Calling an end to masculine and feminine labels in yoga
LiEffort with Ease
I occasionally hear instruction from yoga teachers to roll either to the left or the right side of the body after savasana to allow blood flow to go either to the linear-analytical-masculine left side of the brain or the creative- feminine right side. I have to be honest, hearing this always makes me cringe. I will not go into the ways the human body compensates blood pressure (when it is healthy) to make sure that we get even circulation… If you think about this, it is absolutely necessary, a few minutes without oxygen to the brain causes brain cells to die, so we cannot mess around with uneven flow. If you are interested, the concept is called Cerebral Autoregulation, this website will tell you more info than you ever want to know.
You cannot “feed” a side of your brain by rolling to a side.
Rather than discuss the physiology , in this blog I will focus on the underlying assumption of the above statement: The myth of right-creative, left-analytical hemispheres to the brain and the implications for gender role qualities. All cultures have been preoccupied with defining and clarifying feminine versus masculine roles in society. We need classifications for basic functioning. Language is a form of classification as well; when I ask you to think of a palm tree, your brain comes up with all kinds of images all under the classification of a “palm tree.” In traditional yoga, the chakras are positioned at the meeting points of the Pingala, which is the red, masculine, hot-sun energy line, and Ida, the white, cold, lunar-feminine energy line. Yin and Yang symbols also talk of balancing the feminine and masculine qualities. It comes as no surprise that when in the 1960s scientists were experimenting with split-brain conditions some of our cultural and biological predisposition towards classification took our imagination by hold. Scientists were cutting the connection between the right and the left hemisphere of the brain as a last-resort treatment for epilepsy and found that the two halves of the brain acted independently and with different processing styles. But it is important to note that in a healthy brain all things are interconnected and information processing happens as the two halves communicate.
Prof. Jeff Anderson of neuroradiology at the University of Utah says: “It’s absolutely true that some brain functions occur in one or the other side of the brain, language tends to be on the left, attention more on the right.” But he further goes to say, “The neuroscience community has never accepted the idea of ‘left-dominant’ or ‘right-dominant’ personality types. Lesion studies don’t support it, and the truth is that it would be highly inefficient for one half of the brain to consistently be more active than the other.”
It seems that for whatever we do, we need both the right and the left side of our brain. There is nothing that we can do that does not require both analytical and creative thinking. I often hear folks equate science with masculine, linear and not creative qualities, while classifying visual arts and writing as creative and feminine. But if you really sit and think about it, it takes amazing amount of imagination to come up with a machine to go to Pluto, or to come up with the structure of the DNA, or to design a virus that could one day attack only the cancer cells in your body. I think of all subjects as music, having a mathematical as well as a creative side.
I believe we made the assumption early in our education that science is linear and not creative because when we first study science it requires intense memorization. The language of science is not easy to understand without many years of study. On the other hand we can all appreciate a painting without knowing proper brushwork techniques or color theory. I believe our classification of science as masculine and linear left brain is what holds so many creative young girls back from becoming interested and successful in science. We need to teach focus and memorization skills to all students before categorizing them as ‘creative’ or ‘linear’. In reality the best scientist are creative thinkers. Same is true towards the arts. We find students who are more naturally inclined to memorize with ease and we push them away from liberal arts, but a person who can hold onto a lot of information will find a lot more creativity later on to express themselves through the arts and literature.
My passion in yoga is to share a creative, scientifically sound and historically well researched spiritual practice. I don’t find these terms contradictory, I find them complementary.
Creativity is expressed many ways: some of us write, some design, some dance and some explore the way that the human body behaves. I feel being feminine is also a question of cultural interpretation. In the yoga community I am often told that I need to “soften or bring out my feminine side.”… Honestly, I feel judged when I hear this. I don’t feel less feminine because I don’t fit into the yogic interpretation of femininity. I am strong, and I love doing chaturangas. I love both the sciences and the arts, and I have a vulnerable sensitive side. I don’t have to practice less strength poses to feel vulnerability or lightness; rather, I simply find the ease during effort.
I understand that in yoga the use of “feminine” and “masculine” labels are meant to be understood as metaphors or symbols and we are to understand that all humans have these traits. I agree, we all have these qualities, but symbols matter! As we seen from the recent discussions on the confederate flag, symbols carry a message. And if we symbolically classify certain qualities as masculine or feminine then we are going to mark it in our mind as feminine or masculine. There is just no way out of associating these words without attaching further meaning.
We all have the above qualities of strength, sensitivity and so on. How we express them maybe different from person to person. I believe we should teach vulnerability and strength without classifying them as feminine or masculine. Let them be an internal personal experience that is genderless. I believe we need to give a bit more freedom to sexual roles if we are to teach students without judgement. I believe when we look at the world from the popularized masculine vs. feminine principles we force individuals to fit into one or the other category and we hold judgement if we find that they don’t balance these categories according to a formula that we find culturally sound.
If we teach simple awareness without gender role qualities, we may just find more inner peace about who we are. We may also raise a generation of youth that no longer views mathematics, strength, power and single focus as masculine, nor would it hold vulnerability, softness, empathy and creativity as feminine. We may just hold them as human qualities that we all need and we all possess.