Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Feminist Yoga...

Out of all the topics that I've written about over the past 9 months, I know this one will be the trickiest. There was a time when I kept most of my views to myself, and only recently has being "environmental" come into acceptance. I found that meshing my passions with yoga and the environment almost seamless.

My passion with feminism, however, hasn't been fitting so well or garnered the same kind of like to like in the yoga world. This actually came as a surprise, as the realization that practicing yoga wasn't truly the same kind of "left" as being an environmentalist. Whereas many environmentalists are also feminists (in some way, shape or form, whether they use the label or not), I have found that many yogis are not, or aren't even aware of a need for feminism.

Perhaps this is due to Yoga's history; modern yoga being introduced to our Western culture by men, a traditional text that was written in a time deeply eschewed in patriarchy and male superiority or that it has been popularized by a media in a culture (ours) entrenched in unequal, misogynistic tendencies where women are objects and sexualized. Regardless of the reason, yoga's rise in popularity is most definitely coloured by how our culture views women/men, their bodies and our power structure.

After spending years studying and presenting on how our media influences our body image, self esteem and relationships, how women in Canada and the US do not, in fact, make equal wages (70 cents to the male of the Gender Report 2008), the corporate "glass ceiling", the percentage of women with eating disorders vs men (90% of diagnosed eating disorders are with women, the number 1 cause of death by mental illness) etc etc.... I started to realize that I was accepting cultural mores as "normal" as I rationalized everything through my own socialized "glasses".

I'm talking mostly little things, comments that irk or may go completely unnoticed but are telling. Like when the instructor apologizes to the one man in the room for calling Utkata Konasana "Goddess Pose" while she had spent the entirety of the class naming "warrior's", "Lord of the Fishes", "King Pigeon" etc. Regardless if you believe that names are simply that, meaningless (which of course as someone trained in language, our words matter and influence our thoughts), it is interesting to note the instructor's reaction. Why did she apologize for calling it "The Goddess Pose", but didn't even think twice about the other "male-named" poses?

Another area of interest is those celebrity Yogis who are leaders in our community. Quickly I can name both female and male: Shiva Rea, Seane Corn, Patricia Walden... and B.K.S. Iyengar, the late Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, Bikram Choudhury, Baron Baptiste, John Friend...

Notice any difference? All the women are beautiful and described in physical terms along with their revolutionary impact on Yoga. Have you seen pictures of the male yogis? Not one would I term as a traditional "male model beauty"- their fame has been achieved solely through ability. I would be kidding myself if I believed that Seane Corn, Patricia Walden and Shiva Rea became such media icons completely through their yoga expertise.

All movements have media "reps" who do well in the lime-light, the women are usually always beautiful. In the feminist movement Naomi Wolf received quite a bit of backlash from her very own feminist-sisters for this very fact. For a woman in our current culture, more so than men, being beautiful sells and the female body is being sexualized younger and younger (Have you SEEN the recent music videos?? ugh). I just read a post discussing Tara Stiles and her "sexy" videos. The author implied that Tara, Ford model, was popular because of video's being "sexy" and that she was cashing in and using her body to sell her yoga (in part). I have checked out her videos and there are many, many, that are not overtly sexual in any manner other than the fact that she is beautiful. There is definitely one where all the video shots (labeled Tara Stiles Yoga) are conveniently close ups of her butt and feminine bits, but that was a promotional video... telling all by itself.

What I thought was interesting was that the author implied "blame" being put on Tara and not the consumers (whom were quoted to like her yoga because of her beautiful bod). His opinion; she had a choice (to be born beautiful?) and therefore if she wanted to "use her body" to sell her videos, so be it. There was a discussion on how short her shorts were, or revealing her tops were. If you check out her videos she wears skimpy clothing for the promotional vid and stretch vid, the rest being long pants and shirts or shorts and long shirts... jogging pants and work out clothing. Hardly as if she had decided to practice yoga in a bikini, which was what I was expecting from his post. I especially thought this video (Handstands Everywhere) was sexy... seriously though. If an entire culture views women's bodies as sexual, how can she have a choice in the matter? I would postulate that perhaps as consumers WE have that choice on how we view, discuss and judge other Yogi/nis and people. My clothing (or lack thereof) should not be considered an invitation for sexualization or objectification.

An interesting discussion on Yoga Dawg's site with Tara's American Apparel advert occurred in August. Tara even made an appearance. As an ad that sexualizes the female body (which it does) it continues to support the cultural norms of female body objectification. We are bombarded with ads every day which as a BILLION dollar industry, obviously works. We are influenced by ads.

