Last week I received an intriguing article in my inbox. It was about some delicate anatomical issues that yoga students may experience as they practice that yoga teachers usually do not address in class. This particular piece was written by a yoga teacher addressing students who are anatomically female. When I shared the article, I almost wrote in the comments, “Hey, ladies! Check this out!” Then I reconsidered. What if not all of my students who are anatomically female identify themselves as women?

Privilege and gender identity.

I was born female and I have always identified myself as female. There may have been things about my experience of being a girl, and later a woman, that I didn’t particularly care for (street-harassment, earning a lower pay rate than my male counterparts, rampant sexism), but I never felt that my spirit and my body were not both female. Therefore, with regards to gender-identity, I was born privileged.

Privilege is a difficult word for people to hear, especially those that have it when they do not feel that they are particularly privileged. Perhaps because we often think of privilege in terms of what our position allows us to get. For example, power is a quality strongly associated with privilege. If I do not feel particularly powerful, especially if I am disadvantaged in other areas such as race, class, sex, or sexual orientation- I may resent being told I’m privileged. Resentment may lead me to deny my privilege altogether, and that just doesn’t help anyone!

Another way of looking at privilege is to recognize where we are empowered so that we might share that power. It is in everyone’s best interest to share power, including our own. When power is shared, harmony is created and we all have the opportunity to be happy. As a cis woman who teaches yoga, I am empowered to create a safe, inclusive space for yoga students to practice.

Is yoga inclusive?

We cannot look to the history of Yoga and claim that it is friendly toward transgender and gender non-conforming individuals. It is unlikely that was a topic on the minds of early yogis! The history of Yoga is debated and not well known. When it comes to ancient traditions like Yoga, it is important that we do two things: First of all, we must honor the tradition where it comes from, recognizing the gifts it gave the world as well as its shortcomings. We must learn as much about its history as we can so that we can understand the tradition in context. Secondly, as we understand the context the tradition came from we can better choose what is appropriate for our lives as modern practitioners.

One idea that today’s yogis generally agree on is the idea that Yoga means “union”. To say that Yoga means “union” acknowledges that yoga is a non-dualistic tradition. In other words, ultimately all is One. If ultimate union is the heart of the tradition we are practicing, it is important that yoga studios reflect that. For example, at Eternal Health Yoga, we strive to create a sacred space for students to practice because we firmly believe that yoga is a spiritual practice. We honor that many of our students are doing more than exercising their physical bodies. Many students are also praying, meditating, and doing other spiritual work. Safety and inclusivity is inherent in creating a sacred space.

Some might find the ideas set forth by a non-dualistic tradition to be at odds with gender. After all, if all is One, then why does gender identity even matter? Actually, gender identity matters very much. Another common teaching among modern yoga practitioners is that the part is within the whole. This principle is expressed best in the Yin-Yang, a Daoist symbol of a divided circle. One side is dark, the other is light. However, there is a bit of darkness in the light and a bit of light in the darkness. One is not only in the other, but both are needed to make the whole.

Like the Daoist symbol, gender is not a solid state. It is fluid. Gender is not as simple as whether we are male or female. We may be born a particular sex, but our gender experience may be on the other end of the spectrum. Or perhaps our experience of gender changes regularly. Maybe we do not even feel particularly gendered at all! None of these experiences are right or wrong, good or bad…. They are just our experiences. How other people experience gender is only our business in so far that we recognize they have as much right to live it as they see fit as we do.

Sacred space is inclusive space.

At its best, Yoga is a healing transformational journey. However, this can only be true if yoga teachers can avoid further wounding their students. It isn’t all that difficult to create a sacred space where all students have the opportunity to truly feel welcome. It does take awareness and intentionality, two traits we cultivate through- you guessed it!- our Yoga practice. Here are some simple ways yoga studios can be more welcoming of our androgynous, intersex, transgender, and non-gender conforming students.

  1. Make no assumptions. This is the heart of all other actions privileged individuals- whether it is through sex, race, class, gender, etc.- should or should not take. We must learn to listen, step back, and allow other people to take the lead. It is imperative that we avoid making assumptions because we don’t know! We don’t know what it is like to practice on another person’s yoga mat.
  2. Avoid gendered language. This is a lot easier than it sounds. For example, when I was about to share the article last week, I did not have to use the term “ladies” to refer to my yoga students who are anatomically female. It isn’t that “ladies” is a bad word to be avoided in every situation, but it is a gendered word that belongs in the context of interactions with my very close female identifying friends who are comfortable with it. A yoga teacher may wonder what to refer to her students as if not ladies, gentlemen, girls, guys… How about just students?
  3. Offer gender neutral bathrooms. Even if the studio already has sex-specific bathrooms, this can be done. For example, Shelbyville road’s Heine Bros Coffee in Louisville used to have a male and female restroom. Now, both restrooms can be used regardless of gender orientation. The only difference is that one has a urinal in it and the other does not. How was such a feat accomplished? By simply removing the little door signs that said “Men” and “Women”.
  4. Ask all students for appropriate pronouns. Yes. Ask all students. This does not have to be incredibly awkward. In fact, yoga teachers and studio owners do not even have to explain why this is being asked. (Although I’ve found there are times when one does have to explain what a pronoun is.) When first-time students fill out their paperwork, simply add in as a question, “Appropriate pronoun?” This informs the teacher upfront if the student prefers to be referred to as he, she, they, etc. in personal interactions. (Hint: If students have already filled out an information sheet that doesn’t ask about pronoun usage, teachers can always ask that an update form be filled out. This is a great time to ask for address, email, and phone number updates as well!)