This blog addresses toxic masculinity in the context of the yoga world. If this topic triggers you please enjoy these playful pandas and feel free not to read any further.
As a woman who’s been in this industry for almost 25 years, I have an opinion, I have a platform to share that opinion, and I believe frank conversations around toxic masculinity are important for the health and well-being of the community.
I use the term here to mean the cultural norms that permit misogyny and homo/transphobia as well as toxic competitiveness, violence, bullying, aggression, mansplaining and gaslighting in the context of a gender power differential. These are individually as well as culturally “toxic” because they are harmful in the short and long term to all people, not just women.
I’ve encountered toxic masculinity at many points in my career – sometimes more painful and humiliating than others.
At the risk of sounding very non-yogic, I sometimes react towards toxic masculinity with snarky indignation and righteous dismissal.
In a yoga context it makes me particularly angry – because so many people come to yoga to feel safe, to relax, to heal, and to grow – sort of the opposite of what happens with toxic masculinity which can quickly and effectively snuff out those possibilities.
When you’ve been told by women students about all sorts of incidents like being propositioned by a married male teacher she deeply revered, or being touched inappropriately in savasana, or being cajoled into sex by a teacher – incidents which mix the gender power differential with the teacher power differential and then glaze the whole things with a veneer of spirituality – well, I think it’s easy to see why it’s so triggering.
Snarky indignation and righteous dismissal can provoke shame in the perpetrator – which can be good at times, but also is problematic.
I learned recently that shame originates in the periaqueductal grey (PAG) of the midbrain part of the brainstem – not in the limbic brain. So shame may be an evolutionary response integral to the survival of the species. It’s a way to isolate or ostracize the individual exhibiting the inappropriate behavior and force that person either into compliance or into disappearing from the group. But in this pursuit of survival, shame causes us to shut down conversation, negotiation, insight and integration.
The rising wave of consciousness around toxic masculinity in the larger culture as well as the yoga world, has initiated something of a shaming frenzy. And this “shame-nado” is perfectly understandable. People have been hurt and forced to dismiss, minimize or repress that hurt. They’ve also felt shamed themselves. So when the gates opened, making critique of toxic masculinity legitimate, the grief, shame, and rage understandably burst forth.
While an approach to handling yoga teachers who are inappropriately “handsy,” misogynistic, homo/transphobic, and/or sexual may seem more obvious, it can be more difficult to know what to do when the toxicity is more nuanced.
- For example, what do you do when a teacher you admire makes comments about the appearance, physique, or hair of female students? Or when he lopsidedly defers to the opinions of his male students and regularly ignores the women?
- Or how about this one: a studio owner lectures you about how you should accept his offer for a fee lower than requested because you are not at all special – no more talented than the thousands of other female yoga therapists out there.
- Or when a studio owner tells you that you are “too intellectual” for his students and he has no choice but to fire you as director of teacher training?
- Or places his (ex-military) hand firmly on your shoulder, moves within inches of your face, and tells you that his decisions are non-negotiable?
When behavior patterns are old, deep, culturally accepted, and generational, and the people exhibiting them are in positions of power, it’s very difficult to be responsive rather than reactive to toxic masculinity – and reacting to bad behavior tends to elicit shame which then shuts down dialogue and ends up in a big mess.
Avoiding or leaving a toxic culture completely can and should always be an option – and in all the cases I’ve mentioned above I did just that. I moved on and found less toxic places to share my work.
But if we are going to transform toxic masculinity, it has to be addressed directly with compassion and firm boundaries. When I have a healthy relationship with the person exhibiting toxic behavior, I am more likely to approach him, (in private) and discuss it with him. Once I asked a teacher to please stop telling large groups of women lying on their backs to “spread their legs.” He was receptive and a bit surprised when I pointed out the impact of his cue.
In the west, the yoga world is populated largely by women. But many of those in positions of power and prestige are still white men. Which means there are smaller pieces of power prestige pies for those who aren’t white and/or don’t identify as men. And that can result in the rest feeling like they are fighting for scraps.
But thankfully things are changing. And they can change even more when we are open to frank discussion and dialogue.
If you disagree with some or all of the things I’ve said in this blog, feel free to start a discussion in the comments. Let’s learn from each other, let’s move toward greater understanding, and let’s be open to discovering our biases and working toward personal growth.
