Women in Yoga: Celebration and Critique

Creative Commons License photo credit: montroyaler

It’s no secret that women are enormously influential in North American yoga. From the internationally famous to the locally beloved, many of our most dynamic and important teachers are women. Walk into almost any yoga class and you’ll see that the statistics are true: almost 75% of our 15-20 million practitioners are female.

Given that Hatha yoga was traditionally a male-dominated (and in many cases, male-exclusive) practice, this influx of women is rightly being celebrated as revolutionary.

The website for the recent film “Yoga Woman,” for example, proclaims that “a new generation of dynamic female teachers” has created a new form of yoga that “replaces the male-centered, rigid style with a distinctly feminine practice that honors intuition, family, flow, connection, community, activism, and the cyclical nature of women’s lives.”

Similarly, yoga teacher and scholar Eric Shaw writes that the “contributions of women to yoga have their own unique quality and have served concerns that were peripheral when it was led by men.” In particular, “women made social responsibility a chief feature of modern practice.”

I have mixed feelings about these accolades. On the one hand, I’m thrilled to see the subject of women in yoga starting to being given the attention it deserves. On the other, it troubles me that they’re so utterly one-sided.

Because while it might be nice to believe that women have brought nothing but such wonderful sets of commitments to the practice, it’s pretty obvious (to me, at least) that that’s simply not the case. Women – like yoga and life itself – are way more complicated than that.

Light and Shadow

Again, it’s critically important to honor women’s historic new role in yoga. It can become a problem, however, if we’ll only look at it through rose-colored glasses. Doing so, in fact, may unwittingly perpetuate some of the problems that – at least in my mind – are also part of this new feminization of yoga.

One of the things I dislike most about contemporary yoga culture is precisely this tendency to fit everything into feel-good, pastel colored, platitudinous boxes. It’s the mainstream women’s magazine model: “5 Easy Poses to Find Inner Peace!” Or perhaps in this case: “6 Wonderful Ways That Women Have Revolutionized Yoga!”

These kinds of chirpy affirmations have their place. But a steady diet of them produces a denial-saturated brain fog. And this isn’t good for yoga – or, for that matter, women.  We don’t need to artificially limit ourselves (and others) to looking only at the bright side. We can (and should) be equally interested in exploring our shadow as well. Otherwise, we’re simply fooling ourselves. And that, of course, is the opposite of what yoga’s truly about.

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Creative Commons License photo credit: AlicePopkorn

Women and Commercialization

Women have contributed vital, and even revolutionary new elements to contemporary practice. Perhaps most notably, female teachers have taken the lead in jettisoning more hierarchical, authoritarian methods of teaching and practice in favor of more democratic and nurturing ones. Teachers such as Shiva Rea, for example, have developed vibrant new forms of asana with a distinctively feminine feel. Incorporating elements of dance and free form movement, such varieties of Vinyasa embody a very different experience than more regimented, traditionally masculine styles such as Ashtanga. In the process, female teachers have also created new opportunities for students to safely explore and process their emotions in the course of asana practice.

At the same time, however, it seems to me that the feminization of yoga has also had less positive effects. I’ve already mentioned the cultural homogenization produced by the unspoken commitment to cramming yoga into a cheery, chirpy “women’s magazine” discourse. The bigger, underlying issue, however, is commercialization.

Free Mall Girls Riding on The Escalator Creative Commons
Creative Commons License photo credit: Pink Sherbet Photography

Women are the consumer force pushing the juggernaut of excessive yoga accessories including expensive clothing, designer mat bags, and so on. Of course, some of this is fine up to a point. Few practitioners today are so Puritanical as to insist that having nice looking yoga clothes are sinful. (Certainly, I’m not.) But the problem is that it becomes part of a package in which yoga becomes just another tool in our “body beautiful” obsessed toolbox: yet one more way to work on slimming and toning, and one more reason to shop for another cute outfit and matching accessories.

 A Restrictive Image?

Finally, I’m concerned that without more critical examination, the phrase “women in yoga” itself may unintentionally blur the reality of feminine diversity right out of the picture.

The mainstream image of women in yoga tracks onto a very real demographic: relatively young and affluent, thin and bendy, upper middle-class and white. Sure, a few images of women who have dark skin, wear over a size 8, or are over age 50 often make their way into the mix. But these tend to feel like tokenism, as they generally don’t disrupt the flow of the commercialized “women’s magazine” feel.

Flexibility
Creative Commons License photo credit: Canon in 2D

And, it’s also important to recognize that there’s a lot of diversity right inside that prime white female demographic. Last week’s controversy over Lululemon’s “Who is John Galt” bag promo, for example, demonstrated that while some women hate this mixture of yoga and right-wing politics, others strongly support it. And still others vehemently insist it’s non-issue that should simply go away.

In fact, the controversies that divide the yoga community most involve whether the practice has become too entangled with bigger processes of commodifying women’s bodies and selling a “health-and-beauty” agenda. Seen from this perspective, it’s equally important to look at both the shadows and light cast by the recent feminization of yoga, as both are having a profound effect on the practice.

Do you agree that the current feminization and commercialization of yoga are linked? If so, do you think this is a problem?

 Do you believe that women have made important contributions to contemporary practice? Based on your own experience, which do you find most valuable?

Posted by:

- who has written 8 posts on Yoga Modern.

Carol is a Contributing Editor to Yoga Modern. A Certified Forrest Yoga Teacher, she teaches yoga to incarcerated women at the Cook County Women’s Detention Facility with the non-profit group, Yoga for Recovery. Author of Race and the Making of American Liberalism (Oxford University Press, 2005), she’s currently finishing a new book entitled 21st Century Yoga: Paradoxes of Contemporary Practice. Carol holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Chicago and taught American Politics at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. Since leaving academia to be with her husband in Chicago and start a family, she’s worked as a research consultant to nonprofit organizations, specializing in issues affecting low-income children and families. In addition to Yoga Modern, her online activities include blogging at Think Body Electric and Elephant Journal, maintaining a Facebook Page dedicated to news and discussion about yoga and meditation, and mixing it up on Twitter. Carol lives in Chicago with her husband, two sons, and two krazy catz.

