CULTIVATING A MORE FEMINIST YOGA PRACTICE
It is one thing to intellectualize self-love and acceptance; it’s another to embody it.
For most of my life, I have treated feminism and yoga as two separate spheres, failing to consider the benefits of applying each philosophy to the practice of the other. In this paper, I attempt to answer the question “Are yoga and feminism mutually exclusive?” by presenting a few of the perceived contradictions between yoga and feminism. I also consider the specific impact of antifeminist media representation of women on the evolving Western practice of yoga. Finally, I explore the subtle commonalities between the two philosophies before offering a few specific suggestions for how to enrich Western yoga spaces and practices with feminist ideas.
An Overview of Yoga Philosophy and Feminist Philosophy
Yoga, according to Mukunda Stiles, “is that which causes the vacillations of the mind to cease” (2). The eight limbs of Patanjala Yoga, elucidated in the Sadhana Pada of the Yoga Sutras, provide a means by which seekers who develop an attitude of non-attachment and equanimity can attain higher consciousness. The asana “limb” of Patanjala Yoga was introduced to the West after Swami Vivekananda’s speech at the Parliament of Religions in 1893. Asana practice has skyrocketed in popularity since the beginning of the new millennium, touted as a form of fitness and stress-relief.
In order to address the question of whether the majority of Western yoga spaces or yoga practices are feminist, I will utilize bell hooks’ concept of feminism in this paper:
Visionary feminism is a wise and loving politics, rooted in the love of male and female being, refusing to privilege one over the other, [committed] to ending patriarchal domination. A genuine feminist politics always brings us from bondage to freedom, from lovelessness to love (hooks 103-104).
I would expand this idea of loving empowerment to include genderqueer and transgender individuals (thus implying intersectional feminism), but leave hooks’ definition otherwise unaltered.
JC Peters humorously comments, “Ah, yogaland. A peaceful place where everyone is kind and enlightened, and sexism has poofed out of existence”. Whereas asana practice is often described as a method of relieving stress or releasing judgment in order to let things ‘just be,’ feminism necessitates the identification of oppressive systems and dismantling them. I often feel palpable physical discomfort in a situation that I perceive to be socially unjust, the opposite sensation of my experiences when I totally surrender in shavasana. Natalia Thompson captures this first sentiment perfectly, saying, “As a feminist, I am not accustomed to accepting things as they are.”
At first glance, the fundamental themes of these philosophies – feminist alertness to oppression and yogic non-attachment – thus seem to be in tension with each other. An overview of yoga’s (mis)representation in mass media may provide insight into how these philosophies are more similar than they seem.
Finding Commonalities Between Yoga and Feminism
As Melanie Klein observes, “the practice [of asana] inevitably [has] filtered through the lens of popular culture”. Yoga, in the last few decades, has become extensively subject to consumer capitalist culture and thus inextricably linked with media promotion. This commodification of yoga has been driven by “a small group of advertisers, designers, and magazine publishers promoting a fairly narrow aesthetic that is about technical perfection, youthful beauty, and impressive gymnastics” (Horton 9).
The hypersexualization of yoga attire and asana practice are manifested in advertisements for retail clothing stores, such as American Apparel (YogaDork). More surprisingly, however, these types of advertisements persist in yoga magazines such as Yoga Journal, in “full-spread ads…such as the image of a topless girl lying on her back, covering her nipples with her hands” (Shores). And often, advertisements for yoga classes or products undermine women’s opinions of themselves in order to convince them to make an investment in these products. Ironically enough, it is these selfsame narrow ideals of beauty and heterosexism that feminism strives to combat.
Just as feminism often seeks subversive methods to disrupt the status quo or resist the dominant, heterosexist narrative, solo asana practice is a creative experience similarly characterized by innovation, experimentation, reflection, and introspection. In fact, feminism and yoga both require an intense awareness of current conditions in order to cultivate clarity of thought and correct action according to one’s appropriate “mode of being” (known as svadharma in the yogic tradition).
