Traditional Spiritual Lineage is not right for Me because I’m Female.

Via on May 23, 2010

Brooks Hall, Yogic Muse

Just as my female body contains a metaphor for creating new life, so also does my existence in the realm of spiritual pursuits require a creative act.

A benefit of yoga in the marketplace is that there are plenty of women leading the way; we are used to seeing images of beautiful women in advertisements so there is an ongoing potential for commercial success for svelte females in yoga.

But I recoil in shame when I consider what is coming across to consumers: perhaps that yoga cultivates commercially acceptable beauty, or that yoga is for physical fitness. Could it be that yoga is here to help us get laid? Come on… When commercial yoga panders to our insecurities, just like any other product for sale, doesn’t that cheapen the potential? Or doesn’t that cheapen our estimation of what we, as yoga teachers or yoga businesses offer?

As I read and study about traditional yoga I find myself filtering and editing as I read to try to include myself in texts that were written for male seekers. And I’ve done a pretty good job, having pushed through countless hours of reading about men in yoga. And I love men in yoga… But when it comes to conceptualizing a vision of my yoga path, the words that were intended for male seekers from earlier generations do not always hit home for me as a female yogi practicing and living in today’s world.

And I’ve heard that there are a handful of obscure examples of traditional yoga that honor women. But, I really haven’t seen any that I can identify with.

We don’t even have a tradition here in the States, what we have is a marketplace, and what this requires of us as consumers is personal responsibility. Just like it’s time for us to take responsibility for the oil we use, it’s also time for us to take responsibility for the quality of our hearts and minds.

Maybe it’s me. Maybe I struggle with being a female yogi who is not always sure where she really fits in. Maybe I should try to be thin and beautiful and perfect. Maybe you should buy into my yoga because you love my body.

This is what bothers me.

Yoga is about a union between consciousness and form, or the “inner” and “outer” worlds. If popular yoga is too focused on physical feminine beauty, are we ever going to break through to an authentic experience of spiritual depth? Are we ever going to pursue beyond our obsession with physical form and youthful beauty? Right now our “yoga” in most places seems to be right in line with commercial norms.

Yoga tradition intersects with the modern marketplace. And I think that we enter fantasyland when we try to ignore that. Even when someone has learned from a traditional source, what a teacher brings to his or her classes is what they know. It is always their account of that tradition or lineage, so teachers are actually creating as they are teaching.

But, our yoga does inspire questions such as mine, and perhaps that’s enough for now. And maybe yoga has arrived in the marketplace at this time to remind us that we are more than consumers. We are human beings with hearts and spirituality, and we can be responsible for ensuring that our world can remain inhabitable and joyful, as well as profitable.

*simul-posted at Yogic Muse*

About Brooks Hall

Brooks Hall is a Yogic Muse from Chicago, Illinois. In this capacity she teaches Yoga, writes about Yoga, and generally enjoys it. You can find her at: brookshall.blogspot.com.

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61 Responses to “Traditional Spiritual Lineage is not right for Me because I’m Female.”

  1. Good questions all, Brooks.

    I don't have any pat answers, but I can tell you how I approach these issues.

    I believe that spiritual truths are spiritual truths, regardless of the age and culture they come from. So the only real solution to gender bias in the Gita is to just ignore it. It can't be justified or rationalized. It just needs to be ignored in order to get at the deeper meaning of the text, which, in any case, soundly contradicts bias of any sort anyway!

    As you probably know, our Gita Talk translator, Stephen Mitchell wrote about this problem in his introduction on p. 34-5

    I hope that women who read these pages will forgive this particular limitation of the Gita's consciousness and realize that, with its spirit if not always with its words, it is pointing all of us to the essential truth.

    As for the commercialization of Yoga and the "lineage system", well, my solution to that is to go directly back to the big three ancient Yoga texts–The Bhagavad Gita, the Upanishads, and the Yoga Sutra. I skip the middlemen altogether. With a little bit of commentary these texts speak directly to my heart and soul.

    Everthing that's important to me about Yoga is there except asana, which is best learned from teachers and from modern masterpieces like Kripalu Yoga: A Guide to Practice On and Off the Mat.

    Isn't it exciting to see hundred of people reading and discussing the original Yoga text and applying it to their lives at Gita Talk ?

    As you know, I'm a Yoga universalist. I embrace Yoga in all its forms for their own sake and because they draw people like me into the more spiritual aspects of Yoga. (I never would have gotten into Yoga at all if it hadn't been offered at my tennis club for flexibility training!)

    But while I still do asana every day, my personal practice centers more and more around applying the ancient Yoga texts, as they speak directly to me, to my everyday life and consciousness. That's the way I deal with all the noise in the vibrant Yoga world of today.

    Thanks again for a great blog.