66 Responses

  • Linda-Sama says:

    did you pick the top photo, Carol? or is Yoga Modern going the way of elephant journal?

    • Carol Horton says:

      Ha ha. Yes, Linda, I picked it – after some thought. I thought that it represented the ambiguity that I'm trying to express in this post. On the one hand, I really do find it a celebratory and creative shot. On the other hand, I also feel that it crosses some ambiguous line that makes it feel like an overly commercialized and sexualized image. As such, I feel that it embodies the tensions that resonate throughout yoga culture surrounding issues of women and commercialism.

    • Hariet says:

      Exactly what I was thinking about that photo. Let's hope YM doesn't got the way of EJ.

  • West Anson says:

    Women have basically "carried" Yoga in the United States and without them I think Yoga would not be as widely popular as it is today. I do have some issues though with the "feminizing" of Yoga. The constant bombardment of sexual images to sell products has become over-the-top! Psychologically, this is nothing more than objectifying women and preying on their insecurities. This also has a negative affect on bringing people (women and men) to Yoga who could really benefit from Yoga.

    The other aspect I "roll my eyes" on are the constant references to "open-heart" and "love". Don't get me wrong, the World needs more love in it but I have become nauseated with this reference. Yes, I love Yoga and love my fellow Yogis but I am secure enough in my relationship to each to not have to be constantly reminded of LOVE! With that said, Namaste my friends.

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  • Vision_Quest2 says:

    This is my take on it:
    http://bitchmagazine.org/article/eat-pray-spend

    Something that could be shopped for, and available to the highest bidder = major fail.
    Not surprised that Lululemon stepped onto the bandwagon with their John Galt bags.

    It makes the old days of victory gardens tended by the womenfolk, look positively yogic (and communitarian)—and even feminist, and populist—to me …

  • Jamie says:

    Right on, Carol! This falls in line with my recent rants on Facebook, e.g. fluffy yoga talk, women posing nude for socks, and putting on shiny, happy people masks. Just like everything in life, there needs to be balance. Thank for for writing this thought provoking piece!

  • I just returned from a conference for the Spa Industry and we heard an amazing speaker – Faith Popcorn – who is a "business intuitive" for Fortune 500 Companies. She had to say this – The Feminine, overall (not just yoga… I think we need to look beyond the yoga box sometimes, because lets face it – we are talking about yoga in a box in an article like this) – ahem, again… The Feminine is going to play a very important role in in the next ten years. Embracing compassion, intuition, communication is going to be important in business, in relationships, etc. FEMININE does not necessarily mean "WOMEN." Men need to be encouraged to embrace feminine qualities in a balanced way. Yin does not mean female.

    Just shared over on the Where Is My Guru page. I think we should be focusing more on not attaching yoga to someting gender specific. We can embrace "feminine and masculine" without attaching oursevles to stories about the past, present and even future. Looks like this is going to be a great discussion.

    BTW – I LOVE the choice of picture at the top. Peace.

    • Vision_Quest2 says:

      Ah, Faith Popcorn (née Faith Popkin), she is an ace marketeer, and has been for decades …

      She coined the terms "cocooning" and "down-aging" and is an elder Boomer by now …

      Commercialization of yoga has taken a very yang, aggressive cast as of late- trying to grasp onto an ebbing position in the public's attention and imagination … Jumping its own shark in so very many different ways. [Cf. John Friend and the Manduka mat, Lululemon's gaffe, etc.)

      So, now there is a yin backlash. I think we have finally started again to think of yoga as another "small indulgence" instead of a marketable-at-profit necessity ... Just like back in the '90s [she penned The Popcorn Report]. And this is no story: it's happening as we speak, to varying degrees in a continuum. The home streaming yoga market (which I might become a customer of in the future), seems to respond to the nexus of cocooning (yin), down-aging (defining down what it means to reach an older age: a strong position to take, but still yin) and small indulgence, very well … At one end, virtual, real-time interactive private yoga sessions are even being imported ("outsourced" in U.S.-speak) from India (in the form of divinewellness.com) … and, at the other … I don't have to tell you how many yoga instructors—even the politically incorrect Tara Stiles—give away "studio secrets" over on YouTube …

  • I'm rapidly tiring of the false attribution of particular qualities like nurturing and compmpasion as being feminine and war, argument and hostility as being male. has no one looked any deeper into the category errors and vague analogies we make about gender? I can accept that caricatures might be helpful in the mass media but dumbing down on yoga blogs peeves me. Tibetan depictions of YabYum for ex. deliberately reverse these stereotypical and false notions by making the feminine fierce and wielding a sword whilst the male is the compassionate force. The feminine, modern yoga vs. masculine traditional yoga narrative is not only cliched, it's entirely misleading once you get down to more serious study.

    • Carol Horton says:

      Really? Can you cite a credible scholarly source that says that women ever previously played such a central, respected, and powerful role in Hatha yoga? Because I've never seen one. It's widely agreed that Krishnamacharya broke with tradition when he agreed to teach Indra Devi – this was a big deal at the time.

      • Linda-Sama says:

        It is true that Krishnamacharyga taught Indra Devi. He was a strict Brahmin, but he taught vedic chanting to women believing that it was women who would carry on the vedic chant tradition, not men.

        A difficult book to find, the Yogayajnavalyka Samhita written by the sage Yajnavalkya, is one of the oldest texts on yoga. It is a dialogue between the sage Yajnavalkya and his wife Gargi, who was considered one of the most learned women of those times. Gargi poses questions to her husband on how to reach the highest truth. The manuscript, translated by Krishnamacharya and then later translated into English by his son, Desikachar, is dedicated to “all great women.” I have the book because it was given to the students on my first trip to the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram — it is fascinating read.

