Metaphor Matters: My Female Experience in the Yoga World
Updated: May 9, 2019
This is a string of experiences I had as a young female student in the Austin yoga world. May we truly understand the power and implications of metaphor in yoga!
Last week I wrote how teaching is storytelling. As any great storyteller knows, a crucial component to a good story is metaphor. This literary device allows us to access ourselves through the imagination. We understand the world, thus ourselves, through figurative interpretation often times better and clearer than literal commentary.
Here is an example of metaphor:
“If you want a love message to be heard, it has got to be sent out. To keep a lamp burning, we have to keep putting oil in it.”
This statement makes our mind move toward understanding. We click, we connect these images, and the effect is a movement of emotions -- we want to act; we want to send love messages in order to maintain a fire within us!
How powerful is this device! How magnificent!! And because it is so powerful and magnificent, some use it for their own gain, either consciously or unconsciously. This is a key technique in propaganda.
My String of First-Hand Experiences
Let's travel back to my time in Austin (2007-2013) when I was first diving into my yoga studies.
1. Feminism in Yoga
I once asked a male yoga teacher, in fact, a professed guru: how does feminism and being woman connect to the soul? Then, I shared that being woman felt imperative to my spiritual path.
His answer: feminism has no place in yoga; woman has nothing to do with my soul.
(While I know there are many criticisms and needed examinations of feminism, remembering this moment with a male teacher implores me to advocate for it in this particular post. However, I will be writing on the troubling intersections between race and feminism in yoga next.)
I knew this teacher, this guru, this man who made this claim, had power over me. The teacher and student relationship inherently imbues power to the teacher. But, I also knew his power because I internally and immediately listed the many ways in which he might be right and me wrong.
This is what the less powerful do first. The shock of confrontation with the powerful slowly leads the powerless to the hazy, often times crippling, doubt: have I gotten it wrong?
Confusingly, this is also a key question for the student. It's another key component to teaching. The teacher does need to challenge their students way of thinking pushing them toward thoughtfulness, curiosity and creativity.
However, I believe it must be a mutual question with the teacher. The teacher must challenge the students' way of thinking and be open to the student challenging their way of thinking.
When I confronted this teacher, he did not offer the same thoughtful questioning. He did not humbly ask himself the same question I did: have I gotten it wrong?
I could have argued further with this particular teacher, I did try for a moment, but instead, we both became rigid. My voice became shaky. I lost my power. And, at the time, there was very little gained in either direction.
Conversations on the subject of feminism are constantly blocked in yoga.
Feminism, in it's pure form, asks us to consider the female perspective in our culture, society and being. Perspective is one of the most valuable and significant teachings of yoga.
I often ask myself: is my perspective opening my opportunities for growth and opening my understanding of my community? This is a questioning I believe yoga challenges us to do everyday.
For a man to say, (to a young woman, no less) that feminism and being woman have nothing to do with her spiritual path is negligent, FULL STOP.
Despite yoga in the west being dominated by white women, the prominent and lauded teachers and gurus are primarily men. This is proof that yoga is not immune to society and the limitations of that society. This very notion alone proves the potential need for feminism in yoga.
2. Metaphors of the Mind
During this same time in Austin, I had another well-known revered male teacher use a metaphor in a flow class to help us understand the mind.
He used the image of a flock of birds.
Paraphrasing, he said:
The mind is constantly moving. These different aspects or characters within us are vying for power. Imagine it like a flock of birds moving together. The bird in front is saying, "let's go this way," and then all the sudden another bird says "no, let's go this way" and the flock changes directions, and then they all follow the new lead bird. This happens quickly and frequently. Our mind is constantly changing the lead bird, navigating us through life.
Now, this was a pretty good metaphor. We understand our mind in a new way. We get the connection pretty quickly and most of the people in the room experienced an emotional truth to it. However, something didn't quite feel right to me. Something didn't quite describe the mind that I wanted to believe in or that felt true.
