by Anne Douglas
The Classical teachings of Yoga arose at a time of patriarchal rule, in which it was accessed only by male practitioners, to the exclusion of women. And yet today, out of an estimated 36 million practitioners in the U.S. alone, 72% of them are women (The Good Body: Yoga Statistics 2018). How does this powerful gender shift in the users and teachers of yoga impact it’s practitioners and the continued flowering of the practice? Is the Yoga of today true to the Yoga that has been practiced for thousands of years? Does it need to be?
The philosophical roots of Yoga date as far back as 4000 BCE or even longer, to the Indus-Saraswathi civilization and the teachings of Samkhya that were prevalent at that time. These teachings formed both the roots of Yogic and Buddhist philosophy, and some say offered early influence for many global religions and philosophies.
The early Samkhya yogis suggested in their philosophical treatise, the Samkhya Karika (The Sum of Understanding), that human suffering arises as a result of identification with nature or prakriti. Prakriti can be described as the fundamental energy or building block of which all of creation is made, including the human form. They further suggested that suffering ends when you no longer identify yourself with nature and your body, and come to know yourself as the neutral witness or Parusha. Purusha can be described as the ever-peaceful, unchanging, witness consciousness.
This dualistic view set up a hierarchy between consciousness and nature in which one understood that in order to be free, one must dis-identify from and transcend the experience of human existence, and through meditation and self-inquiry, come to recognize yourself as witness consciousness.
While there is much to be gained by knowing yourself as abiding peace, untouched by the struggles of daily life, it may be that this early philosophical view that suggests the transcendence of all that is nature and human has contributed to a global prevalence of nature’s degradation, and the prevalence of misogynistic behaviours.
In contrast, there is a feminine face of Yoga that invites the corporeal experiences of emotion, gut intuition, sensuality, and life embracing embodiment as a path to wholeness while building on the masculine path of intellect, renunciation and transcendence as a path to Freedom. This integrated view may provide answers to the global environmental and political crisis in the world today.
The feminine face of yoga has been alive and well within the teachings of Tantra and Kashmiri Shaivism in which the worship and respect of women and the feminine has always been central. As a non-dual path, it is free of philosophical hierarchy, giving equal access and value to the feminine and masculine as expressions of ONE divine consciousness. Rather than looking for freedom and self-realization by transcending the world, Tantrism finds it in the world. All of manifestation is seen as expressions of the Divine. Tantric Texts such as the Siva Sutras, Spanda Karika, Vijnana Bhairava, and the Pratyabhijnahrdyam explicate this view and offer practices that potentiate insight into the freedom that is already and always present but often obscured by the misperception of separation.
What if we stood on the shoulders of the Samkhya Yogi’s, and the complimentary practices later offered by the yogic sage Sri Patanjali in his Yoga Sutras, by embracing their view of liberation through transcendence, and yet also embrace the feminine experience that is life and world embracing? Perhaps we could experience a more balanced and supernatural self by fully embracing both our masculine transcendental self and feminine embodied self.
The feminine face of yoga offers a reframe from hierarchy to egalitarian, with practical, life and body affirming steps to heal the root of human suffering while living in the knowing of our true nature as already free, perfect and whole.
Anne Douglas has 30 years of teaching yoga and meditation behind her. She offers trainings, workshops, retreats and on-line programs and is a certified IAYT yoga therapist. She is the creator of the iRest Daily – 14 Day Meditation Program and is the past Director of Trainers for the iRest Institute. Anne has over 4 million listens to her meditations on the “Simple Habit” app.