        Yajnavalkya is considered one of the most important teachers in the Vedic tradition. His works are so vast that it can only be compared to those of the Veda Vyasa. He contributed to the Vedas through the Sukla Yajur Veda and the Brhadaranyaka Upanisad. His wife Gargi is mentioned in the Brhadaranyaka Upanisad as “a scholar in all the sastra-s”, as one of the women seekers of truth, and one who was very proficient in logic.

        So as for commonly held belief that yoga was only for men in the ancient time, I don't think so. I think it behooves anyone who calls themself a yoga scholar or historian to move beyond what is traditionally taught and to investigate the rich yogini tradition of ancient India. There has always been both shiva-shakti, the lingam and the yoni.

        • Carol Horton says:

          Hi Linda – Thanks for that interesting and informative comment. I have heard mention of Gargi, although I know essentially nothing about her and couldn't have come up with that reference.

          That said, I'm always suspicious about claims that women played some powerful and auspicious role in this or that ancient civilization that somehow the scholars who've spent decades studying them are not able to find.

          Also, let's keep in mind that there is a huge difference between an abstract commitment to (say) the equality of Shiva-Shakti power and the concrete facts regarding the role of women in society.

          I know that you agree that there's a tendency in American yoga to romanticize India. My suspicion (which will remain until I'm provided with compelling concrete evidence to the contrary), is that there is frequently a romanticization of the supposed power of women in yoga's past as well.

          I could definitely cite solid research that holds otherwise. But I've yet to see the opposite case compellingly made.

  • roseanne says:

    Powerful, fascinating post! I really resonated with this: "the phrase “women in yoga” itself may unintentionally blur the reality of feminine diversity right out of the picture." As you've noted, the image that accompanies "women in yoga" is one of these strong, fit, apparently ageless women.

    My first yoga community, Yasodhara Ashram in BC, is based on the teachings of a female guru and is run by her mostly female disciples. The teachings and practices celebrate and are based on the Divine Feminine, drawn not only from yoga but Tibetan Buddhism, Buddhism and Hinduism. However, the women in the community don't fit this dominant image. They're older, they have a soft quiet wisdom ~ and as such, they're often overlooked in these conversations about women "revolutionizing" yoga.

    How many other communities of women doing amazing work are looked over because they don't fit within the dominant image?

  • A very thoughtful essay.

    I heartily concur with a lot of it. Might even start my own blog so I can respond and expand.

    Yet given what you say, I'm flabbergasted about your choice of pictures. Your words:
    'Sure, a few images of women who have dark skin, wear over a size 8, or are over age 50 often make their way into the mix. But these tend to feel like tokenism, as they generally don’t disrupt the flow of the commercialized “women’s magazine” feel.'

    All the women in the pictures above are as 'cheery and chirpy' as it gets.

    This YM post would have been the perfect place to post those images of women of color; or women over 60; or wrinkled, plump, acned, whatever women of any age.

    I enjoy reading your personal blog. Recently, you posted several short explorations of what might be called synchronicity, including when you shared a class with a woman who had a heart-opening experience. Imagine if this YM post had a picture of the two of you, just after class, all sweaty, hair a-tangle, maybe with an arm around each other's shoulders, maybe even slightly red-rimmed eyes from the profound experience of that class. That would show yoga's beauty, depth, compassion, and that it's for everyone.

    Do such images exist? I think I'm going out looking for a few photos that show the community of yogis like me. Stay tuned.

  • Linda-Sama says:

    I wholeheartedly agree with you, Shelley. My first thought about the top photo was that it is was used for nothing other than shock value, and while I agree with what Carol writes, it's like using photos of naked women to bemoan the fact that women are objectified: "look at this naked woman, boy, do I hate that!" uh, what? Yeah, we get it, time to to get original.

    And frankly, the use of images of young, white, skinny, bendy, cellulite-free women is a hell of a lot more offensive to me in the promotion of yoga than the top photo is. but like anything else that is market driven, yoga is sold to the demographic whom advertisers think will buy their product because yoga has become a product to be bought and sold. As Vision Quest commented, "Something that could be shopped for, and available to the highest bidder", just like women are in less "enlightened" cultures than ours. ;)

  • Carol,
    All I can do at the moment is blow smoke up your…… so to speak, because I agree with everything you said and the way you presented it. I do not want to say more. I am so tired of the commercialization of yoga and the necessity for commercialization as yoga has become a competitive business as well as a competitive sport in some cases. I do not have a solution to that any more than I have a solution to the behavior of Congress. But I thank you for your voice.

  • Eric says:

    The article is thoughtful but a bit disjointed in coalescing your point. Unfortunately, even with your explanation for why the first image was chosen, I think it is completely off the mark, confusing the issue rather than clarifying. Please don't go the way of Elephant Journal in which many articles are incredibly powerful with a seductive image used which is somewhat related but confuses the issue and makes the argument put forth impotent.

    • Carol Horton says:

      Yes, given some of the reactions, I'm now thinking that the image is too much of a distraction. The purpose is to spark the discomforting controversies that EJ itself raises around the use of imagery, and then sit with them in a different way. But instead people get focused on the image and forget the content, which is not helpful. So my strategy seems at least in many cases to be backfiring.

      It's revealing, however. to see just how powerful such imagery can be. Personally, I really do find this particular one to be an interesting for the mixed reactions it provokes for me personally – on the one hand, it experience it as creative and quirky and different – but on the other hand, also sexualized in a way that I don't like and find discomforting. So that mix of reactions is, I think, is a good thing. But if for too many other people it's purely and simply a distraction and turn-off, then it doesn't work in the post. Live and learn . . .

      Finally, I want to note that if the image were being used in a commercial, I'd feel differently about it, as my beefs have to do much more with commodification than sexualization. (But again, that's one of the interesting divides in sensibilities that these images raise.) My guess, however, is that if it were put into a commercial, it would be altered a bit – the model is too skinny and unmade-up for mainstream tastes as normally used to sell product.

