in the city. In that case, nothing bad happened, but it’s still sobering and scary. I could give numerous anecdotes like this.
Looked at from the more positive side, though, I see connections between kids today that bridge racial divides much more openly and authentically than I ever experienced back when I was that age. It may not be the norm, but it is happening. And it gives me some hope.
And I start to think that maybe that the wave of positive feeling I experienced back in 2008 wasn’t a mirage, as it often now seems. I do believe that there are a lot of us – Black, White, Asian, Latino, whatever – that want to create a more just society. I don’t know how that’s going to happen, and am not sure it ever will. But when I remember how much good will there still is out there, it gives me heart. Which I realize seems woefully inadequate. But I’m still hoping that it will somehow lead to something more.
And that’s all I’ve got at the moment.
Note: Most people reading this are probably be too young to remember the 1980 election and Reagan’s “Morning in America” themed campaign. But I remember it well and trace many of our current problems back to the negative political choices made during that time. My title for this post is in part a reference to that.
As a proud member of the Yoga and Body Image Coalition, I’m pleased to see public discussion of the problems of having yoga so strongly associated with images of bendy-pretty white women (finally) taking off. As an “older yogi” who’s also been around the block a few times, however, I’m also well aware that progress on one set of difficult issues inevitably generates new ones in its wake. In this case, I’ve become concerned that the well-justified backlash against the role of “skinny white girl” imagery in contemporary yoga culture is encouraging some misguided, and at times misogynistic put downs of people who happen to fit that demographic.
In her recent Quartz article, “How Americans Ruined Yoga for the Rest of the World,” Michelle Garcia reports how disgusted she was to find that even in what should rightfully be the white chick-free zone of the “new studio around the block from my apartment in Harlem,” the receptionist working the front desk was a “blonde waif with a face scrubbed free of character.” Her contempt for such bimbos is palpable: “This is the land of pricy Lululemon gear where yogis fit their lotus between a mani/pedi and a cocktail . . . Only in yoga will people chant in a foreign language, oblivious to the meaning of the words and then closely examine their curves in pants now worn by porn stars.”
What shallow idiots, right? What stupid women.
Stereotypes and Misogyny
To be fair, Garcia goes on to say some positive things about yoga (“it works”), highlighting examples of work that’s “changing the conversation about yoga and femininity.” By the time we get there, however, we’ve already gotten the message that the specific group of Americans that has “ruined yoga for the rest of the world” is none other than that same herd of self-absorbed, body-obsessed white women who colonized her Harlem studio. These people, it’s suggested, are contemptibly shallow, happily trampling an ancient spiritual practice in the dirt in the stampede to hone their “yoga butts.”
Just because a woman wrote this article doesn’t mean there can’t be any misogyny there. On the contrary, it’s incredibly common for members of socially stereotyped groups to internalize many of the powerful cultural messages relayed to them via that typecasting, whether they want to or not. Even women who’ve worked hard to develop a strong feminist consciousness can find themselves falling into thought patterns that reduce other women – and/or themselves – to dehumanized objects, rather than multi-dimensional beings.
And, of course, there is a racial angle at play here as well. Everyone is well aware that the ubiquitous “yoga babe” image is prototypically white. As always, this intersection of race and gender carries a particular cultural valence (which in this case, it should be added, also has a distinctively upper-middle class “aspirational” dimension as well). Stereotypically, this white feminine imaginary may be celebrated as a representation of happiness, serenity, and “niceness.” By the same token, however, it’s not championing female intelligence, courage, or power.
As a result, it’s easy for the reaction against “yoga babe” imagery to conflate pretty white women with shallow stupidity in real life. When this happens, the power of the stereotype remains intact: it’s simply turned around from being an object of “inspiration” to one of denigration. Either way, however, the true humanity of the flesh-and-blood, body and soul person whose looks fit that basic mold is erased.
Just yesterday, the webzine Well + Good published an article asking “Does Yoga Have a Skinny White Girl Problem?” The provocative title had little to do with the post’s content, which was a nice report on the Yoga and Body Image Coalition. But, this popular site knows its click bait. There’s more than one way of exploiting images of pretty white women: If it’s not time to idealize them, you can always hate on them.
Reaction vs. Liberation
In all honesty, I can relate to the sense of rage Garcia expressed in discovering that what she’d assumed to be a personally safe, culturally comfortable space (i.e., a local studio in her Harlem neighborhood) seemed instead to have been colonized by women whose self-presentation alienated her on a deep, visceral level. Back when I first started exploring the yoga blogosphere in 2010, I was scandalized, upset, and disoriented to discover that something like “yoga for weight loss” was infinitely more popular than anything I cared about when it came to yoga. And while I’ve more or less come to terms with it, I still often find the endless parade of images of impossibly skinny, pretty, bendy young white yoga babes in print and social media deflating and depressing.
But, I also know that while this much-hyped “yoga body” is a maddeningly effective sales tool, it’s not real life. This isn’t to say that it’s not important in the “real world”: on the contrary, it most certainly is. (At least, as much as anything is today that doesn’t directly address our most pressing issues, like climate change.) But the reason it’s important is because it’s a cultural symbol. As such, it doesn’t even try to represent the true complexity of a real human being. On the contrary, the unstated goal is precisely the opposite: to reduce us (or at least, those of us who are part of the targeted demographic) to a simpler, and presumably more manageable version of ourselves.
The yoga babe image that’s now causing such a backlash taps into a lot of highly charged tropes concerning the meaning of beauty, control, power, respectability, and achievement. But, like all successful commercial imagery, it’s designed to sell some targeted demographic the sense that they can easily obtain these qualities by buying into this one neat package (whether literally or figuratively). Thus, those who identify with the image find it “inspiring.” Those who don’t identity with it may alternatively find it irrelevant, hurtful, or enraging. Very often, however, it provokes a strong emotional response – even when we might wish that it didn’t.
What we really need are better alternatives, not angry reactions. That’s why the work of the Yoga and Body Image Coalition is so important. We understand that this movement is not about tearing down pretty-bendy white women, or anyone else. On the contrary, it’s about defusing the power of cultural tropes that define the “yoga body” in terms of stereotypical feminine imagery. To the extent it’s successful, it will be liberating for anyone who’s affected by such imagery – which means most of us, as it’s exceedingly rare to have advanced in your practice enough to have fully unraveled the imprint of such cultural conditioning.
Yoga is hard work. But when we support each other in our practice, it’s a lot easier – and more fun. We don’t have to be driven by negative emotions to participate in projects of cultural critique and political change. Working together, we can co-create a joyful process of conscious evolution.
I’ve watched and appreciated the burgeoning conversation over yoga and body image, and am a proud member of the Yoga and Body Image Coalition. But, truth be told, issues of body image aren’t that compelling to me on a personal level. I know they’re important, and care about them for that reason. But my interest is more sociological than personal. Ever the ex-political science professor, I want to figure out: Why do so many women today seem so overly wrapped around the axle on body image issues? Why do most of the middle school girls in my son’s school insist on dressing up in super-short, super-tight, super-revealing dresses and high heels they can hardly walk in on special occasions? Why the explosion in eating disorders? Why don’t more women fight back more fiercely against the media barrage of Photoshopped imagery? Why do they seem to stay overly obsessed with it, even as they criticize and reject it?
All these are interesting questions (at least to me). But, I’m not going to try and answer them here. Instead, I’d like to contribute to the one relatively small side-current of the yoga and body image discussion that does feel more personally relevant to me: that is, the one concerning (as the inspiring Charlotte Bell put it recently) “the aging yoga body.”
