A Look at How Yoga Became a Tool for Women's Empowerment and Activism

Feminism and yoga changed my life. In fact, I often credit them for saving my life and they just so happened to come into my life around the same time. 

For me, both of them are synonymous with freedom, and I see them as the keys to liberation.

It's why the film Yogawoman resonated with me immediately - a film that explores the evolution of yoga from it’s patriarchal roots and lineage of male teachers to the diverse array of dynamic women practicing and teaching yoga round the word. 

Yogawoman examines how yoga has transformed and empowered women individually while simultaneously inspiring their activism, community organizing, and global commitment to women and all living beings.

I had the pleasure of meeting the film's producer and director, Kate Clere McIntyre in October.
 
MK: As a Women's Studies professor, long-time yoga practitioner and feminist, I was beyond ecstatic that a film was looking at many of the things I had been witnessing and thinking about for several years. What inspired you to make this film?

KCM: We were interested why the ancient Indian practice of yoga, designed for men thousands of years ago, had become so relevant and popular for women in today’s society. How women teachers have become such role models for modern women. 

With 17 million American women doing yoga, we wanted to uncover how and where yoga was being used and why so many women flocked to this activity. That it wasn’t only stressed and over-scheduled city women finding peace and balance, but also women in prisons, hospitals, shelters and slums were also finding strength and solace through yoga.

What was the most surprising aspect of making this documentary?

Sitting at the kitchen table when we first created Yogawoman, we decided that we would only include women talking about women. So we traveled the world looking for women to tell their story about how yoga was working for them and their communities. 

I had no idea about how powerful these women were going to be. Almost every day of filming we were blown away by the caliber of these strong, authentic women. As I sat in the cinema for the first preview screening, I was captured by the radical life-affirming quality of seeing these 50 women (only women) sharing about their lives on the big screen. 

So rare to see 50 women on screen in all their different shapes and sizes and celebrating who they truly were. Watching Yogawoman, I was taken aback by how radical and important it is to watch real women talking about their lives.

Absolutely! Women's stories, their lives and their voices, are still grossly underrepresented. It's a huge loss for all of us, especially when there are so many remarkable women doing fantastic work in this world. Why do you think these stories important?

There has been a strong reaction from around the world from the audience watching Yogawoman. A sense of inclusiveness as the practice of yoga weaves women's lives together; as they seek to find a sense of themselves, a sense of peace and balance, strength and authenticity. 

The women in the film are articulate, empowered, vulnerable and seeking to be fully accepting of themselves. There are still too few stories of this nature being told so it is vital that we start to see more role models and retell more stories that support women in this way. 

Yogawoman looks into the possibility of women choosing a life for ourselves that enables us to make conscious choices around what we do, what we eat, listen to, purchase and say. 

The women in the film are not looking for perfect lives, but looking for tools to use in the midst of their daily lives to find some peace, balance and a sense of their own beauty and power. 

Yogawoman does not provide miracles for happiness rather gives life examples and inspiring stories of how the path of yoga can offer women daily practices that enable us to breathe easy and find contentment with all that we are.
 
I agree. I also appreciated the diversity of stories and voices in the film. In fact, the film follows several women around the word practicing yoga. How did you find them all?

Research, Research and Research – Then we began our shoot in NYC filming at a Yoga conference where we filmed some of the top women yoga teachers from around the world. 

Meeting these women started our journey. We have found that when making a film we have to get out of the way and let the film start to tell its own story. So once we started meeting women we would hear about other women doing amazing work. We would then go and film them and find out about others and so on. 

We also worked to include the top women scientists, doctors, scholars and social commentators who are working with yoga. The challenge of course is to accept who is included and who ends up on the cutting floor. Some wonderful stories did not make the film. We do intend to release additional footage one day soon!!!

To me, this very much a feminist film. Do you consider yourself a feminist? Do you consider this a feminist film?

Yes, definitely a feminist. I was born with a strong sense of equality and as a teenager had a great appetite for the feminist movement of the 70's and 80's, the mentors, the books, the music, the new opportunities.

My physicality and spirituality have both always been very important to me so yoga was and is, a great fit. 

I think experiencing my own strength through the practice provides the perfect soil for feminism. How we stand and move and respond physically gives shape to our thoughts and feelings. From my own experience, I see yoga itself as a feminist practice for women.

Yogawoman looks at the lives of 50 women who are seeking to find a sense of self acceptance and strength through yoga. When we watch these women on screen we see empowered women, making choices that allow them to be healthy, strong and proactive.
 
The film gives examples of women practicing yoga through cancer, in jail, giving birth, living in slums, uptown- right across the board the audience experiences this practice supporting women as they support themselves.

You mention the patriarchal history of yoga in the film, do you have any thoughts on the contemporary mainstream yoga culture's take on feminism and the place of women at large, especially within yoga? The reason I ask is because, from my experience, women's rights and feminism often take back seats to things like animal rights and food politics. 

I do think we have just begun this discussion in the mainstream around feminism and yoga. As we toured with the film, women in many cities across the world shared how moved they were to see their lives reflected in Yogawoman.

So rarely are women’s lives portrayed in an authentic way on the big screen. So rarely are we seeing women making choices outside of the commercial culture we are so often served up.

Although we have the statistics of so many women attending classes, Yogawoman has provided a great platform in which to uncover the broad scope of how women have reshaped yoga to support women throughout their ever changing life cycles. Through their own need and their sense of reaching out, women yoga teachers spend their lives finding language, spaces and opportunities so yoga can reach the masses.

In the film, yoga teacher Donna Farhi states “Yoga is one of the most politically subversive activities of our time.”

For women to take back their own power, to take back their own wisdom and choices, to accept and celebrate their own shape, colour, age and size creates fertile soil in which feminism can take root and grow.

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About the Author
Melanie Klein is a writer, speaker, professor of Sociology and Women’s Studies at Santa Monica College and body image activist. She is the adviser of the Santa Monica College Feminist Majority Leadership Alliance, and founder and co-coordinator of Women, Action Media! Los Angeles. Melanie attributes feminism and yoga as the two primary influences in her work, and is committed to consciousness-raising, promoting media literacy, healing distorted body images and cultivating healthy body relationships. Founder of the blog FeministFatale, her work may also be found at Adios Barbie , Elephant Journal, Intent.com, Ms. Magazine and WIMN’s Voices. She is featured in the forthcoming book, Conversations with Modern Yogis. Her essay on yoga, body image and feminism appears in Curvy Voices and her extended chapter on the same topic is included in the anthology, 21st Century Yoga: Culture, Politics and Practice.
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