For the past five years, I have been researching and writing my dissertation project–”Feminism From the Inside Out: Yoga and Women in the United States.”
While the benefits of Yoga are widely touted in the media, and meditation is increasingly researched in the hard sciences, research demonstrating the significance of Yoga as a physical and psychological practice for women is nonexistent. This project examines the critical function of Yoga in the lives of contemporary American women through a feminist analysis of Yoga teachers–their embodied spiritual practice, ethics, lifestyle choices and spiritual activist projects.
For millions of American women, their Yoga teachers have become critical new role models for psychological and physiological healing outside mainstream psychoanalysis and medicine. Analyzing Yoga through the lens of feminism, embodiment and political engagement, I focus on the practice of Yoga in daily life, as one that involves and operates on and through women’s bodies. I explore these women’s stories of transformation, healing and empowerment through Yoga via the premise of feminism–that gender, gendered norms, and public practices rooted in patriarchy and based on female subordination depend in great measure on control and definition of women’s bodies.
Yoga teachers re-define gender and feminism in terms of living as an American yogini, and their personal and ethical observances have forged a new kind of activism, based on the tenets of karma yoga. Juxtaposing interviews with observations of their teaching process, personal life choices and activism, I analyze approximately one hundred women teachers’ work at festivals, classes and conferences across the United States. Though Yoga has yet to completely shed its countercultural baggage of the 1960s, it has now become mainstream. Yoga in popular culture today connotes a style of exercise that guarantees a slim body that can be obtained if only the correct Yoga accoutrements are purchased beforehand. My research reveals that–contrary to this popular belief–women routinely use their Yoga practice to heal from deeper social wounds, such as the social and mental effects of gender oppression, patriarchy, and misogyny.
Despite its varying styles and schools, today’s Yoga operates as a holistic, philosophical and spiritual ritual for women–through bodies, emotions and minds in a systematic fashion, creating a feminist consciousness that responds to patriarchy both on the personal and local community level.