Heteronormativity and Embodiment

“Black and Third World people are expected to educate white people as to our humanity. Women are expected to educate men. Lesbians and gay men are expected to educate the heterosexual world. The oppressors maintain their position and evade their responsibility for their own actions. There is a constant drain of energy which might be better used in redefining ourselves and devising realistic scenarios for altering the present and constructing the future.”
― Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches

We live in a heteronormative society where the dominant culture categorizes everything into a gender binary. This does not have to happen in our yoga spaces, however. Do teachers really need to refer to students as ladies and gentlemen? Instead of giving instructions that can account for different kinds of bodies, some yoga teachers make gender-based assumptions about adjustments, suggesting, “Men, do it this way, but women, do it this way.”

To be sure, in a culture which hates and demonizes femininity, many yoga practitioners’ desire to re-center the Goddess and Divine Feminine is important. However, to do this by reinforcing outdated gender norms is harmful to all of us.

When we practice yoga, we are moving towards interconnection and affirming our bodies and their innate life and healing capacity. In other words, our practice isn’t to not do something or to not be a certain way. It’s about the affirmation and gift of a body-centered therapy and movement, understanding the center of the practice as a combination of ancestral energy practices with movement principles. From this place, what we are seeking to do is to see difference and appreciate it, and love it, not avoid or diminish certain aspects of difference.

From this place, I understand teaching yoga as a commitment to the practices that have nourished me as a person and the communities that have supported me in my own healing path. As bell hooks has named this patriarchal, white, heteronormative capitalist culture- is more then just the color of one’s skin, one’s sexual orientation or gender identity or culture- it’s a type of embodiment that holds a certain set of attitudes and ideas. To internalize heteronormativity and whiteness for instance, is to constantly be in a traumatized state that is disconnected from the body.

There are myriad studies out there today that shows how successful yoga strengthens our ability to self regulate the nervous system. I’ve felt this myself, the more I practiced the less anxious and reactive and more expressive and confident I became. Something inside of me changed profoundly. Not only were our concepts of gender colonized, but so were our bodies and our movement patterns. Yoga offers us a way to have a greater sense of ease, and to work through trauma in our bodies, and in our hearts and minds- to move past a counterstance of trying to get the pronouns right and performance.

The practice of yoga offers conceptions of fluidity and non-duality which can powerfully support our understanding of gender. Spiritual practice provides the space to be fully present with what is, without fixating on illusion, the past, or the future. Isn’t our practice supposed to be the place for our contradictions, questions, and ways of being that can lead to more liberation both personally and collectively?