This brings me to Bikram... whom I've seen in skimpy, skimpy speedos, and have not heard of followers claiming they love him because he's sexy. As women we are caught, practicing yoga can be Hard Work, we get sweaty and smelly. I personally do not like to practice yoga in long pants and cannot even FATHOM practicing with long sleeves (as IF I care about somehow being inappropriate by showing my arms). I would like to be able to practice in a class without worrying that a fellow yogi will deem my shoulders, back, arms and legs as inappropriate. I'm there to practice yoga comfortably, not to be judged. Lululemon, the most popular yoga clothing supplier, sells and pushes clothing with a focus on looking cute above function. I remember reading somewhere that the founder, Chip Wilson, "wanted yoga pants that would make women's butts look good". There's even a weird video explaining WHY the pants enhance the female bottom.

Alright. Enough about this entire can of worms. I do feel very grateful to the awesome Yogi/nis who are aware and are angry that I have met. :) If you don't think it's a problem, perhaps take the next few weeks to notice just how many ads are geared at the sexualization of women... or watch Killing Us Softly (1,2 or 3), here's a clip.


article authored by EcoYogini at


  1. I understand your yoga quandry. I find myself in that quagmire (yes, I wanted to see if I could use "q" based alliteration here for a moment)often. As a pscyhotherapist I find myself often a minority while as a social worker I am the assumed stereotype. As both I find myself often offended on assumptions at both ends. As a feminist and once upon a time undergraduate minor in women's studies I often wonder if I am being appropriately attentive to my feminist passions. I also try not to be too uneven in one direction or another--not too sensitive to references that imply I should be making dinner because I am a wife, I hate to cook :) but equally not ignoring the moments in which something propels me to speak out. I have not thought overly of feminism as it falls in the yoga world but I agree that a double standard towards attire and body parts is something I constantly consider. Yoga is sort of one of the only safe spaces I have found where I can feel bare without feeling exposed. In life, however, I am always frustrated at how I must feel compelled to over-conceal not to be sexualized in some way: whether it be at work or just on the street. I hate that a man can walk into a Walgreens (yes I saw this the other day) shirtless and still somehow appear clothed while any inch of flesh that is revealed on a woman is somehow automatically sexual and sexualized. Ah, there comes back my feminist blood flow...I feel the pulse getting a little more rapid now. Thank you for reminding me to reflect on women and gender perceptions...sometimes I really miss days spent pondering academic questions in women's studies. It is often hard to maintain the same focus and passion and live life all at the same time...if that makes sense. Thanks also for your visit and comment on my blog! Always love to here from you, here or over at my place :).

  2. As a former student in a women studies program and feminist I find the double standard having to do with attire and sexualization. I began to feel my pulse race as I read the depiction of a sexy video being so just because of the attractiveness of a woman: just as much as someone should not be only given credence because of her looks she also shouldn't be penalized for them. I find myself constantly considering this element when I dress for work or to go to the store...I want to be comfortable, to be free, to be expressive but I don't want to be leered at is a bind we are put in just by being a woman and unfair to any woman. In an offshoot of the danger of this kind of sexualization and societal obsession with beauty, this fact is also why some women who have survived sexual trauma will gain weight as a protective shell, to try to avoid sexualization by hiding their body within their own body. Also at the other end it is why body dysmorphia is so common among women, as you talked about eating disorders and the disproportionate percentage difference between women and men. Women intake all the worlkd's garbage and bile about body image and take it in in a way that can be deadly. There is a wonderful book I bought years ago, even before my time in women's studies, called "Minding the Body: Women Writers on Body and Soul". This post of yours has inspired me to refer back to it...perhaps I will be writing a post around the subject matter in the near future. Rev up my own feminist impetuses. Thanks for the moment of empassioned and well-written exposition on the matter...and thanks for your visit to and comment on my blog! I always love to hear from you...on my blog or yours :)!

  3. I don't do yoga - I just found your blog through the 'eco' side of things ;-) But I can completely believe the sexism that would be present in the field, because sexism is in everything.

    I find sexism hard to deal with as a mother. I want my daughter to be pretty and accepted, for example, but I don't want her to just follow the herd and be indoctrinated into our sexist society, although I don't think NZ is anywhere near as bad as the US.

    There has to be a middle ground somewhere. One thing I am doing is providing her with strong female examples, many of whom are our friends, and who are doing careers not typical for women - computer scientists, church organists, political leaders. And at least NZ has had a female Prime Minister (and she was excellent)!

    There's a lot of work to do, and I think it starts with parenting the younger generation, as well as crashing through the barriers in the current one.

  4. So many good points in this post! It was interesting to reflect on my experience... I have primarily practiced with women teachers and women students, making yoga the one place that I have felt 'safe' and not stared at when wearing, for example, a camisole. I have noticed how the entire vibe of the room can change when certain types of male students come to class: the types that have to be the center of attention (esp. when surrounded by lots of women). They grunt loudly, practice their poses ostentatiously, and generally do everything possible to direct attention toward themselves - because it is their male birth right. A very strange phenomenon! Don't get me wrong. I'm not at all opposed to mixed gender classes, and I know many men who can practice without drawing attention to themselves.

