Identity is shifting and elusive, and figuring it out is like fingering mercury.
If the notion of the “divine feminine” that’s rolling around on yogilips makes you squirm, consider why. It’s been described as a set of values that lives within both men and women. Its definition is a little hazy (since limp, hyperbolic cliché tends to take over whenever it’s invoked), but from what I can make out, it centers on creativity and getting back to nature.
We’re beyond realizing that these are the same, tired tropes that have been used to define femininity within a male-dominated power structure. We’ve gone on to recognize that lots of people get left out when something as nuanced as gender gets flattened into simplistic either/ors like nature vs. culture, creativity vs. rationality, instinct vs. reason. When I’m in the middle of a reclined bound angle and a teacher invites me to return to my primal feminine fecundity, I want to scream. And I’m by no means the queerest person I know.
I’m not claiming to have any idea what a woman is, or what masculinity is, or if there’s anything divine about any of it. I’m just sayin’—if you can describe something without resorting to gender associations, why use them if it’s going to make a bunch of people feel pissed or puzzled? If we each possess all these qualities, regardless of our gender, can we work a little harder to find some fresh ways to explore them?
Nobody knows which aspects of gender are deep-seeded mysteries pumping through our gonads, as opposed to behaviors we’ve adopted over time to thrive or just cope. But identity is shifting and elusive, and figuring it out is like fingering mercury. In the wise words of Princess Leia, the more you tighten your grip, the more star systems will slip through your fingers. Most people go to yoga to drop down below the messiness of identity, to find enough silence to hear the sound of blood in their veins. The stillness when we sit in meditation is a current that flows way down, deeper than gender. Our job as practitioners is to drop down below the churny waters into the deep, still world. Our job as yoga teachers is to offer a way down.
How? What if we were to give ourselves a challenge?
When we’ve got a block under our shoulder blades with our chest puffed out and our legs butterflied, or when we’re asking folk to be cool with hanging out in such a vulnerable place for five minutes, we have a choice. We can hop on our soapbox and proclaim the virtues of the feminine powers of birthing and nurturing. Or we can practice non-harming and hold in the light all those who we might alienate in doing so. Instead, we could find a more creative way to think about creativity.
If we want to use the body to envision the antinomies of active/receptive, rational/intuitive, or if we want to go beyond binary thinking, yoga offers us all the tools we need. Bring the energetic channels to life imaginatively with associations to temperature, texture, or tone. Research their planetary corollaries. Animate the brain hemispheres, or front and back brain, or even sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems by playing with common analogies like the elephant and rider, or Plato’s horse and charioteer—or come up with your own.
Anthropomorphize a chakra or one of its attendant body parts (like the feet for the root chakra), or link it to an animal or color that brings to life its unique power. We can devise a whole panoply of physical or energetic reference points for human qualities. We can’t avoid the connotations that attend each and every image, but the less we attribute gender to a given feeling or affect, the better. The intention is to balance out the ways we’ve been cheated by our culture’s gender mythology, backing off the narrow stereotypes so strictly imposed on girls and boys from an early age. It’s called yoga practice because we are trying out new ways of being. If enough folk practiced that which history has denied them, the cultural ethos would shift. The inner world we build on our mats can provide a home for our softness and our ferociousness, our reason and our intuition, restoring to each of us, maybe one lifetime at a time, our full humanity.
Katy Hawkins is a Philadelphia yoga teacher who teaches a flow style, colored by a background in dance and a love of language. Katy’s Ph.D in Comparative Literature came to focus on how Eastern frameworks appear in queer American art and writing. As she became more and more absorbed in the study of Mahayana Buddhism, her training moved her from Zen practice to Shamatha-Vipassana, but ultimately landed her back in the Quaker heritage in which she was raised.
Editor: Alexandra Grace
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