Being a feminist yoga teacher means being more than a feminist and more than a yogi. There are many overlapping aspects of yoga philosophy and feminist theory and pedagogy, but a yoga teacher is not necessarily a feminist unless they embrace the complexity of social and cultural systems and help the individual navigate this reality using yoga’s tools.
For instance there are strains of yoga that believe in the pure, unadulterated power of positive thinking. If you visualize it, meditate on it, and get out of your own way, you can have it. They even go so far as to say that you can acquire riches through visualization and meditation.
Further, if you get enough people together to meditate, they can change the world simply through the vibrations of meditation. However, in a social and cultural system that is based upon oppression, visualization and meditation is not enough. Power and privilege shape our lives in ways that we, as individuals, cannot control. We have to work together to change these systems and no amount of meditation or vibration can make these changes.
Both of these ideas are simplistic and some yogis would accuse me of being too cynical to appreciate the nuances of spiritual power. However, I am a realist and an optimist. I know there is power in yoga. I have felt this power—or some of this power, at least. Yoga and meditation can be transformative, but if we wait around for some kind of magic to happen (especially on a global scale), we are simply being naïve.
Thus, the power of critical thinking that comes with feminism is an important aspect of feminist yoga. However, it’s not like this is an easy aspect to work in among the asanas (physical poses/practice) of a yoga class. I often sneak this critique into the music and into some of the things I say during class.
As I think more about what a feminist yoga teacher is and what that teacher does that is similar and different from other approaches to yoga (one of my many sabbatical projects!), a few initial thoughts are floating around…. Some of these are overlapping and there is a lot more to unpack here…
A feminist yoga teacher empowers students, activating awareness and providing space for discovery. This might be awareness, empowerment, and discovery on an individual level, but it might also extend beyond the individual, into culture or community.
A feminist yoga instructor is aware of gender dynamics and is concerned with power dynamics. They understand the connections and contradictions of the individual and the structural. For instance, while yoga in the West is often dominated by women participants and instructors, it still suffers from the impacts of patriarchy. I have heard and read many accounts of sexual assault that have happened during yoga classes; for instance, a male instructor who would kiss women during savasana (final relaxation). The sacred space of the yoga studio is not always safe for women.
A feminist yoga instructor is informed by intersectional feminist theory as well as interdisciplinary yoga traditions. Simple, one-dimensional approaches to feminism, or to yoga, are incomplete and act to obscure the ideas and the practice.
A feminist yoga instructor has an awareness of the limitations and possibilities of the body and mind that is grounded in an understanding of anatomy and kinesiology as well as their own embodied experience. A feminist yoga instructor teaches from their body while recognizing the limitations and possibilities of the bodies in the room. Participants are encouraged to strive for challenge and ease depending upon a variety of factors.
A feminist yoga instructor makes interventions toward transformation—of individuals as well as institutions.
A feminist yoga instructor recognizes the diverse spiritual aspects that are experienced through yoga and honors this diversity.
A feminist yoga instructor understands trauma—its impacts on the mind/body and the tools that can help to heal.
A feminist yoga instructor values process and suspends judgement. They continue to learn and grow in their practice as well as their teaching.
A feminist yoga instructor understands consciousness as both critical/oppositional as well as transcendental.
A feminist yoga instructor challenges gender stereotypes and recognizes the natural balance of femininity and masculinity as well as the socially constructed foundations of these natural phenomena. For instance, when taking a Kundalini yoga class we were told to do a certain hand mudra (position) if we were female and a different one if we were male. I switched my hand mudra several times throughout the exercise and wondered if there was anyone in the room experiencing discomfort at the idea of choosing a hand mudra based upon sex/gender. I try to emphasize the feminine and masculine characteristic that we all have and the importance of balance.
A feminist yoga instructor encourages and models self-care, sets aside ego, and taps into community.
Happens in community
Utilizes an awareness of structure and personal navigation
Calls for patience
Increases mental flexibility
These ideas represent the early stages of further research, thinking, teaching, practicing. It might just be that feminist yoga is just yoga taught consciously and responsibly. Or, perhaps feminism has something to offer the development of yoga in the West and we are just starting to tease out the possibilities.