The popularity of yoga has blossomed since Swami Vivekananda introduced its philosophy to the West in the late 19th century. Western women have led the charge toward mainstreaming the practice of yoga, women making up, on average, 80–90% of most yoga classes. It is very rare to observe more than fifty percent men attending. In India, however, the opposite situation prevails. As Deepak Chopra and Rudolph Tanzi say in their 2015 book Super Genes: The Hidden Key to Total Well-being:
Ironically, the practice is taken up mostly by men in India and mostly by women in this country [USA]. In India, the pursuit of higher consciousness is open to everyone in theory, but in practice women have been excluded.”
Because women in the West support yoga as an industry, it is worth asking if yoga’s ideology supports and enables women. Does yoga culture reinforce the objectivisation of women? Does it entrench an expectation that women be primarily maternal beings? Are we advocating for the empowerment of women who live and work in the Indian ashrams and temples? Do we gain purchase from our victim status, or do we choose to be self-determined, self-articulated and self-governed? Ahimsa (to do no harm) is one of the cornerstones of yoga, but are we inadvertently supporting violence against women?
Too many of us labour under the assumption that being good is simply a matter of being not bad … I might not be actively making things worse for another human being, but … What it might mean is that I maintain a conscious neutrality on the social circumstances which make their lives harder … My privilege affords me the luxury of remaining impartial.” – Clementine Ford, Fight Like a Girl.
A common thread in many spritual practices the world over, including yoga, is the bestowal of divinity in the ability to create. A mother figurehead is powerful, because she brings new life and new spirit into the world. The worship of mothers, in the form of statues or goddesses incarnated through particular gurus, is common practice, especially in Bakhti (devotional) Yoga. But there is a gulf between the worship of mother deities and everyday social justice for women. This is apparent in the struggle for pay parity and the atrocity of slave domestic labour, and in the sustained abuse, isolation and in some cases murder of women. Then there is the lateral violence welded against women who do not have children by others who assume that only childbearing endows fully womanly status. There is nothing more isolating or violent to be ignored by your own kind. So where is the love in all this? Is a mother figurehead purely symbolic and simply working for those who can readily identify with it? Does a mother figurehead empower women or does it reinforce the age-old regimes of domesticity and passivity? These are the kinds of questions raised by women talking about their lives in a recent book, Walking Towards Ourselves: Indian Women Tell Their Stories. One participant wrote:
They’ll tell you that until you’ve held a being of your own living blood in your arms and looked into its eyes, you haven’t really understood the power of love. And this is somehow more offensive to me, because love if love were really going to be judged as if it were a hierarchy, then surely a more powerful kind of love is that which is inexplicable, which has no familial DNA running through its cells?”
There is also an expectation that women must give service to community. Because of this women find comfort in being useful, but it is a bitter pill to swallow when service can so easily be exploited. Sadly, many women are excused their lack of childbearing only when they demonstrate a life of service to others, and other aspirations remain hidden in many women’s hearts.
Yoga is largely practiced as a service to humanity. It could be about instilling liberation, empowerment and justice where these things are missing. I have experienced glimpses of divine joy and a deeper sense of love through well-intended yoga ceremonies, but it has become more important for me to know whether the company I keep shares my growing concern to represent an ethos which supports the emancipation of women. How can I go on celebrating and worshipping female idols when the community I pray with considers women are not beings of equal intellect in everyday life? Too often in yoga practice we observe women being covered, made separate and, as Clementine Ford in Fight Like a Girl puts it, “we hear endless variations of … ‘your experience of that event is incorrect’” as if women’s voices and understandings are instantly null and void.
Are you able to question the practice of your yoga community? Are you able to contribute ideas without being dismissed? Do you feel safe to be vulnerable? These are healthy questions, I believe, that need to be asked.
Nicola Wilson-Jones writes and surfs in Dunedin, New Zealand. She holds a BN, GrdDipTchLn, IYTA (NZ) Yoga Teaching Diploma and Diploma of Anthroposophical Studies.
- Chopra, D & Tanzi, R.E. (2015). Super Genes: The Hidden Key to Total Well-being. London: Penguin Random House.
- Ford, C. (2016) Fight like a Girl. Raise Voices. Raise Courage. Raise the Flag. Australia: Allen & Unwin.
- Mitchell, C. (Ed) (2016) Walking Towards Ourselves: Indian Women Tell Their Stories. Australia: Hardie Grant Books.