February 17, 2015

“It’s on Us”—Healing the Sexual & Spiritual Divide.


When I announced that I was going to teach this class on women’s sexuality for a community of spiritual women, I received responses in two distinct camps.

The first was, “finally.”

The second was, “Why?” Fill in bewilderment and mild disgust.

The topics of sexuality and money, both located in the second chakra (read ”pelvis”), are of the most contentious in spiritual communities. Not surprisingly the avoidance of dialogue about sexuality and money has led to the most egregious offenses in said categories in both religious and spiritual communities.

This is not news to you, I am sure.

Recently, I was talking to a birth worker who gave birth to her daughters at home in Vermont 40 years ago. She shared the wish and expectation she had then that the world would be different when her daughters had children. She thought that they would have to fight less to have natural births and that the birth climate would have changed. Unfortunately, she said, it isn’t much different now than it was then.

Women-centered care is still the exception. It is not part of our education to learn about what is best for women and children in childbirth and post-partum. Women still have to be fierce advocates for themselves to have the births they want.

As part of yoga philosophy, we talk a lot about not buying into our stories. There seems to be a shared belief that the particulars of your story and your worldview may take you farther away from a connection to the universal, to a spiritual oneness. For a long time, I believed this and did the best to distance myself from my personal biases and story lines. The outcome though was not that I became less judgmental and more loving and connected. The outcome was a version of a spiritual bypass where I became more separate and distant from my “story” and therefore separate and distant from others’ stories.

As my yoga classes were almost always a majority of women, I realized that it was somewhat artificial to go into a room, sit separately on our mats, practice together and leave without any of the natural social behaviors that all animals engage in. Even dogs sniff each other when they enter a common area. I thought the least we could do was introduce ourselves.

Then as I started to teach about what being a woman has to do with yoga, which is an ongoing inquiry of mine, I began to share more of my personal experiences.

I shared my “stories.” This was not an easy step, because I was taught in the tradition of Advaita Vedanta where the personal is only important as an extension of the cosmic mind. But I thought it was important to be truthful about my own personal experiences. It is hard to really know someone without knowing some of the details of their lived experience. I observed that there was only so much transformation that could occur within practice, when there was a decided distancing from the personal in favor of the universal.

It wasn’t long before more women than I can count began to disclose painful and difficult abuse experiences. Many of the women came to yoga specifically to get away from the abuse or to gain some understanding of it. They were searching for answers from these painful experiences. However, few of them had actually disclosed to anyone what had happened. From yoga and spirituality, they gained a safe refuge. However the painful experiences were just shoved in a corner. These women remained isolated and ashamed because there was no platform for expressing personal experience.

I started leading portions of my weekend workshops as circles, so that women could share about their experiences of living in a woman’s body on a spiritual path.

As I did so, I realized the absolute urgency of shared spaces for many generations of women to come together to talk about topics like body image, relationships, stages of life transitions and sexuality. During one beautiful circle, we placed all of the Wise Women in the center of the circle, energetically crowning them. Outside of the circle, we maidens and mothers could ask the grandmothers anything we wanted to know.

Our sexuality is both a result of the creative impulse of life (how we got here) and the potential of that creative impulse (to generate more life). Sexuality was a common thread throughout these workshops because it runs through the topics of body image, relationship, self-esteem and stages of life.

Not by chance, a dear friend recommended the book “Aphrodite’s Daughters” by Jalaja Bonheim, which tells women’s sexual stories as a narrative of their souls’ journeys.

But don’t think we were spending all of our time digging skeletons out of closets. We weren’t!

We shared exhilarating experiences, surprising experiences, deep experiences and yes, some painful experiences.

With something as visceral, contested and vulnerable as sex, of course the whole range of human emotions and textures of experience were present.

And while there may not have been much progress in women’s birthing rights since the 1970s, the U.S. president just spoke out against sexual assault, as part of the “It’s on Us” campaign to end sexual violence!

I believe that it is everyone’s responsibility—both men’s and women’s—to dismantle rape culture.

While taking apart rape culture seems like a multi-layered and overwhelming project, as women we can start with ourselves and our bodies. (Please don’t mistake this for ignoring systemic injustices or blaming women.) As a bodyworker and a birthworker, I see that as women we are so used to handing over our power, when it comes to birth and sexuality, we often have huge blind spots.

We can face these blind spots so that we make empowered and wise choices about who touches our bodies and how. (No woman is exempt from these questions. We all face boundary challenges and uncomfortable physical procedures, even if just a yearly pap smear.)

We can learn our own anatomy. We can understand the way our bodies work, and respect them.

We can refuse to divorce our spirituality and our sexuality.

We can learn to love, or at least accept, our bellies and thighs.

We can challenge our assumptions.

We can question the dichotomy of sexual and sacred in our lived experiences. We can observe our tendency to defer to male authority.

Will you have the courage to teach your daughter her sacred anatomy so she has a level of self-possession and sovereignty? Do you dare transgress?

Our daughters will not accept our invitations to genuine embodiment and expression unless they perceive that ours is real.

We can be honest with our daughters about their bodies, their voices, their choices and their pleasure.

However, we cannot be honest with our daughters about their bodies and their voices, until we are honest with ourselves about ours.

This week I begin the course Forging a Feminine Path: An Embodied Conversation of Spirituality and Sexuality.

It is one step in the direction of woman-centered births, radically honest conversations about the important truths and stories that our bodies hold, confronting rape culture and offering the next generation of women an even greater opportunity to safely and boldly know the power of the feminine.

Author: Kimberly Johnson

Editor: Travis May

Image: Wikipedia

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