      For that reason, like Linda noted, I actually find that images like the "Flexibility" one play a more insidious role in yoga culture. They are accepted as tasteful and unobjectionable (if not inspiring and beautiful) in ways that the first one is not. Yet, I think that they do much more to artificially limit how we experience, express, and communicate the feminine presence in yoga.

      At any rate, thanks for reading and commenting. I'm learning much from this exchange.

  • David says:

    My only problem with the so called feminization of yoga is that, as a man practicing yoga and dance for the last 14 years, I am tired of people who think of these arts and practices as a strictly feminine domain and that, therefore, any man who does this is somehow too feminine or a perv. This stereotype is perpetuated by women who attend yoga and dance classes who assume that the men attending are gay. If they learn you are not gay then you are treated like a perv that is just there looking for the sexy bendy yoga women who show up on the Yoga mag covers. I guess this is my plea to the women in these classes: just treat men who attend these classes as fellow spiritual beings who are there for the same reason you are there whether they are gay or straight. Get sexual politics out of the yoga studios!

    • Carol Horton says:

      Thanks for this. I hope that women readers take note. We need to be open-minded, and examine to what extent we much inadvertently project our negative emotions and experiences on to others. I've always found the straight men who come to yoga classes to be very respectful; as much as we can manage, this should certainly go both ways.

    • Yoga Samurai says:

      I couldn't agree with you more, David. Unfortunately, Carol Horton, for all her belated recognition of the feminization issue, is a huge proponent of it, as her article freely admits She always extols the feminism-yoga connection. The problem? Yoga is not a feminist empowerment practice. It's a personal empowerment one, and knows no such boundaries, which derive fro the secular world of power and ideology. In fact, the dominanc eof yoga by women is a symptom of the profound imbalance in today's yoga culture, and limits its ability to fulfill its own mission. Special outreach to men or the creation of "Brogis" won't be enough to counterbalance this trend, I'm afraid. Maybe when the movement peaks, we can start over on a better more balanced foundation. NAMASTE

    • Joe Sparks says:

      As men we can be as different as we wish to be. We can be as tough and hardworking as we like. We can be as soft and caring as we like. We can be bold and stimulating. We can dance and practice yoga, without being feminine. We are still completely male.
      We feel the full range of emotions as women. Physical injuries hurt us men just as just as they hurt all living things. No matter how much we ignore pain, whether we let it show or not, our nerves send the same messages to our brains that female nerves send. An insult, a disappointment, a rejection, a loss of a loved one, all hurt us as much as they hurt females. We have been forced over the years to hide our feelings of hurt or to become numb to them, but they are there even so. Women need to remember we aren't hurt less by things, we've just had to handle them differently.

      • Joe Sparks says:

        We need to get rid of the stereotypes and be allowed to be human. In this society, men are pressured to take the hurtful role as part of " being a man," and are in a postion in society to get away with it.Women are pushed towards the victim role by their conditioning and by the oppression in the society as females. This has NOTHING to do with men's or women's nature.

  • Eric Shaw says:

    Wow, Carol, way cool. Maybe I'm just isolated, but it seems discussions of the feminine shadow in ANY context is booed right off the stage everywhere in the modern world, but here you have presented reasonable ideas in that direction and the discussion that followed is thankfully untainted by Feminist defensiveness.

    Just for the sake of breadth of thought and adding nuance both to gender and yoga dialogue, I'm immensely thankful for this post.

    The things that you and your commentators point to are key to keep an eye on. The great Tantric Buddhist, Chogyam Trungpa warned us of the state of the mind-state called "The Realm of the Gods"–where we deepen our investment in beauty and good feelings while retreating from the shadow of the world and ourselves. As CT said, this act "annihilates compassion." Don't make this mistake, male and female yogis. Enjoy excellence and beauty–and duty, too. Stay grounded, permit what's sloppy and walk humbly with your god.

    • Linda-Sama says:

      wow. "thankfully untainted by Feminist defensiveness."

      yes, thank the Goddess us girls didn't get all hormonal. we just hate being told "now don't get so defensive" when something really pisses us off.

    • Carol Horton says:

      Thanks for commenting, Eric. I was worried that you'd find my mention of your work in this context problematic, and am relieved to hear that that's not the case. (For those who don't know it, check out the embedded link – Eric has been doing important research on the history of yoga, including the role of women.)

      Re the "feminist defensiveness" – yes, I think I know exactly what you mean. Interestingly, however, the yoga community on the whole seems to be very cut off from the sort of "it's all the fault of the patriarchy" response to charges of feminine commercialization that you might hear in other contexts. In fact, there's an odd silence on the question of feminism and yoga in the yoga community in general (a few bloggers like Melanie Klein excepted).

      Rather than the feminist backlash, the criticism on this type of discussion tends to be that's it's too judgmental, etc. I've also noticed that many people (at least in these sorts of online discussions) tend to think in highly individualist terms – they don't feel that it's fair or legitimate to speak in terms of culture, politics, etc. Needless to say, I disagree.

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  • Elena Brower says:

    Appreciate this dialogue.

    Wise, attentive people, I have one request:

    Instead of ridiculing the happy pictures or the sexy pictures, let's just be the ones who go to a more spacious, balanced place as much as we can, the ones who make the space, embrace our own darkness as well as our light, develop and revel in our own intuition as consistently as possible, and show the world by our example where all of this is going – more space and balance in our own hearts, and therefore in our own families.

    That is the only way we will begin to see the unleashing of the true HEALING impacts of yoga.

    • Carol Horton says:

      Elena: Thanks for reading, and commenting. I'm sorry if the post came off as "ridiculing" anyone. That is not my intent. In fact, the goal is rather to provide more balance and spaciousness to yoga culture by raising issues of concern to many in the community.

