Where is the Feminine in Yoga?
Yoga has become the ultimate female activity, with 80 per cent of practitioners from the ‘fairer’ sex 1 . On the surface, the synchronised movements, bodyweight balances, and attention on breath seem more feminine than masculine, but a closer look shows it is anything but. The angular forms, linear movements, and mechanical instruction stem from male created systems serving to their energy, with scant attention paid to the fluid, rolling, circular motions of the female. What this reveals is a perceived ‘holistic’ practice that is created from patriarchal systems often at the repression of the feminine.
The rejection of the female is nothing new and can be witnessed in all of the canonised religions whereby men and associated activities have ruled supreme in all corners of the world. What this article is not is a rant on males, but a quest to understand why female expressions have been neglected in a method that claims to be all embracing. Indeed, one of the definitions of yoga – to unite – implies bringing together of perceived opposites, however, in its current form, yoga asana champions those movements naturally favoured and expressed by male individuals.
Humans contribute and are a product of culture. As such, it is not far-fetched to say that a patriarchal modern yoga practice alongside a patriarchal West has resulted in a one-sided asana practice that reflects masculine culture. Indeed, Michael Foucault has argued that the honing of social control systems leads to the internalisation of rules, regulations, and external control mechanisms whereby
‘he inscribes in himself the power relation in which he simultaneously plays both roles; he becomes the principle of his own subjection.’2
In other words, the practitioner controls and is controlled by those beliefs that stem from the culture she is placed or/and believes in. In Yoga, the practitioner unwittingly applies the belief systems of an earlier and existing cultural context on her body, therefore, in this case, strengthening her masculine energy which is of higher value than the feminine.
Throughout history, in most cultures men have mostly been the performers, the athletes, the warriors, the rulers, and in order to showcase their strength/prowess, the use of linear and angular movements allow for the efficient channeling of this quality. As Mark Singleton highlights in Yoga Body, Krishnamachyra’s Ashtanga creation was inspired by wrestling and military drills in response to nationalistic sentiments sweeping through India, thus created an almost warrior sequence showcasing strength, stability, and agility via linear and angular movements.3
Practitioners swarm to those demanding practices that use the body to move forward, back, left and right often through the use of an external force (one’s own or/and another’s adjustment). Postures are regulated, easily measurable and assessable movements with little room for interpretation, self-expression, and where right and wrong can be asserted from the outside. And this is needed, to an extent. The boundaries, discipline, and traditions help to release habits, form new patterns, and provide community; however, in a technology that seeks to activate the spinal cord to integrate opposites, and awaken the snake-like Kundalini, why is it that movement is anything but snake-like?
The rejection of beauty may hold some of the answer.
Historically, beauty has been a double-edged sword for the female whereby it offers the opportunity of social mobility and expression, however, through patriarchy has resulted in the objectification and commodification of the women through male ideas of sexualised beauty.
Men have typically used female beauty as a means for pleasure, thus a source of corruption to the moralistic man. The story of the Buddha’s pre-enlightenment visualisation of the dancing beautiful temptresses is one amongst countless stories and beliefs surrounding the impediment beauty represents on the spiritual path, and the need to overcome and oppress this quality. The beauty impediment is most powerfully highlighted in the story of Sun Pu-erh, an 11 century Taoist woman who scolded her scolded her face with oil after her master told her that her beauty would remain an obstacle to her learning.
The beauty impediment continues to be internalised as men and women seek to omit those movements that are either connotatively or feel beautiful as these are deemed as as ‘anti-spiritual’4 and have their resting place in Maya, ego, and samskara.
Yet this is a case of throwing the baby out with the bath water. If landscapes, art work, music, and animals can be described as expressing beauty without meaning being deducted from the subject, then humans are no different – we harbour the same natural tendency to express and enjoy beauty through movement. Of course, beauty is in the eye of the beholder so angles and lines can express beauty, but so do waves which connect one to the watery element beneath the navel, the feminine sacral chakra.
Unfortunately, the waving of the spine, circling of the hips, and rotation of the chest looks like something largely female entertainers (sexual or not) would perform, movements to rouse outside approval and not belonging to the domain of a practice designed to purify the aspirant. It is no surprise that the highly beneficial articulations are welcomed in modern dance by both sexes, however, in yoga completely shunned by male-created systems endorsing purity.
