Yoga and Feminism: Continuing the ConversationPosted on May 5, 2014 in Blog
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.