  5. Ironically, I was just complaining on another blog about how, as a male yogi, I've both had my manhood questioned and been suspected of going to yoga classes just to pick up women. Nonetheless, though western yoga appears to be dominated by women, the patriarchal tradition is still very much present--as the big, authoritative figures--from Patanjali to Bikram--are all male. These men are looked to for wisdom, while, as you show, women, though there are so many great female yoga teachers, are more likely to be celebrated for their tight yoga butts...

  6. I wish I could give you a Michelle Obama fist bump right about now.

    I don't practice yoga, but I do capoeira and can't help but sigh deeply at the sexist shit sometimes exhibited by my instructor and peers. if a man takes his shirt off during class, it's no biggie, but if a woman does, it's like an invitation to openly stare at her breasts (even though she's wearing a sports bra), make comments about her weight, and so on. some women are brave and do it anyway, but I don't. I'd just feel too self-conscious.

    it's true that a lot of feminists are environmentalists, but I can't much say the same about a lot of environmentalists being feminists. this has actually been a big struggle I've had with my blog, as I like to write about both. though, writing about one seems to alienate the other, at times.

    feminism still feels like the black sheep of progressive movements. right now it's "cool" to be green, or to do spiritual-related activities, but start talking about sexism and people (even women!) start muttering "man-hater" under their breath.

    I applaud you for having the courage to blog about feminist issues=) and I can't freaking wait till my GRE is done with so I can start blogging again...

  7. *YOGA* pants to make women's asses look good?


    Thank you for this post. We need tons more feminist opinions and outbursts in this world.

    Rock on.

  8. Fabulous post. Thanks for making me think. I just discovered your blog today from Pink Heels. I will subscribe to it now.

  9. Well, I'm furious that you have witnessed a teacher apologize to men for using the term Goddess Pose. That's really upsetting.

    And the whole sexualization of the yoga world...yeah. I always cringe when I see those ads in YJ with close-ups of those tiny-butted, gorgeous yogini models. (Do they even really practice in real life...I wonder.) I've yet to see ONE ad in YJ aimed at sexualizing male models.

  10. I've never heard anyone appologise for the name of an asana before.

    BUT just earlier this week, I was in a class led by someone who I was told was "fantastic". But I thought he was arrogant, gave dangerous instructions and said the most un-yoga like things.

    Case in point (while doing a seated side stretch): "This is the pose you need to do to get a super-model waist. Not that I care about super-model waists..."

    Really? Coz, a) I can think of way better poses for your waist, and; b) WHO on EARTH says such things while leading a yoga class?!?!

    That wasn't all he said or did, but its all that relates to this topic. You can imagine my fury. I almost walked out before the class ended.

    But generally I don't think fame in the yoga world is any different to general fame. The women are mostly beautiful & young with great bodies. The men *might* be attractive but don't have to be. That double standard is pretty rampant, but not just in the western world, which I think is pretty interesting.

    I mean, for example, take a look at Bollywood stars!

    Tell you what though. I'm not gonna rag on how others choose to use or not use their looks to get ahead in life.

    I'm a non-standard sized/shaped yogi. I'm very tall for a woman, and not all delicate & wispy framed. I'm curvy, with broad swimmers shoulders and that's just how it is.

    As long as I'm not discriminated against based on my looks, I'm cool.

    I mean, I don't actually think we can entirely wipe out the sexualisation of women. I think its part of our DNA at a very base level - men looking for the most attractive female to have their children - women looking for the 'strongest'/'best provider' for their children... its a massive, massive and sub-concious-driven issue.

    Unfortunately, modern society and how we interact and behave with each other (both blatantly & subtlely) shows up these preferences.

    Certainly, there are some behaviours that should be discouraged - from both men and women. Let's not forget that many women do in fact play up to this preference of men. Many don't. But some do, because they know they can take advantage.

    So, while I wouldn't blame Tara Stiles for her ad campaign, you can certainly understand why someone would.

    We humans are complex, and we don't understand many of our own drivers. Sure, yoga is meant to help us peel back the layers eventually, but there's no telling how long that will take. And everyone's different.

    So what to do? Keep your integrity but don't turn it into a campaign, that's my take.

    After all, in a thousand years, humans will either be extinct, or perhaps an entirely different bunch of people with a completely different set of issues.

    Nothing in this life is permanent. Om Shanti.