I’m 52. And I do find myself regularly marveling at “how old” I am. I’m well aware of the fact that my age makes me relatively ancient in the yoga world, not to mention the blogosphere. (Most women my age only deal with social media if they want to track their kids’ activities, not as some independent project of their own.) When I reflect on aging and yoga, however, my thoughts aren’t about not being able to do the kick-ass poses of my youth (easy enough as I never had a particularly kick-ass practice anyway), that I’ve become more “creaky” (I’m actually substantially more flexible now than when I was younger), that I can’t keep up with the hot babes on Instagram (which I can’t imagine wanting to do even if I could), or whatever. None of those issues seem interesting or relevant to me.
Even if it’s true that (as one recent blog put it) “old is the new fat” in our youth-obsessed yoga culture, my gut reaction to such statements feel positively connected to my age, not negatively impacted by it. Which is to say that: I’m old enough that the first rock concert I attended was seeing Patti Smith on her “Horses” at the Aragon Ballroom in Chicago. I remember the 1970s counter-culture and absorbed enough of that post-hippie, second wave feminist, punk rock vibe to be able to say: I don’t care.
And I wonder if today’s young women are suffering because they don’t have the benefit of being able to tap into the same sort of rebellious, defiant, yet also in many ways hopeful alternative culture that I did. I can’t really say . . . I have two sons, and no daughters, and feel out of touch with the deeper currents of that part of our culture. But what I see from afar is a lot of young women making themselves crazy trying to fit into socially prescribed categories that they’d be better off simply rejecting in favor of something more authentic, empowering, and meaningful.
I sense a constriction of the cultural imagination today that didn’t exist when I was younger. And yes, I know that the competitive pressures in education and the job market are much more intense. Still, I don’t see why more women just don’t say “f*ck that noise” when it comes to a lot of these body image-related issues. I see a lot of discussion that appears to go around and around, with endless reassurances that we’re all beautiful in our own way, perfect in our imperfection, etc., etc.
But wouldn’t it be simpler to reject the beauty-and-perfection paradigm altogether? In my mind, the answer is obviously “yes.” But I don’t see a groundswell of young women doing that. Maybe I don’t know where to look. But I do feel that being older helps me to just not care so much about such paradigmatic feminine pressures. Age – in this and many other respects – is really not so bad. In fact, it can actually be a source of relief from the bullshit pressures and preoccupations that otherwise drain your energy, and dirty your line of connection to deeper sources of meaning in your life.
Yoga has played and continues to play a key role in enabling me to remain absorbed in a wholly different set of issues. My practice enables me to refocus my attention, over and over again, on very different dimensions of life, such as: Seeing, really seeing, the magical beauty of the autumn leaves, the frost-tinged grass, the prairie sky, the century-old trees when I take my dog out for a walk on an otherwise ordinary Chicago morning. Being amazed that after so many years of doing Down Dog, I’m still discovering something new in the pose. Developing a greater and greater ability to experience joy, pain, frustration, anxiety, love, sadness, and the full spectrum of human emotion while still staying in touch with a peaceful inner core of awareness. And so much more.
I’m so, so bored by articles that chirpily reassure women that it’s possible to be “50 and Fabulous!” Because what they’re really communicating is that it’s possible to be 50, but look younger, and therefore not feel fully washed up. This is just such misleading bullshit. And while I get why there’s a market for it (and don’t deny that I’d prefer to look younger than I really am, too), it makes me feel sad for older women and even more worried about younger ones who buy into that mentality.
It must be really depressing to grow up feeling that the best you can hope for as you age is to find ways to make it seem like you’re really not growing older at all. What does such a standard give younger women to look forward to? Getting successful face-lifts? Discovering the best new anti-aging diet? What sort of way is this to spend your life? It is a waste; an utter squandering of your energy and life force.
The friends that I’ve have stayed closest to through the decades agree that however we feel about aging, the bottom line is that we’re much happier now than when we were younger. And that happiness doesn’t rest on the fact that we’ve “succeeded” or “failed” in getting married, having kids, getting degrees, landing jobs, buying houses, or any other such standardized markers of adult achievement. Not to say that such things aren’t important – of course, they are. But as you get older, you inevitably find that even if you hit the goals you wanted, they don’t turn out to be what you thought they were.
What matters is developing yourself as a human being. That means growing into a state of being where you’re as ready to die with grace and gratitude for a life well lived as you can possibly be. Aging can be your ally in this process. Whatever your age, gender, or appearance, you have the power to reject the hype that says that your worth depends on what you look like.
That’s easier said than done, I know. But one thing that aging really brings home to you is that life really does go by quite fast. I believe that it’s worth fighting for what you feel is deeply meaningful in your life. And I think that you should rebel against whatever forces pressure your psyche to shut that process down.
Without question, such shut-down pressures will come, and come back again. But true beauty is found in the determination and struggle to live full out. You can’t find it in the mirror. If you look closely, though, you’ll see whether that spark of spirit is still alive in the eyes. And even if it’s not, human beings are blessed with amazing resilience. With love, courage, and faith, even the dimmest embers can be reanimated with the breath of life.
That’s why the ancients called it Prana.
Note: It was just announced today that Patti Smith received a personal invitation from Pope Francis to perform live at the Vatican Christmas Concert this year, and accepted.
Having tracked news stories on yoga, mindfulness, and meditation for several years now, I’ve become accustomed to the endless stream of announcements of relevant books, blogs, conferences, workshops, festivals, research initiatives and the like that cascades through my news feed daily. Simply because there’s so much of it, today’s high level of interest in these mind-body practices has come to feel natural, even inevitable.
When I stop to think about it, however, I realize just how remarkable this situation really is. Personally, I’m old enough to remember when yoga was seen as a weird practice favored by hippies, while meditation was only for Buddhists and mindfulness largely unknown. Plus, having studied the history of these practices, I know that their current level of popularity is – strange as it may seem to say it – unprecedented in human history.
This fact becomes even more remarkable when I reflect that the recent explosion of yoga, meditation, and mindfulness in the U.S. has coincided with plummeting levels of public confidence in the value, integrity, and functionality of our foundational institutions, as well as the social fabric more generally. Again, I’m old enough to remember when there was a sense of widespread faith in promise of American democracy (strange as that may sound today). Yet, I’ve become so used to the endless stream of negative news about American political dysfunction, economic inequality, racial conflict, environmental irresponsibility and the like that this, too, feels natural, and even inevitable.
Distrust in government is at record highs; faith in the future at historic lows. Divided into mutually hostile “red versus blue” blocs that don’t understand or respect each other, the only thing Americans seem to agree on is that the overall state of our society seems dismal.
This inquiring mind wants to know: What’s the connection here? Why have the popularity of yoga, meditation, and mindfulness hit unprecedented highs, even while levels of cultural confidence, cohesion, and harmony have fallen dismally low? Is this simply a coincidence? Or are there important connections here?
We don’t need to answer such questions conclusively to make thinking into them worthwhile. Doing so opens up other, even more important areas of inquiry, such as: How can those of us who care about yoga, meditation, and mindfulness work with these practices most skillfully today? More pointedly, do these traditionally individualistic practices have a potentially important role to play in healing our sick society?
Of course, many yoga, meditation, and mindfulness advocates have a ready response to these questions: How to practice? Just do it! The main thing is just to get started with something and stick with it as much as you can. Will it help society? Of course! As you can’t change society without changing yourself, any practice you do automatically improves the rest of the world in the process.
