This article was required reading for my yoga teacher training, part of our consideration of the psychodynamics of teaching and learning. It was quite eye-opening, and helped me make sense of some of the discomfort around some of the interactions I have on occasion witnessed, especially at very large workshops. My reaction follows the excerpt.
Yogis like to argue as much as any other subculture, despite the mislabeling of us as pacifist. But one fact that most yogis can agree on is that the overwhelming percentage of yoga practitioners in the US are women. Probably as much as 90%, though in some city centers, where yoga is more mainstream it might be more like 70%. Regardless, women make up the largest demographic. And as women, it makes complete sense to be extremely upset by the sexual use and abuse by male teachers in the highest echelons of yoga. From the Indian men who brought yoga to the west, right down to the recently humiliated John Friend, male yogis have been abusing their power the way men usually abuse power – sexual exploitation. So yes, the yoga women, in my opinion, have every right to be angry, rageful even.
But lest the pot be accused of calling the kettle black, I think it is important to look at the other side of the equation. No one, to my knowledge, has ever called out the abuse by women in the yoga community. From the highest echelons of female yoga teachers, down to the newest girl graduate from her weekend Teacher Training, women yogis abuse their power the way women usually abuse power: by being cruel, demeaning, spiteful, catty, cliquey, condescending, manipulative, and downright mean.
This is the comment I posted to the blog:
I feel like I have just walked past the girls’ locker room when some conversation spilled out. Of course, this occurs over 30 years too late for me, because I went to an all boys’ high school. But it would take yoga to flush out an awareness of this dynamic I had not had before.
As a sociologist as well as a yogi, I do feel compelled to point out that culturally, it is male dominance that causes women’s appearance to be valued over their many other fine qualities. Structurally, it is wage gap between men and women that make yoga studios—numerically dominated by women—a site for women’s success, and therefore also of the seamy underside of competition. So even as we seek to identify “mean girls,” we should trace this aberrant behavior back to its source in the gender stratification of our society.
This article is for men, too, even if in training to become a yoga teacher we are seeking both to participate in a female-led enterprise and consciously to eschew the more gross abuses of male power. We still may fall prey to these more subtle ones, by allowing ourselves to be flattered by and drawn into the orbit of one of the particularly flash yoginis, participating in the form of bullying that culture and structure open to them.
This post is especially thought-provoking and I am grateful you have had the courage, wisdom, and insight to shine light upon this issue.
I’ve written it rather densely above, seeking brevity in my comments. But basically I see it this way: hooray for yoga. In a society dominated by men, here is an enterprise, spiritual and otherwise, in which women get to lead. A true humanist should jump at the chance to participate in such a reversal. “Women hold up half the sky,” says a Chinese proverb, and sometimes a bit more, others have added. It would be good to act like it.
But women sociologists have pointed out more subtle instances of sex discrimination in the workplace. Even in the academy, which should know better, women are sometimes valued for feminine characteristics, writing in a faculty evaluation, for instance, that she is “very nurturing” toward her students. And we know in yoga that what is more subtle is more valued. So male yogis, especially those of us seeking as I am the path of teacher training, should be aware, not only of the egregious abuses of our brethren, but also of the ways in which women use power over each other. As I sociologist I see these ways as artifacts of a system which makes women feel lack. They are devalued to the point where their appearance becomes all-important, and scrambling for scarce resources even in these their own businesses. It’s not enough for us humanist men to work on the abstract, macro level cultural and structural level. It’s not enough for us to become merely aware of what’s spilling out of the girls’ locker room. We must particularly be vigilant about having our male egos flattered by the mean girls, thereby being drawn into these power dynamics, in which we already participate, by virtue of male privilege.
Needless to say, this article is very provocative and has set my brain on fire, so to remind me ever to seek my heart in this. The question becomes how to respond, not only with awareness, but compassion, and good, solid boundaries.