As such, mainstream yoga schools neglect the ability and necessity to swiftly soften and engage muscles in a coordinated way to produce a circular, waving fluid movement to create flexible power. To undertake such movements, the body must be allowed to be receptive in order to transmit the force sequentially, with a firm base to steady the root of the watery movement. The student must flit between rigidity and receptivity to produce the wave, with too much of one element ruining the effect; whilst a mirror can sometimes help to see the effect, intuition and feeling tells the student where he is stuck or too loose. The highly subtle, relational quality between the masculine and feminine through the spine is microcosmic reflection of this constant interplay at the macrocosmic level.
Although in theory this could and was said in similar terms about the traditional asana practice as well, in practise it is seen quite commonly that practitioners are either engaging their muscles too much and in inefficient ways or are too soft and relaxed. The relational quality is usually skewed towards power or yielding to produce a result, without the exploration of how these qualities relate to one another on a more subtle continual level. And this is why merely linking angular postures – as many ‘dancey’ type vinyasa classes do – does not provide the multi-dimensional continuum of movements; rather, the majority of vinyasa flow classes simply use one posture to link to a next (something like the classic Warrior I into Warrior II then into Triangle).
What would be a more fluid transition would be to allow the sequential waving of the spine as one enters Triangle, the circling of the pelvis as Warrior III is entered rather than sticking to a one dimensional movement. This is exemplified in the beautiful video by yoga practitioner and teacher, Simon Borg Olivier – here his transitions bridge linear and multi-dimensional movement to create what appears to be a truly holistic practice embodying the principles of yoga: harmony, balance, and awareness.
In my own practice and classes, I travail through stillness and flow coming to see that both qualities are ever-present, however, it is the degree that varies. Waving with the spine on the frontal plane before entering Extended Side Pose, Rotations into Bridge, Standing Chest/Pelvis/Knee circles are just a few ways in which I stop the compartmentalising and bridge masculine and feminine. This isn’t about ditching one type of movement for another, but observing and welcoming both whilst effectively placing my body according to the ‘goal’ of the movement (just as in traditional asana); as such, alignment is continued albeit with a different physiological and energetic aim.
So as awareness grows through the yoga sadhana, the expression of beauty via movement capabilities can be divorced from its cultural connotation, thus taken on its own merits as an innate feminine trait that one does not seek to oppress or overly feed; simply room is made for beauty to become a natural expression of the innate fluid feminine alongside the angular masculine.
To understand the imbalance, it is necessary to explore the history of yoga over the last 7,000 years(?), to recognise the process of synthesis that led to its current form, and how in going forward, practitioners and teachers can embrace more feminine movement without fear of dilution or simply ‘dancing around’ on the mat.
Tracing the roots of yoga as it is practised today leads to the ancient tradition of Tantrism, a pre-Vedic collection of beliefs that seek to enable the individual to experience the Universe through the human body. Involving a number of sadhanas (techniques), Yoga is one of around 20 tools, alongside Dance. For the Tantrics, there is no separation between the perceived opposites which is a creation of the ego, both Shiva and Shakti worshipped to induce the masculine and feminine in order to experience the Universal macro through the human microcosm. In History of Tantra Religion, Bhattacharya writes:
‘From circumstantial evidence it therefore appears that the pre-Vedic religion of India consisted of the cult of Mother Goddess, worship of linga and yoni, sexual dualism… All these principles stood in reciprocal relation, being components of an undifferentiated religious and ritualistic complex, which subsequently came to be known as the Tantric tradition.’5
What most scholars, archeologists, and anthropologists6 are clear on is that the arrival of the male-dominated Aryan Vedics within the Indus Valley occurred when Tantra was already live and kicking, and marked the process of synthesis, whereby Tantra influenced those Vedas originating in India and not vise versa as some scholars have argued.7 The orthodox Vedics assimilated those practices that were conducive to their patriarchal traditions, and diluted, discarded, even oppressed more esoteric techniques including emphasis on the feminine.