I don’t know how to say this nicely, but . . . while I recognize that such views are widely, fervently, and most sincerely held, I also believe that they’re rooted in wishful thinking and unconscious denial, not real life.
Which isn’t to say that there’s no truth to them at all. Certainly, I agree with the view that it’s best to remain open-minded about how best to begin (and continue) with mind-body practices, as different people need different things at different times. There’s no one-size-fits-all “right answer.” Anyone who claims otherwise is either blinded by fundamentalism, suffering from megalomania, or trying to sell you a bill of goods.
I also agree that yoga, meditation, and mindfulness can be transformative for individuals, and that even more mundane versions of these practices (e.g., a good yoga class at the gym) can – and frequently do – have very positive effects. I think it’s critical to keep in mind, however, that they can have negative ones as well. These may be physical (e.g., injuries from asana or even an overly zealous sitting practice), psychological (e.g., practicing in ways that support emotional distancing or delusional beliefs), or even spiritual (e.g., becoming deeply entangled with powerful teachers on abusive power trips). All these problems (and more) are actually quite common.
Logically, if individual outcomes are so variable, then any related social outcomes will be even more so. Of course, it’s quite possible to practice in ways that inspire, inform, and support positive engagement with one’s community, society, and environment. In order for this to happen, however, it has to be intentional – and integrated with everyday life, not restricted to the mat or cushion. Like anything else, we have to work at it. Otherwise, there’s no necessary connection between yoga, meditation, and mindfulness practices and pro-social outcomes – or even any pre-packaged set of outcomes at all.
While simple enough, this basic fact of the potentially variable outcomes of yoga, meditation, and mindfulness tends to be widely unacceptable, if not controversial in practitioner circles. In part, this is because it can be legitimately confusing. As a longtime yoga practitioner, for example, I know that while the practice has benefitted me enormously, pursuing it has also led me down some blind alleys that I had to work hard to get out of. And if it’s true that that’s all part of the practice, it’s also true that it’s possible to get stuck in some dark places.
The fact that even committed and experienced practitioners can (and almost certainly will) encounter some challenging twists and turns on their path can be difficult to accept. It may be hard to see it at all, even when you’re in the middle of it. It’s scary to think into the reality of uncertainty. And while this, too, it part of the practice, it’s much easier said than done.
And, of course, confessions of uncertainty don’t sell well.
In fact, I think the primary reason it’s so difficult to have yoga, meditation, and mindfulness enthusiasts accept that these practices have widely variable outcomes is that they’re so commonly hawked as virtually foolproof techniques for improving health, reducing stress, gaining insight, finding inner peace, or whatever – and, as an added bonus, automatically improving the whole world in the process.
There are a lot of factors feeding into this marketing juggernaut, including the need for teachers to sell their services to survive, the widespread belief in mechanistic models of healing, and the easy faith in practices presumed to tap into the ancient wisdom of the “mystic East.” Combined with the fact that these practices do, in fact, work wonderfully well in one way or another for millions of people, it’s easy to see why they’ve been sucked into the standardized marketing machinery that processes so much of American culture. We’re sold these practices as infallible cure-alls. We want them to deliver, and in many ways, they do. That’s a powerful combination, and offer an attractive psychic anchor to hold onto in our rapidly changing, high-stress society.
From this perspective, it’s easy to see why Slavoj Žižek’s critique of “Western Buddhism” has resonated so widely among politically-minded practitioners of yoga, meditation, and mindfulness alike:
Although “Western Buddhism” presents itself as the remedy against the stressful tension of capitalist dynamics, allowing us to uncouple and retain inner peace and Gelassenheit, it actually functions as its perfect ideological supplement . . . Instead of trying to cope with the accelerating rhythm of techno-logical progress and social changes, one should rather renounce the very endeavor to retain control over what goes on, rejecting it as the expression of the modern logic of domination. One should, instead, “let oneself go,” drift along, while retaining an inner distance and indifference toward the mad dance of accelerated process, a distance based on the insight that all this social and technological upheaval is ultimately just a non-substantial proliferation of semblances that do not really concern the innermost kernel of our being . . The “Western Buddhist” meditative stance is arguably the most efficient way for us to fully participate in capitalist dynamics while retaining the appearance of mental sanity.
In fact, one could argue that it’s even worse than Žižek imagined. It’s not simply that “Western Buddhism” provides a set of ideas and practices that enable people to feel comfortable disconnecting from any sense of social engagement. It also offers an alternative set of beliefs that reassure those who want to effect social change that the best way they can do this is by simply sitting on their cushions and meditating (or, by extension, practicing asana or mindfully drinking tea). Whether you want to improve or renounce our crazy society, in other words, you can feel supported in pursing an identical course of social withdrawal and political disengagement.
To a certain extent, this is a compelling critique. And, it’s one that I feel that anyone who’s teaching yoga, meditation, or mindfulness today should at least try to understand. Ultimately, however, I find it to be irritatingly myopic, one-sided, and self-righteous.
There are several reasons for this. First, yoga, meditation, and mindfulness do help many people cope with the stress of everyday life today in remarkably healthy ways. Even if their practice never moves past the point of being a coping mechanism, pure and simple, I still see it as a good thing. Certainly, this way of coping is much better than many others out there, which are often unhealthy, if not addictive and destructive (e.g., substance abuse, shopping addiction, eating disorders).
Second, who’s to say that a well-considered world-renouncing position is inherently wrong? In my view, we only have one life to live, and if someone wants to spend it meditating in a cave, exploring the outer reaches of consciousness, more power to them. To be fair, Žižek was not, of course, writing about traditional renunciates. Still, the same point holds by extension. If someone has seriously considered their spiritual commitments (as opposed to blindly swallowing some preset package of beliefs) and concluded that social engagement is simply not part of their path, I don’t see anything wrong with that. It’s not for everyone, and that’s OK.
Third, Leftist critics such as Žižek have a maddening tendency to recycle new iterations of the same old quasi-Marxist paradigm over and over again without even attempting to come to grips with the enormous legacy of problems associated with it. Abstracting from any concrete consideration of historical experience and current conditions, capitalism is sensationally presented as an all-encompassing, monolithic system that must be smashed at any and all costs in order to usher in some undefined utopian society. The upshot is a traditionally masculinist romanticizing of “revolutionary” violence that takes great pleasure in denouncing all that currently exists without feeling any authentic sense of caring or connection to anyone or anything at all.
We can do better. I’d like to propose that politically-minded practitioners critical of our culture’s easy tendency to sell yoga, meditation, and mindfulness as cure-all pills with no possible side effects (that will solve your problems and those of society in only 15 minutes a day, etc.) stop citing Žižek as an authoritative critical voice. Instead, let’s start sharing ideas and practices that promise to integrate processes of individual and social transformation in ways that speak to the needs and concerns of our selves, our society, and our planet today.
Of course, there’s a lot of great work going on in this regard already, and some of it has been around for awhile (e.g., socially engaged Buddhism). By and large, however, these efforts seem very disjointed. The yoga community, for example, tends to be siloed off from the worlds of meditation and mindfulness. Yet, anyone who’s experienced the deeper dimensions of yoga knows without meditative awareness (or mindfulness if you prefer that term), asana practice is nothing but exercise. Alternatively, meditation or mindfulness practices that instill a sense of disconnect from the body foster emotional disconnection and even dissociation.
