'We must keep both our femininity and our strength'
Indra Devi, the first Western woman to be taught yoga by Krishnamacharya.
Today is International Women's Day, and my phone has been pinging non stop with messages of love, inspiration and support from my sister, mother, friends and colleagues. I love everything it is to be a woman, a sister, a mother... however, as a yoga student, being a woman is a part of who I am when I am practicing.
Following a year of the 'me too' campaign, and the rise of us female yoga teachers incessantly posting images of our bodies in yoga asana on instagram, its an important time to reflect upon how yoga philosophy views gender and femininity.
SHIVA & SHAKTI
The Tantra and Hatha yoga schools have, for centuries, celebrated both the divine feminine and divine masculine as archetypal qualities that lie within all of us.
The traditional purpose of a hatha yoga practice was to balance, revitalise and unite the inner energy of Shiva, divine masculine, and Shakti, the divine feminine. Our soul, the eternal aspect of ourselves, has no gender. My soul, your soul and the man standing over there, his soul, is made of the same 'cosmic stuff', Brahman.
Now, such ethereal intentions as uniting gendered energies are probably not, for the most part, what inspires us to come to practice. It is more likely to be a stressful day, fatigue, or a sore back. But that feeling of release you get regardless of your goal, I would say, is largely to do with detaching from the roles you play in life, gender included. The beauty of it is, that the more you become 'genderless' and 'role-less' and mindful in your practice, the more likely you are to be able to function as mother, wife, sister, daughter... or in fact father, husband, son and brother.
In living your life off the mat though, yoga's epic stories have something different to say. The message from the Bhagavad Gita, is 'know your dharma (life purpose) and go act - do your societal duty.' Following the influence of Buddhism, the notion of dharma and karma implied that who and what you are is to be accepted as the result of actions in previous lifetimes. If I have been born as a woman, how can I be the best woman I can be -what are my duties, how should I most skilfully act in this body? If I was born a man, how could I best be and skilfully act in a mans body at this time - what are my duties?
Most of us raised as modern feminists slightly baulk at the list of 'divine feminine' qualities: receptivity, surrender, softness, coolness, emotion, nature, change, creativity, compassion, maternal love, the lover, embodiment...
I spent years as a very feminine young person actively fortifying a more masculine sense of strength, assertiveness and clear goals, in order to pursue and finance my education, build my career and maintain a home for my family with independence. These achievements I wouldnt give up or regret. But for the women also struggling to see the intrinsic power in the softer feminine way, give Lao Tzu's quote on water a read,
'Water is fluid, soft, and yielding. But water will wear away rock, which is rigid and hard. As a rule, whatever is fluid, soft and yielding will overcome whatever is rigid and hard. This is another paradox, what is soft is strong.'
Hindu devotees worship an awe-inspiring array of female goddesses who both complete the male deities and stand in their own right and their own temples. They reflect the varied and not just the pretty qualities of the feminine: the mother, the lover, the wife, the student, the artist, the fierce protector, the warrior.
Paintings of these deities are filled with all symbols from lotus flowers and swans... to swords, skull belts and blood-dripping tongues hanging out. The Hindu tradition honours the beauty, grace and intelligence of women alongside the brutal fierce-ness and strength that reminds all that women are perceived to govern the bridge between birth and death.
Yoga teaches us that even in a womans body, even when you have embraced the innate power of the feminine qualities, that is not all you are. Shiva, the masculine, represents the Seer, discipline, isolation, pure being, non action, observation and witness, spiritual transcendence. We want both of these qualities to meet like lovers within us.
Both these 'divine' aspects are lacking in our current culture. We as women have rightly pursued the power, voice, education and careers that were only 90 years ago in the UK reserved for men. Men have explored the creativity, psychology, cooking and parenting that used to belong exclusively to the female domain. But look at how needed Yin Yoga, Flow & Restorative is now - a practice that totally embodies the surrender of the divine feminine. Look at the rise and critical importance of meditation and mindfulness, the embodiment of the divine masculine.
Regardless of the social media crass-ness, the 'me too' campaign has been hugely significant and important in changing what were automatic and culturally habituated oppressive and exploitative behaviours from some types of men.
So now we need to move further. As women, what shall we do about the objectification of our bodies on instagram? Is it inspirational for our students or are we simply objectifying ourselves? Can we express the felt experience of yoga without showing our skin? Should we revel in our bodies or not?
As a community of yogis, how can we support men to step into their masculine power and not see women as a threat, as accusers or alien to them? Advaita Vedanta, the most influential philosophical school on contemporary yoga practice, presents a reality that, underlying all difference, there is a 'one-ness' that connects us all.
Men and women must protect young girls from adolescent and childhood marriages and pregnancy, ensure female access to education, and the right to work and speak across the world. There is so much work to be done regarding rape and genital mutilation. There is so much work to be done regarding glass ceilings. There is work to be done in men finding their purpose and a power with integrity too. As humans of both gender, containing the potential for divine masculine and feminine within us, lets both celebrate the power of woman and of men - one strengthens the other,
'Arise, great warrior, arise!'