      If you're suggesting that it's wrong to write about such issues in ways that may involve criticism or provoke controversy, then I disagree. Speaking your truth IS part of "unleashing the true healing impacts of yoga." And open discussion will at times create disagreement and even discomfort. As long as we work to be respectful of each other in the process, I see this as a positive thing (for those who want to participate – of course, not everyone does, which is fine).

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      • Elena Brower says:

        hi carol

        all good. i don't think you personally are ridiculing; it didn't come off that way, and i know your stance from your other work so i get that you are starting a dialogue and that's terrific.

        definitely appreciate the discussion, for sure. and thank you.

    • Shamane says:

      I wonder how the newly minted millionaire, Elena Brower, can really have any more reverence in the every day yoga that so many of us women are struggling with?

      • Elena Brower says:

        dear one. millionaire i am not, but aiming for it surely. i don't have any MORE reverence, i just have reverence. i am struggling with you, right next to you. i have fought myself, my upbringing, my lineage, my history and my tendencies to destruction and am on top of myself and proud of that. that's all.

  • Brooks Hall says:

    I can’t see how the anger and solidarity against women’s participation in consumerism and commercialism, generated by this piece and the inane photos helps anything. Yes, it connects with some, but it ultimately comes off as a blame game: look at these stupid, spineless women participating in this mess that is also showing up as the dominant culture of our times. Yeah, thanks: blame the women… enough, Carol. You’ve succeeded in getting conversation going, but is it really the conversation you want to have? …about blaming women for the machinations of commercialism and the business of yoga.

    I found the celebration aspect of the article to be weak, and I read in the comments you consider this to be a piece of criticism. Then why would you even nod to a potential celebration when you really want to slay the way women help form the teachings and business of yoga?

    • Carol Horton says:

      Brooks: The celebration piece of this is completely sincere. The reason that the focus is more critical is to balance out the discourse. We already have "Yogawoman." Plus Eric is doing historical research that highlights women's contributions to yoga in a very positive way. And there is in general much celebration of women in yoga. Which is great. I am all for all of that.

      But. I also think that it's important to look at the other, less flattering side of this dynamic as well. In my mind, it is not a question of "blame." It is a question of clarity, honesty, openness, and balance.

      It is also a matter of raising awareness. If all critiques of consumerist values are silenced – well, then they will be even more dominant than they are now. That's not the sort of society that I want – in yoga or otherwise.

      It's natural to be affected by the dominant norms of the culture we live in. It does not make anyone "stupid and spineless." I am affected by consumerist values too. We all are. Which is why I think that it's important to keep a critical consciousness about them in play.

      Plus, yoga teachers need to make a living. Which means that they will have to make choices about how much to conform (or not) to the inevitable pressure to be marketable. This is just a reality. It doesn't make anyone a bad person – it's just something that has to be grappled with.

      • Linda-Sama says:

        “a new generation of dynamic female teachers” has created a new form of yoga that “replaces the male-centered, rigid style with a distinctly feminine practice that honors intuition, family, flow, connection, community, activism…."

        in spite of reading all the rah-rah articles about women's influence on modern yoga, I find it interesting that not all women feel the same way. I came across these articles in Enlighten Next mag, written by women: http://www.enlightennext.org/magazine/j29/women.a… and http://www.enlightennext.org/magazine/j30/debold…. : " “How odd it seems,” writes Naomi Wolf, “that women, the majority of the human species, have not, over the course of so many centuries, intervened successfully once and for all on their own behalf.” Really odd, in fact." and one interview of the Ven. Tenzin Palmo, a Tibetan Buddhist nun who feels that "One of the most significant problems is that women don’t support other women. This is a very ironical situation, and it has kept women weak throughout time. We support each other in little ways, but when it comes down to it, we will always hand it over to the guys." http://www.enlightennext.org/magazine/j37/palmo.a… — from 2007.

        Lastly, this one I find most interesting: http://www.enlightennext.org/magazine/j39/divine-… :

        "But what does it mean to say that the feminine is the answer? This too easily sets up a polarizing dichotomy of its own—equating the masculine with what is bad and the feminine with good. And while the “masculine” and “feminine” are not synonymous with “man” and “woman,” we know that they are very much related. We can’t forget that women and men created history together—including the structures of patriarchy that we now see as so destructive."

        As an old feminist who marched back in the day for the Equal Rights Amendment and abortion rights, among other things, I also find it interesting that the word "feminist" has become a dirty word among younger women. Not all, but enough so as to question the belief that "we've come a long way, baby…." Really?

        When I taught yoga at a jr. college to 18-23 age group of women, I was amazed to hear the same words about typical gender roles and expectations that I heard back in the early '70s.

        • Vision_Quest2 says:

          The martial arts could get it even more right, for example, with the concept of "yin strength"—martial arts being based in spiritual disciplines and characterized by honor and respect (which transcends mere patriarchy) … with "yin strength" in just a stance or a move, you could deceive or seemingly yield-and-feint against your opponent and they fall flat on their face!

          Separate and apart from how, in the greater world of everyday affairs, women are still kept unequal, of course …

          • Linda-Sama says:

            I know exactly what you mean. and frankly, I think the more this is discussed, i.e., the "feminine" this or the "masculine" that (as someone said above, feminine qualities are "good", male "bad"), it serves to divide instead of unite, instead of incorporating the yin & yang of it all. But again, that overanalysis speaks to the uberduality of the Western mind.

  • Shamane says:

    That first photo is obviously the hoochie coochie girl. I like that!

  • I reviewed Yogawoman for my column at the The Yellow Yogi and I agree with much Carol has written…here are a few excerpts from my review which can be found in full at http://www.yellowyogi.com/daniellesden/

    "Essentially, the film is one long commercial for yoga, encouraging women who haven’t yet taken up the practice to do so. The filmmakers want us to know that yoga is for every woman, no matter her age, social status, or ethnicity. And as one plug used to promote the film states YogaWoman will help you “feel your own strength and make you want to get on the mat.”

