Sunday, April 3, 2011

Yoga, Feminism, and the World of Oppressions

It's been about two months now since I started my yoga teacher training program. Overall, it's been a wonderful experience, filled with little insights, and lots of learning. My own yoga practice has deepened and expanded. I have made some new friends. I have met some excellent teachers. And it's been a great way to burn through the last few months of winter.

Yet, it's also brought up in person some issues I have long read about in the larger American yoga community. The first night of my core class, someone brought up eating disorders and yoga, which tumbled for me into all the warped body issues we have in the U.S., especially when it comes to female bodies.

Another issue that's been on my radar is class. Unlike my old yoga studio in St. Paul which is pretty toned down in terms of things like designer yoga clothing and expensive mats, the place where I am doing my teacher training attracts - overall - a more affluent crowd. Or, at least, there are more people who are visibly affluent, something I've struggled a bit with. Free flowing discussions, for example, about spur of the moment vacations and attendance at high end yoga retreats are dead zones for someone like me, who has no experience doing either, and has never been in a financial position to really do so.

The thing is that I'd argue that this studio is a hell of a lot better than a majority of larger places. The leadership emphasizes the totality of yoga practice, is rigorous in it's class offerings, and doesn't seem to pander a lot to fluffy forms of yoga that might bring in more money, but do so at the expense of integrity. In fact, I believe that these issues I'm speaking about above are as much about how yoga is marketed and has been "branded" in a cultural sense, than anything in particular my yoga studio is doing.

And yet, there's a part of me that wonders what would happen if I didn't "blend" in as well as I do. If I was a little more ragged around the edges - less educated, a little more shabbily clothed. Long ago, I learned how to "pass" for an average middle class white American making a decent living, owning the "normal" things middle class folks do, and being able to afford things like regular vacations to distant educations, expensive accessories, and the latest Iphone.

My yoga training classmates don't know, for example, that I have never owned a car, haven't had health insurance for nearly a decade, and have to debate myself internally on a regular basis about adding anything "extra" to my life, like home internet service - primarily out of cost consciousness. The realty is that I have always been just above poor economically, with a middle class education. So, I'm kind of a tweener when it comes to class, something that can be challenging.

But class isn't the only marker that can cause distress for people who are interested in yoga. I found this excellent post by Natalia Thomp­son (no relation) about yoga and feminism. She writes:

There’s a rea­son that yoga is a con­tentious topic on many fem­i­nist blogs: not only is yoga a “bougie” trend (striv­ing to “just be” is a pretty priv­i­leged state of exis­tence), but the com­mer­cial­iza­tion of yoga car­ries dis­tinctly sex­ist under­tones. Amer­i­can Apparel’s recent reap­pro­pri­a­tion of yoga poses in their noto­ri­ously sex­ist ads is hardly the only offender; Yoga Jour­nal is also guilty of “tap­ping that yoga ass.” The fem­i­niza­tion of yoga has become all too com­mon: as one blog­ger notes, images of yoga fre­quently depict women in “bounded, con­torted, sex­u­al­ized positions.”

Over­sex­u­al­ized ads aside, the roots and phi­los­o­phy of yoga also pose a chal­lenge to fem­i­nist yogi­nis. As one fem­i­nist scholar and yoga teacher explains, “On our mats, we have the oppor­tu­nity to cul­ti­vate a wit­ness to how things are [and] learn to accept real­ity as it is, with­out judg­ment… But as a fem­i­nist, I am not accus­tomed to accept­ing things as they are.” Another fem­i­nist blog­ger trou­bles the ori­gins of yoga: accord­ing to her, it “is wrought from patri­ar­chal ide­olo­gies and power struc­tures that are his­tor­i­cally and con­tem­porar­ily per­va­sive in culture.”

From my own expe­ri­ences prac­tic­ing yoga, I’ve become painfully aware that the yoga stu­dio isn’t always a safe space for women and queer folks. I’ve had male teach­ers who have made sex­ual com­ments and touched female stu­dents inap­pro­pri­ately, and I could cer­tainly empathize with a queer yoga teacher’s account of attend­ing a Yoga Jour­nal con­fer­ence that was any­thing but inclu­sive: the (hetero)sexist norms reflected in yoga ads too often shape the spaces where yoga is prac­ticed. The yoga stu­dio should be a place where we escape the (unwanted) male gaze or the polic­ing of gen­der non-conforming bod­ies, but that’s not always the case.

To my current yoga studio's credit, they have developed a whole series of classes for plus-sized yogis and yoginis - recognizing the ways in which our collective thin people fetish has bled into the yoga world. In addition, there seems to be strong culture of ethics amongst the studio's teachers, which is evident by how much respect students are given, and how - as teacher trainees - we have discussions about things like requesting permission from students to do pose adjustments. This might sound basic to some of you, but the stories I have heard from classmates about experiences with teachers and other studios suggests to me that it's not as basic and commonplace as one would think.

But then there's some of the other issues Ms. Thompson mentions above. I wrote recently about an exchange between a few female students and a male teacher that exposed some of the male-centric, perhaps sexist issues of yoga as a historical discipline. I've written about race issues in Buddhist convert communities frequently, and I think some of that applies as well to the yoga world. During the weekend workshop I took in early March, I remember looking around at one point and thinking "Man, it's a sea of whiteness here." I can imagine the few people of color in the room felt like they were border crossing just to come practice. And then there's the gender-queer dimension brought up in Thompson's post. This one is perhaps harder to tease out, in part because talking directly about sexuality doesn't tend to be on the agenda in an average yoga class. Furthermore, just as I can pass as financially middle class, many queer folks can pass as straight. Or, perhaps it's more accurate to say that they are blended into the heterosexual norm by default. However, if you're a woman with a butch appearance and mannerisms or a decidely femme looking and acting man, it's hard not to stand out in the average yoga studio.

