Does it matter when women are left out of our remembering of the past? I once attended a talk on “The History of Yoga”. The speaker managed to cover 2,000 years of yoga’s history without ever mentioning one woman by name. Even when he got to the twentieth century he only referred to yoga’s great men. Somehow women like Indra Devi and Vanda Scaravelli were completely off his radar. His one reference to women’s contribution to yoga in the twentieth century was that during this time: “lots of women took up teaching yoga to earn pin money.”
So, does it matter when women are left out of our remembering of the past? Here in the UK there is a row rumbling on about the new design of the British passport. The idea of the design was to feature people of creative, cultural and artistic significance over the last five hundred years, living or dead. Nine people are featured on the new passport and it may not surprise you to hear that seven of them are men and only two women. The women featured are Elizabeth Scott the architect and Ada Lovelace the pioneer computer programmer.
When public historian Professor Helen Weinstein was asked on Woman’s Hour if this omission mattered she answered:
“It does indeed matter…the selection of public icons matters to society and we do need to find a better way forward to represent women in public life from our past and from our present, because we know as a nation that what is valued from the past does shape what is valued in the present and therefore if women are left out of our remembering of the past, then women are undervalued in our society in the present, and I have to say that airbrushing women out of history is unacceptable.”
If you are the sort of person who enjoys going up to a total stranger holding them in a bear hug whilst both of you laugh out loud, Ha-Ha-Ha-Ha, then maybe Laughter Yoga is for you! And indeed this was the first exercise that participants in the Laughter Yoga open class, at The Om Yoga Show Manchester 2015, were asked to do.
Robin, the Laughter Yoga instructor, wearing a brightly coloured Bermuda shirt, explains that “Laughter Yoga is a playful exercise based on laughter as a special form of breathing which brings great physiological benefits.”
There is something of the children’s entertainer about Robin and the atmosphere of the session ends up being rather like a kid’s birthday party that has got a bit out of hand.
“I did sprinkle laughter powder on the floor earlier…” he says as he talks the group (of adults) through a Laughter Yoga relaxation.
For the relaxation the laughing yogis are lying in small groups, with heads together, and legs fanning out from the centre, to form a human flower shape. Because their heads are together every time one of them laughs it sets all the others off laughing too.
“I did sprinkle laughter powder on the floor earlier….now let the laughter powder come in to your body…feel the laughter powder fill your whole body…sense the laughter filling your body…”
They are all lying on the floor and almost splitting their sides with laughter; apart from one young woman, I notice, who isn’t laughing, she stares up at the ceiling, and discreetly wipes tears away from the corner of her eye, and they aren’t tears of laughter.
It was only by chance that I got to watch the Laughter Yoga class. I’d been snatching a quiet moment over a cup of tea, at one of the OM Yoga Show cafes, when the Laughter Yoga session happened to start in the adjacent open studio, and so I had a ringside seat.
I’d been feeling fine at the start of the class, but I have to admit as the class progressed, and the hilarity grew, I began to feel temporarily quite blue and glum. Thinking about it later I realised that it reminded me of a feeling I sometimes got as a kid when I was in the company of very extrovert, noisy people, and it would make me just want to retreat back into my shell.
A woman standing next to me, also watching the class, smiles and says, “I think it helps ‘cos he’s got the most infectious laugh!” And it’s true that as the participants leave the Laughter Yoga class they mostly have big smiles on their faces, and it is their tears of laughter, rather than sadness, that make them regret not wearing waterproof mascara today!
There is a lot of truth in the maxim that “laughter is the best medicine”, although it is also true that a good cry can be therapeutic. If you fancy trying out a Laughter Yoga class you will find it an interesting experience, and you’ll be able to let off steam and release some pent up emotions; all of which will no doubt help you breathe more easily. Personally, I’d always opt to get my daily dose of laughter from watching a funny TV programme, or having a good laugh sharing a joke with friends.
Yoga-Spy-in-the-House at The Om Yoga Show, Manchester 2015
“Unapologetically sexy” and “totally without rigid form or restrictions, experimental and spontaneous, just like jazz…” is how the publicity blurb describes the Yoga beat experience.
Warning this post contains strong language!
