Queer Asana: Why Yoga Spaces Need to Embrace, Empower, and Encourage Queer Wellbeing
- A theoretical meditation in the form of Surya Namaskar A
In a recent candlelight yoga flow class I teach every Thursday night at Lincoln’s Lotus House of Yoga, I found myself grimacing with self-recrimination as I guided my 12 students into eka pada rajakapotasana. Otherwise known as “pigeon,” the pose requires the student to bend one knee up to her wrist with the foot angled back to the hip, while the other leg extends straight out behind the practitioner on the mat. In this variation, the student is asked to fold her torso out over that bent knee and the front of the yoga mat, stretching the arms long and straight. It’s a restorative pose, designed to increase the range of motion in the femur socket, lengthen the hip flexors (which, for most of us, are usually tight from sitting around all day), and encourage the student to look inward, to reflect, to send the breath deep into the healing discomfort that usually accompanies that compressed hip. It is a lovely pose, and often uncomfortable, but not nearly as troublesome as the words that came out of my mouth as I tried to encourage my students’ expressions of the practice:
“This is a great pose. Especially for women, who have a habit of storing emotion in their hips. And for you men, focus on breathing into the belly, where you hold most of your emotional baggage.”
On the surface, it was not a horrible comment to make and even a relatively common one – I’ve had countless yoga teachers make similar remarks to me, along with the typical diatribes about tapping into female lunar energy during backbends or cultivating that more masculine prana (energy) during postures that involved arms and hands raised above the head.
However, as someone who hopes to be an ally queer-identified people, to continue to educate herself on the false gender binaries between male and female, and to avoid microaggression inherent essentializing language mentioned above, I felt deeply disappointed in myself for my comments in class. As a result, I began to look more in-depth about the state of queer yoga in the United States. And I also began to interrogate how queering the practice/language of Western yoga can help to “challenge the conventional picture of subjectivity as reducible to the solitary ego or atomistic individual” (McCarthy 4).
Moreover, this is a central tenet of many of the ancient yogic teachings, especially the Vedantic teachings of the Vishnu yogis. These ancient yogis instead focus on the divide between the female consciousness embodied by deity Shakti and the masculine energy of Shiva, instead emphasized the inherent limitation of all external and conventional bodily forms. The Muslim yogi Kabir (1440-1518 C.E.) served as a prominent example of how the Vedanta aimed to break conventional male-female binaries. Instead, Vedantic texts reiterate Kabir’s desire to regard himself as the womanly companion of Rama, essentially foregrounding his female identification through his religious communion as a wife of a god.
The rest of this article aims to interrogate how traditional and contemporary yoga spaces have barred queer and trans people as well as argue for how these very spaces provide some of the most significant opportunities for empowerment of queer-identified communities. I’ll make this argument by moving through the language of Surya Namaskar A – the sun salutation that begins most yoga flows – often considered to generate the “masculine” energy of the sun. Let’s begin to rid these powerful mantras of their gendered implications.
Tadasana: Much has been made about Western materialization and misappropriation of yoga. And yet, it is this Western version of yoga that has the most potential to open the space – a particular kind of reversal of Habermas’ notion of the public sphere – that allows the practice to be both a place of individual self-expression as well as collective appreciation for the Other, a space that attends with consciousness to what others have to say. I couldn’t find an article or study that combined an overall number of Queer Yoga classes that exist in the United States, but they certainly exist. I found numerous such classes in the country’s bigger metropolitan areas – from Austin, Texas to New York City, from Los Angeles, which features a “Queerdalini” spin on the traditional Kundalini yoga class, to Atlanta, which has its own Trans and Queer Pride Yoga Celebration each year that aims to “promote unity, visibility and self-esteem among lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and transgender persons” through yoga.
Urdhva Hastasana: This, of course, doesn’t happen nearly enough, as most yoga practices find themselves doubly entrenched in the consumerist gentrification of the West and the confused ideas about gender and sexuality entrenched in the ancient Eastern texts that have served as the foundations for the 5,000-year old practice. Georg Feuerstein, often considered the foremost scholar on the history of yoga and its more current evolution, documents the gender and sexuality contradictions evident within many of yoga’s central branches throughout the years. The most obvious construction of the binary between female and male identity exists as the separation and eventual marriage of the feminine deity Shakti and masculine energy Shiva in Hatha yoga traditions. Other examples, however, exist – from the fact that women weren’t allowed to be yogic gurus or students at the beginning of the practice’s history, to the denigration of the nude female body by Jaina yoga practitioners, despite the fact that these were the very yogis who made popular the concept of ahimsa, or self-love, non-harming, and compassionate acceptance.
