By Faye Martins
On the surface, Yoga and feminism go together like bread and butter. As an inclusive form of holistic exercise that incorporates self-reflection, Yoga is extremely popular with women. Yoga, like feminism, stresses self-actualization and reclaiming one’s own power. Yet, upon further reflection, there are notes of discord within the two camps.
The Yoga in America 2008 survey found that just 28 percent of yoga practitioners in the U.S. are men, but male Yogis are disproportionally represented among instructors, especially famous instructors. Consider Max Strom, Rodney Yee, John Friend, Rolf Gates, Johnny Kest, Baron Baptiste, and Bikram Choudhury, as well as the celebrated patrons of contemporary Yoga like Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, B.K.S. Iyengar, Sri T. Krishnamacharya, and Sri Swami Satchidananda.
Some find that the goals of Yoga and feminism are in opposition. Women’s Studies researcher and Yoga instructor Dr. Beth Berila writes on her Yoga blog, “On our mats, we have the opportunity to cultivate a witness to how things are. We can learn to accept reality as it is, without judgment, and notice our patterns. But as a feminist, I am not accustomed to accepting things as they are.”
New York Times Magazine in January 2011 published an article called “Fear (Again) of Flying,” by Judith Warner, highlighting women who are rejecting the notion that “personal liberation is to be found in taking an active role in the public world.” Instead of fighting for change, women are looking for their “own quiet center” in Yoga and a return to traditional “feminine” activities like cleaning and childcare.
Finally, the relationship between Yoga and feminism has risen in proportion to the commercialization of the practice, and has hit women harder than men. Increasingly body-baring fashions like the Yoga Tart clothing line and books and DVDs like “Better Sex Through Yoga,” both developed by New York based Yogi and entrepreneur Garvey Rich, can make women feel as if a last refuge from body image fears has been removed.
In September 2010, Judith Hanson Lasater, one of the founding editors of Yoga Journal more than 35 years ago, wrote a letter to the magazine expressing her sadness and confusion over the “photos of naked or half-naked women,” and how they relate to the actual practice of Yoga. The letter sparked an outcry on message boards and websites, many echoing her sentiments.
Fortunately, these divergences need not condone Yoga to the scrap heap for true feminists. Celebrate female instructors and request that they be given equal time at conferences, workshops and events. Finding strength and acceptance in oneself does not mean ignoring realities that need transformation. Reject the idea that Yoga requires a sexy, scantily clad body to be acceptable, and contact advertisers who promote images that oppress. Taking these steps will make Utkata Konasana, or Goddess pose, that much more valid when performed.
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