Yoga and Feminism: Continuing the Conversation

yoga legs

 

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.

 

Nurturing Change

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.

 

Beyond Dualism

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.

 


13 Comments

  1. Laura Sharkey

    Carol, thank you for this article! Even before I read the article – when I had just seen the title – I had one of those “I can’t believe I never noticed that before” moments. In retrospect, I see that without really thinking about it, I’ve unconsciously assumed that there is a feminist element present where there is not. I may have made that assumption because of the prevalence of themes related to the “sacred feminine,” which on the surface appear to honor and celebrate feminist ideals. But reading your article, it occurs to me that those themes are almost always presented as a metaphysical – or at least a non-physically spiritual – concept that doesn’t really connect to the realities of being female in the physical world. While I doubt that the “sacred feminine” theme is intentionally used to avoid the messiness and risk of real-life feminist explorations, I imagine that this is one of the many ways in which the so very common tendency to forsake real world/real life exploration for the relative (perceived) safety of the ethereal plays out. Thanks so much for your insightful article! BTW – interesting side note – those traditionally masculine traits that you suggest might be helpful with solving the problems presented here are also traits that have been presented as necessary to navigate the waters of social justice movements in the Yoga & Social Justice course I am currently taking. Interesting!

    • chorton

      Hi Laura – Is that Nikki Myers and Hala Khouri’s course? If so, they are two of my favorite yoga teachers – thanks so much for sharing this with your fellow students! In all honestly, I have not delved deep into the “sacred feminine” discussion as it’s not one that draws me in. So I really can’t speak about what’s happening in circles that are engaged with it. But from what I do know, the dynamics that you describe make a lot of sense. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Laura Sharkey

    BTW – I posted a link to this article on the FB page for the Yoga & Social Justice course – I hope to see some interesting feedback here from others in the class.

  3. Uma Dinsmore Tuli explores this in her new book Yoni Shakti. There are many of us working specifically with women. I think this dialogue has become much more important in the last 20 years, 30 years ago when I started teaching, it was less of an issue because yoga wasn’t mainstream.

    • chorton

      Hi Amanda – I’m not familiar with the book. Thanks for the reference.

  4. I’m sorry, you lost me at the premise that ‘obviously’ feminism is an intimidating subject. So the big ol’ questions that are at the heart of yoga – who am I, what is my relationship to God etc. are perfectly comfortable subjects for chit chat but feminism is more intimidating that the content of the Yoga Sutras or the BG? Give me STRENGTH. Yes, the yoga community encompasses a wide diversity of cultures and orientations, but the only people we’re going to offend by, say, questioning the sexualisation and objectification of women in the yoga community are the ones making money and careers out of those seductive pictures. If you tried to advertise car tires or beer using the semi-naked images of skinny young white women that you find in any yoga magazine, they’d be called out for sexism. But it’s ok if you’re flogging organic juices, a yoga festival or your own yoga blog/tour/DVD etc. Yes, more critical thinking indeed. Actually, any kind of thinking would help.

    • chorton

      Hi Nikola – Based on several years of engagement in the yoga blogosphere and having read through endless comments over controversies about how the “yoga body” is depicted, I don’t agree that “the only people we’re going to offend by questioning the sexualisation and objectification of women in the yoga community are the ones making money and careers out of those seductive pictures.” There is HUGE disagreement in the community over how to interpret phenomenon such as Briohny Smith’s yoga video for Equinox Fitness, Kathyrn Budig’s Toesox campaigns, and countless other less high-profile examples of representing yoga via such iconic images of women’s bodies. Debates get heated to the point where people get burned. In my post, I linked to an article that outspoken feminist, yoga teacher, and writer Julie JC Peters wrote about her experience with this. It may be true in your local community that people are very comfortable discussing feminism and have no serious disagreements over how yoga is currently represented. But there’s mountains of evidence to show that this is not usually the case.

  5. Karen

    I think that so many of the issues you bring up are not to be solved in the yoga world and I cannot understand why we would choose making yoga the battleground for feminism. I also think that you make so many statement about’ through history’ ‘inevitably’ and ‘obviously’ that it makes for a very sweeping statements article. I know that where I live, the issues that we fought for when I was young have to a large extent been resolved, and that has all been done through politics and the political system we have here in Denmark.

    • chorton

      Hi Karen – Well, you are lucky to be a Danish citizen. Here in the US, we have a big backlash against feminism that’s been going on for decades now. That aside, I think that it only makes sense that issues of how yoga is represented via images of the “yoga body” and how we interpret them can only be worked out in the yoga community – either that, or they will simply be dictated by mass market forces of whatever sells best. I don’t see these as public policy issues, but rather issues that concern this particular community, as well as anyone else out there who might have some interest in yoga.

