This article was republished on Wonder Anew, an ongoing project born from an idea that personal positive change (finding the best in ourselves) is a way to gain insight and wisdom to live a better life, that sharing our personal changes lifts others’ spirits, and that listening to others’ changes can inspire us to be contributors to the world.
Professionals wear many hats. I’m a scholar, author, researcher, editor, educator, analyst, speaker, evaluator, advisor, collaborator, investigator, advocate, and consultant. I’m also a yoga instructor. In addition to my advanced degree in social science, I’ve logged more than 300 hours of formal yoga training and taught more than 400 hours of public classes.
Yoga, derived from the Sanskrit root “yuj” means “yoke” or “union.” The practice uses a variety of movements, breathing exercises, meditation, and relaxation techniques to help the practitioner achieve union (balance) between the mind, body, and spirit. Although yoga can be traced back thousands of years, modern yoga has morphed into a variety of new styles that incorporate classical and contemporary philosophies and methods. It may be practiced as a form of religion, lifestyle, leisure, or fitness. Americans spend $6 billion a year on yoga classes, equipment, clothing, workshops, videos, books, and more. Yoga has become so popular as a health modality, with about 17 million practitioners in the United States alone, that doctors are starting to recommend yoga to their patients to improve health and enhance allopathic medicine.
Many modern practitioners (70 percent of whom are women) do yoga specifically to improve their health. I started practicing more than 15 years ago for that same reason. Since then, yoga has become more than a pastime for me. It is the singular item I resist from crossing off my ever-expanding “to-do” list. It is the activity I seek out within the nooks and crannies of passing time. Yoga gives me a chance to breathe, to balance in perilous positions, to stand on my head and quite literally experience the world from a different perspective. Yoga calms me down; it helps keep me sane. Yoga informs my being, my living, and my work.
I’ve practiced yoga for thousands of hours. I’ve taught outdoors in parks and on rooftops, and indoors in living rooms, lounges, classrooms, dance halls, yoga studios, and occasionally in the session rooms at academic conferences. Yoga has been this thing in the periphery of my professional life. But every time I teach a class I witness a palpable shift in the room, a sense of calm that sweeps in and through, from beginning to end.
I used to think my yoga practice was more tangential to my work, but upon reflection I realize that is not the case. I now see that yoga is also a body project that has the potential to engage feminism and inspire feminist consciousness. It is neither a necessary condition nor a guaranteed outcome. But the body has long been the beating heart of copious feminist work.
Feminist Theory and the Body
Early western feminists didn’t always consider the body to be central to women’s empowerment. Women have been equated with the body (not the mind) throughout history, and this helped to justify the treatment of women as property, objects, and commodities. Some feminists therefore believed that equality between men and women rested upon the notion that rationality (reasoning) was the universal human capacity that could render neutral the seemingly fundamental biological differences that promoted gender inequality. Simone De Beauvoir’ radical exploration of such inequality in The Second Sex brought the relation between the body and the self to the center of feminist theorizing. Unlike the history of (dualist) western intellectual tradition in which the body was absent or dismissed as irrelevant, feminism’s second wave argued that the body matters; materially, discursively, performatively, and phenomenologically.
Corporeality is entangled in culture and biology, meaning and substance, identity and lived experience, mind and matter. Yoga can be a window into these varied dimensions of feminist conceptualization.
Culture and Biology: Yoga provides an opportunity to participate in an ancient, though modified, cultural tradition while experiencing the rhythm of life through the synchronization of breath and movement.
Meaning and Substance: As the body breathes and energy flows, mindful attention to the positioning of the body in physical space (in the shape of a cobra, an eagle, a triangle, a wheel, a warrior, a mountain, a corpse) allows awareness of oneself, as corporeal and beyond the body, to surface.
An actor and an observer at the same time, a yoga practitioner may become aware that sensory activities give rise to perceptions and judgments that may be based in reason (e.g., pulling weeds all weekend contracted my shoulders, limiting my range of motion) or may transcend both reason and experience (e.g., I’m not strong). Through the practice, we can learn that perception is not purely sensation; nor is it purely interpretation. Consciousness is a process that includes sensing as well as reasoning.
Identity and Lived Experience: Practicing yoga with others perhaps inches away and planted, firmly or precariously, on their own plot of imagined earth (often delineated by a 2’ x 6’ sticky mat) places the individual in relation, in an orchestrated flow of energy and motion. Unlike many social interactions we simultaneously experience ourselves with, and apart from, others. On a level we know, too, that we are an element of their perceptions just as they are a component of ours.
Mind and Matter: With regular practice, yogis may experience equanimity: a perfect, unshakable balance of mind. Researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston define it as “an even-minded mental state or dispositional tendency toward all experiences or objects, regardless of their origin or their affective valence (pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral).” It is the essence of well-being, the foundation for clarity, neutrality, and insight.
Why does the mind-body-spirit of yoga matter for feminism?
Much of feminist organizing focuses on informational empowerment and structural change to improve human conditions. This is vital. Yet the body still matters. It is a source of meaning, identity, empowerment, and connection. It is part of life. It is life. Yet, the body is judged, controlled, politicized, medicalized, contaminated, and abused. The body is objectified, commodified, marked in accord with perceived social value, and exploited for its labor. The body remains a site of inequality and therefore must remain a feminist project.
For me, yoga is a way to remember that I am not a brain on a stick. Being in my body, and connected through yoga and meditation reveals an inner potency and respect of self. I am strong yet vulnerable. I am in my body, of my body, and beyond my body. And when I find equanimity in my yoga practice, the unity of mind-body-spirit provides healthy fodder for my feminist work and the life I want to live.
- “Feminist Perspectives on the Body” by Kathleen Lennon, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2014 Edition)
- Gendered Bodies: Feminist Perspectives by Judith Lorber and Lisa Jean Moore
- Embodied Resistance: Challenging the Norms, Breaking the Rules by Chris Bobel and Samantha Kwan (editors)
- Missing Bodies: The Politics of Visibility by Monica Casper and Lisa Jean Moore
- 21st Century Yoga: Culture, Politics, and Practice by Carol Horton and Roseanne Harvey (editors)
- Sexing the Body: Gender, Politics, and the Construction of Sexuality by Ann Fausto Sterling
- The Male Body: A New Look at Public and Private by Susan Bordo
- Feminist Theory and the Body: A Reader by Janet Price and Margrit Shildrick
- The Politics of Women’s Bodies: Sexuality, Appearance, and Behavior by Rose Weitz