Women in Yoga: Celebration and Critique

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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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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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