    But sadly I found some dissonance with this message. From the super thin, superstar yoga teachers interviewed, to the visual sequences featuring thin muscular women flowing effortlessly through difficult poses, there was nary a ‘real’ body in sight.

    As a yoga teacher, it’s been my experience that images featuring incredibly lithe bendy women actually discourage those who aren’t young, thin and flexible (the majority of the population) from trying yoga in the first place. I’ve done a lot of explaining that yoga isn’t about pretzel poses, anyone can do yoga, despite their size or fitness level. Yeah, right…. And while no one actually says thinner is better, don’t images speak a thousand words?

    While the documentary credits ‘women power’ for making yoga a multimillion dollar business I wish it had taken more time exploring how it’s commodification is also perpetuating unrealistic body images. Fact is, as yoga has become big business it has also become the latest tool in the corporate arsenal to make us feel like we don’t measure up. Ads featuring incredibly slim young women clad in beatific smiles and skin tight yoga pants are being used to hawk everything from tea to cereal, vitamins to vacations.

    While the film delves into the societal pressure women feel to be thin, and toots yoga as the antidote, nearly all the yoga icons featured in the film, teachers like Seane Corn, Patrica Walden and Shiva Rea were practically devoid of body fat.

    Is this really a healthy ideal? Research reveals that underweight women face issues with menstrual regularity, fertility and bone density, and get this, even die younger than their moderately overweight peers.

    But Yogawoman never mentions any of this. Which is strange, considering that the film spends so much time detailing the many health benefits of yoga?

    The film does a beautiful job of illustrating how, from motherhood to menopause; yoga enhances women’s reproductive health, even their sex life. It explores how yoga has helped women deal with cancer, infertility, anxiety, depression, and given them strength to recover from substance abuse and eating disorders.

    But where YogaWoman falls short is in exploring the ‘why’. In one portion of the film, illustrated by a class of upside down women in headstand, we are told how yoga helps us “tune in” to ourselves. The film seems to imply by becoming physically stronger, we become more confident, and this confidence makes us more ‘real’. But does the transformative aspect of yoga really lie in the fact that postures exercise our pelvic wall or help our lymph fluids flow more easily? I think it goes way beyond that.

    I believe yoga’s power lies in the spiritual aspects of practice. Our image-orientated culture, by demanding we look a certain way, disconnects us from our body’s desires and needs.
    I believe that one of the reasons women resonate so powerfully with yoga is they discover something we don’t have a name for in our culture, something we don’t even know were missing – until we experience it. We forge a spiritual connection to our own bodies.

    That’s why I was a little disappointed that the filmmakers, perhaps in the interest making yoga more accessible, decided to skirt its metaphysical aspects. Barely 7 minutes of an hour and half film are given over to talk of inner peace and achieving lightness of mind. For a film that explores how women are changing one of the oldest spiritual practices in the world, there was little, if any, direct mention of spirituality at all..

    Despite my griping, the film is well worth the price of admission, its chock full of sisterhood bonding, good feelings and Oprah lump in throat moments. I loved that. And the best part is the way the filmmakers made yoga’s true spiritual veracity shine through the yoga women they featured in this film.

    From all ages and walks of life, they truly are the heart of yoga.

    Embodying the tradition of the Bodhisattva, enlightened beings who remain on earth to help alleviate humanity’s suffering, we see “yogawomen” from around the globe caring for others.

    Whether they are teaching incarcerated teens, building a birth center in Kenya, or creating classes for cancer survivors, they are awesome. Go Yogini's Go!

    • Linda-Sama says:

      great comment….

      and my students have been saying the same thing for years: "images featuring incredibly lithe bendy women actually discourage those who aren’t young, thin and flexible (the majority of the population) from trying yoga in the first place."

      "I believe yoga’s power lies in the spiritual aspects of practice. ,,,,decided to skirt its metaphysical aspects…For a film that explores how women are changing one of the oldest spiritual practices in the world, there was little, if any, direct mention of spirituality at all.. "

      that's because it would have made it a totally different movie. Paul Grilley has said, and which I believe, that for yoga to be palatable to Western culture when it began to make a come-back in the 1970s, in order for it to become “mainstream”, spiritual references had to be stripped out for it to become popular.

  • Also – I find Carol's statement " female teachers have taken the lead in jettisoning more hierarchical, authoritarian methods of teaching and practice in favor of more democratic and nurturing ones" most interesting and worthy of further exploration. I also wish the film had spent a little more time examining women's possible early role in the development of yoga…. here is an excerpt from my blog titled " Did Women Invent Yoga" ..if you'd like to read more head over to http://bodydivineyoga.wordpress.com/2011/02/25/di

    "If you don’t think yoga is a feminist issue try suggesting as author and feminist historian Vicki Noble does, that women invented the ancient practice. Noble’s assertion brings to light something rarely acknowledged or addressed in the yoga world – that throughout it’s 5000 year history women have been completely excluded from the practice of yoga.

    While fair access to downward dog might seem on the surface like a feminist victory, Noble and other feminist researchers ask – why are women still practicing a form of yoga developed by men – only for men?

    In fact, their research is uncovering evidence of an alternative, much more ancient female centered yoga practice that preceded the Hindi yogis by thousands of years.

    Who knew?

    Miranda Shaw is a historian on the female roots of Tantra Yoga. In her book Passionate Enlightenment she writes how yogini’s gathered at feasts to play “cymbals, bells, and tambourines and danced within a halo of light and a cloud of incense.” They sang “songs of realization” regaling one another “with spontaneous songs of deep spiritual insight.”'

    Monica Sjoo is another feminist historian whose books explore the legends of priestesses found in art, myths, and historical records. Sjoo claims that from the Pre-Neolithic through to at least the Bronze Age, across India, across the Silk Road to China, that women were performing ecstatic healing rituals for the benefit of their communities.

