Is Your Yoga Studio Feminism-Free?

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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

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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.  

Comments

  1. Fabulous takedown on some of the tedious platitudes we’re told to swallow in order to evolve into sentient beings. And you did so kindly.

  2. Natalie Wilson says:

    Great piece! The quote near the beginning from the yoga teacher”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.” sounds all too much like an ode to the so-called American Dream and its obeisance to individualism. I did not make patriarchy, but yet I have to live in it! All the downward dogs I do are not putting patriarchy in the doghouse!
    And I am all for transforming fitness spaces into areas of feminist organizing and critical thinking. Sign me up!

  3. Thank you for this. I recently tried to do a 40-day challenge at my favorite yoga studio – which is still my favorite yoga studio, and I wouldn’t say a word against it, generally. The challenge, however, was problematic. We would get together once a week to do yoga and share our experiences. The focus on positivity mandatory in the group setting didn’t really leave space for critical thinking. Woman after woman would pop up off her mat to share, and it very often started with, “I read a quote from Gandhi this week that is very applicable to my journey…”. It wasn’t exactly the time for me to pop up and say, “That’s interesting, this week I read about some horrific offenses toward women committed by Gandhi so he could supposedly further *his* spiritual journey…”. Doing good work and creating spaces to discuss the problems of privilege, exclusion, sexism et. al. is a tricky balance. I’m relieved to see I’m not the only one who believes that giving voice to what is problematic in our practices is just as vital yoga as raising our voices in the Om.

  4. Thank you, thank you, Kimberly! I have always felt (ironically) victimized by this line of thinking that I have chosen whatever has happened to me. Thank you for exposing the bland, apolitical, pseudo-spirituality behind this so-called meditation and demanding more from our minds and bodies.

  5. Wow, I needed that! Thank you.

  6. Thank you for this thoughtful essay, and I also thank all everyone for the thoughtful replies and comments. These kind of platitudes really do spring from the cultural bias of individualism, which has its place in establishing/perpetuating everything from ‘morality’ (the good will win, must be the bad who fail), sexism (women can’t ‘do’ math, engineering, be CEO’s, or else they would be in those positions, women can’t lift as much as men so they’re not as ‘good’ as men, must need ‘protection’), blame culture (that individual man is a rapist, not all males, so that woman who is raped must have done something to attract it), politics, and ESPECIALLY capitalism (if I can figure out a way to exploit resources and people’s labor, then I ‘deserve’ to be rich and they don’t).

    All of these individualistic platitudes and concepts try to get a big, group-think going to cover up a denial that institutional and structural biases play a huge, if not insidious role in the cards that we are dealt. So yes, you make choices all right, as an individual, but you only make them within the constraints of the situation(s) you’ve been placed in. That’s the way to sort out thinking about where the real power balance lies. Cheers, all.

  7. Isabel says:

    Some traditions suggest we make our life choices before we enter the physical plane.

  8. Yep, yoga teachers are forever saying vacuous, half-baked stuff like that. While there’s some truth to it, obviously it isn’t the whole picture. Nor for men, either.

  9. David Bowman says:

    Yoga in the USA is little more than calisthenics with occasional lip service to the actual spiritual discipline of yoga. I participated in yoga discipline at a music ashram in Rishikesh India. From what I have seen of it in India it is an exclusively masculine discipline of the body mind and soul. Women were not permitted to participate during instruction. Most people are unaware that the physical discipline of the philosophy contains a sexual component that involves female participation. It is an ancient, beautiful and graceful ritual and philosophy but like most things from ancient times it defines very traditional roles of masculine and feminine. No one should be deluded that there is anything remotely liberating to women or at all feminist about Yoga. You can co-opt yoga and use its components piece meal as you wish, clearly we in the USA do, but our use doesn’t change what it is.

  10. Jennifer says:

    It’s the old argument: It’s not us, it’s you… I am all for personal responsibility and making our lives what we want, but to assume they all start from an even playing field and we all have the same chances across the board is folly. But it sure makes the Have’s feel better for having and the Have Not’s assume the burden of guilt for not having…Unless they mean things other worldly, you know, “You came into this universe to experience such and what…” Note: “such and what” are always bad things… No one ever says: “You were put here to know what it is like to have and experience wealth, physical beauty, success, health, love, happiness and contentment…” Why is it always misery we tell people they “earned” some how?

  11. I actually do hear the equivalent of “You were put here to know what it is like to have and experience wealth, physical beauty, success, health, love, happiness and contentment…” quite a lot from spiritual teachers, colleagues, and others quite a lot. Not arguing with what Jennifer and others have said, but this kind of statement is possible and does happen. Maybe we can make sure it happens more often.

    • Jennifer says:

      Cool…I just have never heard it myself, usually I get it from people who just want to buttress themselves up against feeling any culpability in others suffering or that they have lucked out in life in many ways… I don’t know…Do Yoga on my own at home, so maybe it won’t come up much…

  12. I do not see any connection between the inexactitude of the teacher’s words and feminism.
    Sure that not everything that happens to us during our lives is a directl result of our own choices.we may have a car accident with no our fault whatsoever. That’ s definitely not a result of our choice.
    However it is already our choice what position we take with regard to the concequences of that accident. We may start drinking and become alcoholic. Take drugs and become a drug addict. We may engage in the association of handicapped people.
    The buddism teaches that we have choice under many circumstances. Not all but many, very many. The issue is that a number of people do not want to make any choice. They are just being carried by the wave. Wherever the wave takes them they go. And they complain. Make no effor and complain.
    This caracteristics refer to male and female.
    I don’t see why women would have another view on their ability of changing their own situation than men…
    I go to yoga classes and we have young women, elderly women as well as young and mature men among us. It is true that men are few but this is more a result of the fact that they prefer to go to the gym and build some muscles rather than stretch in yoga class.

  13. This article put it’s finger exactly on the dichotomy I feel between my serene yoga self and my angry feminist self. I’ve always felt that there’s something wrong with anasthetising myself to the difficulties women in India face. Yoga, meditation, focussing on your own journey, making your inner self stronger than the chaotic outer world has always felt like a cop out. It’s easier to sit in a dark room and believe oneself stronger than all that is happening outside. It’s how patriarchal Indian men have been able to continue with their beliefs and upbringing without any danger of a rebellious feminist force doing anything to change things. I’ve re – blogged this wonderful article on my blog. Curious as to the kind of commentary it will give rise to .

  14. I was sexually assaulted when I was 9 years old. Not a choice of mine or a decision of mine. As a yoga teacher I often start my classes with “all of our life experiences have brought us to this moment.”

  15. “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.” LOVE that!

    This is something that I see being debated in the “Law Of Attraction” community more & more, and I think that is a very good thing. Excellent points made here. NAMASTE.

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