One of the challenges, as I see it, is figuring out ways to bring these topics into the regular discourse of yoga classes and trainings. Being a path of liberation, yoga needs to be more deliberately applied to the oppressive, destructive narratives that we all have ingested by growing up and/or living in this society. And it seems especially important that anyone who feels compelled to spread yoga to "the masses" best get on board with ways to de-centralize the current norms that privilege the experience of white middle and upper class, thin bodied, heterosexual yoga practitioners above all others.

None of this is meant to condemn American yoga as a hopeless cause. Or an indulgent, "bougie" activity. Despite the issues above, there's a lot of wonderful things happening in certain pockets of the American yoga scene. There IS plenty of substance and depth, but you have to look for it. And there are people looking at some of the difficult -isms that plague our lives on a daily basis, if perhaps in a piece-mail way. With more discussion, more sharing of ideas, approaches and experiences, it might be that somewhere down the road, a more thorough and inclusive method of interrogating oppression through yoga practice will come forth. A more total liberation depends upon it in my view. May it be so.


Eco Yogini said...

an excellent post. I agree with you on all parts.

As someone who also has been a bit inbetween- i grew up in a decidedly blue collar, didn't got on vacations, and now have so much debt i am definitely not going to get an iphone (or go to cuba) anytime soon, family.

Yoga is expensive, and i think it so important to recognize it as such. Regardless if the price is justified or appropriate, it's important for yogi(ni)s and studio owners to recognize that certain aspects of yoga as they stand today are exclusive.

Thank you for bringing this into discussion- it's so important.

Robyn said...

So post some photos of what a working class guy doing yoga looks like!

I think it is important.

ZenDotStudio said...

nice piece. so much here about our modern, urban world. I have started going to a new meditation group and hearing people talk about all the retreats they go on. They sound wonderful but they are mostly astoundingly expensive from my point of view. And it makes me sad that the truth is that contemplative practice (especially extended sits) in our world is mostly the territory of the well heeled.

linda said...

great post. you echo what I used to write about in my blog.

the more things change they more they stay the same.

kevin said...

First off, awesome that you're enjoying your current path.

Some of the worlds I live in have different problems when it comes to physicality, but I can see your points.

One thing that pops into my mind that may or may not be appropriate for speculation is how used to not matching white people around them are some non-whites?

Zendos, dojos, and studios are places where we should cultivate self awareness and not comparative awareness, so does this stand out as much for those who are doing the not fitting in as it does for those who observe the not fitting in (the people who do)? Does our obsession with being aware of this hurt the situation? All you end up doing is swapping a physical difference with a perception difference.

My experiences with this are like yours, it's a financial status issue which is far easier to fake.

There's no way in the near future I'll be able to afford the mandatory aikido workshops required for earning my black belt right now. It would involve missing work (costing me money), travel and lodging (costing more money), and paying workshop admission (yep, money). I have enough trouble making ends meet just attending regular classes.

At the Zen Center, I'd not be able to afford any of the retreats, workshops or classes if it weren't for scholarships awarded for my services as tenzo. I felt guilt in asking for scholarships, but comforted by the fact that people who are comfortable financially offer them for those who aren't yet. They're there to be taken advantage of and to hesitate or refuse them hedges on insult. That perspective fixed that problem but I still don't see myself running off to Tassajara for any practice periods.

These are good things to be aware of even if we can't directly change them, but it is kind of like the physics axiom of observing a phenomena changes it.


Nathan said...

"Zendos, dojos, and studios are places where we should cultivate self awareness and not comparative awareness, so does this stand out as much for those who are doing the not fitting in as it does for those who observe the not fitting in (the people who do)? Does our obsession with being aware of this hurt the situation? All you end up doing is swapping a physical difference with a perception difference."

This is a really interesting point Kevin. I was going to add something more about my own internal work around dropping concerns about "being different" during my yoga training. Because even though there are important critiques to be made, and hopeful changes spurred on - it's also true that letting go of difference concerns and comparative mind are essential pieces of practice.

Nathan said...

One more thought. I keep thinking that bringing out into the open more of these issues in zendos, studios, etc - and deliberately working with them through a practice lens - not only might shift some things in the relative world, but can also help people let go of clinging to those differences, oppositions, and comparisons.

Some of the most powerful modern dharma writing I have read has been by practitioners(teacher and students) from marginalized backgrounds expressing both the major struggles they see around difference, and also sharing their own paths to breaking though their obsession, rage, and grief tied to whatever social identities they had. That one could speak about patterns of injustice, but also experience the joy of being unbound to any social construction or self narrative.

Chrissy said...

Wonderful post....I have to add though that while I run into SO MUCH affluence in my area (and am quite frankly one lucky duck as it sits now), I was just as happy broker than broke, with my calculator at BJ's totaling up the things for my baby that we needed down to the dime because my husband was in police academy and that was the way that it was with no overtime pay. I longed to be able to afford even the occasional yoga class, but knew as I looked into our daughter's eyes that we would get makes life a little more comfy sure, but happiness has no price tag, just like 98 dollar Lululemon pants will not give me back my 24 year old booty:)
Good luck on your teaching quest! You will no doubt have LOTS of lucky students!!!!

Tit for Tat said...


Im new to your site so Im going to poke around a bit, but I just wanted to say thanks for some of your comments on Manboobz. I appreciate the way you word things. I sometimes lack the tack to word it the way you do.

Nathan said...

"Im new to your site so Im going to poke around a bit"

Hi! The focus here, as you'll see, is mostly different from that of sites like Manboobz. But I've been thinking lately that I might start another blog to dig more deeply into some of that territory.


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