  11. I am one of those women who hides my body within my body for the reasons mentioned as well. I don't want men leering or flirting just because I have a good bod. When I was younger I was thin and curvy in all the right places. Even as I began to gain weight, I still got a lot of amle attention. Is it a coincidence that my body has stabilised at a weight where I no longer get any attention?

    i work in a male environment but my female colleagues wear make up and perfume and make an effort. i don't get it, not really. Society tells them they have to do this but by doing it they send signals to the men who come into where we work. They get chatted up, given phone numbers and flirted with. They say they want to look and feel nice bbut is it the attention that feels nice?

    I want ot be fit and healthy and take care of myself but doing that without attracting men can be tricky. I might not be tricky now but I rememebr what it was like in my early twenties....

    I find it sad that this is an issue in yoga to. I imagine yoga as being a little more spiritual somehow. I guess I don't think of yoga as being big business but it is clear from your posts that it is....

  12. I've been fortunate in that I've not (yet) experienced sexism in my yoga classes, but it's evident throughout the yoga community. I roll my eyes at the models in Yoga Journal (which I love, but haven't subscribed to because I'm not comfortable with their focus on female sexualization. There are yogis as well as yoginis, Yoga Journal!). I try to dress modestly for class, because I feel awkward if my tank top rides up and my stomach is exposed. My brain tells me no one is looking at my gut, but I hate feeling self-conscious about it. At the same time, I try not to compare myself to those who have what I perceive to be the perfect, ripped physique. It's a weird tension between mindfulness and anxiety.

  13. Thank you so very much everyone for the supportive words! I was a little nervous posting this, but I'm glad it's resonated with others. :)

    Usually I specifically address each comment as much as possible, but I think here I've already said quite a bit, and you've all said very thoughtful observations.
    I do think Rose hits something when she mentioned her surprise that such a spiritual and supposedly "enlightened" practice would continue the sexism in our world today. I think this is where the confusion originated- I expected Yogis to be more understanding. I shouldn't have.
    Another thought- was that in the "eco" world feminist issues aren't really discussed all that much. So perhaps that's why it hasn't really come up. In the Yoga world, a lot of focus is (sadly) on the physical... which lends itself nicely to sexist comments (meant or not) on blog posts, discussions and in class. Which is why I probably noticed it more.

  14. Have you explored the principles of ecofeminism at all? I think you would find it a strong foundation for your ideas. Carol J. Adams is brilliant--her position is located in animal rights and veganism, but her feminist concerns are just as strong. Nothing says fun like smashing the patriarchy! ;)

  15. Great Post! I have many of the same reactions to the fact that yoga seems to be hanging on to many male-centered labels, ideas, etc.

  16. Thank you for this post. Im not a serious yoga practioner, I havent been able to find a decent class for years. Most are held in gyms which tend to be rather on the light side of things. So I practice at home with my gaiam dvd.

    But there is so much in here I agree with and with your commenters. There doesnt seem to be that many feminist greens, although there are many green feminists.

    Please carry on with the blaming of patriarchy!


  17. Thank you for tackling these issues! Let's start a feminist yoga revolution!

  18. I'm particularly interested in your article as I am 1. A woman 2. A yoga teacher and 3. Committed to the environment. I moved to Ireland (from Holland) and have built an Eco yoga studio, however to reach a greater audience and allow people to access yoga for free I've started publishing a library of free online yoga videos. What to wear is a big issue - and I've had some inappropriate comments, but what can you do? I want my yoga to be recognised for the quality of my yoga and not as a cute yogini...

  19. I also have some background in Women's Studies! Woo!

    I enjoy doing yoga, and have had my sexuality questioned more than once because of this. It's sad that people assume that its not difficult or a workout because its "for girls". I would love to see these denouncers try and fail at yoga just so they get a little perspective.

    I have to admit though, I was pretty hesitant to try yoga when Lisa first suggested it to me. We were in BC, I didn't know anyone, so I went to some classes an have been doing it ever since. Now that we are back in Halifax, we have found a few progressive guys who have no qualms trying yoga out.

    It is sad that yoga has been so sexualized in western culture that it is basically known to the layperson as "that stretching thing where fit women wear tight pants". It's spiritual, it's a workout, its fun. It seems like women are getting this and we men are kinda standing here looking foolish because we can't get over ourselves and these artificial testosterone bounderies we create for ourselves.

  20. THANKYOU for a wonderful post. Well thought out and written and it certainly has got my mind ticking over.


  21. The post was a wonderful way to touch up on the sexualisation of yoga. Can I add this post to my Yoga blog . I'll add a back link to the original source.Thanks in advance.

  22. I highly suggest checking out this link by Vicki Noble, who very effectively proves that in fact, women DID "invent" yoga. It really changed my consciousness, where I once felt a little uneasy about its male-dominated history, the fact that its true roots are earth-based and body-centered feel like home to me.


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