Join your hosts, Steph and Rachel, for an interview with yoga teacher and practitioner Laura Chaignon. We get deep into gender binary language in yoga (and elsewhere) and chat about the effect of the western lens on yoga, gendered language, and the importance of making yoga a safe and comfortable space for everyone.
TW: Some brief discussion on eating disorders and sexual assault within the yoga community
Resources Laura mentions:
@yogaisdeadpodcast (Hosted by Tejal Patel and Jesal Parikh)
Artist Sarah Cargill from the Tarot for the End of the World podcast,
Yoga instructor and educator @susannabarkataki
You’re listening to Nearly Numinous, a podcast all about the religious side of life. Every week we chat about different religions, spiritualities, and other beliefs. We do roundtable discussions, deep dives into histories and religious studies theories and interview different religious leaders or practitioners. For full transcripts and more information on each episode, you can find us at nearlynuminous.ca
Hello, hello, and welcome to this week’s episode of Nearly Numinous. We’re so excited because we are chatting with Laura Chaignon here. And Laura is a yoga teacher, artist and activist in Kingston, Ontario, which is where we are originally from before half of us moved away. And today she’s going to talk with us about yoga and the gender binary. We’re going to get into the idea of language surrounding the feminine and masculine energy that’s often brought up in yoga or other spiritual teachings. We’ll get a little bit into how Laura chooses to navigate yoga beyond the binary in her own teachings and personal philosophies and worldviews. So thanks so much for joining us, Laura!
Thanks for having me! I’m happy to be here!
Yeah, thank you for being here. This is really exciting!
Alright, so maybe just get started. Um, we want to make sure like, typically on our podcast, we like to make sure that we’re providing more plain language and explaining concepts for people that might not previously understand them. So maybe in some basic terms, can you explain what the gender binary is? And then maybe what is non-binary? What is gender fluidity and the terms that like, we’ll probably bring up a lot throughout this discussion.
Yeah, um, so I don’t have any authority in deciding what that means, but I can talk about my own understanding. Um, so the binary is a system of classifying gender into two separate distinct genders, the masculine gender and the feminine gender. So it’s called binary because bi means two; there’s only two of them, according to that belief system. So if you take that non-binary would mean that you don’t fit into that structure. That’s the case of a lot of queer people, people who don’t feel like they belong to a closed box of a gender. So who don’t fit into that structure divided into the masculine or the feminine, they’re somewhere in between, or they just don’t want to identify with it at all.
Okay, and sometimes you hear these sort of terms, especially floating around in like the yoga world, like, masculine and feminine energy. Can you explain what your understanding, your understanding of what those terms mean to you?
Yeah, um, so that’s a really good question, because I think I actually my point is, I don’t know what it means, tell me what it means when you say that? Um, I think like a part of the issue I take with using that kind of binary language is that it’s kind of used as a shortcut to mean something else. And it’s kind of depending on the idea that we share somehow a collective understanding of what masculine means or feminine means. I think that’s not true. So, I think when in general, like people will use that kind of language and yoga class, and they talk about masculine energy, they’re meaning like, something that’s fiery, or strong, or proactive, and when they talk about feminine energy, they’ll talking about something more passive or creative and soft. And that’s, that’s, you know, I think it’s important to remember that we have all of these shades of emotionality and behaviour inside of all of ourselves. Yeah. [laughs] It’s not as simple as that. And also, what do you mean? Just say what you mean, I don’t understand! [laughs]
Yeah, for sure. I think just to maybe add for our listeners, I’ve also heard, quite often I hear their masculine energy defined as business-forward so I think personally in like the… yeah, right? I, you can’t see this on the recording but Laura’s making a face. [laughs] But I follow a lot of like entrepreneurs and like specifically female entrepreneurs, a lot of which are very interested in energies, a lot of them move to Bali and like, kind of like those styles of people. And they often talk about how they need to channel their masculine energy to run their business. So that’s just another example of what I’ve heard. And I think we’ll get maybe a little bit more into this later about why. Yeah, I mean, if you’ve listened to this podcast before, I think, what was it, In The News May edition, I went on a very extensive rant about how I hate that language and why do people say? Yeah, but anyway, alright, so I think hopefully, I think those are gonna be some of the main terms that we’re going to talk about throughout this episode. And hopefully, that gives our listeners at least like a little bit of an understanding of like, like when we just throw around those language, that language what we’re talking about when we throw that language around. So now maybe getting into more of like the meat of the episode. Maybe give us a little bit of background, about you, whatever you feel comfortable sharing, whatever, just who you are as a person. Why, why are you here today?
