Here’s something to chew on, consider it a pre-Thanksgiving morsel. An interesting article from Michelle Garcia appeared today on Quartz.com about the state of yoga in America and how its evolution (and female embrace) has basically crapped all over femininity and only serves to perpetuate the unrealistic body image expectations thrust upon women in our culture, within yoga, but also beyond.
Unfortunately, the article’s main message is lost in the title: “Americans ruined yoga for the rest of the world.” While this statement might be true, depending on who you ask, the article doesn’t really make a case for this as much as it reiterates cranky complaints of yoga being hyper-commercialized, pricy, trendy, homogenously represented by an image of thin, bendy, white women – all things we know and have been hearing over and over again.
The juice of the article, though, is where Garcia lays into the problem with our relation to femininity as a yoga culture, and larger American culture.
In America, classes are described as sweaty, flow, and power; they’re built around endless sun salutations (yogi calisthenics) and doused with a photoshopped version of femininity. Yoga may have its roots as a practice largely for the benefit of men in India, but in this country, $20-$25 buys women an entrée into a world where hips, sacrums, and elongated necks are prized, and a woman’s body is worshipped. In exchange for 90 minutes of our time, we attain a personal encounter with our inner goddess by pushing ourselves to reach high, dig deep, and make contact with our perineum—but often as a means of peddling a stereotype of femininity, one tied to a certain aesthetic of what a woman’s body should be.
Even better than pointing all of this out is drawing attention to the edge-pusher backlash, the movement to reclaim the feminine in all of us (guys, too!) and to get in touch with our actual bodies. In other words, all of this going wrong may be leading us all to learn how to go a little right.
To be fair, for some people yoga—of any variety—offers a space for emotional release and a sense of sisterhood, says Jessica Bennett, a columnist for Time who writes about gender and sexuality. It’s also provided a venue for ritual, says Melanie Klein, a sociology professor and co-editor of Yoga and Body Image. Its popularity, in part, “speaks to the fact that there aren’t enough sacred spaces in our community,” said Klein. “What are the rituals we have—graduation, marriage and baby showers—other than that, what rituals do we have?”
“Being hyper aggressive on the body plays on women’s self-image,” said Brown. “If you think there is something wrong with you and lacking, torturing your body makes perfect sense.”
She includes a bit from Seane Corn, co-founder of Off The Mat, Into the World, who had fit the narrow yoga mold, but has now found a way to use her experience to raise awareness.
“I was thin, flexible, strong, pretty, and white. I fit into a mainstream ideal that could be marketed and used to help commercialize yoga,” she writes in an essay titled “Power, Privilege and the Beauty Myth.” In her essay, Corn, now in her late 40s, reflects on the yoga industry that celebrated a certain brand of woman and her role in it. “I apologize for the ways I perpetuated the myth that beauty is a certain shape, size, and color, but I’m glad to now be in a position where I can raise awareness about it.”
This is all good stuff.
Getting nostalgic about yoga days passed, though – “Such was the yoga scene less than 20 years ago, when yoga was associated with austerity and simplicity.” – seems a little too conveniently rose-tinted and glorifying of a time when, sure, maybe yoga seemed simpler, but the 90s era wasn’t exactly a fuzzy feminine-positive, body acceptance utopia. See: Thighmaster.
But we can feel hopeful. Though we may still live in a patriarchal society, where yoga is, ironically, both female-dominated and exclusionary, there’s a growing opportunity for increased awareness, consciousness, and diversity in a practice, culture, and yes, industry, that is continuing to expand in popularity. Americans may have taken yoga and shat all over it with capitalistic principles and enterprises, but it’s also through this that we’re able to point out the flaws, to bring light to where we need to improve, and clear the space so that lovely lotus can make its way through the mud and the muck. Did Americans ruin yoga for the rest of the world? Maybe. But some of us are working hard to do better, and that should be the real headline.