I think it is fantastic what has taken place for women in the world of yoga today. Yoga has been a tremendous source of empowerment, inspiration and confidence building for dedicated female practitioners. In fact it is due to the sheer numbers of women practicing that yoga is being promulgated in North America and around the world today. If it weren’t for the volumes of women practicing yoga today, I might be out of a job!
The remarkable explosion of women in yoga today suggests the positive ways in which women are caring for their health, coming to know their bodies and nourishing their spirits. The ramifications of hundreds and thousands of women practicing yoga is that women accrue (familiar in yoga jargon) “core strength”. This involves not only a kind of physical centering — which leads to balance, poise and stable bio-rhythms — but also a sense of independence.
Through yoga, women gain self-esteem and are empowered to decide what is best for themselves.
Concurrent with this rise in stature, there is a powerful movement afoot in America to undermine the autonomy and spirit of women. It is coming from the far right, is tied to a strict sense of Christian moral codes, and is making a political move for power. The two main issues stressed by the religious and political right are anti-abortion and anti-gay rights. The objective is to over-turn Roe vs Wade (1973) and strip a woman of her right to forgo an unwanted pregnancy.
Already today, the assistance and guidance of groups such as Planned Parenthood have been curtailed and so a woman’s access to counsel has been drastically diminished. The agenda of many within the Christian right is to re-establish the traditional family model. Combined with the anti-abortion agenda, this can only mean that women will be made to stay at home, bear children and play the role dictated for them in the Bible (as some would believe). Women are implored to be a good housewife — second to men.
The ethics around abortion are complex and subtle, especially when it comes to issues of non-violence (ahimsa). Yet when conception takes place inside a woman’s body, there can be a myriad of potential factors that come to bear in a pregnancy, karmic forces that involve the struggle for identity and self-transformation.
Arguments can be made that if a woman has an unwanted child, it perpetuates suffering and pain — and causes the cycle of samsara to spin faster. Yoga teachings aim to reduce physical, mental and emotional suffering. I think that a woman has to weigh carefully which of the two — having a child, or having an abortion– perpetuates dhuka (suffering). She should have the freedom to make this choice, rather than have it made for her by state or federal law. True power suggests self-sovereignty, both in a democratic sense and in an inner (spiritual) sense.
In addition to the anti-abortion movement there is another fervor being stirred by Tea Party Republicans and evangelical interest groups today. The sentiment is homophobic and anti gay. This phobia tramples freedom of expression, freedom of personal preference. The quest under way to is to squelch same-sex marriage and by association, to squelch the vital expression of gay culture, one that is carried forth by artists, designers, performers and thinkers alike. With elections coming up in the United States in 2012, there are forerunners in the Republican Party — Rick Perry and Michelle Bachmann- who have an agenda to douse the right-to-choose for gays and women alike. It will no doubt be a struggle for power, and at the center of it is an underlying agenda to undermine one’s fundamental right to choose.
The threat toward women’s rights (and certainly gay rights as well) is not limited to North America. The explosive changes in the Middle East will bring further questions to the surface of the role of women in society. Within the traditional gender roles in Muslim countries, women are the property of men and their rights of self expression severely restricted. The memoir Reading Lolita in Tehran by Iranian Azar Nafisi, is a remarkable testimony of the struggle of modern day women in Islamic nations to speak freely. In November of 2011, the head of the interim government of Libya post Quaddafi, Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, has proclaimed that polygamy become law (in accord with Sharia, Koran based Islamic law) to the outrage of women throughout Libya.
Not only in the celebratory world of yoga, but in society over the past forty years since the ERA movement in the 1970’s, women have been able to carve out greater freedom, greater possibilities than ever before. However in America today we are witnessing a backlash that could be a dire set back to women’s rights, influence and vitality.
I think that within yoga circles today, at the grassroots level—that is within community based yoga studios—there could be more active discussion of these issues. For a yoga teacher to speak in class about these issues is a delicate thing. I think that a teacher can potentially speak to these issues, carefully and skillfully, while underscoring the importance of developing a non-prejudiced, open-minded attitude toward all beings.
Do you agree? Should we be talking about abortion, gay rights, and other sensitive political topics in yoga studios around America today?