    Bob Weisenberg
    ElephantJournal.com

  2. Linda-Sama says:

    Brooks, thanks for the link love….I hope you went back and read my comment on your interpretation of the word "cult."

    as for this link http://www.elephantjournal.com/2010/05/buddhism-b… as a long time practicing Buddhist and a devotee of Kali (I don't believe I have to pick one or the other and I've written about that in my blog), I believe the sexism that the author finds in religions says more about the person who wrote the ancient text than the religion itself. Frankly, I don't buy into the "I'm a woman so I don't belong" mentality. Strong women have always made their own way in the world and said F U to the prevailing paradigms. I've always gone my own way even when I was half my age. I've listened to my gut, my heart, my intuition. if it wasn't the cultural norm at the time, so be it. of course, I grew up in the '60s when people were questioning many things, and believe me, there was lots of sexism in those so-called "enlightened" circles of hippies….a woman either folded or made her own way.

    and as for those texts, there is a saying in India: dharma teachings are like a bowl of rice; you pick out the dirt and leave the rest to nourish you.

    as for "marketplace yoga" in the west, yoga is a commodity just like anything else even though we like to believe it's not. it is advertised the same way everything else is advertised in this culture — look at the camel toe ad for lululemon. "get Jennifer Aniston abs with yoga!"; "get a yoga butt in 3 moves and 20 minutes." "pandering to our insecurities" is Advertising 101, I don't care if it's a car or yoga.

    Why are we still shocked or upset with the way yoga is portrayed in America? I am the first to admit that I have written plenty about "yoga in America" in my blog, but to be honest, I'm past it. Now I just think it's hilarious. I do my own practice and it sure ain't asana based. The only ads that I think are realistic are the ads for Kripalu — yogis of all ages, sizes, and colors.

    I do not want to be an aging yogini/yoga teacher in this culture. not when this western yoga culture sees "good yoga" as: being young, skinny, and blonde, yoga on roller blades, acrobatic yoga, yoga with weights, ad infinitum. not when this culture sees people over 50 as just being old. not when this culture does not see people over 50 as being spiritual elders or wisdom elders.

    I heard Lama Surya Das say once that this culture no longer has spiritual elders — now we have celebrities.

  3. Linda-Sama says:

    "I know plenty of people over 50 who are SO not old!" believe me….I was not putting myself in that category…..;) i.e., "old"….

  4. swati jr* says:

    good, intelligent banter here on elie j*…..love it!

  5. ARCreated says:

    When I teach I love to point out that you don't need a mat or a single asana to practice "yoga", my motorcylce license plate reads "myom"…and for those that want more than a cute yoga but they get it, it is my belief that people can practice "yoga" without ever reading patanjali, without ever knowing the word ahimsa and surely without doing a downward dog…are they helpful sure – but just like a human can be a "christian" a good and wonderful person and find god without ever reading the bible, we can embody yoga without ever buying into specific tenets. Someone who is balanced, aware, gentle, kind, present and connected to source is YOGIC whether they know krishna or not… rock on with YOUR yoga share your love and knowledge and let people discover their path!
    Most importantly all yogis have to stop competing right now…seriously it is anti yoga…your yoga is not better than my yoga…it's nuts…I can tell you what I like about one style as apposed to another and why I choose hatha over pure bhakti but that is for me…allow everyone to find what works for them and be loving to all styles…that IS yoga.

  6. Padma Kadag says:

    Very Honest article…I am new to this kind of blogoshere with the emphasis on Yoga and other spiritual disciplines. What has struck me right off is the references to one's self and others as "Yogis"or "Yogini". I suppose this is harmless and nothing more than a show of camaraderie (sp?) among those who practice Yoga. It is also a worthy aspiration, to me probably the highest, to become a Yogi. But I am not sure we can matter of factly call ourselves yogis as freely as we seem to be. On one hand it is good to think of one's self this way so we fulfill our aspirations. But if my teacher refers to me as "Yogi" then maybe I am. But even then I am reticent, on a personal level, to refer to myself as Yogi.

  7. Based on what you wrote above, you'll love Mitchell's Gita. The same basic dynamics apply as you described with your Sutra preferences, and Mitchell's is pure poetry, so clear and concise that he doesn't ever have any footnotes. Not one. (There is some important explanatory material in the Introduction, however, that might be footnotes in another treatment.)

    You can get the Bouanchaud at Amazon http://amzn.to/dfkD7l Used $36 New $268 (can that be right? A collectors item?)

  8. Charlotte says:

    Great comments all. As a person who has practiced yoga and Buddhism for 28 years (and published a book on the Eight Limbs), it has been difficult for me to watch the commodification of yoga in the U.S. When I see the endless photos of young, lithe "yoga bodies" in the media it makes me sad, because it's so not about fitness as we define it in this culture. It seems to me that yoga has become one more avenue that feeds into our cultural obsession with outer image. Like Linda, I know that it's not about how many jump-backs we do or which brand of yoga is better than which other brand. And like AR, I also understand that a person can be a yogi regardless of whether he or she has read the texts. All these ideas are diversions from the one thing that can truly lead us to freedom—practice. We can practice no matter what our body looks like and no matter what feats it is or is not capable of.