I’m a female yoga teacher and often make a “ spread eagle “ reference to the pose spoken of here. I never thought more about it, but would love to know how other teachers refer to this pose.
Yeah, it’s really tricky isn’t it?
Once I had a student tell me that from the time she was about 3 till she was a teenager, she was regularly told to “lie down and spread her legs” because she was raped repeatedly by a caregiver. That broke my heart. So we discussed other ways of languaging that worked for her. She said, “move your feet away from each other” sounds good. I mostly use that. You could also get anatomical and say, “Abduct your legs – which means take them apart.” I’d love to hear other opinions on this. thanks Kay!
I sometimes use “ take your feet apart to form the letter V. Mostly in legs up the wall.
Simply instructing ‘a wide stride’ works well for me.
Take your feet so they are mat width apart and let your feet relax.
I always use “move your feet away from each olther”.
I’m a male teacher and try to be extremely careful with my languaging with both men and women.
It’s a matter of good sense and comprehension of other people’s probable emotional history.
I start them with knees bent and say bring your knees toward your armpits. Then I invite them to straighten their legs if it is in their range to do so or to just play with it and see where their body is right now.
Thank you Kristine for sharing your students story. We never can know where someone is coming from. And it is hard to please everyone but the more informed we are the better we can be about being respectful to those who may have trauma.
Lea I appreciate the cueing you shared b/c it accomplishes at least two aims: One of course, the sensitivity of how entering the pose and what that final position can evoke; and two, the cueing supports the biomechanical hinging at the hips to marry the thighs to the ribs which is where the pose can deepen intelligently. As a teacher, you can see if there is a habitual path a student uses to “get into the pose” deeper than is healthy for their spine.
I say “widen your legs”.
A male teacher I know says “Widen your legs”. I find that more neutral and respectful.
That’s one opinion, I am sensitive to language but don’t have trauma related to the issue.
I say “open your legs out into a wide V”.
I’ve thought about this cue and I never use it because of the sexual connotations. “open your legs/knees away from each other” (inverted frog) “slide your legs apart” (legs up the wall pose)”let your legs reach away towards the corners of the room” (turtle on back)
I am so very grateful you have brought this subject up. I was in a yoga studio (I am a certified yoga teacher myself) as a client, taking part in an all-female yoga class of Yin by a male instructor. He was well-liked and had a great sense of humour. He would often ask us to do the Reclined Bound Angle Pose at the very beginning of the class. I have some background in yoga therapy for healing trauma, and had the sense that asking womben to begin the session with this posture might be a little uncomfortable, especially since we spend the day mostly living outside our bodies, disembodied, to survive this culture, and to suddenly become very vulnerable in this pose right off seemed a bit much. So I suggested he consider using the pose later in the session instead. I did this through messaging (my mistake) and in a jocular manner, since he and I had a very trusting and humourous connection formed. He did not respond, but the next thing I knew, the owner (a womban) wrote to say she that I was no longer welcome at her studio. No questions asked of me, not a word other than that.
What I felt was that she failed all womben in that moment, automatically siding with her male staff member, not even curious to discuss it at all. My impression was, ‘don’t ask any questions, we are the experts’. Since I felt on a par with teachers there, being one myself, and someone who has practiced yoga longer than most of her teachers have been alive, it seemed quite extreme a reaction, and was a very hurtful experience.
During my yoga teacher training, we were required to take an anatomy workshop which was taught by a male teacher in his mid-20’s (about 35 years younger than myself). The owner and main teacher was a womban, very intelligent, a psychotherapist by trade. The young male teacher towed the extreme patriarchal line on a theme around how everything that issues from the body is disgusting. He used his words as if directly interpreting what the masters taught. We were two womben in our mid-life being told the same crap the culture puts out around how the body is dirty, and all that comes from it is dirty, including the menstrual blood of life. I challenged him on the spot, and both the other womban and I were in agreement – this was not a healthy teaching. When I brought it up to the owner/teacher womban, she questioned my need to question things, and suggested it was one of my klesas (psychological blocks for those who aren’t yoga-trained) that was meant to be overcome. To this day, she avoids me as much as possible.