Unknown Speaker 6:17
Hi, it’s me, Laura. I am outside right now in my backyard in Kingston -Cataraqui in Ontario. There is the wind with me and the trees are with me. I am 26 years old. I am a newcomer to Canada. I am from France. And I am an arts worker. I’m a mindfulness and yoga facilitator. I also wanted to mention that occupying this space for me, I think I need to contextualize a little, little a little bit. So I just wanted to mention that I’m very white, European. I have no South Asian heritage, I have no Indian heritage whatsoever. So I love talking about yoga. I love talking about all that kinds of stuff. But I don’t represent South Asian people. I don’t speak on behalf of their tradition. We’re going to, I think mention some traditional practices and storytelling. So just reminder that this is my positionality. And we’re going to talk about queerness and non-binarism. So I’m queer but I’m cisgender, so I also don’t speak on behalf of non-binary people either. So what else do I do? So I live in Kingston, I teach classes, so yoga classes at a couple of yoga studios. I also teach a monthly series that I just finished the first one today, it’s called Mutual Aid Mondays, and I teach yoga to raise money for mutual aid initiatives. So yeah, I think that’s pretty good, over here.
It is. Thank you.
I’m also an Aries. I’m not sure if that’s interesting.
Yes, for listeners, Laura and I have found out that we share some similarities predominantly that we’re both Aries and I think we’re both number four enneagrams?
Interesting, okay. And to get into the topic of why we’re here today, what got you interested in yoga?
Unknown Speaker 8:22
Yeah, so I actually started doing yoga when I was 19. So the whole story is that I was actually recovering from anorexia. And I was looking for a way to make peace with my body, I would say, and a way to just move softly, move without like competition. So something that wasn’t going to trigger me, per se. Um, so I was living in Scotland at the time and they had like a yoga society, so a little club, and you could take classes for two pounds, so that was super cheap.
So I took the beginners yoga class for four months, for like, twice a week, I would go. And I always say that it saved my life and I really mean it. I really believe that. So I think that’s what got me hooked. Also, the other thing is, when I lived in Europe, so that was, like four years ago, so I don’t know how it is now. But yoga was very different. There was a lot more humble, simple. It was really far away from capitalism or anything like that. When I moved here, it was a big shock. [laughs] But um, yeah, I would say yoga gave me peace. It gave me peace with my body when I was really in need of that. So that’s how I get interested.
So you mentioned kind of that, obviously Yoga is very different, from your perspective, from what you experienced in Europe versus what you experienced here. Do you want to maybe give like a few examples of like what you noticed when you saw that shift?
Yeah, well soo really simple examples is, when I was practicing in Scotland and then I moved back to Paris and I practiced there for a bit, is the spaces where you would practice would be just like, really simple like rooms that you could see the teacher had rented for twenty bucks. No anything fancy, there was no real yoga studio. So you would practice in gyms or in other fitness spaces, or art spaces or educational spaces. And everybody was wearing like joggers and ugly t shirts that you use when you paint your house, that kind of stuff. So yeah, it just felt a lot less fitness-oriented in the language as well. And in the way it was just presented, it was just softer, a little more stretchy. There was no, no abomination such as beer yoga, wine yoga, goat yoga, or whatever we’re coming up with here. Just like, yeah, way more simple. And when I moved to Ottawa, I went to my first yoga class, and my teacher had like a Britney Spears mic, and she had like a perm. And she had like a full face of makeup and really fancy clothes that were like colour-coordinated. And I was just like, “Where am I? What is this?” It was super weird. Yeah.
Yeah. So do you think that’s maybe, and maybe this is a two-fold question: Has that really affected your personal experience of yoga, especially now that you’re a yoga teacher? And maybe kind of trailing off into that, like, what elements of yoga are really important to you then? And like, what aspects are really important to you?
Yeah, I’d say it affected me a little. But I’m really thankful that I already had a good practice, I already had, you know, a closeness to the discipline, I already had some confidence in my own understanding of how my body moved. So I was able to continue practicing in these spaces without letting them influence me too much. And you would just pick the teachers that spoke to you, like, I never went back to that Britney Spears mic class. [laughs] I just found another teacher that felt a little bit more authentic, and that I resonated with more, and I just stayed with her for the whole time I lived up there. Um, the way that it influences me as a teacher, I would say is I aim for the exact opposite of that. [laughs] I just want to be authentic, and I want to mess up, I want to be weird and make non-funny jokes in class. And I don’t want to look anything like a fancy like, Pilates, Pilates teacher or anything like that.
Um, I would say yeah, to tie it in with what I’m interested in with yoga is actually this idea of this hyper-focus on the physical that we can find in North America is actually something that I’m trying to stay very far away from. Um, yoga is, I mean, it’s gonna sound like a little cliche, like yoga is a way of life. Like it’s a t’s a philosophy, it’s a path to spirituality. It’s sacred practice, has been around for thousands, thousands, and thousands of years. So I think one thing that I like reminding my students and the people around me are, is that, um, yoga actually has eight limbs. So eight steps, to enlightenment — that’s the goal, enlightenment, or at least a piece. And I think movement, also called asana, is only the third one. And it’s only one of them. Like everything else is, “Oh, like, how to lead an ethical life? What are the practices to stay healthy and mindful throughout your life?” A whole limb is meditation and how to attain, you know, that kind of state. So, in my path, I’m really, really, really grateful that my encounter with yoga was a little more grounded than what you see in big studios here.
