Youth, for women, is a tremendous form of currency. And, this is the crux of my problem with yogi-bitionism. Yoga is, presumably, a space where we can find our intrinsic worth. Ideally, it can counteract the poisonous tendency of evaluating women on the basis of their appearance.
A Christmas Eve yoga practice! Just what I need to relax and stay calm before the Christmas holiday. So many gifts to still wrap. Gotta drive a long, long distance to get to my aunt house tomorrow (although I do greatly love this aunt and uncle and find them well worth the drive). Looking forward to seeing my siblings, too! So right, better get my butt in gear so I can get to class on-time. Only, I’m on this aspartame cleanse using bentonite clay? And the shits be like…anyway. I just gotta hurry this up so I can get to class. OK so what time is it? (pun! zing!) I only have 15 minutes to get to class and it will take me at least 18. $#@! Late again. I pull up only two minutes late (no traffic!) and race to check in. I imagine that I enter class a mere 5 minutes late, which feels utterly respectable. I park my mat on the far side of the room, near the window, and join the class in a little cat-cow. I look up during cow position to see that another lady has come in after me, parked her mat diagonal to my left. Ha! I thought, I wasn’t even the latest $#@! in here.
We press up into downward-facing dog. I keep my knees bent, articulating my spine, which always feels stiff around the thoracic. I’m undulating, loosening the muscles and tissues surrounding the vertebrae. The instructor calls out “Uttanasana.” I’m feeling pretty open across the shoulders, since I did a practice the day before. I decide to jump forward. Now, before my first jump, I sometimes lift my tailbone and kind of bounce my booty a little bit. It gives me momentum going into the jump. I rock my booty a taste and jump forward, landing softly. Then I hear a cackle, “HA! Ahahaaha!” It’s coming from the late white lady (LWL). She was really getting a hearty laugh out of something. Now, save the music playing in the background and the teacher’s instructions, the room is entirely quiet. No one is cracking a joke. The only things in her line of vision were my swaying bottom, and the wall. True, I wasn’t sure why LWL was laughing. Was she laughing at a thought that just arose in her mind? Was it something the lady next to her—who she clearly didn’t know—said or did? Or could it be, since she was in clear view of my ass, that she found my butt rocking utterly hysterical?
Thing is, I am usually the lone black person in a yoga room. Sometimes, I am the only person of color amid a sea of white. I can tell you that there have been many times white people have looked at me sideways. Frowning, anxious, fearful, and of course amused. (I can tell you endless stories of white folks getting a kick out of seeing me in a yoga room.) It’s like a bear sighting. I wasn’t entirely sure she found me funny. But, I had a pretty strong feeling that was what got her going. I knew it was going to be a long yoga class. It’s no mean feat to block out a smug, self-satisfied, yoga practitioner when they are in your midst. This is especially true when the yogi is really flexing. Giving the fullest, most challenging expression of every pose, for no particular reason. These “yogi-bitionists” as I’ve taken to calling them want you looking. They’re expecting your eyes, praying/preying on your gaze. You watching them is one of the things that brings them to class. And yes, they’re trolling the $#@! out of you.
This woman was the most obvious type of yogi-bitionist. We were in a Vinyasa 1 class, the purportedly lowest level of asana instruction. The type of class that gives the practitioners, new and returning, the chance to focus more on alignment and breath work than contortionism. Yet, she was attempting handstands and arm balances at just about every transition. Don’t get me wrong: when you know your body, you will do the expression that you are most comfortable with. I was in one “advanced” class wherein before the class even started the woman to the left of me jumped into a handstand, while the woman on the right dropped back into wheel. I was like, “Oh, it’s this kind of class? I’m here for it.” In terms of mastering the asanas, these two women (who also appeared to be in their 50s) were impressive. Confident and self-possessed. Not there to make friends, but nevertheless kind to the other folks in the class.
