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.