“I want to explode a myth.” David Sye says at the start of his open class at the Yoga Show Manchester. “I want to explode a myth…yoga is not asana…yoga is not pranayama…yoga is not meditation…the ancient art of yoga is an addiction to pleasure!”
“Take a look at your yoga teacher,” he says to the group assembled around him on yoga mats, “Are they happy? Or are they miserable, screwed up and in therapy? Well if they are who fucking cares how clever they are- they are idiots! Feeling happy is what kept people doing yoga.”
A woman, in brightly coloured harem pants, smiles broadly and claps her hands in agreement.
He jumps off the stage and grabs a young woman by the hand and pulls her up to standing; looking deep into her eyes, he keeps hold of her hand, and puts his other hand on to her chest. “I want you all to find a partner; hold their hand and put your other hand on their heart.” As the group go from partner to partner, touching each other’s hearts and then moving on, David keeps up a running commentary, “That’s right you sit on your separate mats and you have your separate lives. The ego is terrified and wants to know who they are…have they been criminal record checked? Now remember all the people who are suffering in Nepal…if you’re a yogi you extend your barriers beyond who you are…it’s the ego that’s the problem and that can dissolve…Jesus called it heaven on earth…the Buddha called it Nirvana…hell is the ego…”
Back up on to the stage he sits down, legs outstretched, and effortlessly swings one of his tattooed legs over his shoulder, all the while moving to the beat of the music and singing, “I love this leg…I love this leg…I love this leg! It’s like dating your own body…when you are a kid your parents tell you to stay still….your parents don’t know anything… you’ve got to move…hey you child!” he addresses a girl of about 10 years old, sitting on a yoga mat next to her mum, “Don’t listen to a word your parents say!” The girl giggles politely and then looks down at her mat.
With varying degrees of success everyone tries to swing their own legs over their shoulders too. “Some people are into pain and that’s their trip,” he says, “This is not an S and M club.” He gyrates his pelvis like he’s making love to the floor, “Keep movin’ around…keep movin’…you can see what I’m doin’ I’m moving my arse…move your arse….start movin’ your backbone, make a snake of your backbone.” He goes into navasana, the boat pose, “Keep moving! “I can’t balance if I’m moving around”, you say: that’s the whole point man! Don’t get serious now…shall we do it again? Can you remember your password? No! That’s the whole point! Let go!”
The group come up to standing. “I want you to start shaking.” he says, “Start shaking like you’ve lost the plot…if you ain’t audacious, if you ain’t free, you ain’t goin’ nowhere!” The group, as instructed, start to shake their bodies, and soon they look like they really have lost the plot, all doing the hippy-hippy shake. It looks reminiscent of a 1960’s flower-power happening. Only one person is not moving. A boy of about eight years old stands quite still on his mat; he occasionally does an almost imperceptible shake of an arm or a leg, as if to show good will, and not draw undue attention to himself by being completely motionless. He keeps his eyes down, averted from all the adults freaking out around him. Every so often he takes a furtive, sideways look at his yoga-mum shaking it out on the mat next to him. He is an island of quiet sobriety, amidst a sea of wild-child adults, who are off their heads on yoga.
“Go! Go! Go! Move! Move! Move!” shouts David, “Yeah start moving! Your body doesn’t need any food man!” And then abruptly he shouts “Freeze” and all the adults turn to statues, “Don’t move a muscle. And now watch inside for the exuberance….you don’t need politicians…you don’t need religious leaders…you are fucking fabulous as you are! Own it! Feel it! Own your joy! That’s all you have to learn…you’re not in Nepal…you’re not in a war zone…own your joy! By the way they give you 10% off our stall…there are leaflets here.”
Yoga-spy-in the-house at The Yoga Show, Event City, Manchester 2015
The claim that yoga practice improves your sex life is a plausible one. However, is it also true that women can find sexually liberating role-models in the ancient Tantric texts of India?
Practising yoga may, of course, help you to develop skills which can enhance your love life such as; flexibility, which opens up the possibility of trying out new and more adventurous positions; relaxation which enables you to let go, and to let love blossom and unfold; and present moment awareness which allows you to fully inhabit your body and abandon yourself to the moment.