    Both Sjoo and Noble argue that the concept of Kundalini originated in the female “Siddhis” (yogic powers) of menstruation, female sexuality, natural birth, and menopause. Noble believes these ancient yogic rites encouraged the free, spontaneous flow of kundalini energy through the female group, and by extension, throughout the entire community.

    Noble believes yoga is a feminist issue because until we understand women’s central role in the development of yoga, it cannot be a truly effective female practice. She urges women to reclaim the “natural, biological ways of accessing and experiencing the yogic power of our ancient fore-sisters”.

    Today some schools of yoga are evolving into a more fluid, even ecstatic practice. Priestesses like Shiva Rea are all about energy flow, as opposed to the static practice of traditional Hatha.

    Shiva has sold millions of yoga DVD’s and is the creator of what she calls “Trance Dance Yoga” a free-form trance dance that invites us to experience the free flow of Shakti, (the divine feminine energy) to lead us back into our bodies and rejuvenate us with Prana, the vital energy of life.

    Today the influence of Shiva’s Trance Dance Yoga is felt in nearly every yoga community. Classes in Goddess Yoga, Prana Flow and Sacred Dance abound. Some of the trendiest studios even feature Yoga Dance Raves by candlelight.

    Does this herald a return to a yoga once practiced by our fore-mothers, a yoga of ecstatic embodiment? As we gather in communal classes, I wonder if our practise of yoga can become, like the practices of our ancient ancestors, a ritual of blessing and healing within the community.

    According to Noble, the legacy of the ancient yoginis can be “activated in the here-and-now to bring balance and renewal to our community through our delight in the powers of the physical body.”

    To me this seems like a yogic heritage well worth keeping. So I just don’t get why, despite the recent spate of articles and books exploring the historical roots of yoga, so few mention women’s contributions.

    Why is it that the current debate amongst yoga scholars regarding the true historicity of yoga (is it 5000 years old or just 500) barely takes into account the legacy of ancient yoginis? I find this blind spot puzzling. I can’t help but wonder, in this so-called post feminist era, if yoga really has “come a long way baby”? "

  • Linda-Sama says:

    I also find that blind spot puzzling. Last year I visited the Temple of the 64 Yoginis (also called the Temple of the 64 Dakinis) in Hirapur, a village outside Bhubaneswar in the state of Orissa. These small temples were for tantric practices, for the acquisition of siddhis or "supernatural powers." Yogini worship was seen predominately between 800 and 1300 AD.

    As I said above, it would behoove anyone anyone who calls themself a yoga scholar to learn more about women's contributions to ancient yoga instead of automatically dismissing India as a historically patriarchal culture. From the book "Yogini Cult and Temple": "It appears that the worship of the Yoginis… was one of the significant, though less familiar, cults practiced by the Saktas who believed in the supremacy of Sakti or Power concentrated in the person of the Great Goddess." http://www.exoticindiaart.com/book/details/yogini

  • Carol Horton says:

    Thanks so much Danella and Linda for the great comments, complete with references! So much here to learn about . . . what a great contribution to the discussion!

    • madhupamaypop says:

      If you are collecting resources, check out Jalaja Bonheim's book "Aphrodite's Daughters" — there are some references to the woman carriers of the yoga lineage as well…

      • dsunshine says:

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  • YogiBared says:

    Moire Shiva, less Shakti would be a huge boon to American yoga.

    Te problem isn't commercialization, that's just a symptom of the gender imbalance that the author actually extols. The problem is the imbalance itself, and the transmutation of a spiritual movement that is beyond all gender construction into a secular, feminist, and yes, power-based "women's movement."

    It's tiresome to hear someone repeat the traditional dualism between women as all intuition, depth and communitarianism and men as ego-based, hierarchical, stick figures.

    We have some of the most penis-envying power-oriented women in American yoga, and some ofmthe gentlest male souls.

    I would recast the problem as the movement not having enough Shivanic influence, and being captured by a Shakti fetish.

    Shakti is the force that brings in piercing sword of reason, discernemnt and judgment, which would guard against a temptation to turn yoga into a girls-gone-wild body show.

    • madhupamaypop says:

      I agree with you YogiBared…not completely…but the essence of what you are saying — yes. Less Shakti… Or, just let Shakti be — don't force or coerce her. To me, America is like a hungry ghost — devoid of certain things to make it balanced. One of those things is a balanced feminine aspect (and…believe me…masculine too). So, here comes yoga…then Tantric yoga…then the Shakti factor and everything is out the roof — the hungry ghost swallows her whole!!! America does not understand patience…and the time…energy…mindfulness it will take to fully bring into balance the wounded feminine and the masculine. In the meantime, the forces of greed have taken hold…and we have a lot to face in the yoga community.

      • dsunshine says:

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      • Carol Horton says:

        Wonder if either or both of you (or someone else who feels similarly) could say a little more about precisely what you mean when you use the terms Shiva and Shakti in this context – and how you concretely connect them both to men and women on a biological level, as well as to masculine and feminine gender roles as they manifests in this culture? That would help translate your ideas to a wider audience of people who don't normally conceptualize the issues raised in those terms (which includes me).

  • My favorite teachers are men. The brilliant and kind Rusty Wells, while being biologically male, fathered a spacious, heart-centered practice that leaves a lot of room to breathe, so to speak- you might even describe it as "a distinctly feminine practice that honors intuition, family, flow, connection, community, activism, and the cyclical nature of women’s lives." Except that in Rusty's house it's not about being male or female, it's about being devoted and loving. Rusty has such a purity of spirit that when I see him I don't even see a gender. Feminine does not equate to woman, and continuing to assign such attributes as "intuitive" and "nurturing" and "connected" to women doesn't exactly encourage men to tap into those parts of themselves. Don't we all contain both the masculine and the feminine regardless of how our gender gets expressed in our physical bodies? Is continuing to look at gender in this way just inviting more divisiveness and less unity?

