Dim Your Light for No One: The Yoga of Gender Politics
This election cycle has stirred up a lot of mud, but in doing so, it has brought to light some of the darker realities within us all. An earth-shattering moment happened for me when I recognized how misogyny had crept into my personal relationships, totally accepted and even perpetrated by me. As a life-long yogi, I decided to take a moment to look at the teachings of my guru and the science of yoga around male/female roles and how we might learn from them. I should begin with a brief disclaimer: I am not up to date on my feminist literature, the only class I took on the subject was more than 15 years ago. I am, however, a woman and a life-long yogi. I also did work for a global women’s empowerment organization for five years. This topic is near and dear to my heart. I was sitting on the couch a few weeks ago, watching the Frontline documentary about Clinton and Trump called The Choice. The narrator was describing the times when Hillary had been forced to play the role of “happy homemaker” in order for Bill to win his elections both as governor of Arkansas and President of the United States. Through the narrative of Hillary’s life, I saw for the first time how I had chosen to “dim my light” or hide my talents at certain times in order to make my male partner, friend or colleague feel better about himself. I had down-played the fact that I made more money or had more authority, I made certain to stroke his ego in order that he not feel “emasculated” by who I am. Although I’m speaking as if this is something I did in response to a requirement imposed by the men in my life, it is not. I am surrounded by wonderful men. I did this all the time and I did not do it because my male counterparts asked me to; I did it because I thought it was required to have a healthy relationship and maintain harmony. On some deep level, I felt that men needed to feel that they are “in charge” or that they measure up to greater outward success than their female counterparts in order to be happy. This is, of course, the opposite of what the yogic teachings would encourage; we’re trying to overcome the ego, so if it is being challenged by the capabilities of our partner then it’s time to grow, to learn, to surrender. In recognizing this very subtle form of sexism in my own self, I began to look around me for examples of how women and men might ideally treat each other and express themselves. I know from my brief encounter with feminist literature that the movement has been through some major phases…things like bra burning, short hair and shoulder pads to helicopter parenting, “leaning in” and pantsuits. We’ve moved from trying to be like men, to trying to do it all to, finally, trying to bring men along in the shifting self-definitions. Written 70 years ago, during a time when women still had very few rights, my guru Paramhansa Yogananda gave a clue to harmonious gender dynamics in his spiritual classic, The Autobiography of a Yogi. He used his own parents as archetypes for a balanced relationship that appreciates innate gender tendencies, “Father, Bhagabati Charan Ghosh, was kind, grave, at times stern. Loving him dearly, we children yet observed a certain reverential distance. An outstanding mathematician and logician, he was guided principally by his intellect. But Mother was a queen of hearts, and taught us only through love. After her death, Father displayed more of his inner tenderness. I noticed then that his gaze often metamorphosed into my mother’s.”
What I love about this brief passage is how Yogananda said his father took on qualities of his mother after her death. That was a revolutionary idea in 1946, when gender definitions were stone cold solid. The higher teachings of yoga show that gender is just one of the many self definitions that must be released to find perfect freedom in God. All creation exists to teach us something and gender is no different. Interestingly, you will find nearly every Indian God to have a Goddess as his counterpart: Krishna with Radha, Rama with Sita, Shiva with Parvati and on and on. The point isn’t that heterosexual marital love is the key to liberation, the point is that to reach spiritual perfection we must find perfect balance and harmony within. Gods and Goddesses are India’s way of personifying God that we might comprehend Her/Him; a concept so vast that it cannot be expressed in any single entity…case-in-point, which to call God: Him or Her?! Yogananda wrote at length about the love he had for his earthly mother and the anguish he experienced at her untimely death. He went on to describe how in the depth of his despair, Divine Mother set him straight, “It is I who have watched over thee, life after life, in the tenderness of many mothers! See in My gaze the two black eyes, the lost beautiful eyes, thou seekest!” His devotion to God as Divine Mother is one of the zillion reasons that I love him. Some people, myself included, have been offended or upset when Yogananda or his disciple, Swami Kriyananda have made generalizations about gender tendencies. We are sensitive to not be put in a box and expected to express only those tendencies that are ascribed to our particular gender. Very understandable, but, that’s not the point. The point is that the soul has no gender and that we are all seeking balance within ourselves. Gender stereotypes are merely a means to have a discussion about the balance between heart and mind, wisdom (Gyana) and devotion (Bhakti). In considering the litany of self definitions that I seem to embrace, gender is one among many: woman, mother, wife, yogi, American, Irish-Catholic, Dutch-Jew, college-graduate, Kriyaban, Sevaka, liberal, professional. All of these have a list of “tendencies” or “stereotypes” associated with them that I seem to embrace without much question. So, why do I get so offended when generalizations are made about my gender? Probably because the socially imposed norms for women are limiting, degrading and dis-empowering. Hillary has had to adapt to a society that is ill-prepared to have a woman leader and I admire her tenacity, perseverance and dedication.
Today of all days, I am heartened by the service that this election has rendered to the discussion of misogyny and sexism, just as I was heartened by Obama’s campaign and the light it shed on issues of race. I am grateful to have uncovered a new layer of prejudice in my own self and feel one step closer to being a full expression of me. May women and men everywhere never dim their light. May we all find joy in the journey to Self-realization.