So the other thing that they had in the studios with the yoga society, in Scotland, in Edinburgh is that they also had a free weekly meditation class. And that’s what really like got me like, hooked-hooked. So I really loved movement and moving my body, but it just switches your life around when you start meditating with the community when you’re 20 years old, like it’s a game-changer. It’s a super powerful tool can lead to really beautiful transformations. So mindfulness is something that I’m really into. It’s something that I believe that yoga is. It’s not about exercise, or like just the simple, like, body movement,. It’s about not lying. It’s about not harming. It’s about being compassionate, practicing mindfulness. I think in the West, in North America, specifically, Yoga has been completely like compacted and like capitalized, obviously. And they’ve just really like compacted what is a sacred life path into like a theme fitness class almost. And that’s a bummer. Really a big bummer. I think I think a lot about like what we call spiritual bypassing. So this idea of like, hashtag good vibes only. So bad vibes forbidden. This is only a positive space. So that’s the idea of spiritual bypassing. So this is ridiculous. But it’s also harmful. Because it means “Oh, no dissent! No fighting! No one dare disturb the status quo! Don’t please don’t raise your voice!” That’s definitely what not what yoga is about.
So I’m more interested in like a holistic approach that kind of takes into consideration the whole story of it. So eight, eight of the limbs, the full path. So you know, that what I’m interested in is not like encapsulated into like a monthly pass to a fancy yoga studio. I don’t care if you can do a headstand. Are you kind to yourself? I don’t care you if, if you’re flexible, like are you dedicating your life to leaving the world better than you found it? Because that’s, that’s what we’re really thinking about and talking about here. The other thing that’s really hyper-focusing on the physical, I think, is social media. It’s really weird, it’s really weird space to be in, when it’s this, like, this is the message that you’re trying to get across that whole mysticism and like mindfulness, because everything is really constrained. And everything is about appearance and how things look. So it’s really tricky, I find and I try to be kind of mindful, and not posting anything that feeds into like a harmful perspective of what yoga is. So no hyper-focus on my body, on the shapes that it can take. But focusing more on like other aspects of what my mind does, and stuff like that, and encouraging people in that direction. But I’m sure a lot of people resonate with that, and can relate to this, how tricky it is to find like the balance between staying really, really authentic, but also playing the game like enough that people will interact with what you’re putting out. And I’m sure that’s not only like, mindfulness and yoga facilitator who deal with that. But yeah, I find that that’s a space that makes it really tricky to be interested in that aspect of yoga and talking about that aspect of yoga.
So you’ve touched on yoga culture, and specifically yoga cultures in like North America versus Europe. And I’m curious how you think gender identity and expression fits into yoga culture? And if you actually see a difference between, you know, here in North America and elsewhere?
Yeah, well, I just wanted to say that probably Europe is on the same train. They’re just a little slower. Um, I don’t think they figured anything out. I think they’re just playing the capitalistic game just a little slower, because they’re older there. But um, I think they’re gonna get there. I don’t think they figured out anything about any of that. Colonialism. Very alive. [laughs] But yeah, um, gender identity and yoga culture. So here, there is actually, it’s really interesting, but there’s a real, real real erasure of South Asian women in the way that we tell the history of yoga in the West. So the way that the story was completely like erased in its way from India to here. So the story I’m going to tell you is actually the fruit of two wonderful people’s research, not my own. So Tejal Patel and Jesal Parikh are the host of the Yoga is Dead podcast. And they did like a really good, really awesome series of posts on yoga matriarchs, so that’s what I’m going to be kind of touching on. So basically, in the West, there’s a really big name that comes up when we talk about women in yoga, and that’s the name Indra Devi. So she’s also nicknamed the mother of yoga. So she was a student of Krishnamacharya, and she’s often referred to as like a trailblazer. But the thing is, Indra Devi is a white American woman or was a white American woman and she gave herself that name. Her real name is Eugenie Peterson and she’s definitely not the mother of yoga or anything like that.