If yoga, meditation, and mindfulness practices are being sold simply as exercise, performance enhancement, and stress relief, experienced practitioners know there is much more to them than that. In my view, all are essentially modern methods of working with the modern self: that is, systematic methods of exploring and developing the nature and mystery of our own being that work well within the particular contexts of modernity and post-modernity. In many respects, they are not that different from psychoanalysis, which initially emerged during the same historical period. But, that’s a story for a different time. (Note: This isn’t to suggest that asana and meditation practices don’t have ancient roots; they do. Rather, it’s acknowledging that the constellation of ideas and practices that we’re familiar today represent distinctly modern formations that first emerged during the late 19th/early 20th centuries.)
Ever since translations of Indian sacred texts first became available in the U.S., some of our most important cultural and political leaders, such as Henry David Thoreau and Martin Luther King, Jr., have felt these ancient ideas and the practices associated with them offer something important, and potentially transformative to our modernized, globalized, and technologically-driven world. I share this feeling, and am confident many others do as well. The trick is to coalesce our work into a more coherent movement that challenges contemporary social and political dysfunction, rather than simply accommodating to it. In the process, we can co-create a new vision of an alternative culture in which holistic health and spiritual meaning are actively embraced as social, and not simply individual values. Given the unprecedentedly high levels of public interest in yoga, meditation, and mindfulness today, the time to launch such a collaborative project is now.
During the past several years, I’ve participated actively in the rising tide of critical commentary on the state of yoga today as a writer, teacher, and activist. As such, I’ve been tracking its development pretty closely, and been truly surprised by how quickly it’s grown. On the whole, I’ve naturally tended to see this in a very positive light: Perhaps needless to say, I believe it’s critically important that issues such as teacher abuse, asana injury, and body image are discussed openly, rather than hushed up and swept under the mat (so to speak).
Nonetheless, I’ve had a gnawing feeling for some time now that the collective discussion may have reached a problematic tipping point. What had only recently been a pent-up demand for an honest airing of pressing issues may have morphed into a habit of negative commentary with its own internal momentum – at least on social media, which I see as the most important forum for broad-based public discussion.
This concerns me. Relentless criticism becomes its own problem if it’s not adequately balanced by good news and inspiring commentary. After a certain point, it starts sapping positive energy by undercutting the collective sense of being involved in a meaningful enterprise with something important to contribute to the world.
Yoga’s Hidden Backbone
For this reason, I wanted to take the time to celebrate the uncounted multitudes of committed teachers and serious students who have never made yoga headlines – whether positive or negative – and, most likely, never will. Neither villains nor celebrities, their names simply aren’t known outside of local circles. They wouldn’t appear in any “who’s who” of yoga. They don’t attract thousands of followers on social media. But their efforts are what combine to form the real backbone of yoga in the world today.
Without their work, there wouldn’t be anything worth criticizing, because there wouldn’t be any meaningful practice to build on. There wouldn’t be millions of people who care deeply about yoga because they know that it’s helped them in profoundly important ways. There wouldn’t be yoga classes available everywhere from affluent urban neighborhoods to isolated rural communities and impoverished inner-city schools. There wouldn’t be a shared sense of deep caring about this modern mind-body practice, which we are only starting to understand in more in-depth, robust, and multifaceted ways.
True, there might still be a commercialized “yoga industry” that profits off hawking an idealized “yoga body.” But anyone who thinks that’s all that’s driving the passion for yoga today is sadly out of touch with everyday reality on the ground.
To be sure, there are plenty of poorly taught classes and shallow marketing schemes out there. There are also, however, a lot of dedicated, caring teachers who are making a lot of personal sacrifices to pursue something they love sincerely. Their work is benefiting countless numbers of students who are challenging themselves to open their bodies, minds, and spirits to the practice, willing themselves to do the hard work that deep learning necessarily involves.
Ordinary, Yet Extraordinary
I’m lucky to live in Chicago, which has a robust yoga scene that remains nicely insulated from the hype, flash, and pretension that thrive on the Coasts. That said, I immediately want to add that some of the most amazing yoga teachers I know live in New York and California! – so, I don’t mean to disrespect the excellent work that happens there. As a Midwesterner, however, I feel comparatively more attuned to less glamorous settings than LA, San Francisco, and Manhattan. I know, for example, that there’s incredible, transformative yoga being practiced in such pedestrian places as Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Living in flyover country, I feel plugged into an invisible network of practitioners that doesn’t register on the yoga magazine and social media radar. And there’s no doubt in my mind that it’s touching many lives in positive, powerful ways.
The ripple effects of good teaching and solid practice go far beyond the yoga community per se. For example, I know that yoga helps me as a parent, which means that it helps my kids, even if they never set foot on a mat (which, in fact, they don’t). I practice regularly with two friends who are both therapists. They see multiple clients a week, and have done a lot of work with kids traumatized by violence in one of Chicago’s worst neighborhoods. To the extent that yoga helps them with their personal lives and professional work – which it does – it indirectly helps their clients, as well. And from there, the positive energies spread further.
We never know how many lives we touch. But we are all interconnected – and, in our networked, globalized world, more so now than ever. Yoga is only one of many human practices with the potential to generate positive, healing power in the world. It’s an important one, however, with exceptionally wide resonance today.
As the yoga community grapples with the confusions and dislocations of an historic paradigm shift, it’s more important than ever to celebrate the contributions of the untold numbers of not-so “ordinary” teachers and students who are quietly doing extraordinary work. It’s their dedication to harnessing their practice to the best in themselves that plugs it into something mysterious, powerful, and beautiful. The fact that they are willing to do this work without the perks of widespread public recognition – and with the many intense pressures of everyday life – makes it that much more meaningful. The positive energy they generate connects, catalyzes, and spreads outwards in ever-widening circles. The collective force created helps light up our troubled, suffering world.
Note: The title phrase “unsung heroines” is intended to recognize and honor the fact that most yoga teachers and students today are women. Nonetheless, it’s not meant to be gender-specific or exclusive. The same message applies to men, as well as those who identify with neither gender.
According to their recent press release, YJ has “2 million print readers, 1 million unique Web users, 1.2 million Facebook fans, half a million newsletter subscribers, and 11 international editions,” making it “the number-one, leading yoga media brand in the world.” That’s a wide reach, and a lot of media influence. I care about what Yoga Journal does because I care about how yoga is being taught in the world – and magazines, web platforms, and social media are powerful ways in which people transmit ideas and information and, for better or worse, learn about yoga today.
So when I got YJ’s new “Body Issue” in the mail yesterday (I have a subscription through my yoga teacher insurance policy), I was truly interested to see what it would contain. As soon as I could, I sat down and read/skimmed through the whole thing, cover to cover. And because I think that what happens with YJ is important to the yoga community and beyond, I wanted to share my thoughts, and encourage others to do the same.
Bottom line: I found the “new” issue to be both encouraging and disturbing. It’s encouraging in that it reveals the work of a thoughtful, intelligent editorial team, which, by all appearances, seems committed to the project of communicating images and ideas about yoga intended to make the practice safer, healthier, and more empowering for a much wider range of people. The visuals and writing reflect a new dedication to being more inclusive and diverse. There’s also evident support for the growing yoga service and outreach movement. Further, articles promoting fair trade, veganism, and local food sourcing communicate the message that yoga, properly understood, extends far beyond asana to include active concern for other people, animals, and our environment. All of this is really good, and encouraging. There is a lot to celebrate in the new, “rebranded” Yoga Journal.
But. Precisely because of these commitments, the issue also inadvertently highlights just how big the disjuncture between the healthy versus the dysfunctional sides of yoga has become. On the one hand, the magazine shares some authentic, inspiring, and deeply positive stories and images that communicate the healing, transformative possibilities of a truly mindful practice. On the other, thanks to Chelsea Roff’s excellent article, it also presents some exceptionally graphic, hard-hitting reporting on how yoga has been increasingly turned into a practice that can encourage body dysmorphia and physical, psychological, and emotional self-harm.