The modern sacred sexuality movement claims to draw its inspiration from the same ancient spiritual tradition of the Indian subcontinent that spawned most of the practices we now know as hatha yoga- the tradition known as Tantra. In this post I will be looking at whether or not ancient Tantric practices deliver on the promise of sexual liberation for women practitioners.
Caroline Muir, who offers courses in “The Art of Conscious Loving”, along with her partner Charles, says, in a Yoga Journal article, that Westerners turn to ancient Indian culture looking for a healthier attitude towards sex, and she points out that “Indians revered sexuality as a holy gift from the creator, regarding sex as both a sacrament and an art form…” She goes on to say:” The knowledge of women’s limitless sexual potential has been lost to our Culture.” and she insists “not only that all women are endlessly, naturally multi-orgasmic, but that all are capable of both explosive clitoral orgasms and deeper, longer, more wavelike vaginal orgasms…”
So is it true that we will find within the ancient Tantric texts the key to women’s limitless sexual potential?
Ok Ladies, let’s do a simple quiz to find out whether you are a suitable candidate for tantric sexual rituals. Answer yes or no to the two questions below:
Are you: beautiful, young, pious, devoted to your guru and god, always smiling, pleasing, and without jealousy?
Are you: unattractive, old, sleepy, prone to feel desire and to argue with your partner?
Please disqualify yourself if you have answered no to any of the qualities listed in question one, or yes to any of flaws listed in question two.
In her book “Offering Flowers, Feeding Skulls”, June McDaniel describes the advice given to male tantrikas, seeking a female partner, as written in the ancient tantric text, the Kularnava Tantra:
“Women in tantric texts tend to be described primarily in terms of their ritual actions- the tantrika finds a suitable woman (according to a long list of qualifications), and then performs various rituals with her. The Kularnava Tantra states that the woman must be beautiful, young, pious, devoted to her guru and god, always smiling, pleasing, and without jealousy, among other qualities. A kula woman cannot be unattractive or old or sleepy, and she cannot feel desire or argue with her partner- these disqualify her from tantric practice even if she has been initiated.”
Women who perform ritual sex are considered to be of low status, though slightly higher than ordinary prostitutes. They are often forced by poverty and hunger into these roles.
“Often they were bound by considerations of dharma; since their mothers were sadhikas, they too must follow that profession, thus it becomes a caste, and the woman is bound to its obligations. Many of these relationships are semi-incestuous, where the man with whom the mother is sleeping is also sleeping with her daughter. However, because it is placed in ritual context, the father-figure becomes the guru, and relationship can be understood as a sort of religious apprenticeship…The great problem is pregnancy, which is generally blamed on the woman’s lack of meditative ability, despite the clear responsibility of the man.”
Western couples may be attracted to Tantra in search of multiple orgasms etc. However, achieving sexual ecstasy is pretty low down on your list of priorities, if, as a woman, you do not have such necessities as financial independence, sovereignty over your own body, and the freedom and choice that enables you to be mistress of your own destiny. Let’s not glorify systems and doctrines that deny women, and their children, these basic rights.
I don’t wish to be a party pooper and please don’t let anything I’ve said dissuade you in your quest for the ultimate orgasm! I only request that you don’t idealize tantric philosophy and so gloss over it’s more misogynistic and destructive side. To do this would be disrespectful to the women and children who have had their lives blighted by the darker side of these teachings. At the same time enjoy the fruits of your yoga practice, find the ecstatic in your everyday life, and express your love however, and with whomever, you choose.
Bibliography: “Offering Flowers, Feeding Skulls: Popular Goddess Worship in West Bengal” by June McDaniel
Is it true that modern day yoga is dominated by women? Well it is according to John Sack, former chair of the British Wheel of Yoga, and he vented his anger about this issue at the recent BWY AGM. What really made John see red was the cover of the Spring edition of Spectrum (The BWY member’s Magazine). Take a look at the cover below and see if it makes your blood boil too?
Although the cover is a bit baffling (what has it got to do with yoga?)I don’t suppose it’s put your blood pressure up. It did put John’s up though and at the AGM he was so mad about it that he gave the committee a right dressing down: “There was only one man on the front cover of Spectrum” he said in a deep, angry voice “….just one man and all those women…it’s not right! I want to see more pictures of men in Spectrum.”