Um, yoga does have a really, really substantial like matrilineal line, there’s like, at least three big figures that are women that are like mothers of yoga, actually, that are Indian, that are not American women. There’s Mirabai, she’s a, a woman in the 16th century, she was a Hindu mystic and a poet, she would write about emancipating herself from social conventions. That was her thing. There’s Janabai, also a woman. In the 13th century, she was a religious Hindu poet. And she wrote about how to find freedom within chores and home in that kind of womanly life and her daily existence. And then there’s Sri Sarada Devi, a woman, who in the 19th century, was a saint and a mystic. And she is the actual real trailblazer because she is the one who paved the way for women to be able to choose a monastic life path. So this is a real story of yoga. And also, I’ve been studying, I’ve been a student for a while now. And so in the past years, I’ve been in a lot of rooms where there’s a lot of stories that were told, because that’s how you teach things. You know, in more traditional cultures, we used to tell each other stories to learn about the world, right? So really, really, really old stories that I was able to hear about the students of Buddha, and the students of the yogic path. So stories that teach you about the path but also about yourself. And in a lot of these, like the students were women, and these are old, old, old stories. There’s no, there was. there was an erasure, there’s no there’s no Indra Devi being the mother of yoga. That’s, like, that’s not real. Um, so the three women I mentioned, specifically, their stories are known by Indian people, the thing that happened is that when you export a lineage to the colonial world, it shifts, like it’s made to shift, it’s made to be appealing has to fit within, like the narrative there, it has to be more palatable. So I can imagine that it was more palatable to tell the story of this white woman as like a trailblazer, because it kind of gave white people like ownership over the history of yoga, which is incomplete, that was not real, it was not true.
So it’s true that there’s an over-representation of women in yoga nowadays, and here. And I think, like one of the reasons for that, I think there’s many reasons for it. But I think there’s like big ones that are quite obvious. I think one of them is Western capitalism. So we have something here called the fitness industry, we also have the diet industry, and we have the beauty industry. So we’re talking like multi-billion-dollar industries. And when you have something like that, in a culture in a country, it completely shapes the way that your economy is created. And it shapes the way that any business is going to pop up. And the way that it’s going to be marketed and the way that you’re going to interact with it. So in North America, yoga has been commercialized and marketed to women, because it has to fit under this multi-billion-dollar industry, because it could. Well, that’s why like, when you think about yoga, even me, like yoga, spiritual lifelong practice, the first thing you think about is like a thin white woman with a colourful type clothing. And the reasons like that’s been, that’s been created that way, that’s been shaped that way is because there’s money in us thinking about yoga this way, because we want that now. We’re like, “Oh, yeah, like I want the nice clothes, I want to be like, thin, I want to do that.” The other thing would be like, the way that everything is like hyper-gendered here, I just find that everything is super hyper gender, like, like, where I come from men wear scarves and heels. Like it’s like, what? But there’s like a really like toxic masculinity I find in North America, it’s very, very absurd, but because that’s the way that we interact with activities and our lives. When you have yoga that’s depicted as like a fitness class to get more flexible and slender, and really, really purposefully because of the market depicted as feminine. And for the reasons explained earlier, like that’s, there’s a reason for that. It’s on purpose. So you have men and non-binary people and for people who just don’t feel represented, so they just don’t want to participate because it just looks so feminine. Yeah.
For sure. I… Okay, I have two separate questions. The first is, um, I feel like maybe this my interpretation and I’m curious to know if you’ve noticed something similar or something completely different. But going back to that idea of masculine and feminine energy, if we associate that with like that, that stereotypical feminine, they’re creative, they’re more in tune with their emotions, and empathetic. Do you think that that’s almost linked to how yoga has developed as well, because typically, in a yoga class, you’re going to think about, well, like, “tap into your inner soul, your inner spirit,” and that kind of language is used, which maybe leans itself more to what we traditionally know as feminine energy. Therefore, maybe women tend to lean towards that. Whereas, you know, like you said, that hyper-masculinity that’s so evident in North America is, like it shys away from that, you know, and like, I feel like typically, when I do see men, like male presenting, in yoga classes, they do tend to almost be presented as more of like this quote, unquote, effeminate male. I’m wondering if this is maybe my poor observation skills, or if like, this is a trend.
Um, well, I, I never thought about that. But, um, so there is not a lot of men in yoga settings. I have seen like a lot of different looking men, like there’s like, Dad type of dude, like super muscley, and just needs to like, relax a little. And Kens really do have the things that other people are doing, because their bodies are different, and they use it differently. And, you know, the frame of the class is so tight, you can’t fit in there if you’re not like a thin woman, basically. Um, but the thing that that’s really interesting that I’ve never thought about is, yes, like, poor men that are not allowed to have introspection, like, the way that we, the way that we, as a culture, have decided what’s masculine, feminine, really keeps half of the population at bay from self-reflection. If it’s deemed as feminine, that it’s not for them. There’s this idea of like, the moon energy and the sun energy, that I just honestly hate, it makes me so upset, because it’s a very Western, there’s other cultures in which the moon is seen as masculine, and the sun is feminine. Like, there’s no real reason for that. It’s kind of like, oh, like, who decided? Like, I don’t, I think we should ask the moon if that’s okay with them. [laughs] But yeah, I think there’s really this idea that it’s womanly to have like, passive like meditation, and like, inner work, and it’s masculine, to go out in the world and do actual stuff. I think about archetypes a lot. Um, and I think like, it’s, I think it’s harmful to classify emotions in the binary, because we just are gonna have to go through all of them at some point. We’re going to have to embody every single archetype at some point. Like, tarot cards are archetypes, right, and the sun is one and the moon is another one in the decks, and there’s a lot of other characters that are brought forward in the tarot deck, and they’re not gendered, like, we all have to, in the morning, you know, like, be a character to deal with a certain thing and at night, become the sun because we want to go for a run, and we want to just like scream and you know, jump around! Like, this is not gendered, it’s harmful to think. Because if you’re internalizing that you’re like, “I’m a woman so this is my natural state.,” and if you don’t fit in that you feel weird, you know? And if you actually don’t want to be that, then it’s kind of like an inner struggle. It doesn’t need to be that way. We made that up. It’s not real.
