Come to a comfortable seated position; use the blanket to elevate your hips so you can sit with the spine straight. Close the eyes and rest the hands gently in the lap.
So begins the yoga class. And just yesterday, as we sat quietly, receptively, in a meditative pose, the teacher said,
Everything in your life is the product of decisions you have made, ways of being you have chosen. If you want a different life, make different choices.
These words were offered as inspiration, as is often the practice in yoga studios. The contemplation is meant to inspire and empower. Ostensibly, we should feel good about the choice we’ve made to take a yoga class and about the positive thinking we’re doing now that we’re here. The lights are low, our breathing is slow and we are consciously receptive.
But hang on.
Is the teacher’s utterance even true?
And does it have anything to do with the millennia-old practice of hatha yoga? Or is yoga in a North American studio as culturally bound, socially situated and gendered as any other activity in people’s busy (and largely uncritical) everyday lives?
Leaving off the question of how this type of affirmation/inspiration fits into the history of hatha yoga, we should certainly discuss how it fits into the landscape of platitudes women and others consume and create—to the detriment of being able to organize for gender fairness and respect for body diversity.
Think for a moment about the teacher’s statement. Not everything in your life is the product of decisions you have made. We each live one life as the subject of our own stories, and another as the object of other people’s stories. As the subject of our own stories we have the power to create positive messages and images of love and forgiveness within ourselves. We can heal and embrace all of the identities we inhabit regarding gender, race, body size, ability, beauty, social class, etc.
As the object of other people’s judgment, we have far less individual control. We don’t escape being born into cultural systems that give more privilege to some groups, less to others. Some identities are achieved; others are ascribed at birth. Most of us begin our lives by experiencing either privilege or oppression based on certain identities, and these experiences influence us deeply. This must be acknowledged if we’re to unlearn the internalized oppression most people carry as a result of simple things such as being female, transgender or intersex, people of color, disabled, queer, working class, old … You know how the list goes on. We each live two lives, related to our various social identities and stories. While it’s possible to influence ourselves from within as the subject of our stories, influencing the way we’re treated by others usually requires collective effort. It requires dialogue and sometimes unpleasant struggle. It requires the best kind of feminist action, an understanding of how oppressions intersect and how privilege becomes invisible.
And speaking of privilege: Being truly present to how we’re creating our lives requires us to question how some activities come to be “rich people mostly” or “slender people mostly” or “white people mostly” or “young people mostly.” Especially activities like yoga, which are intended to be accessible to all. No one plans for exclusions. And yet they happen. Only certain people feel comfortable; only some have access. These exclusionary circumstances are changeable, though not solely through personal decision-making.
So, why is it so attractive to believe that all we have to do is change our minds, eat more kale, do more yoga and life will be grand? Why do we pay people to tell us so? In particular, since women far outnumber men as yoga practitioners, why do women want these messages?
It seems far easier to change oneself than to change oppressive systems, for starters. It’s far more comfortable and familiar to take on the blame for one’s own semi-miserable-occasionally blissful conditions than to take responsibility for being part of a group that cooperates in its own subjugation. And it feels good to feel powerful.
I would never argue that people aren’t powerful. This is why discernment and complexity are needed in the messages we create, purchase and consume. We’re simply far too comfortable sitting in a dark, cozy room feeling good about accepting what’s being said to us. We need to do the personal work of eradicating the sexism, the racism, the homophobia and all of the interlocking oppressions within us. That’s not so simple and requires real questioning and discussion, real peer support and physical fortitude.
That’s why yoga, meditation and other forms of fitness are great. But so are critical thinking, kind questioning and community organizing. Let’s build those into our yoga settings and thoughtfully engage a wide variety of messages we hear—from body shaming to victim-blaming to culture-blindness. Non-feminist fitness settings will persist if we don’t transform them. And that’s not just negative thinking.
Image of quilt from Flickr user FiberArtGirl under license from Creative Commons 2.0
Kimberly Dark is a sociologist, storyteller, speaker—and yoga teacher—who tells stories about the body in culture. Find out about her June retreat, Yoga For Every Body, here, and learn more about her touring and teaching at www.kimberlydark.com.