In this particular class though, because we hadn’t warmed up for some of the more advanced postures LWL was attempting, she kept falling out of them. This was seemingly her body’s way of telling her it was not ready for them. In the rare cases when she managed to effectively land an inversion, she’d only be in the pose for a millisecond before the entire rest of the class transitioned to something else, because it was a Vinyasa 1 class. With short holds. At the end of the class, our instructor turned and walked over to this woman. Introduced the lady as her own teacher. It was the first time LWL turned around so we could see her face. She was in her mid-50s. Wearing a crop top and several cute little ponytails. Then, I knew what the whole show was about: wanting to intimidate, instead of being intimidated, in a space full of younger women. It was sad, not mostly because of how she was put together.
Tomorrow, when I’m in my 50s, I might rock my styles just like that. (Er’ryday it’s a battle not to wear a catsuit because $#@! everybody.) It was discouraging because of what the combination of her hairstyle, attire, and posturing signaled as a unit. It was like she was overcompensating for being older. She seemed to keep her gaze down a lot, and it clearly wasn’t from modesty. Seemingly she was doing it because the face reveals the age. She didn’t want any of us noticing her wizened visage. Instead, she seemed to be goaling toward drawing attention to her performative “mastery” of the asanas, in an effort to appear superior to women two-three decades her junior. The reason is clear. Youth, for women, is a tremendous form of currency. And, this is the crux of my problem with yogi-bitionism. Yoga is, presumably, a space where we can find our intrinsic worth. Ideally, it can counteract the poisonous tendency of evaluating women on the basis of their appearance. Of pitting women against one another to determine who’s got the cutest face and the perkiest tits. Who’s most flexible. This latter point is an underestimated expectation of patriarchy. Not a new one by any means. But one of the reasons why the idea of yoga being performed by young (white) women, has been taken up with such relish in our capitalist, hetero-patriarchal culture.
The experience was a reminder of what patriarchy has taken from us. It has taken our women elders. How many women over the age of 50 do you know who are competitive with much younger women? (And again, I’m not talking about sexy women of any age living their best lives. Each day I know that because of women like Adrienne Banfield-Jones, anything is possible.) Women’s sexual objectification is the root of the problem. And yet, white capitalist hetero-patriarchy doesn’t have to be the final word. Instead of using yoga for yogi-bitionist aims, yoga can help us move past our objectification. It can help us value ourselves, and genuinely appreciate the humanity of other (cis and trans) women. You can think of it as a form of Aparigraha (non-possessiveness) or alternatively not clinging. Aparigraha tells us that rather than clinging to youth, beauty, age and ability, we can let all that go. In so doing, we can become more generous, and less competitive with others. It suggests that for women who are long-time yoga practitioners, as we age we can view ourselves as worthy of teaching, guiding, leading, or at the bare minimum respecting, the next generation of women. Not remaining in the competition with them for the implied male gaze. Because even without the presence of cis-het men, the visual economy of preferences which they have conjured is still working on us.
I was reminded of Chris Rock’s indictment of the old man in the club. 37, too old to be in the club. I was 37 when this incident took place, and I’m 40 now. The more I go to yoga studios in southern California, the younger the women seem to get. Perhaps the LWL, in a rebuke of father time, wanted to prove to these young women (in which group I personally did not include myself) that she still had it. It is the opposite of what yoga has been about, historically. But, it is a reflection of what happens when yoga is taken up commercially. I’d like to think of yoga as a space where I can bring my whole self. Where I have a right to practice even when I haven’t got on a new outfit (I’mma tell y’all about that time I was outfit-shamed later.) I’m not going to compensate for aging as a woman by becoming a yogi-bitionist. We all deserve better.
Sabrina Strings, Ph.D. is Asst. Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Irvine. Prior to coming to UCI, she was a UC Berkeley Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Fellow with a joint appointment in the School of Public Health and Department of Sociology. She has been featured in The Feminist Wire, Yoga International, and LA Yoga. Her writing can be found in diverse venues, including Ethnic and Racial Studies; Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, Fat Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Body Weight and Society and Feminist Media Studies. She was the recipient of the 2017 Distinguished Contribution to Scholarship Article Award for the Race, Gender and Class section of the American Sociological Association. Her new book is titled Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia (NYU Press 2019). It has been featured on NPR, KPFA and WNYC, as well as three “must read” lists.
NOTE: This post is part of a collaborative media series organized and curated by Omstars and the Yoga & Body Image Coalition intended as a deep dive into yoga & body image.