Yoga and Feminism

When I was in school, I wanted to talk about feminism all the time. I loved its possibilities: a world where we could all be more feminine, a world where we all could be more masculine, or a world where we never needed to be either unless we wanted to, regardless of our born-with sex. It’s all so complicated and intellectually fascinating.

The deeper I got into school, though, it started to feel less like a fun thought experiment and more like an emotionally crushing reality. When I told my boyfriend at the time that my professor wanted to work closely with me on my honors thesis, he said, “I’d want to work one-on-one too, if I had a student who looked like you.” He thought it was a compliment. It wasn’t.

I continued my academic career and bumped up against these issues so often that I decided to only submit papers for publication under my gender-neutral name, JC Peters. When my papers were accepted, I got confirmation emails addressed: “Dear Mr. Peters."

At some point out of school, I got tired of talking about feminism. It started to feel like fighting all the time. I kept hearing that feminists were man-haters or “reverse oppressors,” or that hilariously hurtful word “femi-nazis.” I didn’t want to tell anyone I was a feminist because I didn’t want them to assume any of the many things that word could mean before we had a chance to talk about it—and I didn’t want to talk about it. So I became a yoga teacher.

Ah, yogaland. A peaceful place where everyone is kind and enlightened, and sexism has poofed out of existence. I wonder if I actually thought that, walking in.

The yoga community is, like any community, a microcosm of our culture. Here, our mascots are glossy photos of young, white, thin, sexy women. Products are being sold that tell us we are not good enough—drink this juice to lose weight, take this vitamin to get stronger, use this special yoga mat to increase your youth and sexual viability. At yoga conferences, you will leave a workshop having explored your body and emotions in a deeply vulnerable way, and walk out smack into a room usually called something like “The Marketplace” where you can buy your vulnerability back into its hole.

We are becoming a celebrity culture, where beautiful people are given positions of power that are sometimes abused. Much like in Hollywood, the men are viewed as extraordinary leaders, and the women as manipulators who use their sexual attractiveness to get to the top. Even when a major sex scandal brings an idol down to his knees, it’s seen as a rare exception, all his fault, and is never addressed in the context of cultural complicity. We’ll gossip about the stars, but we won’t take any responsibility for the landscape of values that created them.

When I spoke out against the now infamous Equinox Yoga Video, which featured a beautiful young woman in black lace underwear being blatantly objectified by the camera, I was called down with some of the harshest vitriol I’ve ever heard—not only attacking my argument that this video perpetuates the kind of misogynistic BS we see everywhere else, but also attacking me as a human who shouldn’t have the right to put pen to page, let alone teach yoga.
It’s clear to me from these examples that feminism needs a place in the rapidly growing industry of yoga. Need I even mention Yoga Barbie?

All this is tiring. It’s hard to talk about.

Recently, I did talk about it, at a session of a progressive men’s group. Within seconds of opening the door to the topic of feminism, it became clear that everyone there, regardless of gender, had felt hurt and silenced in different ways. One woman expressed her frustration as one of the few women she knows who will call themselves “feminist.” Because of all the negative media around that word, she feels she has to represent “feminist” by never showing anger or irrationality, which would immediately pigeonhole her as “feminazi.”

She’s exhausted too, but at least she is willing to take a stand. I’ve not only been tired, I thought, I’ve been cowardly. I haven’t self-identified as a feminist because I have been unwilling to take responsibility for what that word could mean, or to take ownership of my own painful experiences.

It’s time for me to admit it: I’m a yoga teacher and a feminist. I want to embody these values in my writing, teaching, and practice, and I don’t always feel like I know what I’m doing.

So I open this question to you: What does “feminism” mean to you? Do you feel your ideals sometimes rubbing up against the reality of what you see? And what can we do together to take ownership for our hurt, find forgiveness, and move forward?


Yoga and mindfulness can be tools to living a richer, more meaningful life. Explore with Julie...
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