    If women are contributing to the commercialization of yoga it's because women make up 75% of practitioners. Say you're selling sandwiches and you know that 75% of your customers are women. Are you not going to target your marketing to women? Saying that "women are the consumer force pushing the juggernaut of excessive yoga accessories" assumes that women like to shop, especially for things they don't 'need' and I can see ways in which this is true. I also know a lot of yogi ladies who don't buy into the consumer side of yoga. I would personally never pay $90 for a pair of yoga pants, no matter how great they make my bum look. Why pay so much for something that's just going to get soaked in my sweat? I know I'm not the only person who feels this way.

    But, yes, there are women who do not, and one might argue that this tendency is being exploited to push a health-and-beauty agenda and sell expensive pants and straps and bags, etc. But is this really the result of yoga becoming more female dominated, or the result of yoga companies trying to get their piece? Or both? Again, I sell sandwiches, I know ladies like my sandwiches, so you better believe I'm going to be marketing to ladies. From a business perspective, it just makes sense. And, let's not fool ourselves, yoga is a lot of things, including a business.

    Women's bodies are used to sell all kinds of stuff. I don't know how I feel about them being used to sell yoga socks or whatever. I too wish for a more representative picture of people in yoga. I'm constantly advocating for yoga while I'm out and about, and the current popular image is very discouraging to people. I can't tell you how many times I've heard the "I'm not young/thin/flexible enough" line. We need more yoga role models like badass Bernice Bates (http://today.msnbc.msn.com/id/45484875/ns/today-today_health/t/-year-old-yoga-teacher-asks-why-should-i-quit/#.Tt7bBlawWPq) to change people's minds about yoga's accessibility.

    Of course women have made important contributions to the yogic world. I think these contributions would be even more powerful if women were to become less liberal about distributing "chirpy affirmations" (love that!) and move into the shadows. I have found incredible empowerment in exploring and transforming my anger, but it required that I drop the 'om shanti' party line for a time and get dark. This is a scary, almost divisive thing to do in a community that, at times, seems to be trying to OD on bliss and love. Expressing discontent feels kind of sinful, but I think it's important that we leave room for the totality of people's beings in their process. When a person's process is challenging, they should feel safe talking about it…especially women, who are traditionally discouraged from showing anger because it's supposedly a masculine expression. What about Kali, ya'll? There's nothing 'unladylike' or 'unyogic' about being real about one's feelings. Isn't yoga supposed to help us experience our reality clearly? I really admire people like Elena Brower for keeping it so refreshingly real.

    I'd be interested to see a photo series of what Yoga Is… with people like Bernice who defy the stereotype. Anyone want to take up the project? That's a good way to start shifting the perspective- change the predominant image!

    In any case, it's just yoga :)

    • Carol Horton says:

      Thanks, Kirsten, for such a thoughtful comment. You bring up so many important issues. The one that resonated the most with why I was motivated to frame this post as I did was your observation that often in yoga culture, "expressing discontent feels kind of sinful." The problem with trying to be super-positive all the time is that it often becomes oppressively fake. Silencing real feelings and honest observations because they bring up discomforting feelings or realities is not helpful.

      I have heard great things about Rusty Wells from several people who echo exactly what you say. I guess I still feel that when you look at yoga historically, the fact that women recently moved into leadership roles in creating new styles of asana opened a new door that everyone could then move through. So while I agree with your insistence that we shouldn't essentialize what's a "feminine" style of yoga, I think that we should still acknowledge and honor the role that women have played in the evolution of the practice.

      Re selling to women – that's the flipside of it – of course, everything you say is true about selling to your target demographic. But therefore why should it be at all controversial to point out that women buy into this commercialization of yoga on many levels? Why not simply recognize this openly and discuss the pros and cons? I think that the blockage loops around back to your other point – the silencing of discomforting realities. Not recognizing them encourages superficiality. And I also personally find it very boring.

  • Jody says:

    Interesting conversation… thanks everyone!

    I particularly like Danella's comment: "I believe that one of the reasons women resonate so powerfully with yoga is they discover something we don’t have a name for in our culture, something we don’t even know were missing – until we experience it. We forge a spiritual connection to our own bodies."

  • Carol Horton says:

    Kirsten Elise, who commented above, just posted a really nice piece on her blog with "alternative" images of yoga, along with great info on inspiring teachers and organizations – check it out at http://theurbanlotus-sf.blogspot.com/2011/12/yoga… Thanks Kirsten!

  • Since majority of the publicity of yoga represents women, it does not mean that it is just for women. I believe that they usually associate yoga with women because of the flexibility and form of women which indeed very amazing to see. However, seeing a man doing yoga would also be a very good eye opener for those who do not know what it is since it shows diversity.

  • Pratima says:

    This is sickening to the stomaches of devout Hindu women (and men). First of all, what you are referring to Yoga, is not! Your claims and images of half naked women posing, supposedely, reflecting freedom and inner strength is purely politics and have nothing to do with real Yoga, which is the religion of Hinduism!!! Secondly, the dicot/division of male-female that you've created (that went with the history of male domination and historic inequality in the past), is the opposite of real and genuine Hatha(sun/moon) yoga…merging the feminine and masculine qualities within the individual to bring about a harmonious balance! Respecting women is far better recognized with their clothes on!!!

  • ashley says:

    yoga has taught me many things, and one of the things that, after reading your essay and the comments that followed, i am reminded of is "let it be." i agree, i have noticed that certain companies, gyms, etc. have commercialized yoga and made it more of another "great way to lose weight" class….but soon enough there will be another trendy sport/class thing that will pop up (just look at Zumba!) and people will move on. what we yogis need to do is let it be. i for one have stayed true to my yoga practice and continue to visit my favorite little yoga studio and leave my frustrations at the door. i continue to focus on what works for me and pay no attention to the ads, commercials, etc…i stay true to my inner yogi. just like the many styles of yoga, there is something out there for every one. no one pose is going to feel the same, look the same for everyone. we just need to remember to keep an open mind, breathe, and remind ourselves that everything will sort itself out.