  6. Natalie

    Nikola Ellis!!! YES.

    Carol: I appreciate your wanting to talk about the intersections of yoga and feminism, but I found this post very, very strange. Frankly, at the call for injecting “masculine” traits like critical thinking into “highly feminized yoga culture,” I could do nothing but close my laptop, walk away, and BREATHE so as not to yell!

    Nikola, thank you for pointing to that missing elephant – market forces – as well as to calling attention to the strange rejection-yet-embrace of the masculine/feminine dyad. I’ll add that the unintentional embrace here of this dyad leads to an inadvertent presentation of feminism as Feminine.

    In the list of Positive Intersections, for instance, I see simply a valuing of many ideas in yoga culture that are coded feminine. Feminism is not limited to the promotion of feminine ideals. Feminism offers a different way of considering people of all genders, and is interested in gender equality: economic, social, cultural, linguistic, political, and otherwise. There are many other powerful ways in which yoga culture is feminist that have nothing to do with ways in which it is woman-like.

    In the list of Blind Spots, Dead Ends, and New Possibilities, I see a rejection of a series of cultural elements that are conventionally – and reductively, and inaccurately – coded feminine. That is: Carol, you seem to present what you see as the problem areas of yoga culture (obsessing over health-beauty-fitness, being passive-aggressively “nice,” and advertising the “pastel-colored bubble”) as evidence of the “unbalanced feminization” of that culture. In so doing, you reify the very essentialized, reductive idea of femininity we all want to disavow. (And the same happens via the list of desirable “masculine” traits.)

    I’d contend that as long as we even *gesture* toward the idea that critical thinking and authentic assertiveness are “masculine,” we work against the feminist cause. Feminist activism and thought is full of critical thinking, valuing the authentic self, openly dealing with gender discrimination conflicts, and absolutely. positively. for. 200. years. now. confronting. the. challenges. of. the. world. We need not borrow from the “masculine” realm. The only way we “refuse to let ourselves be limited or defined” by the offensive, ridiculous, and frankly outdated masculine/feminine dyad is to STOP USING IT.

    • chorton

      Hi Natalie – With all due respect, I think you are misinterpreting what I am saying. I tried to signal that I was not going to work with the terms “masculine” and “feminine” in any sort of essentialized way. I’m only commenting on how I’ve seen those powerful social constructs play out in the context of North American yoga culture. Of course, I could have added much more in-depth theoretical discussion (as well as extended the subject into all sorts of other empirical directions). But it’s only a blog post, not a dissertation, so a certain amount of abbreviation is necessary.

      I don’t agree that it would be helpful to stop referring to gender categories altogether. This sounds like the “color blind” approach when it comes to race – if we don’t acknowledge race as a meaningful social category, then it will stop being a meaningful social category. I have never believed this was true – race is embedded in our economy, urban geography, legal systems, etc. Just as you point out with issues of feminism.

      Speaking of race, one issue that I chose not to bring up, but which is important, is that the culture of femininity that I see as central to yoga in its current North American incarnation is very white, as well as skewing toward the upper-middle class. Again, however, you can’t discuss everything in one post. That doesn’t mean, however, that it’s not important – in fact, the more that I think about it, the more I feel remiss for not having included it in the first place. But that’s why continuing reflection and dialog is good.

  7. This is well written and good and thought provoking. I hear you LOUD and clear. I am often disappointed in the feminist movement when I DO hear the phrases about the “scared feminine” and other us/them language. I had hoped that we would be more inclusive at this point. I understand why it [was] necessary: to gain personal awareness, empowerment and strength. I was deeply involved as a young woman; and the passion of this movement gave me courage and belonging. I have also , then been disappointed in the physical practice that glorifies the “boy bodies” of young women OR the sexy reveal all yoga students. The physically challenging poses are beautiful: what what of the MENTAL and EMOTIONAL challenges, that get you there, the time that is spent practicing and choosing to do THAT and not something else. The mental challenge of mastering a modest pose for many is that which trains the mind as well. SO yes, analyze, integrate the nurturing elements of the universe not just as a woman but as a human, explore the “fluctuations of the mind” and the waves of emotions, the release of the past and the embrace of the present, find a safe place to explore your practice (they are NOT all safe), and use that compassion you find for yourself in your learning to embrace others’ in theirs. Not just because you are a woman but because you are of the earth.

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