Uttanasana: But perhaps this doesn’t have to be the case. When we engage in Surya Namaskar A – the sun salute that begins many flow, ashtanga and vinyasa-based classes, perhaps we can set our intention on wiping clean not only the slate of the day’s anxieties and troubles, but gender trouble itself, setting our intentions, as yoga teachers and practitioners, on clarifying our language throughout our practice so it lovingly interrogates what Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick calls the inextricable questions of gender and sexuality.
As yoga teachers, it will become important for us to begin to change our language – as well as the model for how classes are paid for and consumed – as a way to promote not only the full conscious realization of the body but of sex itself. To lovingly, assiduously insist on the deconstruction of the monarchies of gender and sex through specific attention to how the guiding language in a contemporary Western class links to (the sometimes conflicting) intersections of body, breath, movement, and identity.
It will be imperative to begin to notice and to confront moments of hurtful and invisibilizing gender language, assumptions and jokes that permeate many (albeit well-meaning) yoga classes. As a yoga teacher, I pledge to focus more on the cues that I give for various poses, cues that tell women to do this or men to do that, cues that effectively erase trans practitioner. And I urge my fellow teachers at Lotus and beyond to also become aware of their privilege as yoga guides – a privilege that comes with the responsibility to resist erasure of queer and trans students, as well as students of different color, socioeconomic backgrounds, and other minority identities that often feel barred from Western yoga classes.
Ardha Uttanasana: Do we need to include gender in a yoga class? What ramifications could possibly arise from removing these gendered assumptions in our language, in the retail we sell, and in how we train student-teachers in this ancient path that is ultimately about healing and connection? Many studios do not even have gender-neutral restrooms for clients to use; I do commend Lotus in south Lincoln for paying attention to this aspect of their studio. The gender-neutral restrooms – including showers and sanitary products for all sexes, at the Pine Lake location – are commendable.
Chaturanga Dandasana: Of course, it is not just language – it is not just the prevalence of thin middle-to-upper class white women in the studio – that bar students of varying identities from attending practice. The cost of classes are usually prohibitive, as are anxieties about what to wear, how to introduce yourself to a teacher of privilege, the notion of being touched by this teacher of privilege throughout an hour-long class in which you will be asked to sweat, contort, breathe, etc. The burden, again, is on the studio and on the teacher. And it’s a burden that has not been adequately addressed both in Lincoln and elsewhere. As theorist Terry Eagleton writes, “contrary to the adage that love is blind, it is because love involves a radical acceptance that it allows us to see others for what they are” (Eagleton 131).
So much of what my fellow yoga teachers and I talk about is cultivating a sense of radical acceptance, a “high-vibrational” life – just check out the Instagram pages I run for Lotus in Lincoln and Omaha (@lotushouseofyogalincoln and @lotushouseofyoga) for proof of this rhetoric. We can be living our truth better if we better attend to the needs of the Other, who, in the end, give us back to/help us confront ourselves.
Urdhva Mukha Svanasana: In other Trans and Queer yoga classes across the country, the focus remains not only individual wellbeing but on building a community for a marginalized group of people. And yet, of course, it is perhaps inherently problematic to label these classes as different from the “regular” yoga classes on the schedule – the reduction and rupture created by putting trans and queer people over here and everyone else over there.
Adho Mukha Svanasana: I’ve probably left out too much and rambled on inconsistently throughout this whole post. And, yes, I acknowledge that as a white, straight, privileged woman, there are aspects to all of this that I just cannot understand. But ever since that class and long before it – when I was in teacher training – I’ve been bothered by yoga’s inability to include trans and queer populations in a meaningful way.
Ardha Uttanasana: My privilege lies in my background, which bestows me with the responsibility to talk about these issues, however imperfectly my conversation may be. At the end of the day, I want lower-priced or donation classes available in Lincoln that decrease barriers to entry to yoga, and helps queer-identified students to explore yoga in a safe, more welcoming environment.
Uttanasana: After all, I had this privilege.
Urdhva Hastasana: I came to yoga during a three-month stint in rehab for an eating disorder, in a class that was specifically attuned to my identity, my past traumas, my disabilities, and in a class that used language in a way that did not get in the way of the healing, the stretching, the linking of body and mind that has become so important in my own life.
Samastitihi: I’ve proposed a donation-based Trans and Queer Yoga Flow to the Lotus owners. I’ll keep you posted on how that progresses. Namaste.
Eagleton, Terry. After Theory. New York: New York: Basic Books. 2003. Print.
Feuerstein, Georg, PH.D. The Yoga Tradition: It’s History, Literature, Philosophy
and Practice. Chino Valley, Arizona: Hohm Press. 2008. Print.
Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality: Volume 1: An Introduction. New York, New York: Random House Press, 1990. Print.
Habermas, Jürgen. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry
into a Category of Bourgeois Society. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1989. Print.
McCarthy, Erin. Ethics Embodied: Rethinking Selfhood through Continental, Japanese,
and Feminist Philosophies. Plymouth, UK: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2010. E-book.