A version of this article has already been published in The Elephant Journal, but since we think this topic is super important and really want to share our two cents on it with as many people as possible, here's an earlier version of the piece straight from ACEBE to our crew! Much love to all. We hope you enjoy it.
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, how is one to know? To put an end to this confusion, in today’s entry, we get our hands dirty and speak of gender in Yoga, to clarify what to make of gender in this particular world today.
Be mindful of your words, kiddo!
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 the truth is that 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, which also includes 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 often works in support of reductionist interpretations of (gender and sexual) identity that we should be mindful of. 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? We'll wait a little for you to think this over. Now think of straight male ones. If we're correct –and we know we are because we've asked around– the answer should be rather self-explanatory. You won't be very able to come up with many names to fill the list in the first case.
Indeed, this is a somewhat random example that would need a great deal more of unravelling were we keen on diving deeper in here, but it should suffice to show that, despite our overall annoyance towards feminist ‘ranting’ and our greater awareness about or prejudice in contemporary times, there is still much work to be done 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 without proper explanation of their cosmic and thus metaphorical qualities.
It is our 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. Because, our words –as imperfect and limited as it may be– matter a great deal kiddo! And so, upon hearing teachers of all sorts speak of ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine,’ 'Shiva' and 'Shakti,' 'moon' and 'sun' and such things in a class without much context, the question remains what do we mean by feminine and masculine in Yoga and what do our students understand?
If Yoga is supposed to be open to everybody regardless of whatever their age, gender, race, sexual identity, or class may be, 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 a must.
Basic principles in Yoga
The key to this conundrum 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. At the end of the day, 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, masculine qualities and feminine tendencies, or any other such pairs in Yoga is, firstly, an exercise in poetry or metaphorical language, and secondly, slightly beyond the point.
We at ACEBE 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 understandings 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 Samkhya, to Buddhism, Cristianity, Dvaita and Advaita Vedanta... 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 saying that our reality (matter0 and the most subtle aspects of the universe we know are all the product of an interplay of opposites or ‘basic principles’ that react at the heart of all things. Think of things like movement and rest, up and down, strong and weak, right and left, giving and receiving, masculine and feminine. These are the fundamental principles, the yin and yang of life if you want –the basic 'stuff' life is made of.
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 always. 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, Shiva and Shakti, the giving and the receiving. Balance is, after all, the holy grail of both Ayurveda and Yoga and the entire goal of yogic practice aside of awakening our Kundalini Shakti, is to enable us to rest in this balance as much as possible. 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, you name it.
It is at the level of our societies –where cultural inscription into particular ways of doing gender actually takes place– that these once abstract opposites are complicated, and gain material significance. So much so, that we end up finding extremely upsetting and disturbing misrepresentations of how gender in Yoga should be performed! This is how we end up getting 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 or displaying physical prowess whenever he does asana and showcasing a stereotypical ‘male Yogi look.’ Or contrarily, how we bump into 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.
So, where does this confusion come from?
Part of the confusion with how masculine and feminine is read in Yoga derives from the very 'cultural pollution' inherent in some of the main yogic texts. 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 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 prejudice, and so, we sometimes end up reading them quite literally, 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 such 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.'
Our advice? Go deeper. Be curious. Ask questions of others and of yourself. Be happy not knowing the answers as that puts you in a better position to learn. This can mean something as simple as aiming at deeper levels of individual introspection, deepening of your own practice, or learning to look deeper at the world/s you live in, at their structure and founding principles, to critically reflect on the circumstances making them the way they are today. We need to be more conscious about our context and to the politics our contexts often elicit. Because things are never the way they are just because; there's always a reason (or many) for them being so. The question is whether we dare, or not, to ask uncomfortable questions, and sit with the discomfort that aiming for answers can often trigger. Because, how we look at things is half of what the things we look at will look like in the end, and this should make us very mindful of how we choose to look at things. Always!