When Masculinity Dominates Women’s Yoga Practice

By Kristine Kaoverii Weber | May 17, 2024

COMMENTS

I was at a workshop in the early 2000s and at one point the famous teacher, who had a student demonstrating a deep backbend said, “See? This is why Bruce (fake name) is so good at yoga, he does exactly what I tell him to do.” The teacher and student were both men, most of the rest of us were women…Then there was an awkward burst of applause, because women are used to living in (and being expected to validate or at least tolerate) a man’s world – ask anyone waiting in line for the ladies room. 

There’s a steady pressure exerted on the yoga world by your basic, garden variety, culturally normalized, largely unconscious, hyper-valuing of masculinity – more handstands, more headstands, deeper twists, longer holds, bigger splits = better nirvana.

To be clear, I don’t equate hypermasculinity with men. I like men. I married one. Lots of my teachers are men. It’s not about gender, it’s about an unconscious cultural worldview that promotes strength and effort and devalues nurturing and softness – as well as a bias towards the male body. As for individual teachers, I have a lot more respect for those who at least acknowledge the imbalance as opposed to coasting, often oblivious, on their privilege.

Most of the twentieth century teachers who came to the states from India were men. And most of them had learned yoga at either male ashrams or at the mostly male Mysore palace where the practices were developed by and for men. But, interestingly, the yoga I learned in India was more balanced – it had a softer, quieter tone and was more focused on developing inner awareness than 6-pack abs.

So, I think something was lost in twentieth century translation. Yoga in the west, where most students are women, morphed into something more aggressive. Perhaps the epidemic of low back, hip, and SI pain and/or and rotator cuff issues that plague women who’ve practiced for years has something to do with the practices both becoming more intense in the western version, and also not being tailored to accommodate women’s bodies in the first place. According to scholar Mark Singleton, the sun salutations commonly taught in Western yoga studios were developed for teenage boys (for more on that, check out his book Yoga Body). Of course there are more aggressive styles of practice in India as well, and everyone should be free and happy to do as they choose with their practice. And…

a woman in a push up position

the way that yoga has been taught, propagated, and consumed in the west simply reflects cultural values. Recently I watched an old episode of Sex in the City from the late 90s and wow, it was funny – dated and silly. In a couple of scenes Samantha goes to yoga class because she’s hot for the teacher, but when he tells her he’s celibate and refuses her advances, she propositions and leaves with a random male student because she’s so horny she just can’t take it anymore.

Since the 90s, media has told women that because they are now as liberated as men, why not have sex like a stereotypical alpha male would? 

And why not do yoga like that too?

Samantha from Sex in the city at yoga class

While exertion, control, and domination of the body reflect the values of the larger culture, the yoga tradition, particularly the tantric traditions from which Hatha yoga arose, has always acknowledged and valued the feminine – reflected in the metaphor of Shiva and Shakti.

Shiva and Shakti, the male and female principles embedded in everything, can’t be separated – they are like the two sides of a piece of paper. Life is about exploring a balance between both of these principles, not subverting one to the other.

Perhaps the shift in recent years towards rejecting gender stereotypes and exploring the spectrum between the feminine and masculine within represents the yearning for better balance.

a photo of a Shiva and a Shakti statue

While I used to internalize the pressure of the Western yoga world’s hypermasculine approach to yoga (and Mr. Big’s approach to the world), I’ve worked hard to also nurture the feminine in my practice and my life. It’s why I started calling what I do and teach Subtle Yoga. Because, for me, engaging in the kind of practice that only reifies cultural norms is the opposite of what I need – and frankly, I find it exhausting. As one of my students told me, “I push myself so hard in every other aspect of my life, thanks for giving me a place where I don’t have to push.” TBH, a little pushing in yoga can be nice too – just not all the time.

A subtle approach to practice offers a chance to balance out the hypermasculinity that the culture continues to extol and celebrate. Subtle practice can be a refuge from cultural imbalance for anyone, male, female or non-binary, and a place to learn to nurture the inner feminine energy so sorely needed in our world.

Perhaps the pendulum is swinging. When trends hyper-fixate on Shiva energy for too long, Shakti will eventually come calling. The response to that call is to just…slow…down.

 

Please check out my free ebook, Chakras: Is Everything You’ve Been Taught Wrong? to discover 4 differences between traditional and new interpretations.  

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