Of course, insofar as the “rebranding” brings such literally life-threatening problems to light, it’s important and good, regardless of how disturbing the news it communicates may be. But here’s the twister: While the “Body Issue” frankly acknowledges that there’s a huge shadow side to yoga today, it does so in a context that in many ways perpetuates the very same problems it’s critiquing.
The “Body Issue’s” unacknowledged internal contradictions makes reading it a strangely contradictory experience: encouraging for the many positive steps it makes toward developing a more healthy and inclusive practice, and disturbing for the dysfunctional silences surrounding content that’s part of the very same set of problems being critiqued.
A Maze of Contradictions
Here’s some concrete examples of how the “new” Yoga Journal presents a contradictory mix of images and information that’s simultaneously encouraging and disturbing:
Page 40: This is a standout page in terms of breaking out of the “old” YJ paradigm, which tended to make everyone who couldn’t identity with an idealized image of a thin, bendy, beautiful, white, heteronormative yogini feel marginalized and/or inadequate. There’s an eye-catching photo of self-described “fat, black yoga teacher” Dianne Bondy in Ustrasana, looking authentically lovely and real. Part of a set of six short excerpts from the forthcoming anthology, Yoga and Body Image: 25 Personal Stories About Beauty, Bravery, & Loving Your Body, Dianne’s quote also succinctly acknowledges the continued reality of racism in North American societies, an explosive topic that the “old” YJ would have likely avoided entirely.
Perhaps even more startlingly, YJ editors saw fit to highlight a quote form Teo Drake’s essay about how yoga helped him make the transition from female to male. Such de facto support for transgender rights is certainly controversial and a bold move on the “new” YJ’s part.
Pages 42-43: Turning the page to continue reading the “Yoga and Body Image” excerpts, one encounters a strange sight. One the left side of the spread, we find a hard-hitting statement from Kate McIntyre Clere, Director of “Yogawoman,” about how she wants to raise her daughter to be free from body image issues by “bringing a conscious and critical eye to the media, challenging the capitalist business model.” Yet, on the right-hand side of the spread, what do we find but a full-page ad of Kathryn Budig – the same woman who’s on the cover and the leading figurehead of the “rebranding” charge – in her oh-so-familiar incarnation as Our Naked Lady of Toesox Perfection, Beauty, and Bliss.
Sorry to be snarky, but . . . huh? I found the juxtaposition of content on these two pages to be really, really strange. Surely, it couldn’t have been deliberate irony on the editors’ part? But, how could they possibly miss the contradiction? (which only deepens as you read on).
I flipped back to look at Kathryn’s image on the magazine’s cover. Again, I found it to be a bizarre juxtaposition with the Toesox advertisement. To me, it’s hard to believe that the woman portrayed on each full-page spread is really the same person. She looks so different. Plus, symbolically, the images do not communicate anything close to the same message. The cover says: Natural! Happy! Strong! I don’t need to be Photoshopped to look super-tall and thin to be on a magazine cover! Meanwhile, the Toesox ad says: Cool. Perfect. Beautiful. Untouchable. Effortlessly in control. Absolutely and utterly flawless.
Particularly given the larger context of the magazine itself, the messages that these two images communicate directly contradict each other. Are we not supposed to notice this?
Pages 96-118: Chelsea Roff’s article on “Yoga’s Shadow Side” breaks important new ground for the magazine with a powerful, emotionally arresting analysis of how yoga is alternately being used to either exacerbate or heal our current epidemic of body dysmorphia and disordered eating. This one article alone is sufficient to command respect for the fact that YJ’s “rebranding” is not simply marketing fluff: there is important, meaningful, and challenging new work being supported and shared. As with the “Yoga and Body Image” excerpt, YJ’s proves that it’s willing to take some risks to present information that has teeth. This is not fluffy, feel-good, mass-market yoga pabulum; it is serious writing on a critically important, literally life-or-death issue.
Pages 99 & 112: Chelsea’s article highlights yoga teacher and clinical psychologist Bo Forbes’ critique of how commercialized yoga imagery can – and often does – have a profoundly negative impact on women’s psyches. “It’s not enough to be thin; female yogis often feel the pressure to be thin, strong, and flexible. They’re critiquing their bodies with unattainable ideals,” Bo states.
A bit further on in the article, Lauren Medeiros, a 31-year old woman suffering from severe anorexia, is profiled as one of several women whose health problems worsened as she became psychologically entangled in this “unattainable ideal” of the perfect “yoga body”: “The image of an ideal yogini as thin, toned, and spiritual – represented in media images and often personified in her classmates – became a yardstick she used to criticize and berate herself,” Chelsea writes.
Back cover: Fresh from Chelsea’s hard-hitting critique, what do I find gracing the back cover of the magazine but a super-glossy Hardtail ad of two yoginis who not only appear perfectly “thin, toned, and spiritual,” but are also performing a super-advanced partner yoga pose with apparent effortlessness and ease. The beautiful blonde’s handstand backbend is perfectly poised on the stunning brunette’s knees (yikes – can bearing all that weight really be safe for such a sensitive and injury-prone joint?), who gazes beatifically up to heaven.
Between these two “yoga goddesses,” Chelsea’s article on “Yoga’s Shadow Side,” the Our Naked Lady of Toesox ad, and Kate McIntyre Clere’s injunction to bring “a conscious and critical eye to the media, challenging the capitalist business model,” I’m starting to feel more than a little psychologically whipsawed by all of the unacknowledged mixed messaging in the rebranded “Body Issue.”
Page 59: Of course, I realize that Yoga Journal needs ad revenue, and that ToeSox and HardTail may not have gotten the memo about the ways in which the idealized “yoga body” imagery they’re pushing is causing harm. The contradictions I saw in the magazine, however, were not limited to the ads.
The featured interview with cover model and Toesox goddess Kathryn Budig particularly stood out in this regard. The first surprise of the feature was hearing Kathryn characterize herself as “curvy” – a term that I would have never, ever in a million years have thought of associating with her before. After all, her Toesox campaign – which, according to the interview, has been running for a good eight years now – is nothing if not a parade of images celebrating idealized physical perfection and beauty. The term “curvy,” in contrast, is frequently used synonymously with “fat.”
So suddenly, yoga goddess Kathryn Budig is “curvy”? Say what?
Pages 48-55: Yet, it’s true: When I looked at the photo of Kathryn on the cover of the magazine, as well as in the photo spread in which she demos Uttanasana and Tittibhasana, she does not, in fact, have the sort of exceptionally tall, thin, and yet still inexplicably full-breasted figure that is so favored by our insane “women’s media.” Of course, she’s not the least bit fat, either. But, let’s not get into the horrible process of dissecting a woman’s body in print, other than to say the obvious: she looks strong, healthy, pretty, and great.
But, OK, fine: “Curvy” it is.
Page 59: Kathryn’s interview goes on to discuss the impact of social media, and how posting endless pictures of “smiling, pretty” people who seem to “have it all” can (in her words) get “really, really dangerous.” Recently, she’s started working to counter that trend by posting photos that show visible “flaws,” such as cellulite. For sure, this is cool, and even brave, given the horrifying level of scrutiny that the bodies of women in the public eye are subject to today. She can have a lot of positive impact doing this, and should be applauded for it.
Yet, when asked by YJ if she has any second thoughts about her ToeSox ads, she replies: “I don’t believe in changing anything, but it has been a challenge to watch my 25-year-old body turn into a 32-year-old body.”
