The Academic Feminist: Melanie Klein on Yoga and Feminism

mel_laughWelcome back, Academic Feminists! As an academic feminist and long-time yoga practitioner, I’ve always been fascinated by the connections between yoga and feminism. When a piece published last month on xoJane set off a firestorm surrounding issues of race, gender, and neo-colonialism in Western yoga classrooms, it became clearer than ever that having conversations about these connections is extremely important. Today’s interviewee, Melanie Klein has written extensively on these issues, including in the forthcoming book Yoga + Body Image, which she co-edited. Klein is a writer, speaker and Associate Faculty member at Santa Monica College, where she teaches Sociology and Women’s Studies. You can learn more about her work on Twitter – @feministfatale and @YogaBodyImage - and on Facebook – Feminist Fatale and Yoga + Body Image.

1) You credit feminism and yoga with being the two main influences of your work. Can you describe how the two are linked for you?

Ultimately, for me, they’re both equally about raising consciousness, wiping the fog from the mirror, seeing the world (including ourselves) through fresh eyes, thereby moving in the world from an authentic and grounded place. And, in the end, this means we’re capable of being a more effective agent for social change, whether you’re making changes in your home, the workplace, the media or politics.

Feminism provided the intellectual and ideological framework to recognize, deconstruct, analyse and critique the structured inequality that is the hallmark of the system of patriarchy. That veil was lifted when I found feminism and my first mentor, a Radical Marxist feminist who is now well into her eighties. One of my biggest “a-ha” or “click” moments is when I realized, “It’s not me! It’s patriarchy.” 

Up until then, I felt I wasn’t smart enough, capable enough, pretty enough – just not enough. Period. I came to realize that I wasn’t intrinsically unlovable or without value because I had battled body image demons since early childhood or experienced psychological and emotional abuse in a toxic long-term relationship that started when I was 14.

Feminism also helped alleviate the feelings of shame and isolation that I felt – that I was the only one with these feelings and experiences and they happened to me because there was something wrong with me. Understanding that the problem was the system, not me as an individual was liberating in the sense that I no longer felt defective. That understanding simultaneously compelled me into action and that initial calling has fueled my work for the last 20 years.

I discovered yoga two years after I officially declared myself a feminist. This was long before yoga became a commodity and an industry – yoga fashion and Photoshopped yoga cover models hadn’t been invented yet. Shortly after I started practicing, my friend took me to an old dance loft in downtown Santa Monica, a historic space devoid of a retail space or costly membership. I was highly sceptical of this thing called “power yoga.” But the teacher, Bryan Kest, rocked my world. I am sure the physicality of the practice was appealing given my obsession with working out at the time, but it was the rhetoric that floored me. He was transparent, edgy and challenged all the mainstream values I had been bombarded with my whole life – competitiveness, pushing beyond my boundaries and striving for a set goal. He also didn’t put on airs or try to set a “yoga mood” with candles, incense or dimmed lights. Not that those things don’t have their place, but at times they can feel inauthentic.

Flickering candles don’t make the practice. Your mind set makes the practice – and you have to work on it. You have to face your material. You come up against challenges. Like any spiritual work or activism, it is a practice and takes work. One of his famous tag lines is “If you bring your shit into yoga, you turn your yoga into shit.” This was a stripped down, bare bones, gritty practice that spoke to me on many levels. And this practice was a tool that supported and deepened my feminism.

Yoga gave me a tool to practice insight, awareness, compassion, kindness, acceptance and self-love while giving me a space and community to dive in and face the challenges of my cultural socialization, lessons and stories deeply rooted in my psyche and physical body. It allowed me to deprogram the default setting and create a tangible paradigm shift. For the first time since childhood, I felt comfortable in my own skin.

Between the two, the mind-body was addressed. Feminism gave me my intellectual grounding and yoga provided the practice to embody and live these teachings.

2) You and Anna Guest-Jelley of Curvy Yoga have a forthcoming book on yoga and body image and, in addition what you mention above, you’ve written before on the topic. Trace some of those connections for Feministing readers.

Yeah, like I said, feminism and yoga were inextricably connected for me. When it comes to my own body image, they were instrumental in ending the war I had waged on myself; from cutting to excessive calorie restricting, binging and purging, as well as compulsive exercise. Punishing my body for not conforming to my desires and the culture’s expectations was routine. By coming into a place of balance and harmony, I was able to channel my time and energy into other directions and become a more active participant in my personal and civic life.

That’s why body image issues are so important to me – far too many people are crippled by low self-esteem and spend an exorbitant amount of time and money chasing an ephemeral and elusive beauty ideal. And that’s a loss for the entire society. That time, money and energy could be used to cultivate skills and talents aside of one’s body project. And, obviously, we could be working on solving pressing political, social and economic issues if we weren’t completely tangled in this body image web.