So beyond the obvious misogyny and sexual abuse in the yoga workplace are the deeper, much hidden attitudes and beliefs rooted in a tradition itself which was established by men, in what is still a patriarchal world we live in. We cannot fully understand what that means until we begin to do our own personal healing work at depth, undoing all the damage done to us, and asking all the right questions around how any system of thought has been largely created by men, without the balancing of the feminine paradigm involved. Each of us has to empower ourselves to begin the quest for what is Truth and what is human illusion. That is the process, the path, the goal.
Thank you Joanna for sharing your story and I’m really sorry you went through these incidents. It’s similar to many stories I’ve heard. And also speaks to how women can be complicitious in toxic masculinity. We all have work to do, that’s for sure. But it’s very sad when the conversation gets shut down before it even begins.
Wonderfully written answer…. and these men and women that have attitudes like this about the body … seriously need to find a humility where they can re educate themselves.Theres a long way to go…
since Reclined Bound Angle is a very vulnerable position, I offer the idea of laying a blanket over the lower belly to knees. I totally remember how it felt the first times I did this pose, although I have suffered no sexual trauma in my life there is still a vulnerability there.
Yes, great points Mitzi. Options are so important!
I love this blog, and am very passionate about the topic myself.
As a yoga teacher, studio owner and Teacher Trainer (who is also married to a white male Yoga teacher) I think this is a very important conversation we need to keep coming back to.
Yes cues are important but there is more to this, firstly i believe all classes should be Trauma informed to a degree as this has the potential to help move out of some of the ingrained toxic masculinity within yoga, our language and society as a whole.
Secondly we all need to be able to have a voice, trust our knowing judgment and state our boundaries, I see these ideas getting thrown around easily but to see them really in action is some what rear.
I come from a family of what I would call Subtle Toxic masculinity, it is all about white male privilege. Watching how this effects pretty much everything in our family dynamic is pretty amazing. Once I found a strong voice I was practically banished.
Watching this type of behaviour not only in the yoga world, but in basically every aspect of our society really demands change and for people to stand up and start talking about it and taking positive action in the other direction. Currently we can see the epic levels of love and Hate being thrown at Greta Thunberg – the fact that abuse is accepted as a way of debating and sharing opinions is very toxic masculinity… In the yoga world we are selling a safe and healing space, so I truly believe it is our duty to be ‘Light Warriors’ of change and stand tall in moving forward with love and integrity. I adore Kristine Webers work because to me, you are exactly this a Light Warrior! I look forward to hearing more and seeing you shine! Thanks for sharing 🙂
HI Nicole, thanks so much for sharing your story and perspective.
Yes I totally agree! Trauma informed language and behavior is, in and off itself, a soothing balm for toxic masculinity.
I’m sure I’ve doled out my fair share of toxic masculinity as well, we are all learning a new paradigm and new way of being.
I am so hopeful and positive about how much things are changing. We can be discerning, have meaningful dialogue, and together work toward the systems changes that our world so desperately needs.
Light Warriors unite!
Light Warriors unite indeed! Yes yes yes.. and I so agree when we can also own we ourselves played a role in spreading the values of toxic masculinity it is very empowering to then be able to move forward with love and humility 🙂
In my life women and girls are the most vicious have you ever wondered why it’s always young girls killing themselves because of bullying. You want to play the victim card so much and have gotten so comfortable as the victim you just ignore the fact that women are just as or even more mean and rude and vicious back stabbing little bitches you victim card holders love to put men on trial but you need to remember a few things when the wolf is at your door who will you turn to to protect you. When planes are getting flown into buildings and thousands are killed who do you call to exact retribution let me tell you who you won’t be calling. You won’t be calling your mixed gender fragile sensitive yoga teachers you won’t be calling the “men” that prance around in skirts and cry about how unfair life us how ppl just wont use their proper pronouns. No no no you wont call any of them you will call a MAN you women want to cry about how unfair your life is inside a yoga class boo fucking hooo ask a real man that is protecting you and your country ask them how unfair life is in a war zone. You victims need to sit back and remember what men have done for you it’s real men that built this country and it’s real men that protect it. Next time someone is crawling through your window in the middle of the night remember who you call. And if women are so sexually abused on the daily basis why don’t women like you go after the porn industry thousands on top of thousands of women whore out their bodies every day do dirty nasty things for the pleasure of a man but you want to cry a play your victim card if a man ask you out or tells you you are beautiful come on you need to clean your own house before judge someone else’s I’m stopping here cause I can go on all night I know I know just respond but when you do make sure you victim card is out and on full display
i asked for discourse here, not blaming/shaming. please read the blog before jumping to conclusions, and then let’s talk about it.