The committee were at pains to point out that this wasn’t a conspiracy to exclude men from their publication, rather, the women were featured on the front cover of the magazine because, like the British Wheel of Yoga, they too are fifty this year. But this aside did John have a point? Are the male contingent of the BWY an under-represented and oppressed, minority group? Let’s unpack this idea.
At the AGM, when John stood up and introduced himself, a male voice from the audience made everyone laugh by shouting out: “There seems to be a lot of Johns and Richards talking today!”. And this flippant comment brought it home to me that at the AGM about 80% of the talking was done by men. So for a minority group they are very vocal! Also, once John had made his point about men being under-represented, it’s not as though like a shrinking Violet he then sat down, no, instead, he held the floor for about another ten minutes, making various other points. So for his contribution, at the AGM, he had as much air-time alone as all the other women contributors put together!
In 2013 I had an interesting email exchange of ideas, with Helen Smith, the former BWY Equity and Welfare Manager, concerning the issue of whether it is true that women “dominate” yoga. This is what she had to say:
“Yoga is dominated by women only in the sense of the numbers participating, I would not argue that women dominate the yoga community…I would not go so far as to say that there is a glass ceiling in the BWY as we have had a significant number of female BWY Chairs. However, what I have observed during my involvement with the Wheel is that it’s committees carry a disproportionate number of men…especially at National Executive Committee level, which is the highest decision making body in the BWY. That seems to follow the tendency seen in wider society for men to rise disproportionately to the top of female “dominated” profession.”
Going back to the cover of Spectrum and John’s complaint that only one man is pictured amongst so many women. Perhaps of equal, or more concern, is that most of the faces on the cover are white, and, one would guess, mostly all from a similar background. Also if John were to count the number of men pictured inside the magazine, he would find the men/women ratio roughly equal.
“Appropriate demographics…we must appeal to the younger generation…” is repeated like a mantra, by the British Wheel of Yoga’s executive committee, at their recent 2015 AGM.
In the audience a bearded man, with long blonde hair, and muscle-builder’s arms, puts his hand up to speak and is handed the microphone. “I feel like the BWY are being left behind”, he says, “You’re going the way of the dinosaurs!”
Unperturbed by the obvious discomfort of the committee on the stage, he continues, “I’m not sure how you’re going to get younger members in; it will just look phoney. It’s like when I try to impress my kids how cool I am and they just laugh at me!” He sits down, pleased to have got this off his chest.
With the British Wheel of Yoga being fifty this year, maybe there’s a touch of the mid-life crisis about this hankering after younger members. The Wheel is looking to trade in its Honda Jazz for a sexy, new Porsche or Lotus. Out with the old and in with the new. Let’s get rid of the family car and get a sports car! I feel young again!
Love or hate the Wheel, most people would agree that the Wheel has probably never been cool. The photo below, taken in the 1960s, shows the early days of the British Wheel of Yoga. One might gauge from this photo that the Wheel was in fact born middle-age.
The British Wheel of Yoga was founded by Wilfred Clark in 1965. I was only seven in 1965 and I’d never heard of Yoga, although I had heard of Yogi Bear. It was a few years later, when I was fourteen years old, that I began a life-long love affair with Yoga. For me, as a teenager, it was the Beatles who made yoga seem like a really cool thing to do.
In future posts I’ll look at the politics behind the Wheel’s quest for “appropriate demographics” and the desire to court the young, and other desirable groups.
“We’re a listening N.E.C” says the British Wheel of Yoga Treasurer, at their AGM, at Warwick University, last Saturday. This listening theme was also taken up by Chrissie Harrison, the Chair of the BWY, in her address to congress: “We will continue to listen to our members…I am sure you feel that we don’t listen to you, but we do.”
I have to admit that, yes, sometimes it does feel like the BWY are not listening. Over the past few weeks I have been emailing Stuart Prince, the BWY Safeguarding and Diversity Manager, about the failure of the BWY to make an announcement to members concerning the BWY accredited group, the Satyananda School of Yoga (SYS), who are part of the Satyananda organisation who are being investigated by the Australian Royal Commission concerning allegations of child physical and sexual abuse. My concerns and requests for action seem to have fallen on deaf ears.