Feminism and my yoga practice represented an awakening. They provided emotional, mental and physical freedom and I’ve long touted the positive benefits of each of them operating in unison in my life.

But that’s not the case for everyone. Many feminists are turned off by yoga culture and the burgeoning yoga industry that reproduces many of the toxic images and messages that the practice itself has the capacity to minimize and silence in their power. And, as a result, the subversive nature of the practice is often discounted and dismissed. It’s unfortunate – yoga practice and yoga culture are not the same thing.

And then in the yoga world, I see the –isms being reproduced with a lack of consciousness about why and how this is happening. In fact, too often, yoga culture will accuse individuals of being “unyogic” for calling out sexist tropes and the lack of diversity in mainstream yoga publications. And as yoga increases in popularity I see more and more teachers teaching physical yoga like an aerobic classes complete with fat shaming and a focus on the purely physical.

“Come on, another down dog to burn off that stick of gum you chewed.”

“Summer is around the corner, time to sweat it out.”

This language is completely counter to yoga. Then again, that’s not yoga in the first place. But many people believe it is – a new workout routine as opposed to a moving meditation that increases awareness and consciousness. That stuff is potent! There’s a ton of research touting the virtues of meditation. I can’t even begin to link them but they are all out there.

Based on my tangible experiences as a result of a consistent practice, I was compelled to share the transformational elements the practice has to offer, specifically as related to body image. When I met my co-editor, Anna Guest-Jelley, I knew I had found the perfect partner. Not only does she have a feminist consciousness and academic background, but her work is committed to making yoga accessible to every body, not just white, thin bodies capable of mind-blowing acrobatic feats.

3) Yoga and Body Image features a diverse cast of characters – from internationally-known yogis like Seane Corn, to singer Alannis Morissette. What are some of your favorite pieces?

Ah, that’s not a fair question! I can’t go picking favorites now. Anna and I went through a painstaking and diligent process in inviting our contributors and supporting them in crafting their stories. I really do love them equally.

The main point of this book was certainly to share the empowering, liberating and transformational experiences our contributors experienced on the mat in relationship to their bodies and their body image (and the essays are successful in doing that). While we could have written the book on our own positive experiences, we wanted to include a diverse array of voices with a variety of experiences that could speak to a larger audience. As a feminist sociologist, the last thing I wanted was a book about white women practicing yoga and white women with body image issues. People of all ages, sizes, ethnicities, gender identities, socioeconomic positions and states of physical fitness do, can and should practice yoga. And body image issues are not limited to white women within a specific demographic. We wanted to break through those molds, expand the conversation and inspire people to practice who never thought yoga was for them for whatever reason.

As a whole, the book distinguishes between yoga practice and yoga culture. Seane Corn talks about being a publicly aging yoga cover model. Rolf Gates touts the virtues of his practice in re-establishing a connection to his body in a white supremacist culture that only celebrated his body when it was performing as a “prized race horse.”

The essays also examine racism and white privilege, heterosexism and homophobia, gender identity, class, sizeism and ableism. Chelsea Jackson and Dianne Bondy have powerful pieces concentrating on race and size, Nita Rubio writes about coming to claim her body in joy and love as her own through a feminist awakening and a practice that led her to find beauty from the inside out, and Bryan Kest writes a moving piece exposing violent masculinity.

Together, they accomplish what Anna and I originally intended to do; inspire, engage and speak to readers while offering them new perspectives and points of view. This book wouldn’t work if all 25 essays weren’t presented as a whole.

And Anna and I feel incredibly fortunate that our agent, Frank Weiman, and his assistant, Elyse Tanzillo, who worked with Anna and I on the proposal and shopped our book around in search of the right publishing company, as well as Angela Wix at Llewellyn believed in our vision. They didn’t ask us to cut the critical analysis or go with a pastel-hued book cover featuring the usual homogenous yoga imagery that floods the pop culture.

4) You recently referred to your activism as a spiritual practice. How does this work in your everyday life?

Like feminism and yoga, these two things go together. One can’t exist without the other. My spiritual practice provides the awareness and self-care required to work as an agent of change and activism is a spiritual practice that requires introspection, awakening, conscious responsibility and action.

Watch Melanie describe what it means to understand activism as a spiritual practice here:

Extra Credit!

In addition to the above linked materials, you can find more information on the topics discussed below, including some of the work of contributors to the Yoga + Body Image (YBI) collection. Add additional links in comments and, as always, please send suggestions for future Academic Feminist interviewees here.

293148_10150356961987265_6089438_nGwendolyn Beetham curates this series for Feministing. When she’s not interviewing academic feminists, she’s working as a freelance researcher, teaching college students about feminism and practicing yoga.

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