Just practicing one form of yoga is toxic in its roots. It’s like taking communion without going to church. If you’re not practicing Hatha, Bakti, and prana, you’re just wasting time. Toxic feminity is all too evident in this day and age with the pendulum of me too swinging too far. I’m all about a matriarchal life as I know by far more wise and strong women than ever men, however if you don’t get rational and begin picking battles I fear major pushback by the collective male ego.
Thank you so much for creating space for conversation and healing.
I am a forever student and a yoga teacher. And sadly, I have experienced more abuse, manipulation, gaslighting, and downright cruel behavior from female “yoga teachers” (and I use that term so loosely). The extent and depth of the depravity was so disheartening, I almost stopped practicing altogether. The toxic environment became so unbearable, and even though it pained me greatly to leave the students I cared for deeply, I chose to no longer participate within the commercial yoga circles in my community.
While I will never comprehend how people(especially a yogi! remember ahimsa??) can treat another person so terribly, I actually try my best to practice compassion(from a distance!) toward all the perpetrators (male and female). Not easy. At all. But – no one who is at peace with themselves would ever consider behaving in such a manner.
So yes, absolutely, there is male toxicity in the yoga world that needs to be addressed – and I believe there has been a good start. We are moving in the right direction. However, there seems to be a lack of interest in calling out the these disturbed women who while maybe not sexually abusive, are astonishingly mentally and emotionally abusive. Yoga Alliance has been attempting to address the abuse by men in the yoga world, but when asked over and over about the women who abuse – there’s been nothing but crickets chirping….. I do have hope that we all can move in a direction that brings healing to our damaged community.
And as for cues, I agree awareness of trauma informed language is important. Here are a few I like to use…..
for lying on back “create a comfortable distance between your feet”
for reclining bound angle, I make opening the legs an option “if you’re comfortable, allow your knees to fall out to the side”
for happy baby “draw the thighs towards the outside of your ribcage”.
Namaste’ and peace to all.
This person is damn right. Who gets called on to do the jobs that cause death and who gets to see this death happen.
Toxic masculinity? Such a one sided argument. Like the “gender pay gap” If your iq is so low to think one factor like gender goes into such a complex study has pay difference for men and women well then there is little hope for humanity.
You know what ive heard from almost 100 percent of women that ive talked to? That they cant hang out with other women. They cant stand them. When it comes down to it. Their too vicious and too fucked up they say. Why? Because they character assassinate and reputation destroy. They don’t physically hurt you. But they will go behind your back and turn everyone against you till you cant take it anymore and literally your destroyed. Ive see this. They gang up on each other. And all you women out there reading this know exactly what im talking about and cant deny this. So before we point this finger at men lets take a long look at ourselves uh?
Yes, there is a lot of women struggling with their own toxic masculinity and toxic femininity just as there are a lot of men that stuggle with their toxic feminine and toxic masculine balance. This article is focusing on one aspect of that not negating the rest.
Seconding Lisa, I would like to add that none of these traits are isolated. They are all interrelated. When I , as a teenager, questioned my mum why she favours my brother, why he is allowed to bend the rules (in terms of food in this particular conversation) and not me, she said its okey because boys get hungrier than girls, they need to eat more. When I continued to argue (i was the “black sheep” of the family!) she told me a story when she was little, her brother would eat all the food and not leave any to the girls in the family. They were poor so girls had to starve. I was shocked when she normalised it. I grew up in a patriarchal family and the toxic masculinity was subtle and normal in that society. So I experienced toxic femininity as well as toxic masculinity. But I don’t envy either men or women whether they are toxic or not.. We need to recognise, understand and support as some people are immuned to and in denial of these toxic traits that will only infect and harm further more. These type of conversations are important for this very reason. I am a yoga teacher today thanks to my husband and my first yoga teacher who is also a man. I focus on teaching yoga for mental health and wellbeing so I am very cautious about my cues. Im most grateful to Kristine for sharing her wealth of knowledge and creating a healthy platform for conversation. Namaste!