    On the subject of the youthful, skinny women in yoga ads, Hugger Mugger just last year featured a student of mine on the cover of their winter catalog who is 72 years old. For the record, I've modeled for them since the '80s, back when my hair was brown, and now that it is silver.

  9. Hi, Charlotte.

    I'm a strange mix. I embrace all forms of Yoga, but my own passion is the ancient Yoga texts, not just the Yoga Sutra (your book looks wonderful by the way Mindful Yoga, Mindful Life:
    A Guide for Everyday Practice
    ), but also the Bhagavad Gita and Upanishads, which I feel are equally important and badly neglected. I would like to personally invite you to join us at Gita Talk.

    I hope so see your commenting often here at Elephant.

    Bob Weisenberg

  10. Lasara Allen LasaraAllen says:

    Brooks,

    I am grateful to see you bring this topic to the table. It's one I have been intending to write about for quite a while now. More needs to be addressed, and I'm glad you, and recently Mahita Devi (http://www.elephantjournal.com/2010/04/the-fat-yo… ) have opened the conversation!

    Thank you again, and I'll add my .02 once i get that article written!

  11. Forgot to mention, Charlotte. If you can find a minute, this week were talking about Chapter 6 of the Gita, which is about the same topic as the Yoga Sutra–meditation. Great tie-in to your Yoga Sutra group. In fact you could invite your group to read this 10 page chapter of the Gita as part of your discussion of the Sutra. It's that relevant.

    As Eknath Easwaran writes:

    This is surely one of the most intriguing chapters of the Gita, for here we are given a detailed explanation of meditation addressed to the layperson. The same meditation techniques are given in more esoteric writings, such as the "Yoga Sutra" of Patanjali, but the Gita does it more simply, without any unnecessary mystery or complexity.

    When was the last time you heard the Gita referred to as less mysterious or complex than the Yoga Sutra? This turns the conventional viewpoint on its head–that the Gita is less read because it's more mysterious and complex than the Sutra.

    My own experience is that the Gita and the Upanishads are just as accessible as the Yoga Sutra, if not more so, once one gets used to their rich metaphorical language. Of course, all three are indispensable.

    Bob Weisenberg
    ElephantJournal.com

  12. YogiOne says:

    Brooks,

    There are beautiful women in every studio I've ever been to. I return to the same studio over and over because the teachers there can see my inner beauty and the inner beauty of everyone who comes through the door. As long as we focus on bringing that to the world, we will be just fine.

    The owner of the studio follows a tantric philosophy that honors the one energy as it flows between the masculine and feminine, Shiva/Shakti. This is the philosophy that forms the basis for Anusara yoga. I don't know if you will find what you seek there, but it may be worth exploring.

  13. Yeshe Dorje says:

    Hey dear sister! I am confidant that there are female lineage holders available to you, and to all of us. We may have to look further than the glossy pages of some magazine to find them, but they are there/here. Send your aspiration out, it will be recognized – positive circumstances will arise.

  14. Brooks Hall Brooks Hall says:

    Padma:
    In the ancient sense of the word you are right. Yoga was passed from the Guru or teacher to the Sisya or pupil. Your thoughts had me asking myself, “Is the use of the word ‘yogi’ a false cultural appropriation of the word?” And I thought of the, to me offensive, appropriation of the Japanese word ‘Kabuki’ to describe political theater. Kabuki theater is a traditional art form, and to use it, the way it has been used to describe posturing in American politics is not appropriate.

    But, when it comes to Americans calling themselves ‘yogis’ I see it differently because many of us have gone to India and paid for yoga training from teachers like B.K.S. Iyengar, and the late Pattabhi Jois. And many have become certified in India to teach yoga to others. So yoga, while it was discovered in India, has expanded beyond that country. So teachers are now teaching students yoga worldwide. The tradition has taken a modern form.

  15. Melanie Klein Melanie Klein says:

    Great article. I've been concerned with this issue for years and this topic is the inspiration for several upcoming blog posts. This needs to be discussed on a much wider basis. Thank you for setting the wheels in motion.

  16. […] spiritual lineage was, and is, male-dominated—leaving me (and many other women) to wonder “where are the women?” Do we have to match mainstream standards of perfection to garner recognition and […]

  17. Brooks:

    Thomas Day wrote a book called “Why Catholics Can’t Sing,” in which he examined some of the changes in the church since Vatican II. One interesting idea he put forth is that a lot of nuns were very much behind “the changes,” and became infuriated at appeals to “tradition,” because the whole idea of tradition and lineage, as it is understood in the church, is–as you imply here in the context of yoga–a “male thing.” Even womens’ bodies, one nun said, undergo irreversible changes resulting in the movement from one stage of life to another, with no going back. Everybody quotes the Desert Fathers, in part, because the Desert Mothers didn’t write stuff down as much. Perhaps men’s experience–maybe even in the absence of overt sexism or devaluing of women–conduces more to continuity than womens’ does.

    Of course, it may also be the case that “female lineage holders” are harder to find because the system, as it is set up, obscures them, but I will leave YogiOne, or someone else with more knowledge, to address that!

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