Additionally, traditional Western philosophy has often emphasized the idea of the “mind-body duality,” which, in conjunction with the concept of personal identity, encourages distinct individuality. However, in Samkhya philosophy, the mind and the body both belong to the realm of prakriti, what people perceive to be the “real,” material world. The salutation “Namaste” beautifully expresses the Samkhya idea that bodies and minds are simply instruments of expression for the Universal Self: “The Self in me honors the Self in you.” Likewise, intersectional feminism is hugely inclusive and ideally affords an equal degree of respect to people belonging to all genders and abilities.
The Benefits of Applying Feminist Philosophy to Yoga Practice
In addition to stereotyping women as emotionally prone (and therefore mentally weak), patriarchal societies have commonly demeaned and compartmentalized unique attributes of women’s bodies to defend and perpetuate sexism (Horton). Amy Champ argues that yoga has the potential to spark “fourth-wave feminism” because asana practice takes the body as its physical medium of expression. Practitioners of yoga reclaim agency of their own bodies, and “because yoga has a somatic base, it offers the potential to override body-based notions of gender” (Champ). For example, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha writes about this reclamation of agency by practicing yoga in her essay about surviving incest as a queer feminist of color:
I do yoga taught by a mixed-desi queer girl who teaches yoga for people of color, who believes that it has the power to heal and decolonize our bodies. I do stretches and breathe into where I can’t feel…I breathe into where my legs shake when I try to raise them an inch off the ground…There is so much knowledge inside my body…I come bit by bit back into my body (99).
A feminist practice of yoga can thus be especially useful for trauma survivors, since experiences of trauma can often lead to dissociation, and yoga practice allows survivors to relearn and reclaim their bodies – to afford them importance. Although asana poses such as the Virabhadrasana (“warrior”) variations often “draw on the language of male experience,” as Natalia Thompson mentions (seeing as Hindu warriors, such as those in the Mahabharata, were traditionally male), yoga encourages adaptation of each posture to the nature of each body, rather than forcing each body to fit the posture. Such adaptation has a parallel in the domain of feminist speech – namely, the reclaiming of misogynistic rhetoric, a particularly powerful tool of expression.
Yoga practice can also be useful for women on the opposite side of the spectrum, those who monitor their bodies to an unhealthy degree (those suffering from eating disorders or body dysmorphia). Fredrickson and Roberts’ “objectification theory” posits that women who have experienced frequent sexual objectification are at a higher risk for mental health problems such as “depression and eating disorders” and tend to exhibit severely “habitual monitoring of the body’s outward appearance” (1). In yoga philosophy, this theory finds a parallel in the idea that identification with the gross aspects of the material world, and development of desires (towards which the body-mind instruments are directed) can only trap an individual in a cycle of neverending suffering, in the ocean of samsara.
Interested in the interplay between the objectification theory and yoga practice, in 2006, Impett, Daubenmier, and Hirschman conducted a two-month study (with predominantly white women) and discovered that body monitoring and self-objectification decreased with habitual yoga practice. Since yoga is a method of cultivating emotional awareness and reducing dependence on identification with the body and the mind, reduced self-objectification seems to be a natural byproduct of the yogic path (Lewis). Regarding asana, B.K.S. Iyengar writes, “The yogi does not look heaven-ward to find [the Self] for [the Self] is within.” Feminist empowerment and release from self-objectification similarly makes use of introspection.
Thus, a feminist yoga practice can have a wide variety of applications, all of which encourage healing from past histories to “make peace” with one’s body, whether by reassigning value to the body (especially in the case of trauma survivors), or by presenting the body in a new perspective by highlighting its capabilities rather than its appearance (useful for all who have to grapple with subpar media representations of women on a regular basis).
