Boys and girls, men and women are different—yoga service programs must be gender-responsive, as well as mindful of differences including culture and sexual orientation.
~ Mary Lynn Fitton, founder and director of the Art of Yoga Project, speaking at the Yoga Service Council (YSC) conference, May 2012
As soon as I heard Mary Lynn Fitton speak with such passionate conviction about the importance of teaching yoga in a gender-responsive way when working with traumatized and at-risk populations, I knew that I wanted to learn more.
After all, the question of how best to understand and address gender differences is one of the most vexing issues facing our society today. Yet it’s rare to hear someone speak about it in ways that are fresh and compelling.
Mary Lynn can do so because she brings such extensive knowledge and experience to the subject. After working for many years as a nurse practitioner serving low-income teen girls, she developed the Art of Yoga Project (AYP) to complement traditional health care with a holistic, healing, yoga-based practice. Today, AYP serves over 500 at-risk and exploited teen girls annually through programs in juvenile detention centers and aftercare treatment sites in three San Francisco Bay Area counties.
AYP’s Yoga and Creative Arts Curriculum, which includes asana, yoga philosophy, reflective writing, and creative arts, is designed to help girls coping with intergenerational abuse and neglect, mental health problems, gang involvement, lack of educational opportunity, and poverty. Many have been victims of sex trafficking.
The goal of the AYP program is to help them learn “self-awareness, self-respect, and self-control so that they can ultimately make better choices and be good to themselves and others.”
The Yoga and Creative Arts Curriculum is available nationwide, and is being used by 20 affiliate programs in 10 states.
When I first met Mary Lynn at a YSC workshop on teaching yoga to incarcerated teens and adults (which she co-presented with James Fox of the Prison Yoga Project), I was struck by her powerful, yet highly feminine presence. Her discussion of gender issues was particularly interesting to me because I’m usually skeptical of the talk of “the divine feminine” that I hear in yoga circles. Yet Mary Lynn personified something that made that term feel real and meaningful, rather than trite and clichéd.
I hope you enjoy this interview with her as much as I did.
Carol: How did you first get into yoga?
Mary Lynn: I started yoga in my mid-20s, when I was really much more of an athlete, working hard on running and triathlons. On my mat, I found a connection to my deeper self that was very profound. I also started to gain awareness of my inner voice, which, I discovered, wasn’t kind at all. I finally realized that I had been using sports as a way of running away from my own body and my own issues.
This felt kind of tragic. I’d often weep through my practice. But over time, I learned to nurture myself, rather than always having to push so hard. Through yoga, I developed a truly healing relationship between my self and my body.
Carol: What made you want to teach yoga to at-risk teen girls?
Mary Lynn: In my work as a nurse practitioner, I saw many young women with anxiety, depression and eating disorders. Many had core feelings of low self-worth, and even self-loathing. They’d regularly do things that they’d later regret—for example, one-night stands that made them feel really bad afterward.
I felt that yoga could help them with the deeper issues they were struggling with—stuff that I couldn’t get into with my regular nursing practice. But it was the early 1990s, and at that time, yoga was still totally marginal.
I started teaching yoga in the inner city anyway. I wanted to make sure that the practice got to everyone who needed it most. Today, that’s in line with the mission of the Yoga Service Council: to make sure that yoga is equally available to all. (Note: Mary Lynn is one of the YSC’s founding members.)
Carol: What does the term “gender-responsive” mean?
Mary Lynn: The term “gender-responsive” comes out of work in the criminal justice system. As more and more girls and women started coming in, it became clear that existing programs and policies had been designed for men. And making them appropriate for women involved much more than just having the same thing for women only. There’s a well-known saying, “you can’t just paint it pink.” Gender responsiveness means comprehensively addressing the needs, issues, and concerns of a specific gender group.
Carol: A lot of people in the yoga community believe that yoga transcends gender. Does a commitment to teaching yoga in a gender-responsive manner contradict that?
Mary Lynn: I agree that ultimately, yoga is beyond gender. And in the best circumstances, in which you have a group of healthy individuals coming together and accepting difference, males and females can learn and practice together. Unity is definitely the spirit of yoga. But the reality is that many of our populations have been traumatized in ways that make gender-responsive yoga a necessity.
Male yoga teachers can easily trigger girls and women who have been sexually traumatized by men. For example, just hearing a male voice telling them to “relax” could be re-traumatizing, as that’s a command often issued by sexual predators. With same gender teachers, there’s less risk of that happening.
Carol: Are same gender teachers always better? Are there exceptions?
Mary Lynn: Once in awhile, it’s great to have men come in and teach the teen girls. It shows them a nontraditional model—a man who meditates, for example. Our students are not used to men who are sensitive, kind and grounded. So it’s valuable to expose them to men who embody these qualities.
At the same time, however, it’s too much of a risk to have men develop an ongoing relationship with the girls through yoga. So we don’t have any one man come in to teach on a regular basis.
We’re completely in favor of having the girls feel positive about boys and men. But we also recognize that they need to learn how to draw positive males toward them. They need to learn what it’s like to be honored and supported in a male-female relationship. They need to develop skills, awareness, and an empowered sense of self so that they don’t end up repeating the same negative patterns that have harmed them in the past.
Carol: Do the same gender considerations apply when teaching younger children?
Mary Lynn: I teach yoga in elementary schools with boys and girls together. With young kids, it can work. But I think that it would be amazing to mandate separate classes for boys and girls. That way, boys wouldn’t be coming to classes dominated by females. They wouldn’t feel that “yoga is for girls.”