For sure, yeah. I add a second question. I’m maybe backtracking a little bit, but you were on such a good rolel there, I didn’t want to interrupt. [laughs] But you were chatting a little bit, and I get like, if you don’t know the answer, this is totally fine. Um, but you were talking a lot about the West embracing yoga because it was made more appetizing to the West, right? So it was brought to us by a white woman. I’m very curious your perspective on the difference between the roles of making things appetizing by presenting it through a white lens versus the exoticization I which I guess is also a white lens, but from a different perspective, like the exoticization of a practice. So I think especially in yoga, there is quite a large amount of exoticization as well, especially in like probably maybe like a couple decades ago, specifically.
Yeah. I think they stroke the perfect balance between the white lens and the exotic because it became so popular, I think they just stroke exactly the balance because they needed it to be something that could be familiar, but that was far enough that they marketed it as, as “it’s going to save your life. It’s like a new trend that’s going to make your body so flexible, you’re going to be able to do all of these new things. And also, you’re going to be so healthy, you’re never going to die.” There’s actually so many injuries in the world of yoga teachers that are just not we’re not allowed to talk about it. Like, I’ll talk about it, but I mean, in the culture, like you’re not supposed to, and two, like two generations ago, like people just did not talk about it. Especially in the more like physical lines of yoga, like Ashtanga and all these like, hyper-precise body series. Yeah, people get injured all the time. So there’s this, it was all like mystical, like, “Ooh, like Indian people are so healthy, you can be that too!” [laughs] But then like, it’s not because you go to a class a week, or you move your body a certain way that your whole lifestyle changes, but we need quick fixes. We want, “I’ll fit it into my schedule, and it’ll change my life.” So I think they were really smart. And so actually, I just wanted to go back to: it’s not really a white woman that brought yoga to the West, but she’s the only woman that we think of when we think about yoga in the West. There’s a lot of men, a lot of men.
The other thing that’s really interesting, yeah, [laughs] and also like, I don’t necessarily want to go into that too much, because I don’t know a lot about it. But there’s a lot of obviously, like sexual harm that was done by men in yoga. Yes, in West, etc. So there’s, there’s, um, the thing that’s really interesting to remember is, when they brought yoga to the West, they changed it. Like, there was three main dudes, I don’t want to go too much in the specifics, because I could talk about this all night. But there’s three dudes and they’re like, “This is yoga, and I’ll make my own. And this is like my exercise pattern.” But like, in the real real beginning of things, when it was just a spiritual like life practice, there was only a few poses, and they were all like, really soft. A lot of them are just sitting down. [laughs] So all the things that you see now, like the vinyasa flows and stuff, that’s actually from the 1930s. It’s new. People weren’t doing that a thousand years ago in India, they weren’t doing like downward dog, [laughs] sorry, things like that, um, that that was invented for export, because they knew, “Oh, quick fix physical exercise? Yes, that’s what people want.” But also still with the, also still with like, the exotic of this is so different. There’s all these words that we use that aren’t in English. So people just speaking in Sanskrit, chanting Ohm,” doing like, bringing your, your little like, palms together in prayer, just all of these, like new ways to just speak and move your body that were different enough that it was attractive, you know.
You mentioned a couple of different types of yoga like ashtanga and vinyasa. Do you know if there’s any difference in how like, gender is seen in the different types, at least in the West?
I would say not really. Um, I would say, yeah, I would say not really. I’d say it’s pretty… because honestly, when you’re a teacher, you don’t often teach only one type. Or you you, you don’t often teach like, “Oh, I’ll only juice like vinyasa flows level three,” like you, you do a little bit of everything. And, of course, like you need training to do, if you want to teach restorative, you need restorative training, but um, usually there’s people who do who do a lot. Um, it’s possible. Like, I can’t really speak to that because I don’t really, not in my experience, but it’s possible that if we really looked at it, we could see that maybe like more restorative styles, hatha, like soft yoga was more taught by women and really physically demanding types of yoga like ashtanga maybe it’s thought taught more by men, but I don’t know that for a fact, yeah.
We’ve talked a lot about this kind of masculine and feminine energies and do you think that there’s maybe a pro to talking about things in the masculine and feminine binary? And I know you think there’s cons to it. So then what are the cons to it?
