Given the patriarchal history of yoga and society, the predominance of women in yoga classes and the marketing efforts to entice men is not only profoundly ironic but indicative of changing gender dynamics. As universal concepts continue to be teased out of the dogmas, we are challenged to let go of deeply ingrained modes of communicating. While both men and women need to play a role in restoring mutuality, it behooves men to bear the greater burden.
I have never thought of myself as a white privileged male who has assumed a position of authority. I've not inherited any wealth or status. In fact, whatever I have was built on my own steam without any financial support or favor from anyone else. And I chose a modest lifestyle as a yoga professional expressly because I have a tenuous relationship to authority. Which explains why I have aligned with a non-hierarchical approach. But recently, I was made aware of the fact that, regardless of whether I think of myself that way or not, I am nonetheless a white privileged male who has assumed a position of authority. At least, in the context of my teaching.
I teach with stories. A lot of yoga teachers do. And there are a few stories I have been telling again and again for years. They have always shown themselves to consistently and effectively communicate the intended ideas. One story in particular concerns my ideas regarding Tantric sex. I always like to be a bit bawdy in the telling of it and get some laughs before I bring home the real message about how a practice of Tantra in sex is not possible among strangers and would require the kind of mutual respect and relationship that only comes from a genuine love.
So I was utterly dismayed when one of the woman in my teacher training program asked to have a meeting with me to say that she was uncomfortable with the way I had depicted women in my story.
The fact that the story ended with the message it did was not enough. This was because I had portrayed the women in the story in a way that acted as a trigger for her. As she put it: “You describe these women who were misguided and in need of sex and you, the enlightened man, was the one to reveal the truth to them.” I had never thought of it that way. It was something that actually happened in my life and I was simply retelling it from my memory and for comedic effect. I was unaware that my message was lost in the telling and might be perpetuating a subtle communication about gender that I did not intend.
At first, I have to admit that I felt a bit threatened — as if the PC police were coming after me. Taken on the whole, if someone were to look at all that I have written and said over the years, I think it would be hard to accuse me of misogyny. But I was able to catch myself before just slipping into a defensive crouch and put myself in the shoes of a woman who had not heard or read all the things I have written and said but only knew me from the story I had told about Tantric sex. When I was able to do that, I could see that I was in the wrong.
There is no reason why I cannot tell the same story in a different way that still gets laughs and communicates the message without inadvertently reinforcing a prejudice against women.
With this still reeling in my mind, I found myself at home observing my five-year-old daughter as she danced in the mirror listening to a Taylor Swift song. She turned to me and said: “Why does she treat the boys like that?” and then turned back to the mirror and made her best “sexy” face. And I started to cry. As Jack Holland, author of Misogyny: The World’s Oldest Prejudice, writes: “The hatred of women affects us in ways that no other hatred does because it strikes at our innermost selves. It is located where the private and public worlds intersect. The history of that hatred may dwell on its public consequences, but at the same time it allows us to speculate on why, at a personal level, man’s complex relationship to women has permitted misogyny to thrive.”
It feels overwhelming to me. How can I protect my daughters from this? Truth is, I can’t. But you can bet we are going to be a lot more careful about the songs that we let our daughters listen to while under our immediate guidance. As parents, I think we need to listen to all the lyrics and watch the video first. Just because it has that bubblegum pop sound doesn’t mean it’s benign. And whoever you are, those of you making the decisions about these songs and how they are promoted to young girls, I say shame on you. What are we doing to our little girls?
Men need to take more responsibility. You don’t hear much about women in their sixties taking advantage of young men in their twenties but the reverse is all too commonplace.
In particular, male yoga teachers need to be more aware and take full responsibility for the role that they are assuming. While I am fairly confident that the majority of people who have heard me tell my story about Tantric sex did not feel I was perpetuating misogyny, chances are that if someone did they would not have felt comfortable enough to tell me. Which is actually where I am encouraged. Because it seems to me that something is changing. Not only did this woman feel emboldened enough to speak her mind but I am certainly taking it in deeply.
There is a lot of conversation in the yoga world these day about the “yoga body” and the empowerment of women through yoga. And then there is a backlash of “Broga” classes being marketed where men can be men and do their yoga without having all those empowered women around. We must bridge this gap. Both men and women need to abandon these unhealthy notions of beauty and gender. Both men and women need to learn how to have genuinely mutual relationship to one another.
But lets be clear, men are more to blame. As Holland so eloquently states: “For we are the inheritors of an ancient tradition, going back to the origins of the great civilizations of the past which have so profoundly shaped our consciousness and fashioned the dualism that lies behind our efforts to dehumanize half the human race.” It’s up to us to either continue carrying the torch for hurt and dysfunction or be courageous enough to forge a better way.