I also believe that it would be incredibly powerful to have men teaching boys. They would be able to speak to issues that matter to them in ways that females can’t.
Once kids get into the teen years, hormones are so central to everything they do that it’s better to separate by gender. It’s kinder. It’s less distracting. They’re too young to have their Brahmacharya figured out.
Carol: That sounds like it would be true for teens in general. How is teaching yoga to at-risk, traumatized, and exploited youth different?
Mary Lynn: It’s important to understand that the ways in which trauma is experienced and processed in these populations is usually gendered. Generally speaking, boys are traumatized by someone that they don’t personally know very well. They’re dealing with gangs and street fighting. For girls, it’s quite different. Typically, they’re traumatized by someone they’re close to—often someone that they say “I love you” to a lot.
Teen boys and girls, like adult men and women, typically respond to trauma in different ways. There are underlying biological and psychosocial differences. Males tend to externalize their reactions, with anger, fighting, and so on. Females tend to internalize, and beat themselves up on the inside. This manifests as depression, self-mutilation (like cutting), and other mental health disorders.
Carol: That’s a very dichotomous presentation of gender difference. What about individuals who don’t identify with the traditional male/female binary, or are transgendered?
Mary Lynn: Gender responsive programs always need to be sensitive to sexual, cultural and gender differences. We train our staff to understand diversity and be inclusive. It’s always about being conscious, educated and respectful. One of the most important keys to this is learning how to really listen.
We have lots of lesbian and bi girls in our groups. We also had a transgendered girl recently. As this is more rare, we had a special staff training dedicated to how we could serve her best. We’re always committed to staying open and learning.
We have a lot to learn about these issues as a culture. This is all part of an ongoing evolutionary process. Especially when it comes to new forms of gender expression, we’re all learning more about each other.
Carol: Is teaching yoga from a gender-responsive perspective controversial in the yoga service field?
Mary Lynn: Those who have been doing this a long time are generally in agreement on this. My peers in the Yoga Service Council are pretty much aligned with me on these issues, based on their own experiences in the field.
But in the larger yoga community there’s lots of controversy, particularly over whether men should teach women. Right now, there’s lot of issues swirling around male teachers.
Carol: Do you think that teaching yoga in a gender-responsive way has any relevance to the mainstream yoga studio population?
Mary Lynn: We need to get real. It’s a distraction when we’re looking at each other’s bodies. Of course, it’s true that part of the practice can be working to stay focused when you’re feeling attracted to someone else. But why not also have gender-specific classes?
I think it would be amazing to have gender-responsive classes that allow men and women to explore their particular concerns and experiences. For women, being able to talk about their cycles and related issues would be meaningful. To offer childcare would be fantastic.
And what if men taught men, and there was real counsel? What if they came together in circle and talked about issues of strength, power, and control in the ways that are particular to men? What if they went on from there to teach boys how to be powerful, right-thinking men? What if boys had time, space, and leadership dedicated to helping them explore the crucial issue of: What does it mean to be a man?
It would also be good to bring male and female groups together and have unity, as well as times consciously dedicated to exploring male-female issues.
While some of this is going on now, it’s not enough. In particular, there’s not enough for men being offered.
Carol: I hear a lot of talk in yoga circles about the “divine feminine.” Does that phrase mean anything to you?
Mary Lynn: I definitely think that girls and women need to connect to their divine feminine—just as boys and men need to connect with their divine masculine.
At AYP, we’re helping the teens we work with tap into the sacred feminine. Generally, they don’t like being female. They think it’s better to be male, as men run the gangs and have power. We want to help them connect to what’s good about being a girl—to honor their femininity, and cultivate femininity at its best.
The divine feminine is about being open, receptive, creative, and intuitive. It involves listening, wisdom, internal power, and unconditional love and acceptance. It means taking the lead in our culture in manifesting love, and teaching others how to love. In AYP, we practice loving the girls, and teaching them to love themselves.
It’s important to recognize that feminine energy also has its negative side. Females specialize in relational aggression, including manipulation, gossip and criticism of the masculine.
Actualizing the divine feminine should not exclude men or be negative toward men. It is important to take that responsibility. That’s not to say that we don’t talk about men—in AYP, we talk about men, sex and relationships a lot. But we do so in a way that respects the divine masculine too.
Carol: What’s most needed in the yoga world today in terms of gender-responsiveness?
Mary Lynn: I’d like to call men to step up and go into juvenile detention centers and work with at-risk boys. Teen boys need men to teach them. Right now, most yoga teachers are women. Male yoga teachers should be actively recruited. We need more men on the covers of yoga magazines. Correcting the gender imbalance in yoga could only help our culture.
We need more gay and lesbian yoga teachers. We have lesbian teachers at AYP, and it’s important to our program. But many gay male youth have also been sexually trafficked, and need help processing their trauma. Gay male teachers could play an important role in that regard.
We also need more professionals involved in yoga service. We need people who understand the world of public policy, fundraising, organizational development, and business. Our Executive Director at AYP, Lisa Pedersen, used to be a Vice President at a large high-tech company. The two of us together are a great mix. In order to have sustainability, we need to have professional expertise supporting yoga service. Otherwise, we won’t be able to build organizations that last.
To learn more about the Art of Yoga Project, you can access their website by clicking here.
Editor: Lynn Hasselberger