Yeah. Um, so I was touching a little bit earlier on how I think yoga has been introduced as a super, extremely gendered practice in North America. So very feminine. So if you create a space like this, it’s typically not very welcoming to people who aren’t identifying as feminine. So for people, non-binary people, trans people, so it’s just not a space that is conducive to any growth, any safety or anything like that. And little examples of that so many times, you’re going to come into a classroom welcomed with a “Hello, ladies!” “I’m sorry, did you peer into my underpants while I wasn’t looking?” [laughs] Like why would you say that? So boring too. Just “Hi, pals! Hi, cuties! Hi, sunshines!” That’s nice. You know? Also like another one that’s so weird to me is this space that’s under your scapula? So the back of your shoulder? I’ve heard it so many times described to me as my bra line. What is… what? Do I have to wear a bra to do yoga? And there’s a lot of like weird, unnecessary cueing around menstruating. Just a lot of like gendered language cues that are used all the time, that aren’t framed with care. And there’s no admissions of like, what could live outside of that weird, like hyper feminization of the space, that binary. So that’s one problem that you encounter when you’re like, “Oh, my God, I want to safe space for everyone!” And then you’re like, “Yeah, so where your bra line is!” [laughs] People who are in the class who just don’t wear bras are like, “Sorry, my what-what now? Just use the damn word!” [laughs] Um, so I think like, that’s a that’s, that’s a real thing. That’s a real thing. I, it’s happened so many times that I’m in a class. Oh, my God, once I was in a class, and we were meditating, and this teacher was like, “Yes, if you’re a woman, you have to put your hand like this. And if you’re a man, you have to put your hand like that.” And he came and like, adjusted my hands. And I was so weirded out by that, but it’s a it’s a thing that happens all the time. That is just like hyper-genderized. Basically, like yoga in the West lives in the binary. It’s made it’s house there. That’s, that’s it, you can’t really… I think there’s people now are a little bit more aware of that and they’re trying a little, but um, there’s a long way to go. There’s a long way to go. Definitely.
Gross. None. I don’t I don’t see, I think, honestly, like, I’m being a little playful here. But if you want to say passive, why don’t you just go ahead and say passive, if you want to say, “Okay, now we’re going to put our hands on our heart, and we’re going to just ground ourselves into a soft energy, we’re going to think about waves.” You don’t have to say feminine at any point in that. Just use your brain. Use your imagination. It’s not helpful at all. I don’t find it helpful at all. Um, no, that’s my answer. No, none.
Do you think that this is a problem with the organizations that certify yoga teachers? Or do you think that’s this is like an individual thing that like, maybe exists like within each individual teacher, whether it be within a yoga space or outside?
Hmm Does colonialism and patriarchy exist within ourselves or society? Like I’m gonna say both because we grew up in this culture. Um, I think what’s super, just like, so frustrating to me right now is that we’re starting to see like, this year is like Extreme Pride, everything is pride. “I’ll put a rainbow on my chest, pride!” Um, so we’re starting to see like mainstreaming of like queer non binary trans identities and like discourses that are represented in media, and more like a pop culture, space. This is quite new, honestly. So of course, this has reached to the yoga world, I’ll call it. So finally, maybe like there’s there’ll be like a queering of the yoga space. People are thinking about their bathrooms having them genderless. Great! So you’re gonna see like a studio hiring like a queer black person for a few like guest teaching opportunities. And you’re going to think like, “Oh, that’s great. Like, that’s positive, right?” But then you if look at who owns all of the studios in North America, who makes the money, who makes money from the yoga industry, which is also now a multi-million dollar industry. Like, the impact of such a small gesture is absolutely not fixing anything. I think, responsible we all are. And as a yoga teacher, I’m responsible to create a space where, I can make that space for people who are non-binary and trans and they want to just do yoga. They just, that’s all they want, they just want to do yoga and not being traumatized, and then don’t want to experience dysphoria. And they just want to have a good time. So, you know, like, giving them that that’s really helpful. Um, but yeah, the yoga industry, because it’s an industry, in itself has been feeding off, what other industries are feeding off. I’m thinking like, the fitness industry and the diet industry and the beauty industry. So, um, I am hoping it’ll change. But as long as there’s no like, a lot of yoga studios that are owned by like, trans black people, like, I don’t think it will authentically change.
I feel like I was gonna wait to ask this question at the end. But I feel like it’s a natural progression to ask it now. What do you think the future of yoga is? Because you say like, there’s a long way to go to change, right? Like if it ever would? Do you think that there would ever be widespread change across lineages? Are we looking at maybe certain trends happening where certain lineages maybe shift itself? And then beyond that, like, what steps do people need to take to do this? And maybe you can provide some examples of like how you, you kind of already have and maybe a bit more explicitly about how you navigate this in your own communities, in your own teaching?