As Bjonnes highlights, ‘Women, according to many Vedic injunctions were considered too low to study and teach the scriptures. Indeed, it was only a few years ago a famous religious authority, the Shankaracharya of Sumerpeeth Kanchi, declared that women should not recite the Vedas. “Such religious practices would be detrimental to their health and prevent them from having healthy babies,” he claimed. Tantric teachings, on the other hand, have always been against the caste system and have generally held women in high regard. Indeed, it is inconceivable that an authority on Tantra would ever warn women from studying the scriptures.’8
The study of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras is viewed by most yoga students as the go-to text for authenticating varying yoga systems, however, this dualistic text belongs to the Vedic tradition and not the non-dualistic Tantras that Hatha Yoga emanates from.
By using the more orthodox, culturally acceptable, hegemonic, and patriarchal Vedic tradition to propagate Hatha Yoga – especially in the West – the emphasis on divinity of both male and female has propelled the former at the expense of the latter. Today, those yoga traditions grounded in Vedic tradition, such as Sri K. Pattabhi Jois’ Ashtanga, Iyengar, and the countless traditions these have influenced, consciously or unconsciously advocates those qualities that tend towards the masculine: discipline, tapas, rajas, and transcendence.
The relationship between movement and culture has seen the aforementioned qualities manifest into angular, hierarchical, linear, at times forceful postures focusing on movement in a mechanical gross fashion to purify the body. In yoga, increase in range of motion more often than not occurs because it is forced to do so, i.e. the leg is pulled away with the hand, the teacher lies on the back – flexibility is a submissive trait and something to be forced. In many societies, those qualities associated with the feminine – receptivity, vulnerability, softening, intuition, tamas, earth – hold little currency. Many practitioners can wax lyrical about embracing these traits, however, the movement expressions are viewed as weaknesses to overcome or dominate thus the feminine expression turned into passivity, weakling, disobedience, and laziness.
Looking to other movement disciplines as well as more holistic experienced/hybrid yoga practices, flexibility is harnessed through internal power, and is not something mainly to be forced into submission but encouraged through the coupling of inner strength.
Does it strike the reader as odd that a type of movement practised by mainly women is almost entirely masculine? If one is serious about their yoga practice as a means to be being more self-aware and awake, then one must see the historical and cultural context modern day yoga has arisen from, then seek to rebalance one’s application of this. It falls upon the student to realise that this is not a case of ‘either/or’, but that of actively embodying both qualities through awareness.
It is not enough to look at a woman gracefully practising a strong sequence and think “Ah, this is the feminine and masculine”; rather, she is merely expressing her femininity solely through masculine postures, which quickly reaches a dead end for the movements were created not for the purpose of encouraging and expressing female qualities but, rather, those of the male.
If Yoga is to evolve whilst also practised in the vain it was originally intended, discernment is applied to witness any attachment and imbalance before actively addressing these to reduce the dichotomy of right vs wrong, strength vs flexibility, pure vs impure, and male vs female. The student becomes more of what he already is, and integrates the polarities of masculine and feminine; by waving through the spine, the attention is taken inward whereby the degree of force transmission and receptivity is intuitively felt, and the heightened awareness of polarities can be taken into more linear movements so that movement integration is ever-present.
Whilst it cannot be known if early yogis practised waves, circles, and pulsations, the famous Dancing Shiva is an indicator of the multi-dimensional movement representative of the Tantric tradition – a stance that can’t be reduced to a stick man drawing. In strongly adhering to the script of the postures endorsed, both men and women are failing to tap into techniques that will lead to a more harmonious physicality that embraces what can be measured and intuited, seen and unseen, to know we are all of what the Universe is. We are everything if only they allow this all-encompassing everything.
As awareness grows, movement expands.
References 1 www.yogajournal.com 2 Foucault, M. 1977: 202-203 3 Singleton, M. 2010 4 Wilber K integrallife.com 5 Bhattacharya, 2006: 158 6 M.K.V. Narayan, 2009: p.302 Parpola, A. 2010 www.thehindu.com protodravidian-asko-parpola/article485447.ece Danielou, D 2003 Wells, S 2002 Feuerstein, G., Frawley, D. 1995 8 Bjonnes, www.integralworld.net