Yoga and Fourth Wave Feminism

Postmodern feminism suggests biology is used by the patriarchy to constrain women, whereas in Yoga, identifying and exploring female identity occurs directly through the site of the body. This practice must be experienced via the body, in both discipline and austerity, as well as seeking new avenues of mind, simultaneous with living the embodied experience of yoga.

Heather Noel-Anne Witt taken by Pxl Ated

While in my dissertation Introduction I provide a description of classical and modern yoga and Chapter 2 fully delves into explaining how embodiment in Yoga operates, here I would like to explain how the taking up of Yoga itself, as opposed to any other physical practice which may also be repetitive (e.g. tai chi, any sport, or even running) allows for and encourages a potential liberation of body, mind and gender. Yoga by definition and practice is a performative activity through which women come to a greater realization about themselves and the world, thereby providing the potential for a destabilization of what was already prescribed to them in terms of gender and their predetermined social roles, typically defined as daughter, gendered woman, mother, and/or wife.

What Yoga is, and how it operates firstly allows women to have greater awareness about themselves. This is done through cultivating an awareness of the body, which is a prerequisite to developing realization of one’s own mental and emotional states. The same must be told of Yoga teachers’ becoming, especially the female Yoga teacher. It is in the experiential and the doing aspect of Yoga that these women are able to become what they were not before, to undergo a performative transformation from ordinary, white, middle class woman to yogini and Yoga teacher, who sees herself as one who thinks and acts in the world in new and different ways. Yoga functions as a “somatic performative,” using the body as the primary vehicle through which these self-making performative gestures are realized and communicated.

I chose to focus on Yoga teachers rather than casual practitioners, because I wanted to inquire about how a lifetime of spiritual inquiry influences the personal/social and public/political choices women make. Through its very disciplined and ritualized practices, the rhetoric of Yoga promises the individual to overcome social and mental constraints. Yoga functions as a social tool, claiming to liberate both minds and bodies. I turned this rhetoric on women Yoga teachers in the United States who have adopted a complete spiritual lifestyle, and discovered that through Yoga, they participate in a politics that is personal, embodied, and service-oriented, as the impacts of personal practice are first felt at the personal level, and slowly extend into their social spheres.

Looking back, it seems like an obvious topic for feminism to look at, and that is why I found it so curious that the subject had not been covered. Humanistic and transpersonal psychology  were an important part of the 1960s and 70s, for the counterculture, the women’s movement, and popular psychologists of the time, such as Maslow who railed against the mechanistic views of behaviorism. As much as feminist theory has since that time read against Freud and Lacan, this is an important intersection that has yet to be explored. The 1960s counterculture presented a holistic view of the person and a strong emphasis on self-actualization, as students and dissidents pulled themselves away from society and their socialization. Spirituality, the New Age philosophy, or what was referred to at the time as the “human potential movement,” figured very prominently in society’s transformation through the 1970s and 80s, and yet, aside from ecofeminism, which has documented goddess worship and earth-based traditions as a part of the formation of its philosophical framework, there is a dearth of research on the role of other “new spiritual” practices within the feminist arena.

At the same time, women doing Yoga talk about feminism all the time: women’s mental health, bodies, and social relations are standard topics for workshops, classes and Yoga teacher trainings. There is now Yoga of all kinds for women’s needs: pre- and postnatal, for survivors of abuse, and for drug addicts. There are Yoga poses modified for women, chants to the Divine Feminine, altars for menstruation, special classes for larger women, chair Yoga for elderly women… and the list goes on. These courses are concerned with women’s health and her well-being, fostering functionality and stability. At the same time, this is a narrow definition of feminism, because it is still centered on the woman in her biological and socially gendered role.

For someone like Swami Sitaramananda (profiled in the first chapter of my dissertation), embracing gender nonconformity, as a swami, has helped her evolve into a social position that demonstrates the a full habitus of Yoga’s nondualistic premise. I focus on her as a way of showing one side of the spectrum or practice which opens fully to the philosophy of Yoga. Her approach does attempt to integrate male and female, both within the individual practitioner, and without, in the society in which she practices. In this way, gender, as experienced through Yoga practice, does becomes unsettled, as Butler has suggested within gender’s range of possibilities; it is an event which generates new power and flexibility for the swami’s own evolution and social relations.

Throughout the writing of my dissertation, it became evident that these ruptures, as such social and communicative events were named by Derrida (1966), if they are to be realized in the practice of Yoga, must be transmitted and realized through repetitive action. Even in its unraveling or transformation into various forms, gender must be continuously iterated and performed. Though notions of the male and female in the yogic context can be upended, combined, and reasserted in new manifestations, they also function as polarities that persist and are routinely referred to within a neo-Hindu context.

Contemporary women Yoga practitioners have been able to push past the older 2nd and 3rd wave feminisms, that had been reduced to sets of slogans upholding these differences between men and women, toward a more flexible idea of a feminism in process. They’ve done this partly because Yoga practices have a spiritual base that fits well with ideas of performativity, and also that feminism is now an ongoing process rooted in community, not only the individual woman seeking for more rights and responsibilities. And they’ve also done this, because feminism as a political practice has been moving beyond the “private personal is the political” toward the “communal personal is the political.”

Because Yoga has a somatic base, it offers to potential to override body-based notions of gender. It has also been able to get the agency of personal realization more widely felt among groups of women who are traditionally not listened to, so they feel they have nothing to say. In Yoga, these women are allowed to learn through the body, and the confidence they acquire leads them to communicate, performing this confidence socially, and sometimes verbally as well. The body is not automatically performative; it can also be reductive and rigid, as demonstrated by the prior examples of gurus who sought to frame Yoga for Western women based on their own conservative notions of gender. So it has required an enlightened, if you will, interpretation of Yoga, to push it towards a performativity, agency and social activism that have long-term effects on how human beings think of themselves. It is this latter kind of feminism, that has emerged from women practicing Yoga, that has the potential to contribute these strategies of performativity to a fourth wave feminism, and by association, a new kind of activism.

copyright Amy Champ Oct. 3, 2013 all rights reserved


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