An account of an overweight, middle-aged Christian man’s adventures in Kundalini Yoga.
Read the first in the series: The Kundalini Chronicles: Face Down in my Legos.®
I was at a rehearsal with some other musicians, one of whom picked up and perused my iPod Touch.® He saw the “Baby Monkey Riding Backwards on a Pig” game my children like to play, my meditation timer, and the app I use in my home asana practice.
“Dude,” he said, “your iPod looks like a girl’s!”
Evidently, children and yoga are x-chromosome stuff.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, as I have started going back to yoga classes. Only about one in five yoga practitioners is male, making modern yoga “largely a feminine pursuit.” Most of the people—teachers and students—in every class I’ve been to, irrespective of style, have been female.
Kundalini Yoga, in particular, features gendered practices and teachings, including asanas and kriyas recommended specifically for women. One of the best-known women-specific concepts of Kundalini Yoga is the Eleven Moon Centers. According to Yogi Bhajan—who, more than any other single person, introduced Kundalini Yoga to the United States—one of 11 points in every woman’s body is active for two and a half days at a time, making a 27 and a half day cycle. During each two and a half day period, each woman’s emotional, intellectual and spiritual proclivities are aligned in a way unique to that center’s influence.
Although such teachings are by no means meant to exclude men, when a man is alone in a studio full of women, these things are apt to be on his mind. Sometimes, it’s hard not to feel like an intruder.
More than 10 years ago, just before the yoga boom had really taken hold, I contacted a local studio about classes. The teacher I spoke with in the hippy-trippy establishment hemmed and hawed nervously, and ended by pressuring me toward a Pilates class instead. I can’t be certain, but I am pretty sure she feared that my testosterone-laced presence would wreak y-chromosomal havoc on her hothouse hatha sisterhood.
A lot has happened since then, and the practice of yoga in America, while still more of a “woman thing” than not, has become sufficiently mainstream that men can sign up for classes without any prior sensitivity training. But I still wonder what the effect of our presence and energy is.
On a return trip from Cambridge, England in 2005, I spent some time in Heathrow International Airport’s Interfaith Prayer Room. Praying the Anglican Rosary with eyes closed, I heard several people quietly enter, followed by the susurrations of fabric being unfolded and slid across the floor. Opening my eyes briefly, I saw some half-dozen men kneeling on brightly-colored prayer rugs. As the whispered Arabic of Islamic mid-day prayer rose up around me, I let it drift into my own prayer like incense. It was a powerful, yet serenely contemplative, experience.
Hearing the men return their rugs to the shelf and file softly out, I prepared to re-enter my solitary practice, and was surprised to hear another group enter almost immediately, bringing women and children’s voices and a clanking noise I couldn’t account for. I opened my eyes to see a woman in a hijab struggling to get a stroller through the door, and several others shepherding infants and toddlers. The rugs came out again, and a homey blend of voices and fidgeting folded itself into my prayer in its turn.
I’ve written before about how different spiritual practice is for the married-with-children set than for the “childless hermits” who write so much of our spiritual literature. “A devotee who can call upon God while living a householder’s life is a hero indeed,” wrote the 19th Century Bengali Saint Sri Ramakrishna. “God thinks, ‘He who has renounced the world for My sake will surely pray to Me…But he is blessed indeed who prays to Me in the midst of his worldly duties…Such a man is a real hero.”
But taking it one step further, what if one’s spiritual life were determined not only of one’s worldly status, but by one’s gender role? A man who gets to pray in a controlled environment has a very different experience from that of a woman who must pray amid squalling infants and rutching [i] toddlers. If some people get to do their spiritual practice under laboratory conditions while others have karma yoga thrust upon them, it’s going to make a difference.
Which is not to say, as we might if our understanding of “spiritual practice” were narrow and circumscribed, that women are at a spiritual disadvantage compared to men. The obligations our lives have assigned us “are, from the point of view of the spiritual life, mainly raw material.”[ii] But any way you look at it, the demands our society customarily makes on women, and women’s experience in the face of them, are radically different from men’s. And even where gender roles are less of an issue—in the case of single, childless or affluent women, for instance—if men have only one “moon center” as compared to women’s 11, while women are 16 times more powerful, intuitive and emotional than men (per Yogi Bhajan) our spiritual lives are going to be different.
On the other hand, my pre-yoga-boom experience aside, I have felt—even when alone in my maleness, nothing but welcome at most of the classes I have attended. On a few occasions, women my own age or older have even expressed admiration for my being there. So maybe my real issue has less to do with a fear of being perceived as a disruptive interloper than with some deeper, unreconstructed anxiety about manliness.
Years ago, I dated an Irish stepdancer, who taught me, among other things, a few steps of traditional Irish dance. Being eager to learn more, and living in a city with a thriving Irish-American community, it wasn’t hard to find a school of Irish dance.
I lasted one class.
You see, trying to learn to dance in a big room full of dozens of red-headed, freckle-faced tween girls doing their “threes and sevens” with pre-adolescent élan was simply insupportable—I felt huge, awkward and, frankly, emasculated. And that was when I was a skinny 20-something myself.
The contrast between those girls and me was far more stark, of course, than the contrast between me and the women in any given yoga class I attend now. But maybe my discomfort is more of a piece with that earlier discomfort than I want to admit. Maybe nobody cares that I am a dude in a yoga class; maybe I just feel like an awkward galoot.
As I’ve said before, I’m not wired sensitively enough to detect the spiritual benefits—if there are any—of straight-up yogasana, and at my most honest, I don’t believe that the women getting their vinyasa on at the front of the room are at all disturbed by my presence at the back. As my study of the “spiritual science” of Kundalini Yoga unfolds, I’ll stay alert to any discomfort my presence may or might not cause, either to others or to myself. After a few months, who knows what might show up on my iPod?
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