Whoa. As someone who’s 20 years ahead of her on the female body-aging curve, I found that statement quite arresting. Because, oh my oh my: at 32, you are still way, way closer to having a youthful body than you are going to be in just a few short years. Statistically, women’s bodies undergo a major shift at age 35 that makes us less fertile and more prone to gaining weight easily. Plus, if you have a child (or several), your waistline will almost certainly remain forever thickened. And from there . . . well, I won’t go on. Suffice it to say that as an older woman, I found this statement quite poignant, if disappointingly obtuse. Because, of course, most women were never in a position to identify with the vision of perfected beauty that the 25-year old Kathryn Budig represented in the first place.
If she finds it hard to confront images of her 25-year-old self at the still relatively young age of 32, how does she imagine her 8-year long ad campaign went down among aspiring yoginis who really are “curvy”? Or not “prettily” white? Or any number of other attributes that don’t fit this mass marketed ideal?
Or, for that matter, what about the sort of young, pretty, white women portrayed in Chelsea’s article who did identify with such imagery – but in ways that tragically fed their sickness?
I’m not trying to blame Kathryn Budig for other people’s eating disorders, which of course have many causes beyond any single ad campaign, no matter how long-running, successful, and influential. My key point here is not about her as an individual: rather, it’s about the mixed messaging that the “Body Image” issue represents as a whole.
And I really do think it’s awesome that Kathryn is now leading a charge for “curvy” body acceptance. Lots and lots of women love and admire her, and changing her public image by releasing more realistic photos and talking up body positivity is going to have a positive impact. On the other hand, it’s clear that the negative relationship between idealized images of the “yoga body,” body dysmorphia, and disordered eating, which Chelsea describes so powerfully in her article, has not been adequately understood and internalized by the woman who’s leading YJ’s body-positive “rebranding.” Personally, I view this as a problem.
Page 118: Following the same pattern, Chelsea’s otherwise excellent article uncritically presents Tara Stiles as something of a thought leader on the subject of how yoga teachers can best work with students they suspect may be suffering from disordering eating. Yet, this is the same woman who recently made headlines by pushing the envelope on soft-pornified imagery of the idealized “yoga body” with her highly publicized campaign for the high-end W hotel chain. It’s puzzling that someone who was recently being driven around Manhattan performing provocative yoga poses on a bed in a big glass box is so easily accepted as a sage voice of insightful teaching and healing when it comes to precisely the same set of “yoga body” issues that the article is otherwise critiquing.
If such critiques are really going to stick, I don’t believe the yogalebrities can have their cake and eat it too, capitalizing on the idealized “yoga body” one day and advocating for healthy body imagery the next. If such mixed messaging continues unchecked, this pattern is simply going to produce a new round of confusion, dysfunction, and denial in the yoga community, which already has a history of serious problems on all counts.
I’m all for having celebrity yoga teachers (among others) take leadership roles in a new body-positive campaign. But, I think that they need to walk their talk consistently, if necessary taking the time to educate themselves deeply on issues that will almost certainly prove difficult to confront. The same, of course, holds true for yoga advertisers, Yoga Journal, and all of us involved in the yoga world today.
I believe that we can shift the paradigm, and the time is now. But to do it, we’ll need to be radically honest with ourselves and cut the it’s-all-good bullshit. It’s not.
Yet, yoga continues to offer incredible resources for healing, transformation, and renewal. In a world that’s so deeply confused, suffering, and broken, let’s not waste time with anything but meaningful teaching and practice – starting where we are today, yes, but moving forward with honesty, courage, and determination.
If you’d like to support the growing movement to create an authentically body-positive yoga culture, you can follow the Yoga and Body Image Coalition here.
Yoga used to seem so simple. You didn’t need to do a teacher training to develop a sense of the essential roots, structure, and meaning of the practice. Even if you’d started out seeing yoga simply as stretching, you quickly apprehended some sort of bigger picture through a subtle yet powerful process of cultural osmosis. Of course, there were disagreements over questions of technique: props or no props? ujjayi or natural, steady breathing? The level of agreement regarding more foundational issues, however, appeared so rock solid, they could be taken for granted. They didn’t require commentary or demand justification.
Over the past several years, this situation has changed radically. All the key claims that comprised the basic understanding of yoga that I’d first been exposed to as a beginning student back in the mid-90s have been strongly challenged. What was only recently widely assumed to be true has been repeatedly called into question, and not infrequently denounced. At the same time, strong currents of change have been reshaping the practice in obvious and not-so-obvious ways. As a result, there is no longer an easy sense that practitioners will naturally develop any shared sense of what yoga is and why it matters.
Yoga, in short, is experiencing a paradigm shift. Please be clear that in saying this, I’m not claiming that whatever yoga may tap into on the deepest level of human experience has been transformed. Nor am I implying that anyone’s individual practice is necessarily changing. Rather, my point is that the yoga community is currently experiencing a particularly intensive period of cultural change (at least in North America, which is the only part of the global yoga community that I feel I know well enough to write about).
My hope is that if we can gain more insight into the cultural paradigm that used to structure a common understanding of yoga – as well as some of the specific events that are causing it to break down – then we may also more clearly see how our actions today might impact the development of the practice in the future. Times of significant cultural change inevitably cause a lot of anxiety, as well as, at times, painful dislocation. They also, however, generate new creative possibilities and opportunities for social, cultural, and perhaps even spiritual change.
Can committed practitioners read the signs of the times and work with them in ways that are fruitful, both for our selves, our communities, and the world? I don’t know. But I do believe that it’s well worth trying.
The “Old” Yoga Paradigm
I started studying yoga in the mid-90s, became more involved with the practice in the early 2000s, and completed my teacher training in 2008. During that time, I found the following points to be widely shared articles of faith in North American yoga culture:
1) Yoga is a 5,000-year old practice. Concretely, this meant that going to a good yoga class at a good studio offered the possibility of plugging directly back into an ancient tradition that had been passed down through the millennia via countless generations of yogis.
2) Yoga teachers are rooted in guru-based lineages. The structure of yoga as a whole was understood to be based on a set of loosely linked lineages that faithfully transmitted the teachings of a series of enlightened gurus.
3) Dedicated practice guarantees physical health and spiritual attainment. Given that yoga was seen as rooted in the teachings of enlightened masters, as well as time-tested across the millennia, its techniques were naturally assumed to be essentially foolproof if taught and practiced correctly.
4) The “yoga body” is the physical embodiment of this spiritual attainment. The bodies of advanced yogis were regarding as awe-inspiring not simply due to their muscularity, beauty, or athletic ability, but rather because their capabilities embodied a level of spiritual realization rarely achieved.
5) Ancient yoga is authentic; modern yoga is corrupt. Western commercialism, cultural shallowness, and spiritual bankruptcy were understood to have created various ersatz forms of “yoga” that had nothing whatsoever to do with the real thing.
Caveat: In boiling down the “old” yoga paradigm (which, of course, in historical terms is really not the least bit old at all) to five bullet points, I realize that I’m hugely simplifying a more complicated reality, not to mention generalizing from my own, necessarily limited experience. In so doing, I don’t mean to dismiss the bigger picture, or other peoples’ perspectives. In fact, I’m very interested to learn to what extent these points resonate with other experiences of yoga, whether currently or in the past.
Rather, my goal in being so simplistic is to provide the easiest road map possible of where the yoga community has been and is now, so that those who care about it might be better able to see where we might want (and be able) to go next more clearly.
