Does marketing yoga to men reinforce gender stereotypes?

Photo: zachstern on Flickr

Women make up 72.2% of the 15.8 million people who practice yoga in the United States, leaving the male minority to feel a little left out of the yoga fun. In an effort to bring the male to female ratio back into balance, the yoga community is reaching out to men through trends like “broga“, the first male cover model in Yoga Journal, and more “men-friendly” classes at studios throughout the country.

These gestures may bring more male students in the door, but does targeting appeals for one sex or the other really help to promote gender “equality?”

Although efforts to make yoga more appealing to men may appear to inclusive, I am concerned that these techniques only further gender stereotypes in the yoga community and society at large.  For example, in Yoga For Men’s mission statement, they suggest that practicing their system of yoga…

“…will improve your ability to improvise new movements gracefully (when playing sports or doing any other physical activity) with less risk of injury.  And it’s perfect for women too – if they’re tough enough.

This statement not only unnecessarily segregates the sexes, but also suggests that women are somehow weaker than their male counterparts.   I was also curious about why a male specific system was necessary, especially considering the fact that yoga was originally created by men for men.  The acceptance of women in hatha yoga is a fairly modern movement and wasn’t encouraged until the late 1930s when Sri Tirumalai Krishnamahcarya suggested:

“I think that if we do not encourage women, the great Indian traditions will die because men are not following the Vedic rules and regulations.  They are all becoming business people.”

But even Krishnamacarya’s statement pigeonholes men and women into specific gender stereotypes. Underlying his words is an assumption that men are busy breadwinners with no time for spiritual practice and women more likely to have time to practice yoga.

Surely there is a way for the yoga community to be inclusive without falling into reductive and overgeneralizing gender stereotypes. After all, are men and women so different that they can’t practice yoga together? Consider Swami Jnaneshvara Bharati’s poem, The Secret of Shiva and Shakti, in which he describes the unity of masculine (Shiva) and feminine (Shakti) energies:

Shiva and Shakti are one and the same.

There is no place that He is not.

There is no place that She is not.

They are one and the same.

Although the poem employs gender specific language, it emphasizes that the he and she are one. Bharati’s verses reflect the non-dualistic philosophies of Vedanta, Yoga, and Tantra. The common thread that binds us all — men and women alike — is known by different names in each tradition. Patanjali calls it Purusha, pure consciousness.  In Tantra, it is dubbed infinite union of Shiva and Shakti.  In the Upanishads, it is described as Atman, the center of consciousness or the essence of Brahman, the absolute.

Although these three traditions use different language to describe the non-dual nature of reality, they all suggest a unifying essence at the core of every human being.  If we look at sex (in the biological sense) through the lens of nondualism, gender roles of society appear inconsequential. Despite differences in our physical bodies, there is an understanding that we all ultimately share the exact same energetic potential.

Do you think efforts to bring more men into yoga reinforce gender stereotypes both in the yoga room and society at large?

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Patience Steltzer is the Assistant Editor for the World Affairs Current at Yoga Modern. She spends her time drawing, painting, sewing, writing, and practicing/teaching yoga in Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas. After a lifetime of having no idea what to do with her creativity and energy, she discovered yoga allowed her to find the beauty and excitement in stillness. Since then, she has dedicated herself to sharing her love of yoga with others to help them find the joy she has.

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