Yeah. Yeah, I think it will change because I’m like this. I’m hopeful. I’m a dreamer. Why would I do anything if I didn’t believe that things could be better? No, no, no, no, it can be better, I think it will be better. I think people are starting to realize a lot of things right now, there’s a lot of reckoning around racial identities, there’s a lot of reckoning around, I think colonialism, finally. I think maybe generationally of younger people, just taking more space as teachers will help. There needs to be a shift in how accessible yoga is, as a career. So that’s a really big one. I don’t know if people know that it’s very expensive to become a yoga teacher, and you make very little money! So typically, yoga teacher training, is going to take you maybe like seven months, six months, seven months, if you’re doing it on the weekends in the evenings. But if you’re doing it full time, a lot of them are like in three weeks, a month. They cost between like $3,000, and like $6,000. So you do that, you’re like, “Okay, I did it.” And then you’re paid between $20 and $40 to teach. So when you start, you’re paid $20 a class, that takes you like, three hours in total. An hour to teach it, an hour to plan it, and then going there back and forth. And when you start it takes you like three hours to plan a class anyways. So who has the capacity in their lives to invest in something that brings you such little money? Like, who has the privilege to do that? That’s why we don’t have a lot, in Canada at least, of teachers of colours, is because people can’t afford to do that. So I think, a start would be people who are in power, people who have capacity and money to offer free spots in their yoga teacher training for people of colour, for queer people, for trans people to be able to do their training for very little money or for free stuff, then can, they can then invest these spaces and take up these roles of teachers and create their safe space and create space for their communities. Because they know how to care for their communities. So I think that’s a huge barrier. It seems really simple, but I think I think that’s a massive one. Um, the other thing is, I also wanted to mention that the, I think we think about “Oh, gender,” but I think it’s all like related to like colonal… like… sorry, I can’t speak English all of a sudden. We think about gender here, but I think it’s connected to colonization a lot more than seems at first to the eye because we’re we are talking about a colony here. Oh, You know, we’re Commonwealth, the Queen of England, all this all that, like India, who was the colony. My ancestors, my Portuguese ancestors tried to murder everyone who was doing yoga in India. They wanted to eradicate it. And now we are appropriating it. Now we have white people making millions of dollars off of it, and they’ve completely changed it as well. So it’s just like a triple violence that’s done on the daily. So I think like listening to the voice of Indian people, South Asian people who tell you “Please don’t say that, please don’t do that. This is how it’s supposed to be done. This is not what yoga is about.” Um, so just listening, I think, is massive, like decolonizing my perspective of the binary is still undergoing. And I could only do it through listening to women of colour and people of colour. So I mentioned Tejal Patel, and Jesal Parikh, who are from the Yoga is Dead podcast. There’s Sarah Cargill, who’s an artist and talks about tarot. So really, really interesting. She’s a black woman. And Susanna Barkataki, who’s a yoga instructor and educator who is Hindu, and talks about yoga in the West a lot. So just like maybe shifting the perspective, I think, is very important. So navigating in my own community, it means sharing my pronouns, using gender-neutral cueing, so not talking about anybody’s bra line and using language that is super clear, and depending on the binary, and also, perfectionism is white supremacy! So creating a space where people have the complete freedom to feel like they can do nothing that I’m saying. They could just lay down, and they’re winning. So just destructing all of this hierarchy of poses as well. You don’t want to feel like a lot of the language that is problematic is, “So this is an option one. And then if you can you do that. And if you can you do that. And this is like the third layer of attaining the pose.” But there’s no such thing as “the pose,” right? Like, so it’s destroying the hierarchy and be like “option one, option two, option three. You rock, thank you for coming. You’re there. That’s beautiful.” So I think that’s, that’s really important.
So a bit of a switch-up. But you’ve posted on Instagram before about androgynous and non-binary deities in yoga. And I’d really like to hear a bit more about that, like, what are some of the examples you’ve used in your posts?
Yeah, so basically, what I was trying to get at is, not only is the binary harmful, but also we made yoga fit inside of it. Originally, it’s not like this. Like a lot of ancient cultures, right? So basically, if you look at South Asian folklore, and tradition, and faith, so Hinduism and Hindu stories, there’s a real recognization of gender as being something fluid. So you will have stories of deities, so gods and goddesses, who, for a certain task to accomplish will switch gender. There’s a lot of stories around that. So there’s this folklore that brings this idea that already that gender is fluid, you can change it. There’s there’s a few examples, basically, in Hinduism, Brahman, which we could compare in our culture as God. So it’s like, the knowing force, the invisible knowing force. Doesn’t have to be invisible, it’s represented as well. But it’s just like this, the consciousness of the universe, basically. Brahman is absolutely genderless. It’s not a dude with the beard, okay? That’s not, [laughs] not it. It’s some, the creation, the creative force of the universe, is genderless. But that’s huge. Because when we think about the creation of the universe, we have “Mother Earth, Daddy God,” I don’t know. It’s very gendery. So that, but having that just that gives you, it gives you the knowledge that you can embody creation, creativity without it being feminine or anything like that. Um, another thing that can be interesting to bring up is, you mentioned that there’s androgynous deities. So there’s deities that are considered as both sex of the same time so again, massive fluidity. There’s Ardhanarishvara, who is a deity who is androgynous, and that deity is said to represent totality beyond duality, because they embody it all. So again, like completely different story. There’s a lot of stories about deities crossdressing as well. It’s just a lot more playful around gender, a lot less flustered. And they also have in South Indian culture, a third sex that they call hijira. That we don’t have in, in English in our culture. Yeah.