During the past several years, a number of factors have converged to pose a fundamental challenge each of the tenets of the “old” yoga paradigm listed above. Since covering them adequately would require a book-length project, I’ll simply mention some of the most notable, focusing on how they correspond to the five points listed above:
1) Yoga as we know it today isn’t 5,000 years old. Rather, it’s a distinctively modern set of ideas and practices. There’s a growing body of scholarship analyzing the historical development of yoga, and none of it supports the claim that what we’re doing now bears any strong resemblance to what was practiced in pre-modern India. Mark Singleton’s 2010 book, Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice, was, of course, a pivotal work in this regard, both in terms of substance and success in crossing over from academia to reach the practice community.
2) Guru-based lineages have lost their former status due to multiple scandals and generational change. A shockingly high percentage of prominent gurus have been charged with sexual exploitation and abuse of power. Previously, knowledge of such incidents was hard to come by. Now, it’s splashed all over the Internet. At the same time, the generation of teachers trained by modern yoga legends such as B.K.S. Iyengar and Pattabhi Jois is aging. The new generation of popular teachers is quite different, often dedicated more to developing their personal brand than in transmitting a lineage.
3) Yoga can cause injury and there are no foolproof methods. Logically, this point follows from the discrediting of the two above: if yoga wasn’t developed by enlightened gurus and time-tested across the millennia, then why would it necessarily be foolproof? Further, William Broad’s recent book, The Science of Yoga, dramatically broke the silence on yoga injuries, which are now being acknowledged and discussed in unprecedented detail.
4) The “yoga body” has become a controversial cultural symbol. As yoga expanded from the counter-cultural margins to the commercial mainstream, the “yoga body” came to be represented by young, thin, pretty white women performing advanced poses with beatific expressions on their faces. Cultural critics started exploring the often-negative relationship between yoga and body image that subsequently developed, and more and more people are listening.
5) There’s no agreement over what constitutes “authentic” yoga. While various micro-communities share common perceptions, there’s no longer any overarching frame of reference that seems to unite them. If anything, there’s a growing refusal to have any standards regarding anything related to yoga at all, on the grounds that such distinctions are “judgmental” and “unyogic.”
Of course, the details of each of these points can be debated. The overall picture, however, is clear: every major element of the “old” yoga paradigm is being questioned, attacked, refuted, or simply ignored. What had until recently worked well at organizing widely shared understandings, experiences, and beliefs into one coherent package suddenly seems misleading or irrelevant to many. The old paradigm has lost its power, and nothing new has yet emerged to take its place.
Turning Loss Into Opportunity
Boiling cultural beliefs about yoga down into such summary lists may strike some as cold-hearted or even offensive. And it’s certainly true that there’s an inevitable feeling of debunking that comes with such analyses, particularly when talking about something like cultural beliefs about yoga, which had been operating at more of a vague, fuzzy, quasi-mythological level before. My intent, however, is not to criticize the “old” yoga paradigm or applaud its breakdown. Rather, my hope is to bring both sets of cultural developments into sharper focus so that we can see what’s happening in the field more clearly.
Beyond this, I’d like to suggest ways in which the breakdown of the “old” paradigm offers new possibilities for positive change. Because so many of the critiques of it are so recent – scholarship detailing the recent vintage of contemporary asana practice, in-depth analyses of the conditions contributing to yoga injuries, denunciations of the negative messages communicated through popular images of the “yoga body,” and so on – it can be difficult to see beyond them. And when that happens, the cultural climate can start to turn sour, dominated by a negative sense of disillusionment rather than positive feelings of possibility.
I believe that the current moment calls those of us who care about the future of yoga to explore such positive possibilities in collaboration with others. Rather than responding to see the loss of old verities with cynical disillusionment, we can see it as an opportunity to explore the practice more deeply. For example:
1) As we learn more about the particularity of the modern yoga tradition, the rich diversity of its pre-modern precursors becomes more apparent. Believing in an eternal, unchanging tradition flattens out the many fascinating, provocative, and potentially important alternatives to contemporary practice that a more accurate reading of yoga history reveals.
2) Dissatisfaction with the guru-based lineage model can be channeled into a commitment to developing new ways of training teachers and transmitting the practice that are better suited to our society today. As more people start to see that both yoga gurus and yogilebrities often generate the same sort of problematic interpersonal dynamics, there is more interest in investigating the psychology of the teacher-student relationship, and developing healthier and more empowering alternatives.
3) Opening up the discussion of yoga injuries creates new incentives to investigate different varieties of modern asana practice in more depth, and make them safer and more effective. Once yoga teachers are freed from the myth that asana should be timeless, unchanging, and foolproof, they are free to change and refine methods based on concrete feedback regarding what works well for whom, under what conditions, and for what ends.
4) Critiquing the standardized model of the “yoga body” empowers practitioners to develop new ways of visually representing yoga, and new methods of body-positive teaching and practice. Seeing the contradiction between selling yoga using images favored by the diet- and beauty-industries and teaching it as a means of holistic health and empowerment raises critically important questions of how best to adopt a body-centered practice to speak to the needs and concerns of a body-shaming society.
5) Giving up the belief that there’s only one authentic form of yoga invites us to reflect on what’s really important to us about it and why. If the yoga tradition is understood to be multi-vocal and ever-changing, then the criteria for authenticity must shift away from an imaginary ideal rooted somewhere long ago and far away, and toward an investigation of what constitutes a meaningful practice right here and now.
Of course, what’s meaningful for different practitioners is going to vary tremendously. Still, simply sharing a sense that yoga can be meaningful – that it can offer more than stretching and stress relief, that there’s a deeper tradition to carry forward – can create a vital sense of connection. The trick is keeping that common ground open and vibrant without lapsing into division and conflict. This isn’t easy, as it’s high stakes territory. Nonetheless, with practice, it can be done.
When you stop to think about it, there’s a strange silence surrounding the question of the intersection of yoga and feminism. After all, yoga has been hugely popular for years now. As everyone knows, women overwhelmingly dominate the practice. Yoga is also widely seen as a means of self-empowerment and consciousness raising. Consequently, it seems that the subject of yoga and feminism should occupy at least some little corner of yoga culture. In almost 20 years of involvement in the yoga community, however, it’s remarkable how rarely I’ve even heard it mentioned.
Of course, there are a few notable exceptions to the rule. I’m proud to say that one, Melanie Klein’s essay on “How Yoga Makes You Pretty,” appears in my co-edited book, 21st Century Yoga: Culture, Politics, and Practice. I also love Janice Gates’ beautiful book, Yogini: The Power of Women in Yoga. And just last week, there was an interesting article making the social media rounds, asking “Is Your Yoga Studio Feminism Free?” Such questioning and discussion, however, doesn’t happen often. And, it never seems to generate much momentum on the rare occasions it does.
The Sounds of Silence
Why is this? One obvious reason is that feminism can be an intimidating subject to discuss (at least if you’re not in feminist circles to begin with). Passions run high and divisions run deep. Many people don’t want to risk inadvertently offending someone and being blindsided by a negative reaction. It seems safer to stay quiet.
This is particularly true given the fact that the yoga community encompasses a wide range of political and cultural orientations. And, a key reason that people practice yoga is for stress relief and greater peace of mind. Generally speaking, bringing up controversial topics isn’t helpful on either count.
Yet the issues are important, and burying them under a blanket of silence doesn’t make them go away. As anyone who’s experienced emotional releases and/or psychological shifts through yoga knows, over time the practice connects us to core issues of the self (if we’re open to it). Feminism is one important discourse that does the same. And for women in particular, it raises critical issues of identity and meaning that will inevitably affect us – whether we consciously choose to grapple with them or not.
