Embodying transformations: Feminism, the yoga body, and social change

Emanuela Mangiarotti


This chapter explores the common association of yoga with individual and social transformation by combining feminist reflections on the body and the burgeoning field of yoga studies. It argues that these two strands of literature might provide an important ground for debating how the practice of yoga upholds or subverts systems of oppression, relations of privilege and marginality, and forms of violence.

By tracing a connection between conscious experience of embodied self, individual empowerment, and internal and external transformation, yoga is deeply entangled with the power dynamics that make up the contexts of practice (Mangiarotti, 2019). Hence, as yoga increasingly features in projects for self and communal care, including trauma healing and post-conflict reconstruction (Liévano-Karim, 2017; Quiñones et al., 2018; West et al., 2016), a reflection on the contemporary practice of yoga becomes particularly relevant to feminist peace studies agendas.

The first section provides an overview of the various strands of research in modern yoga and introduces the practice as a politics of the body (Bordo, 1999), constituted of and configuring corporeal and social boundaries. It discusses how notions of health, inner peace, and social transformation inform the yoga industry’s ethics of wellness and how practitioners subscribe to a life regime of, experienced by, and inscribed in the body that is meant to transcend physiological boundaries and expand individual and collective awareness.

Based on feminist reflections on the body and corporeality, the second part discusses the belief in yoga’s capacity to bring about internal and external transformation. Relying on a feminist notion of self-care, this part is particularly concerned with how women — as the majority of practitioners — get caught up in and contribute to mould relations of privilege and marginality, as the yoga industry provides a repertoire of practices that adhere to and reproduce an oppressive feminine norm.

The third section discusses feminist contributions that shed light on the challenges and opportunities for a socially committed, militant, and transformative yoga practice. It argues that a similar yoga-feminism nexus requires an engagement with the ethical, political, social, and practical dimensions of contemporary yoga spaces and practices.

Yoga and the politics of the body

Over the past 20 years, Modem Yoga studies has emerged as a self-standing field of research (De Michelis, 2007). The practice of yoga has been explored as part of the wider spirituality and wellness industry (Squarcini and Mori, 2008; Webb et al., 2017) and as a transnational phenomenon (Askegaard and Eckhardt, 2012; Singleton and Byrne, 2008; Strauss, 2005). Some authors have focused on yoga’s development in relation to pop culture Qain, 2015) and the fitness industry (Smith, 2007) and the neoliberal politco-economic regimes (Farah, 2017; Jain, 2020; Rosen, 2019). Yoga studies are also central to Complementary' and Alternative Medicine (CAM) research, especially in regard to its therapeutic outcomes (Barcan, 2011; Kjellgren and Andersson, 2015; Riley, 2004; Sengupta, 2012). Recently, researchers have focused on yoga’s appropriation by, and incorporation into, a Western upper-middle class lifestyle (Alter, 2004; Bar, 2013; Islam, 2012; Musial, 2016). Within this strand of literature, some authors have started to engage with yoga’s transformative potential at the individual and social level (Berila et al., 2016; Bost, 2016; Champ, 2013; Horton and Harvey, 2012; Klein and Guest-Jelley, 2014). New dedicated publications, like the International Journal of Yoga Therapy and the Race and Yoga journal also have started to dig into the different dimensions of the practice.

This scholarship portrays a multifaceted yoga community that shares the commitment to a practice, the benefits of which include but somehow also transcend increasing bodily strength, flexibility, and psychophysical balance (Nevrin, 2008; White, 2011). In that respect, practitioners seem to (re)defme corporeality as the focal point for a yoga promise of wellness, inner peace, and self-realisation. Yoga’s transformative potential is then attributed to an intrinsic capacity to turn the corporeal realm into a laboratory for cultivating peace and self-realisation. For example, my fieldwork on the Italian context shows how, whether by enhancing concentration capacities, opening up transformative spiritual paths or promoting personal growth and a sense of holistic health, yoga provides practitioners with an existential framework for the socially embodied self (Mangiarotti, 2019):

I think it is a good thing that yoga came to the West, because it provides us with an approach to ourselves and our bodies, no? The word yoga comes from the Sanskrit yuk, which means union.. .to reach this union between our body and our soul. For us in the West there is very little contact, almost no relationship between our body and who we really are. There is much identification with the body and very little with our soul...and...it is a big problem in our society, no? Wanting to appear, wanting to possess rather than being and getting in touch with ourselves and others in a real, pure way. So, I think we were lucky that yoga reached us.

(Interview udth F., Iyengar yoga teacher, Genoa, 30 July 2018)

This yoga teacher articulates a politics of the body based on the idea that the yoga body transcends anatomical and physiological boundaries. Similarly, Gabriella Celia Al-Chamali (Al-Chamali, 2010, p. 10) — a renowned yoga teacher and author — writes that “if the body changes, the spirit changes too and if the spirit changes the whole universe transforms”, suggesting that the benefits of yoga are rooted in, but radiate outside, the boundaries of individual bodily experience.

Yoga is thus meant to effect change by facilitating the conscious experience of transformation through a practice of, experienced by, and inscribed in the body (Mangiarotti, 2019, p. 81). Accordingly, as the number of practitioners grow, yoga would invariably contribute to build more peaceful and just societies. For some, this association translates into political and social engagement. The late yoga teacher and spiritual leader Michael Stone writes that

“a commitment to the various meditative paths of yoga is a commitment to opening to the way that our lives really are” (Stone, 2012, p. 155). Waking up to the way things are, argues Stone, means entering the world with a clearer perception of the way racism, patriarchy, nationalism, and heteronormativity regulate our lives. In that sense, the body — as the privileged site of knowledge where we hold memory, wisdom, intelligence, and the pain of trauma — becomes key to enact resistance, build individual empowerment, and effect social change.

And yet, the link between yoga and social transformation seems at odds with the growth of urban yoga spaces deeply entrenched with a capitalist consumer culture. Today the discipline is often associated with committing to a healthy, cleansing, and proper life regime. The yoga community is more clearly identifiable with liberal individuals on a path to holistic wellness, rather than with communities affected by marginalisation and political violence. In fact, those communities also are increasingly excluded from the politics of urban regeneration of which yoga studios have become an integral part (Musial, 2016, p. 158). The industry’s embeddedness in the Western (and global) consumer culture means that the yoga community cannot shy away from issues of accessibility, cultural appropriation, social control, and (re)marginalisation of specific groups and communities, at least when claiming a yogic ethics of self and collective care.

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