So I’m also curious if you’ve done much looking into the idea of Yab-Yum? So just to give our listeners a bit of a background, Yab-Yum is considered like a deity, as well as a symbol. And it’s a very esoteric symbol, so like, forgive me if I mess up a little bit, because as we talked about: esoteric symbols, we’re not meant to know about! But the way I see it, it’s, so it’s two figures, and it’s typically a feminine depiction, with their legs wrapped around a masculine depiction. And it’s supposed to be kind of a symbol of non-duality expressed through the dualistic masculine and feminine coming together as one. And so I’m kind of curious of your opinion on this, and maybe your perspective on this. But it seems like in order for the symbol to work, you need that duality in the first place in order for you to break down the duality. So it’s kind of this idea of like, in order for a spiritual enlightenment to be achieved, you have to break down this duality, but it requires that to be formulated in the first place. So is this maybe just semantics of language? Or is this critique on the language itself?
Yeah. I think like, I think we look at it and we think, “masculine and feminine.” But maybe they look at it, and they see a third thing that’s like, something that we don’t even have a word for, right? So this idea of a third sex. Um, I think, I think duality is, is helpful as a concept, right? But I think I think we have to go beyond that a little and see everything as a spectrum and multiplicity maybe is more helpful than duality. Um, I think, I think that the reason, okay, I think the reason it’s so harmful for me, this feminine masculine is because of the culture that we currently live in. And because of the way that it’s structured, around selling us things, making us feel really bad about ourselves, and being absolutely toxic and feminine oppression and masculine oppressions and the way that we have to be, we feel that we have to be I think, the, I think Yab-Yum maybe if we weren’t… Yab-Yum is not harmful if we’re not maybe in that kind of culture. Like having a dual feminine masculine storytelling, like, way to show something is maybe not as harmful if you’re not forcing people into the binary at all times, right? So I think maybe we found a pro. The pro would be in another place at another time. [laughs] It might be helpful. I think there just already so much of that, that it feels like a further aggression here, but I think if we were in kind of a different moment, maybe a little bit later in history, it will be something that we can dive into without feeling like personally pointed, but I’m sure because they had such a grasp of gender and spirituality that was so much more complex and spiritual, spiritually, you know, playful, that was something that was actually helpful to them into discussing, you know, duality as a concept. I don’t think it’s helpful to us very much so.
Yeah, maybe just before we fully wrap up, for people that are interested in learning more about these topics, do you have any resource recommendations that you would guide them to? We can also put these in our show notes and on our website, so that if you don’t have a pen and paper you could go and check out later?
Yeah, so I think I mentioned it already, but making sure that you’re taking notes from people of colour and women of colour. So I mentioned the Yoga is Dead podcast. That’s a great spot to start. All the episodes are absolutely fantastic. And they have an episode, I think it’s the I think it’s the “Vinyasa killed yoga” or something like that. Listen to all of them, they’re great. One of them touches more on the binary. I can tell you, I can have a look, Steph, and tell you after. Um, other than that, if you’re interested in understanding spirituality and collective stories of, you know, evolving through the world without using the binary, I would recommend the Sarah, Sarah Cargill’s podcast that I mentioned earlier, as well. So it’s called a “Tarot for the End of the World.” And if you’re interested in having an anti-colonial perspective on yoga, I would recommend following Susanna Barkataki, who is a yoga instructor and educator based in the States, I believe.
Great. Is there anything you’d like to add before we wrap ‘er up?
I’m grateful for the Yab-Yum moment, because I think it again, like helped me understand my positionality of… Yeah, of this is the moment that we are in and this is, you know, what we believe in, but, you know, things aren’t always like that. And things don’t always have to be like that. And what’s helpful belief? You know, just being softer around what you think is the truth and what do you think is right. And I think, I think it’s helpful for me to remember that nothing is inherently bad, nothing is inherently wrong, but it’s where it’s positioned. It’s where it lives that creates the context for it being harmful or not harmful. Yeah.
Great. Well, thank you so much for coming on our podcast. I know, at least for myself, I don’t know much about yoga. I’m not really a practitioner. I mean, I’ve gone to a few classes. But I, also it’s not an area that I really studied extensively in my degrees. So it’s been really interesting to hear everything that you’ve brought to this conversation.
Thank you. Thank you for coming. I have studied a little bit of yoga, but what this discussion has made me realize is I have a lot more to learn. So, thank you for teaching me.
Yeah! Thank you for having me. I hope the wind wasn’t too loud.
[laughs] No, it was nice to hear too!
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