Ideally, the yoga community could be a safe space in which to explore such issues with a relatively high degree of honesty and openness. Yoga practice involves learning how to acknowledge and work with our emotions, rather than being swept away by them. In theory, a community of dedicated practitioners could be an ideal space to work through challenging issues of politics, culture, and identity together. In practice, however, this seldom seems to be the case.
There are signs this may be starting to change. If so, I believe that the shift toward discussing issues such as yoga and feminism needs to be nurtured carefully. There’s a real danger of muddying up what is for many a safe space for personal exploration with political division and supercharged rhetoric. On the other hand, there’s also a very real set of problems that comes with shutting down any consideration of a huge set of issues that matters enormously to women (and, by extension, everyone) today.
Navigating the difficult course between maintaining silence on challenging questions, on the one hand, and allowing the divisions they carry to cause harm, on the other, requires an agreement that working with them is part of the practice. Holding the space necessary to explore such issues isn’t easy. So, part of the process of opening up more discussion must be agreeing on common ground rules intended to maintain safety. Ideally, however, we can aim higher, setting our sights on co-creating a shared community experience of learning, discovery, and growth.
Personally, I’m not a fan of essentialist conceptions of “the sacred feminine,” or dualistic discussions of “masculine versus feminine” traits. I’m more interested in the complex intersections of race, class, gender, identity, and culture, and how they manifest in particular historical contexts. So, the following reflections on the relationship between yoga culture and feminist values are only meant to communicate my experience of the practice in the U.S. during the last 15 years or so.
I hope, however, that these reflections might be useful in sparking further conversation on the intersection of yoga and feminism in North America today. Particularly given today’s disturbingly high levels of neurosis and dysfunction surrounding issues of body image – particularly, although not exclusively, with regard to female bodies – I feel that it’s a much-needed discussion. In my view, it’s past time to reclaim yoga as a practice that connects us with our bodily experience on an internal, emotional, and subtle level. This requires rebelling against messages telling us to harness it to the project of mimicking an externally-defined “yoga body.”
Doing this requires being more discerning about how yoga is currently being taught, experienced, and practiced. It means considering not simply the method and format (vigorous or gentle, music or no music, gym or studio), but the deeper intention threading through all such surface differences. It also requires considering the level of skill needed for teachers to manifest such intentions in practice. Desiring to create a safe space for students, for example, isn’t enough by itself. Teachers need to invest in the self-study and professional development needed to transform good intentions into lived experience.
Feminism and Yoga: Positive Intersections
There are a lot of well-deserved worries about the over-commercialization of yoga and the under-preparation of many teachers today. Nonetheless, it’s important to recognize and celebrate some of the many ways in which yoga today offers untold numbers of people a profoundly healing, and potentially liberating practice. Here’s a few positives – all of which I see as informed by feminist values – that I’ve regularly experienced:
1) Creating and holding safe space. In today’s hyper-competitive, aggressively individualistic society, the commitment to creating and holding safe space for people to engage collectively in a mind-body-spirit practice embodies feminist values. It is an ethical, and even sacred practice.
2) Engaging passionately with the physical plane of existence. Traditionally, many cultures (both Eastern and Western) have denigrated the body, the earth, and the physical plane of existence in general as inferior to the realms of mind, spirit, and the (real or imagined) realm of the metaphysical. At the same time, the bodily and earthly were associated with the “feminine” and the spiritual and metaphysical with the “masculine.” In terms of cultural history, asserting the value of the body, earth, and physical realm is profoundly feminist.
3) Harnessing the power of asana for emotional exploration and healing. In keeping with the denigration of the bodily and earthy, the realm of the emotions has traditionally been dismissed as “weak” and “feminine.” Even in its modern incarnation, asana practice was not designed to work intimately with the emotional realm until female teachers such as Ana Forrest targeted and developed this dimension of the practice.
4) Claiming the freedom to work intensively with our bodies in a shared space without worrying about others’ sexual agendas. Again, many traditional societies, both Eastern and Western, have maintained rigid controls over women’s bodies. Creating a network of shared public spaces in which women can work intensively and intimately with their bodies and minds – while wearing revealing clothing designed to facilitate freedom of movement – is in many ways a revolutionary cultural development.
5) Cultivating compassion for self and other. Again, today’s hyper-competitive, aggressively individualistic society devalues compassion as weak and overly indulgent – slurs that have been traditionally associated with the feminine. Practices that cultivate the capacity to embody compassion for our selves, each other, and the world play a critical role in the transmission of an important set of alternative values that are completely compatible with feminism.
Blind Spots, Dead Ends, and New Possibilities
If much of contemporary yoga culture embodies important (if generally unacknowledged) feminist values, many aspects of run counter to (my understanding of) them, as well. In the interests of being even-handed, here’s a list of my top five problem areas in this regard:
1) Endlessly chasing after an imaginary ideal of individual “health, beauty, and fitness.” Health and fitness are vital to quality of life and well worth working very hard to achieve and maintain. And beauty is a blessing. But a never-ending chase after them that disconnects us from others and rejects the realities of aging, illness, and death is unhealthy and ultimately self-defeating.
2) Embracing infantilizing images that depict femininity as an eternal state of happy and innocent little-girlhood. It seems that some unspoken norm has developed that insists that women appear nice, happy, and unthreatening at all times – a pastel-colored whitewashing of the real multi-dimensionality of women’s experience. This is rampant in contemporary yoga culture, and not just in commercial images, either (witness Pinterest and Instagram). (Note: Despite my recent rapprochement with Lululemon, I have long seen them as a primary offender in this regard. I hope their imagery changes, and soon.)
3) Using passive-aggressive techniques to control others while maintaining a “nice” façade. The classic one in this regard is an aggressive insistence on the supreme value of “non-judgment.” If I had a dime for every time I’ve seen it used to shame and shut down voices expressing ideas that make some “non-judgmental” overseer uncomfortable, I’d be rich.
4) Engaging in self-censorship out of fear of not being “nice” enough. Although the problem of silencing one’s authentic voice out of fear is certainly not limited to women, the dynamics by which this happens are often gender-specific. Female self-censorship fits the pattern of unhealthy obsession over an imaginary health-beauty-fitness ideal and internalization of infantilizing imagery mentioned above. Personalities that are less prone to passive-aggressive manipulation may instead maintain the “nice” façade simply by repressing any aspects of themselves that they fear may rock the boat.
5) Retreating into an isolated “yoga bubble” as a means of escaping from the world – and the authentic self. The more that yoga is sold as a means of entering into a pristine, pastel-colored bubble that will protect us from the world, the more it distances us from our authentic selves, which are connected with all that is. Although this is the opposite of what yoga is really about, it’s a seductive fantasy to buy into during the extraordinarily stressful times that we’re all living through today.
Perhaps ironically, I feel that many the above problems could be solved by injecting a good dose of what have traditionally been considered “masculine” traits into today’s highly feminized yoga culture. Specifically:
- more critical thinking,
- more value placed on assertion of the authentic, creative self,
- more willingness to deal openly with conflict, and
- more value placed on confronting the challenges of the world.
Ultimately, I believe that we are all better served by embodying a mix of “feminine” and “masculine” traits, and refusing to let ourselves be limited or defined by either. The richness of human experience extends beyond any such neat categories and dualistic pairings. Nonetheless, reflecting on how and why feminism matters in yoga and in our lives remains a much-needed, and potentially revolutionary praxis.