If you’ve ever opened a yoga manual or attended classes in a studio, you will for sure have realized how the world of Yoga makes constant reference to pairs of opposites through the ideas of ‘sun and moon,’ ‘active and passive,’ ‘pleasure and pain’ or, better still, the ‘sacred feminine and the divine masculine.’ Upon hearing such remarks during a class, the majority of students simply absorb whatever their meaning may be much like they do with most other Yoga terms and concepts: with a bit of a confused ear but an open heart.
Since very little context is normally given about how to actually understand the language of Yoga –or what I call ‘speaking yogic’– most of us sit and listen to whatever is said not entirely sure of how to interpret those terms, though happy to go on without knowing.
This lack of context, however, is responsible for a great deal of misinterpretation when it comes to absorbing the yogic worldview, and also, in part, behind the current hyperfeminization and hypermasculinization of yogic practice in general –particularly in social media.
Certainly, when it comes to speaking of ‘the feminine’ or ‘the masculine’ or any such pair of terms referring to ideas of masculinity and femininity in Yoga, what most people believe they are hearing is talk of male and female and, thus, of men and women. But this is really not what the terms ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ in Yoga are supposed to allude to. But, then again, how is one to know? To put an end to this confusion, I’ll get my hands a bit dirty with the topic, and unravel their meaning and origins if only superficially.
Basic training on gender epistemology suffices to see that masculine and feminine is not equivalent to male and female, nor to men and women, but most people lack this sort of training and this includes many an experienced Yoga teacher. This means that every time these concepts are spoken of during a Yoga class, people like me –who are very aware of their nuances– are left, at best, with an overall feeling of unease and discomfort at the way pairs of opposites are used in Yoga –and this includes also references to Hindu myth and polarity/dualism in general.
Because of historical and cultural circumstances that have yielded a predominantly male-dominated and heteronormative world, the language of Yoga as it is currently being used works in support of extremely reductionist interpretations of (gender and sexual) identity. Now, you can bang your head against a wall and protest this type of pardon-my-feminism-sort-of-assertion about the world being heteronormative and male-dominated but, just give this a thought: how many Presidents, company CEOs, famous chefs, athletes, or prominent scientists can you name off the top of your head that are female and/or homosexual? Now think of straight male ones. If I’m correct, the answer should be self-explanatory. This is a somewhat random example, which deserves a much more complex and thorough explanation than what I’m able to offer in here, but it should go on to show that, despite our overall annoyance towards feminist ‘ranting,’ there is still a great need for deeper reflection when it comes to thinking of gender and sexuality and their performance, particularly in traditions like Yoga, where the terms ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ are so frequently used to speak about inherent human and cosmic qualities.
It is my honest belief that we owe it to millennia-old yogic wisdom to be a bit more thorough and specific about the words we use than this. Indeed, our language –as imperfect and limited as it may be– matters a great deal. And so, upon hearing teachers of all sorts speak of ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ or ‘Shiva’ and ‘Shakti’ in a class without much context, the question remains what do we mean (and what do students understand) by feminine and masculine in Yoga? If Yoga is supposed to be open to everybody regardless of age, gender, race, sexual identity, or class, how can we reconcile this with a discourse that often refers to polarities out of a vacuum and before any understanding of their supposed non-dualistic and symbolic (re)union is given? For the average Yoga student –and this is most of us– greater clarification is needed.
Dualism and the yogic worldview. Basic principles in Yoga
The key lies in properly understanding the highly symbolic language of Yoga and ancient scripture, which was never truly meant for literal interpretation only, even if literal interpretation is always the most basic point of entry. Only when one pays careful attention to the entirety of its worldview does it become evident that speaking of men and women, masculine and feminine, or any other such pair of opposites in Yoga is, first of all, an exercise in poetry or metaphorical language, and secondly (and quite frankly) slightly beyond the point.
I do believe that Yoga is ultimately a ‘transgender philosophy,’ where the prefix ‘trans,’ from its original Latin, is here meant to convey the idea of ‘going beyond’ culturally-ingrained and historically-specific constructions of gender. But perhaps breaking things down a little is for the best.
Indeed, dualism is at the heart of most spiritual traditions (and world cultures) today. Whether they opt for dualism or division proper, or else advocate monism –the reunion of dual opposites into a so-called ‘Oneness’– polar opposites exist across traditions; from Hinduism, to Buddhism, Cristianity… you name it. So, in a way, most traditions take duality or the fragmentation of reality into fundamental opposites as their point of departure, though they go about what to make of this in very different ways.
