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31 Oct
Posted by Nikola Ellis

Revolutionary yoga is here - why aren't you doing it?

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Yoga is the ultimate disruptive technology. The ancient sages teach us that suffering is caused by the dysfunctional patterns and paradigms that we (often unconsciously) cling to. We can change those messed up patterns in our bodies, minds and energy systems by practicing the Eight Limbs of yoga.

 

Patanjali's Eight Limbs form a manifesto for radical living that delivers the holy grail of every good revolutionary – Liberation (Moksha). So why is yoga, with all it’s revolutionary potential, being used to encourage 21st century practitioners to conform to harmful attitudes and ideologies?
 
 
The imagery and popular narrative surrounding yoga in the west sends a clear message about the ideal yoga practitioner. You already know what she looks like – young, thin, bendy and white. But it goes further than that. The ideal yogi also radiates a zen-like calm, a beatific smile and the super-human self-control it takes to achieve and maintain these qualities. All. The. Time.
 
 
The ideal yogi sounds less like a real person and more like a Stepford Wife. Maintaining a trim figure, smiling nicely and keeping a lid on all those messy emotions is uncomfortably close to the traditional version of femininity that has been oppressing women for years. And yoga, with all it’s radical possibilities, doesn’t seem to be helping us break out of that limiting stereotype.
 
 
In the studios of the 21st century, yoga is no longer a spiritual journey that empowers practitioners to transcend the body and the ego. It’s become a fervent quest for physical perfection and the temperament of a sainted martyr. We are no longer practicing detachment as a path to liberation; we’re practicing self-improvement in the hope that it will make us more acceptable, both to ourselves and to others.
 
 
Instead of freeing women to experience their authentic selves, the effort of trying to be the ideal yogini could, paradoxically, be leading them to suppress their authentic feelings. There’s a popular notion in the yoga community that ‘negative’ emotions, especially anger, are somehow un-yogic. Anger has always been considered an undesirable trait in women and this deeply internalised idea that women should not feel or express anger is being reinforced on the yoga mat. And the yoga industry has an antidote to these troublesome feelings - cultivate gratitude and acceptance. For everything.
 
 
Feel frustrated and exhausted because you hold down a full time job and then clock on for the ‘second shift’ of family and childcare every night? Feel resentful because your job only earns you 70 cents in the male dollar? Feel angry that violence against women and children is at crisis levels? That’s a bit un-yogic. Cultivate gratitude and acceptance, and even though all that nasty stuff probably won’t go away, you’ll feel a whole lot better about it.
 
 
Women across the western world are flocking to yoga classes in search of coping skills to help them survive the endless pressures of work, family and life. And when they get to class, they’re told to cultivate gratitude and acceptance in the face of injustice, discrimination and even danger.
 
 
Patanjali undoubtedly teaches that dissolving anger, frustration and other fluctuations of the mind brings us to Samadhi. But how do those of us holding down jobs and caring for families navigate the challenges of daily life while we still have our yoga training wheels on? Should we just keep smiling and feel guilty every time we have an ‘un-yogic’ thought?
 
 
For yoginis, the answer to that question may require a whole new paradigm in the way yoga is taught. Because men and women are undeniably impacted in different ways by the culture around them, it’s likely that they also absorb and interpret the teachings of yoga differently.
 
 
For example, men are not traditionally objectified and sexualized every time they appear in public. Women usually are. That means male yogis can publish images of themselves practicing asana while wearing a tiny pair of shorts and yet still convey authority and integrity. When a yogini puts on tiny shorts and does the same pose, the meanings we project on to her body can be (and often are) quite different.
 
 
These differences in perception could substantially impact the way male and female students respond to the teachings of yoga. It’s likely that a student who is in possession of a healthy ego and confidence in their ability to influence the world around them will respond to the teachings differently to a student who has low self esteem and feels powerless against external forces.
 
 
Teach a student who is assured of his own personal power that he should cultivate contentment and curb his anger, and you are teaching him self mastery. Teach a student who has been brought up to not raise her voice or aspire to personal power that she should be grateful and let go of anger and you run the risk of further entrenching her disempowerment.
 
 
History is populated by spiritual warriors who embraced the full range of human emotions – love, despair, rage and everything in between. From Jesus to Gandhi and the Dalai Lama, these leaders modelled both compassion and anger as they walked their paths. While they all undertook acts of great personal sacrifice, their humility is balanced by their personal power and ability to affect change in the world. But that’s the guys.
 
 
Most of the celebrated female spiritual leaders (wrathful deities excepted), are feted for their selfless, nurturing qualities – think Mother Theresa and Amma the hugging saint. The traditional mother figure is still being held up to women as the ultimate spiritual role model. But don’t forget to look sexy on the yoga mat. It’s the same dichotomy that women have faced throughout history– you’re a madonna or a whore. 
 
 
The idea that men are agents of change and women are sex objects/nurturing angels, pervades both the secular and spiritual worlds. Yes, all yogis aspire to stilling the fluctuations of the mind and with sustained practice we will be able to transcend all of this culturally constructed nonsense. But we have to look carefully at the messages and methodologies we employ along the way.
 
 
It’s important to ensure that those who are already disadvantaged by existing power structures are not further disempowered by teaching them to be uncritical, accepting and grateful while discouraging dissent, anger and other ‘un-feminine’ responses to injustice.
 
 
When women are truly liberated, they will reject the old paradigms that define them by their physical bodies and willingness to comply with tired concepts of femininity – from the tyranny of unfelt gratitude and the pressure to put everybody else first, to the desperate control of the unruly female body. And that’s when the real yoga revolution will begin. 

Nikola Ellis

Nikola Ellis is the founder of Adore Yoga, yoga therapist, counsellor and teacher trainer. She conducts regular trainings that help people of all ages, shapes and abilities enjoy the benefits of yoga and meditation, including Meditation Facilitator Certificate Trainings; Level 1 200hr Teacher Training and Post Graduate Yoga Teacher Training in Mental Health, Adaptive Asana and the Foundations of Yoga Therapy and a highly regarded professional 650hr Graduate Certificate of Yoga Therapy.