I recently read the thought-provoking article Dating a Yoga Goddess and its resulting comments—I couldn’t resist responding.
Right off the bat, let’s address the term ‘Goddess’.
In many yoga classrooms throughout the West, women refer to themselves as ‘Goddesses’. As a political move, there is nothing wrong with this; it does the feminist work of reclaiming our bodies and celebrating them, denying traditional patriarchal control over them.
However, remember that the use of this term is to remind us that everybody has a piece of the divine/universal love/cosmic within. This means that the limber ladies who do yoga everyday are Goddesses to the same degree as those outside the studio smoking and drinking a coffee. If we really want gender equality, then we should be talking about ‘Gods’ just as much as ‘Goddesses’ and realize that neither is discriminatory.
This brings us to the idea of following an Eastern philosophy/yogic path within a Western world. If you believe you are leading an ‘authentic yogic life’ or are a ‘yoga purist’, you may need to look into the history of yoga more closely.
There is and never was one true, authentic, pure form of yoga.
The first yogis to pen their practice did so in the Upaniṣads (written between 800 and 400 BCE), Patañjali’s Yoga Sūtras (between 500 and 300 BCE) and the Bhagavad Gītā (between 500 and 300 BCE). The Maitrī Upaniṣad details a six-fold yoga method, namely, breath control (prāṇāyāma), withdrawal of the senses (pratyāhāra), meditation (dhyāna), placing of the concentrated mind (dhāraṇā), philosophical inquiry (tarka) and absorption (samādhi).
Five of these six elements (excepting tarka) are also found in Patañjali’s Sūtras, but Patañjali introduces three new elements: ethical conduct (yama), self-discipline (niyama) and physical postures (āsana). XXXModern yogis usually cite the Sūtras as the canonical text of yoga, but “confine their discussion of the text to the [incredibly brief] aṣṭāṅgayoga section (II.29–III.8) as if this were the sum of Patañjali’s message”¹.
Meanwhile, the Bhagavad Gītā lists only a three-fold path of yoga.
Yoga was a purely male practice until the 20th Century. If you jumped in a TARDIS-style time machine and found yourself practicing yoga as a woman in India 2,000 years ago, you would likely feel very out of place. The first women to practice yoga were not in India—they were in church halls and school gymnasiums in Britain. Caught up in the broader physical culture movement of the early 20th Century, colonialist Brits aided Indian men in bringing the practice to the motherland and melded it with calisthenics and gymnastics.
This was also the first time that yoga was taught to groups of people, rather than one-on-one, guru-to-student-style. At the time, the only other place this happened was in Indian public schools, where the British introduced military-style group exercise in an effort to raise the moral and physical ‘worth’ of the Indian ‘race’ by training young boys.
Women started to become yoga teachers only in the last 60 years, and only since 1970s feminism has it become a popular and acceptable profession.
And yes, I do mean acceptable.
In her article, Holly Westergren claims that Yoga Goddesses “don’t like societal rules and conventions. And most of us don’t adhere to them and have dedicated our lives to living outside boxes in some way or another.” I am afraid to point out the obvious, but if you have a reasonably stable income, take money from your students/clients as they enter the door, pay rent and wear lululemon, you are living smack-bang within societal rules and conventions. You may have a rebellious streak and reject certain restrictions or conventions, but please open your eyes enough to realize that most people do this in some way, not just people who practice yoga. Westergren pins the tail on the donkey when she says that Yoga Goddesses are material girls who have grown up on a diet of fairytales featuring Prince Charming; there is nothing wrong with this—they are conventional ideas, but that doesn’t make them more or less valid (or feminist) than the yogic path you aspire to.
Finally, to address the main thrust of Westergren’s article, that Yoga Goddesses challenge men in such a way that relationships become difficult, I would like to respond both yes and no. Yes, I see many self-identifying Yoga Goddesses who cook their partners dosha-balancing meals and ask them, “Where do you feel it?’ and, “Have you surrendered?” But the only relationships I see where this works are when the Goddess genuinely doesn’t think that her partner needs raising up to the same level of spiritual devotion she has—this is simply a yogic take on trying to improve someone rather than accepting them.
A good relationship, like good teaching, is about meeting the other person where they’re at, having empathy and thinking through the world in their terms.
The best relationships are founded on the knowledge that neither person is better than the other, just different, with common concerns expressed in different ways. This is another way of remembering two of Patañjali’s yamas: ahimsa (non-violence) and satya (truthfulness). Practice the deepest form of non-violence by understanding the other person and be truthful with yourself about who you are.
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