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.