Are women making yoga better?

What’s the usual percentage of women in a yoga class here in America? 99%?

Too high, you think? OK, how about 88%?

Both might be a teeny exaggeration, but I’m pretty sure that the usual figure is in the 75%, even 80%, neighborhood. (Although I think it was reversed at my morning Mysore today.)

Whatever the actual number, I think it’s fair to say that women dominate yoga here in America; while perhaps the absolute biggest yoga “rock stars” still are men — Bikram, John Friend — the next rung down has plenty of women: Shiva Rea, Seane Corn and probably a bunch from styles with which I’m not so familiar.

These women in yoga are the subject of a documentary I suspect some of you have already seen or are planning to grab a showing of: “Yogawomen.” It focuses on women’s role in moving yoga forward (or maybe a different direction, given your opinion of things) in the West.

This article — from Religion Dispatches, which seems like a pretty solid site from my initial look — delves a bit into the movie. It includes these key lines:

The film tells us that women once naturally inhabited the realm of yoga practice, until the staid Brahmin men got a hold of it and reined in the power of mortal women in the public sphere, relegating feminine powers to the goddesses alone.

It was Indian men, too, who brought the practice to the West, but there has been a massive shift in the last generation. Now it is women who have become what Kate Clere McIntyre describes as “modern-day evangelists, getting up on their yoga platform” and finding ways to push women to do things they think they can’t do, to step away for just a moment from family and responsibility to other; from careers and mass media imagery of who they should be and what they should look like.

At first, Michael McIntyre admits, he wasn’t sure why they weren’t making a documentary on yoga, as opposed to women and yoga. I wondered the same thing. Isn’t the stereotype of men that they are even more out of touch with their bodies than women; overscheduled and torn between conflicting demands that don’t allow a minute for introspection, contemplation, or the stillness from which groundedness is born? All these reasons are why the film claims women should do the practice. But Michael came to believe that they were documenting something momentous, and women were leading it. “As a man going to classes taught by men, I was getting the practice, but not the phenomenon,” he said. “Women are taking it to the next level.”

That’s a pretty bold set of statements, and I’d be interested to hear anyone’s thoughts. My focus goes to one word in particular, though: “phenomenon.”

I wonder what, exactly, McIntyre means? Is it in the sense of phenomenon as a “pop phenomenon?” Is it in the sense of “phenomenal?” Does he mean the rush to buy the $100 Lululemon pants or is he talking about the inward investigation that yoga can induce?

The article, too, pushes this idea, and quotes McIntyre further: “Yoga is a Sanskrit word. No doubt about it. It’s a spiritual practice. I think people have a spiritual experience with it.”

I wonder just how that spiritual experience is being altered, improved, enhanced or reduced by yoga’s transformation in America. And, if women are leading that change, what are they adding to the practice? What might they be taking away?

And what might yoga look like in 20, 50 or 100 years?

Posted by Steve