Yoga Woman is a documentary-style film about the rise and phenomenon of women yoga teachers and practitioners in the world. Though its focus is largely on the Californian yoga scene it also pays homage to a number of female teachers in India, Africa and Europe. Its narrator is female, as are each of the 'talking heads' who provide commentary.
The film opens by laying yoga's roots in the supposedly masculine discipline which was taught by oral and practical transmission from guru to disciple, making mention of the fact that post-Vedic (as well as Brahmanical and early Hatha texts) cited women as an impediment to abhyasa.
The film debunks these original treatises by charting the ascent of women in postmodern yoga schools, authorship and studios by suggesting that modern lifestyles have called for greater female participation in all spheres of life, not least in the multi-tasking of women's lives in the post-war period, and in the increased demands that such a lifestyle plays in women's health. Pregnancy yoga, yoga for cancer survivors and yoga for menopausal women feature prominently in the film's portrayal, and explicitly refer to the need in women's life cycles for specificity when working with the body in transition and illness.
Given that our study of original scriptures has shown repeated and insistent emphasis on yoga as a purificatory practice, the development of yoga in contemporary terms into the realm of health and wellness comes as little surprise. After all, we live in a globalised world where the borrowing of artefacts, practices and traditions from other native cultures is commonplace. We're also highly individuated in such a way as to give us an excuse to take what we want from the annals of history and re-shape it to suit our consumerist way of life. This is particularly true in the US and the European colonial nations that migrated to America, wherein cultural appropriation has been prevalent for the last 500 years. What's interesting to me is that in the West we have come to slough off the esotericism of tradition in order to replace (perhaps intended) academic study of the subject with a focus on experiential, physical practice that heals form the inside out (that is to say from felt, intuited, intrinsic experience rather than through secondary learning and transmission.)
Off the Mat and Into the World, a portrait of which is given in the film, is testament in my mind to the empowering effects of a modern yoga practice, wherein the subject, having undergone a process of inner transformation and intrinsic connection with the broader world, is moved to act 'in service' of the world. That this organisation – and the movement of many, many other yoga service foundations in dedication to the greater good – is largely composed of female teachers and practitioners is fascinating. Is this a movement that coincides with the rise of women's 'equality' and is it inherently more rooted, feminine and empowering as a result of being largely female in its citizenship?
Do we feel, as women, that without yoga we wouldn't have the power, voice, impetus and community with which to effect change? The film itself reiterates what I already feel and know from my own experience: that yoga unites us, opens our hearts and minds to the suffering of the world and moves us to participate in bringing greater health and wellbeing not only to our own mind-bodies but to those of just about every community of sufferers there is. Is modern yoga advertently benefitting the world of women everywhere in such as way as to bring us closer to political, economic and social structures? And have we feminised the experience of yoga by placing such hefty emphasis on the internal movements brought about by the practice in such a way as to alienate the male population?
Watching the non-profit's co-founder, Seane Corn, stand up on stage to address a huge gathering of festival-goers at the film's closing reminded me how particularly American the scene felt to me. Where the UK's intersection with yoga is – broadly speaking – more Hindu and Pagan in its iteration, the display of ballsy, earthy, community leadership Corn displays feels typically American to me, threaded with talk of empowerment, justice and equality in a way that draws, quite naturally, on the themes of the nation's own founding principles.
I can see how very quickly this brand of feminism is making its way to the UK but how it is currently unique here in the States. By contrast, we have a trend of 'the ladette' (a horrible, '90s term for potty-mouthed, 'women are equal so we're gonna behave like men to prove it' kind of thing) in Britain which has more recently emerged as a realisation that this isn't the way to handle gender issues at all. My point is that the feminism that I see very clearly here in studios, classrooms and the broader culture is one that is bolstered by the idea of free expression, wild, untamed beauty and a deep connection to the earth. I see how much space there is in America – both ideologically and physically – for such ideas to spring from and as before, how neatly these new feminist ideas dovetail with the constitutional rights (and the ensuing literature from the Transcendentalists) of this nation. Jean Baudrillard, in his wonderful book, America, writes, 'they [Americans] have a democratic culture of space. We [Europeans] are free in spirit but they are free in their actions. The American moving around in the deserts or the national parks does not give the impression of being on holiday. Moving around is his natural occupation; nature is a frontier and a place for action.' (102)
Given that to a large degree confidence, expression and entrepreneurship are culturally built into the American psyche, it comes as no surprise to me that yoga has been appropriated as a tool by which to generate change, business, a voice and a platform – indeed, there's a rich history here of oration, preaching and leadership that lends itself to the projection of grand ideas and progress itself. To my mind, America is a country in love with progress and advancement, far less shackled than Europe by tradition and convention: it is said that where Europe is theoretical, America is practical. In this light, it is remarkable how widespread the practice of yoga now is in a nation that has no colonial or geographical ties to India but which is highly adaptive of other cultural ways of life.
I can't watch or review this film without imposing my own feminine experience onto it: several moments in which yoga practitioners detailed their intimate relationship with the practice brought tears to my eyes. I've gone here and there wanting in many ways to undermine what I superficially see as an over-marketed, inauthentic transmission of teachings in many places in California, but ultimately what I always return to is the malleability, mutation and permutation of this tradition throughout its rich, 5,000 year history. I can't ultimately suggest that the incredible dissemination of it is anything other than a power for good – provided, of course, that we continue to train and inspire teachers and leaders who remain true to the values it upholds in such a way as to steer the future of women's rights and health into a more productive, conscious and heartfelt way of life.