The "Bye Bye Binary" theme inspired me to design a special yoga class on the subject of binaries--that tendency in our culture to think of everything as either/or. I offered this class to a group of people fairly new to yoga, many who attended my three previous weeks of gentle yoga classes, which gave a solid foundation in the basics of yoga. As I have been thinking about yoga and feminism, I was inspired to share my approach here and to expand it to other classes that I teach.
The ideas I write about here were woven together with movement designed to reinforce the ideas. The ideas are complex, but they can be broken down in classes to be more accessible and, like yoga, to be a life-long learning process.
In my work in American studies and Women’s and Gender studies, binaries are unpacked. Things we think about as being opposite are complementary. They are not polar opposites, they are two sides of the same coin. However, our culture tends to value one side of that binary, giving it power over its subordinate. Men are considered superior to women. White is seen as preferable to black. Straight is normal; gay is wrong. We are often uncomfortable with ambiguity.
Yoga, which roughly means union, is the perfect prism for breaking apart the binaries that can hold us back from feeling whole and connected. Yoga comes with its own inherent binary: mind/body, though we might add “spirit” to break up that binary. And in our culture, the mind is seen as having control over the body. This control is seen as an ideal and this narrow idea shapes how people are valued in our culture. For instance, people who are overweight are seen as having a lack of self conrtol. Our bodies dictate many of our opportunities. Our mind is influenced by the contradictions of our culture, and our mind impacts the health and well-being of our bodies.
How often does our mind allow us to love our own body, to be at peace with our body? Yoga gives us tools to find that peace, and part of this is about letting go of our preconceived notions of the limits and possibilities of our bodies. Yoga gives us perspective; it connects us to our breath and helps us find our mental and physical edges. It gives us the literal and figurative space to stretch and expand. Our mind and our body work together.
There are other binaries that yoga can help us break, clear, or heal: male/female, man/woman, masculine/feminine. Gender is not an either/or choice as much as our culture would have us understand it as one, though this is changing. And while the tradition of yoga is also based on this gender binary, and many classes are dominated by women, yoga is not gender specific.
When we breathe consciously, we are practicing yoga. In yoga we can be warriors—the survivor, the fighter that needs no gender. We fight for our cause and for the people who cannot fight for themselves. Men can be more in touch with their emotions and more open to the power of the feminine. Any body can participate in the movements that comprise yoga. There are options and variations that meet us where we are at that moment.
In terms of sexuality, binaries of gay/straight, or even the binary of bisexual, fixes sexuality rather than recognizing the fluidity of sexual affection, attraction, and action. Yoga can help us learn to focus and connect; it raises our awareness of our body. There are many poses and ideas in yoga that are focused on fostering healthy sexuality. The second chakra is thought to regulate the mind and body aspects of sexuality. And energy knows no gender.
Yoga helps us to take care of our minds and our bodies, to not give too much of ourselves and to practice self-care and self-love. We can see the self as a part of something bigger, but also better sense the permeable boundary between us the and the wide universe that surrounds us—the endless universe that we can never know. We do not have to choose between one binary; we can choose among the limitless possibilities.
And if this all sounds too good to be true or too scary to try, I would have thought so once. Yoga is many things and not everything I describe here will be found by everyone who practices yoga or with every yoga experience. In fact, most yoga classes will not unveil the power of yoga to break binaries. Like everything else, knowledge, practice, and an open mind are some of the necessary tools to chips away at the binaries that define and confine us.
[Side note on yoga and gender: As I noted in a previous blog, I attended a Kundalini yoga class at a conference where a popular yoga personality gave us an option to choose one particular hand mudra (position) if we were a woman and another if we were a man. This position was supposed to be held with intense breathing for an extended period of time while periodically chanting along with the music. I changed from one to the other periodically wondering what I would do if I were questioning or genderqueer. Through my movements I felt like I was balancing the masculine and feminine that work together, and I wished I had the knowledge to challenge the instructor. As it was, I probably interrupted the energy flow of our collective ecstasy. But, such rebellion in the face of gendered yoga experiences is important for breaking binaries.]