In the world of Yoga, this boils down to reality –matter– and even the most subtle aspects of the universe being the product of an interplay of opposites or ‘basic principles.’ Think of things like movement and rest, up and down, strong and weak, right and left, giving and receiving and, of course, masculine and feminine. These are the fundamental principles –the basic ‘stuff’ life is made of, if you want. These principles exist naturally in all things; which means that, in Yoga, the world and even ourselves as humans contain aspects of both opposites or poles. Whether one is a man or a woman, or identifies as feminine or masculine to varying degrees, we all have something of both the feminine and the masculine, the active and the passive, the moon and the sun, or Shiva and Shakti . Balance or Sattwa is, after all, the holy grail of both Ayurveda and Yoga. Thus, that the ideal expression for any polarity in Yoga be always natural equilibrium. When excess or lack takes place either at the emotional, mental, or physical level with regards to any of these opposites, imbalance (or dis-ease) occurs.
Unfortunately, due to our historical evolution into increasingly technological and ‘scientific’ societies, we have lost the ability to think symbolically. As Carl Jung notes, “[i]n earlier times, these principles were worshiped in all sorts of rituals, which at least showed the psychic significance they held for man. But now they have become mere abstract concepts” (Approaching the Unconscious, 1964: 85). So, these polarities here described in something of an abstract manner, find expression in the world of here and now in culturally specific ways. This has lasting consequences for the ease with which men and women can freely experience being more or less masculine or feminine, more or less giving or receiving, more or less active or passive, strong or weak.
It is at the level of our societies –where cultural inscription into particular ways of doing and embodying gender actually take place– that these once abstract opposites are complicated, gaining material significance. So much so, that we end up finding extremely upsetting and disturbing misrepresentations of how gender in Yoga should be performed! We get the ‘hypermasculine Yoga bro’: a man that feels the need to perform what he believes is ‘masculinity’ in the language of Yoga, by performing extremely physical yogic practice, displaying physical prowess whenever he does asana, and showcasing a stereotypical ‘male Yogi look’ –one that may or may not require him to be bare-chested while wearing a mala.
Contrarily, you find the ‘hyperfeminine yogini’: a woman who thinks she must connect to the ‘sacred feminine’ in her or any exotic but nurturing female Hindu goddess, for her to fully embody the female principle she believes herself a representative of by virtue of being a woman. These may also be spotted performing asana or mudra practice in ‘elegantly feminine’ ways. The language of gender (also in Yoga) is extremely complex and diverse.
Where does such generalized confusion come from?
Part of the confusion with how ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ are read in Yoga derives from the very ‘cultural pollution’ inherent in some of the main yogic texts. Indeed, these texts were written by men (and women) that did not exist isolated from the historical and cultural fashions on gender and what was possible for men and women to be/do at the time they lived. This is very self-evident when one reads Hindu myth, for example. So, this is definitely part of what’s going on when speaking of masculine and feminine and of men and women as ‘this or that’ in the world of Yoga today. We don’t always critically analyze those texts well enough to reveal their historically-specific prejudice, and so, we sometimes end up reading them quite literally, thus failing to account for the cultural biases that, in the case of a tradition so rooted on Indian thought and so influenced by Hinduism, has landed us a very dualistic ‘men-eat-world, female-nurture-world’ kind of discourse.
But this is only half of the picture. At the end of the day, we’re reading those texts in the present; and here and now, we must also account for our own responsibility in perpetuating dualistic thought and restrictive gender patterns simply by being lazy about the words we use or by refusing to even reflect upon the reasons motivating their use. If what yogic texts suggest is real, the soul –or Atman– doesn’t have an identifiable gender. Gender is ‘a thing’ only in the plane of time-space reality; and even there, the tradition of Advaita Vedanta and non-dualism already suggests that we need to learn to transcend fragmentation into polar opposites to (re)unite our time-space consciousness with non-linear ‘Oneness.’
So… what do we do then?
My advice is simply to dare to go deeper and be curious. Dare to ask questions both of yourself and others –including, also, your teachers and what they mean when they speak of divine masculine and sacred feminine in Yoga, for example. At the same time, though, learn to be happy not always having easy answers, as that puts you in a better position to learn. This can mean something as simple as learning to look deeper at the world/s you inhabit, at their structure and founding principles, and dare to critically reflect on the circumstances making them the way they are today, sitting with the discomfort this can often trigger. We need to pay more careful, conscious attention to our context and to the politics our contexts elicit. Things are never the way they are just because; there’s always a reason (or many) for them being so. And this necessarily applies to how we use gender-loaded terms in life in general, and in the world of Yoga in particular.
So let’s not forget: how we look at things is already half of what the things we look at will look like in the end. And in the case of Yoga’s gender talk, borrowing from Joseph Campbell, “the metaphor is [literally] the mask of God through which eternity is to be experienced” (The Power of Myth, 1991: 73).