Hello lovelies, I’m a yoga teacher too and I usually do wide leg pose after happy baby.
I say sobering like … now either staying and relaxing here in happy baby or straight the kegs and drawl the legs away. Stretch the legs long, exhale lengthen.
Thank you for this discussion. I’m looking forward to learning more about the other poses now.
Just wondering, what does it mean and how does it affect some people when a teachers says… open the legs. When we a teachers speak from a clean mind, clean heart and assist with clean hands I feel everything will be fine and the class is being cared for.
I agree Tracy that it’s wonderful to come from a place of clear intentions – but that doesn’t necessarily mean our words will be taken that way, particularly if someone has had sexual trauma and finds certain words or phrases triggering. It’s so important to have good intentions – and then to also be intentionally trauma informed as well. We may never make EVERYONE feel safe, but we certainly can learn more about our students and what supports them. Since 1 in 3 women have experienced some form of sexual assault, it is inevitable that some folks in our classes will feel triggered by some of our phrasing. It’s okay as long as we are open to learning.
Perhaps spending some time discussing and living by the yamas and niyamas would improve conduct , thinking and holistic attitude.
yes, these are the first limbs for a reason!
Agreed. This is a tough one. Let’s take a look at this from a different perspective. Essentially, this pose seated is a wide leg forward fold. Typically, we would say now we’re moving into a wide leg forward fold, or we’ll take our legs wide for a wide leg forward fold. So translating that into a reclined position could be the same. As Kristine said, “move your feet away from each other” or make the shape of a “V” with your legs, or if moving into this from happy baby, “straighten your legs” for a wide-leg happy baby. Thanks Kay and Kristine! I would also love to hear other ideas!
Thanks Stacy! Great suggestions. I think it’s so important to consider our language and how to make it more and more inclusive. thank you!
Very interesting. When I hear the term ‘toxic masculinity” I get all prickly. I’m gay and have never experienced this particular homophobia hurled at me by anyone, including those who would often be labeled as toxic.
Your examples are pretty clearcut. I don’t think a lot of men even realize what they’re doing unless it’s pointed out. For me, I’m a touchy feely type of person so you might find me touching a shoulder of a person regardless of gender. I will back off if the person indicates they don’t like it, either verbally or through body language.
I do like that you offer ways of dealing with this stuff that doesn’t immediately go to condemnation. We could use a little more of people like you in the world.
Thanks for sharing your story Dan. I have a feeling I wouldn’t mind you putting your hand on my shoulder. 😊
Love the awareness and insights from all. I will add this… I was trained to lie In shavasana with feet towards the back of the room and head toward the teacher. Although that was for energetic reasons I find it more comfortable than lying on my back and opening my legs towards the teacher. For any pose where the legs are separated I’d prefer my privates to be facing away from the front of the class. I suppose it’s a toss up in trauma as those with feel safer having the ability to see where you are but when I ask people to lay with their heads towards me and feet to back of room I also invite those who would rather lay the opposite way to do so. Rarely does it happen.
Thanks for sharing Michelle. That’s a lovely approach.
If a teacher stays on the mat and demonstrates, say, Happy Baby, calling out the name of this pose for later usage, he can avoid all references to anatomy. Students can take it from there and try for more range of motion. No teacher should be strolling around the studio during this type of pose, in my view. All eyes will then be on the ceiling. And there should also be no need for adjustments. Sometimes, one gentle neck adjustment in Savasana is welcome if a student permits. (I totally avoid it all contact.)
I asked my mentor how to “correct” a student in class performing a posture in a way that was potentially harmful or not providing the most benefit. She said she just makes a general comment to the whole class regarding the particular issue. Holding a pose, the student has time to notice body sensations and take the comment to heart.
I’m an older white male, a teaching newbie, having been “forced” into yoga by a PT, as a result of a shoulder injury. For that, I’m eternally grateful. (Not the shoulder.) I wonder how a guy (or anyone) gets into yoga. That might be pertinent to the conversation. The few guy teachers I’ve known have been jerks.