Beginning the Process of Creating More Feminist Yoga Spaces
Yoga, perhaps, then, is an inherently feminist practice, one that completely embodies the “wise and loving politics” described by hooks, but one that has become misrepresented and distorted by mainstream media. Asana practice in the West, too, has suffered from the mainstream media portrayal, becoming divorced from the philosophy of which it is an integral part. So how can the potential benefits of feminist yoga, as described above, be extended to more practitioners, particularly those who are currently excluded and marginalized?
In yoga classes, I have often noticed that my fellow practitioners and I have the privilege not to have to engage with the systems of oppression that feminism commands I acknowledge. It is very important to note, however, that “the pressure to maintain a non-combative atmosphere…in which everyone can feel safe, can actually work to silence discussion and/or completely eradicate the possibility of dialectical exchange” (Musial). Hence, the quality of harmony characteristic of the yoga studios that we so comfortably praise may actually be an environment that only a selective few can enjoy.
Both yoga and feminism find “roots in community building and consciousness of intention” (Musial 226). Rather than focusing on attaining a societally-defined, ideal body, practitioners must aim to develop a more holistic practice, one characterized by the yogic idea of vairagya (“letting go”). Awareness and compassion are the first steps to a conscious reformation; though yoga philosophy encourages non-judgment and non-attachment to the goals of one’s actions, yogis must acknowledge that “body shaming, victim blaming, and culture-blindness” exclude certain people from current yoga spaces (Dark). Various organizations with growing social media presences, such as Decolonizing Yoga, aim to highlight the voices of practitioners belonging to marginalized groups, including “queer people, people of color, and disability activists” (Scofield).
Yogis must also acknowledge their own privilege in being able to practice yoga in the first place, seeing as most practitioners are wealthy white women (Murphy). Just as intersectional feminism acknowledges with compassion various forms of oppression, including ableism, racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, and transphobia, more inclusive physical spaces must be created to provide all yogis with the opportunity to practice. To reiterate a previous point, yoga in the United States is predominantly practiced by women, yet yoga advertisements constantly objectify women through the use of the male gaze. As Jennifer Musial observes, “Yoga students commonly ask about ‘corrections’ to their asanas. This language is significant [and reflects an internal] perception quite often formed by consuming images of young, able-bodied, white, ‘fit,’ long-limbed yoga models” (219). Although adjustments to poses are traditional and are expected of responsible yoga teachers, the type of corrections that Musial speaks of here relate more to students’ desire to emulate the bodies they see in the media rather to practice a pose correctly. It is worth re-mentioning that various yoga postures are meant to be adapted to different bodies, rather than the other way around; thus, a natural danger appears when one body type is idealized above all others. A change in this mindset will require more attentiveness (to the media they are consuming) and awareness (of how this media is affecting them) on the part of yoga students.
On Instagram, as a type of direct challenge to these ideal portrayals of yoginis, the past few years have shown a rise in the posting of “yoga selfies,” pictures of various, self-identified practitioners with hashtags such as #fatyoga and #blackyogis. While some practitioners regard the idea of the “selfie” as egocentric, posters themselves use the medium to promote body acceptance (Horton).
Along with innovative uses of social media to encourage feminist yoga spaces, established yoga studios and organizations themselves must embrace the idea of body acceptance and escape the dominant media narrative in order to resist objectification of women. Of course, inclusive yoga spaces alone will not resolve the problem of objectification, but they will help to “kickstart” the process by bringing together individuals of all body types and with a variety of histories. In the future, perhaps the next goal for these spaces will be to serve as safe havens for people with genderless bodies as well.
Ultimately, productive dialogue about how to create more inclusive spaces for yoga practice finds useful commonalities in both yogic and feminist philosophies, most notably in the idea of a heightened self-awareness. After all, the most seasoned yoginis and nuanced feminist thinkers “learn to sit with unease but refuse engagement in the unfolding drama,” placing value on an intuitive understanding of the present (Musial).
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