Sometime very soon after this class, I watched the newly released documentary I AM, where the extremely successful film director Tom Shadya, who brought us Ace Ventura and other comedy classics, explains how "successful" career and financial abundance lead him to suicidal thoughts and desires. With this film, he is strongly advocating and arguing that Darwin's theories proved animals and human nature is more cooperative than competitive. In the below clip you will even see they use the example of a flock of birds! [1:27]
Scientist studied bird flocks and found it is a democracy! With every wing flap, they are voting together where and how to move!
To be honest, at this point I hadn't made the connection with metaphor in the yoga class. BUT soon after watching the video I attended a yoga workshop led by another popular male teacher visiting from New York. He was brought to Austin by the same revered teacher that used the flock metaphor.
In this workshop, we began to talk about the mind. He used an even less desirable metaphor of master and slave, using a pretty dull, overused metaphor for how the mind is the master of the body. He began to explain how yoga allows positive characters or aspects of the mind to master all the others. He even conjured the image of a butler and maid! I couldn't believe it! After all, we've gone through with trying to liberate this dynamic in our society (unsuccessful, I admit), is this really how we want to see our mind/body relationship or even the relationship between the various characters of our mind?
This is when I began to draw connection with Shadya's documentary and the bird flock metaphor in the previous class. So this time, I decided to question this male teacher. This is how it went when I was called on:
Me: I wondered about your master/servant metaphor...Do you think it's detrimental to think of thoughts or the mind as a master?
Him: I know it's hard to understand but you have to master your mind and so sometimes metaphor helps us understand and get it. If you can't master the mind you won't be able to master the body.
Me: I get that. But I wondered if we need to look at it a different way. If seeing the mind as a master is detrimental, the way a master can be detrimental to its servants.
Him: Not all masters.
Me: ...true... Here's an example. [Your Friend and Collegue] in a flow class used the example of a flock of birds and how the lead bird decides where to move until another bird says "hey, let's move this way," and he takes on the leadership role.
Him: Yeah, I like that. That's exactly what I'm trying to get across with the mind.
Me: Um...sorry...I'm not done yet. I watched this documentary and it argued, through scientific study that the bird in front is actually not the leader or master of the flock, but that the whole flock is actually democratically choosing where and how to move They vote through the flapping of their wings. So what if this is true with our mind? What if our mind is democratically choosing which thoughts or characters to make more dominant for a particular need in our movement or evolution. If that's true than actually behind every negative thought or character there are thousands of thoughts or numerous characters, not as servants but as supporters, nurturing our whole being, moving us forward.
Him: Yeah, that's not really what I'm saying or getting at. But, I think we need to move on at this point.
And thus, not only the female voice but the democratic voice is shut down. Truly what feminism calls for (again, not perfectly) is democracy and equity. I didn't find it in these yoga classrooms.
Yoga is Not Immune to the Political
I hope these stories shine light on why yoga cannot hide or shy away from the political climate where it's being practiced. It is part of the #metoo movement. It is part of the #blacklivesmatter movement. It is part of the #wolfpack movement. Because the truth is yoga is not pure or free from the everyday trappings of our society. We see more clearly now than ever with the numerous sexual assault claims and abuses in our field. It does not live inside a vacuum, just as we don’t. Our classrooms and teachers are not in a vacuum. What an interesting metaphor because the vacuum itself does not exist without the outside elements creating that vacuum.
I strongly believe all yoga teachers need training in politics and democratically-led pedagogy. I try to imagine how those past conversations with those male teachers would have been different if they could have heard me, taken me in, and allowed questioning. I imagine that would have been incredibly empowering to a young woman trying to find and trust her voice -- a key tool to the yoga teacher. These opportunities were lost for the gain of male power and competitive, classist metaphor.
As the feminist slogan says, the personal is political. I would argue the personal practice of yoga is political. Politics is what yoga teaches us: how to govern our being while taking accountability for how we affect our world. How can yoga ignore or shirk political conversation and actions when the very essence of its practice is political?
As always, I would love, honor and encourage your thoughts and questioning to be heard in the comments below.
With all my love for yoga and its evolution,
A woman standing up for her younger self