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Feminism Wrecked My Yoga Class

Reflections on Critique and Freedom by Karen Kachra.

In the winter of 2003 I was attending two courses. One was a university graduate seminar on the work of Michel Foucault, the French theorist; the other was an introductory course in tantra yoga, the yoga of sexuality, taught at my local yoga studio. Both ran once a week for three hours. Both called me into question – who I was, who I wanted to become.

For one of the sessions of the graduate course a woman who I’ll call ‘Elaine’ (not her real name) had the task of preparing a short question for us to apply to that week’s reading, Foucault’s The Use of Pleasure. Elaine unleashed ... and complained (over and over again) that Foucault did not theorize female sexuality. “Where is the woman’s perspective?” Elaine argued that Foucault ought to have criticized Greek sexual culture for its patriarchy and for its sexual oppression of women. In addition, Foucault did not take adequate account of the fact that women “and other oppressed groups” have many more constraints, and are liable to greater risks, in their attempts to oppose the way things are normally done. She made it obvious that she put Foucault in the camp of ‘privileged White males’ and so he seemed to her to naturally suffer from a lack of insight: if he was calling for people to transform and create new relations of self-governance, then he ought to at least acknowledge that women ‘and other oppressed groups’ cannot do this very easily. She used an example of a female rape victim speaking the truth during a rape trial and not being taken seriously, being subject to moralizing judgment, and effectively silenced. At the same time, she seemed also to be saying that Foucault failed to appreciate that women were not totally passive beings (as ancient Greek men assumed) and that they could not be considered merely as sexual objects, unworthy of consideration in their own right. Elaine’s comments set the tone for the seminar.

Without getting into the validity of Elaine’s conclusions, what struck me was the self-assurance of this feminist critique. She was utterly comfortable leveling these charges, impugning Foucault’s motives, and along the way supposing the utter inadequacy of sexual lifestyles in ancient Greek society. Her comfort took on a dogmatic tone that one finds in some feminist literature. A tone that goes along with an exasperated sigh: “look, even here, in one of our vaunted philosophers of freedom, women are yet again slighted, ignored, victimized. Yet again I have to be the one to point out that women are owed much more than this man gives them. And I will take it in our name.”

Needless to say, I find this approach tedious and not very enriching. It makes a political point because it is able to do so. Such tirades often get a sympathetic response in graduate seminars, to be sure. But in their wake, the relevance and the nature of women and their sexual practices and pleasures are never really up for grabs (Greek or otherwise). Those things are foregone conclusions; they have simply failed to be accounted for by person X (here, substitute Foucault). Also, one gets the sense that it is simply not alright – no reasons offered – to do an analysis that is not a feminist critique. Or rather, one proceeds at one’s peril if one is not performing a feminist critique. Indeed, Elaine’s barrage of complaints could be boiled down to the charge that Foucault fails to do a feminist critique of Greek sexuality. Yes! Foucault is doing something else – he has, conveniently, stated what he is attempting to do. Foucault is not Catherine MacKinnon, nor should we expect him to be. Obviously it is worth thinking critically about Foucault’s studies and his claims. It is worth asking why Foucault focused on certain texts and gave certain explanations rather than others (for example, why did he not include the work of Sappho, or, why did he make Diogenes so central?) But I take it that the point of thinking critically about Foucault is to gain clarity and find real limits to the framework he is using. The kind of ‘raging feminist assertions’ leveled by someone like Elaine could not, by contrast, be called critical thinking, precisely because they do not expose their own momentum to questioning. Elaine does not, in short, allow Foucault’s work to call into question her own presuppositions about gender, about what it is to be free, about how sexuality is experienced, about what oppression can be, and more.

Is there then some truth in the observation that feminists are prone to taking their anti-sexist premises as immutable, or better immunized, standards of judgment? So that it seems possible to throw some theories out wholesale on the basis that they do not empower women, or that they do not ‘get’ what women can do? Such that, if feminist credos do not mix with philosophy X, then so much the worse for philosophy X, often with little examination of whether feminism should (or even could) come out of the encounter intact and unchanged?

That same week I had another, inversely, frustrating experience, this time at tantra yoga class. At the beginning of each class participants spent some time giving their impressions on the assigned text. (Usually there is no textual component to a yoga course, but our teacher aspired to give us some philosophical context to our class experiments.) On the week in question, we had been assigned a book by John Deimos. Personally, I strongly disliked his theory – I had, one might say, a feminist reaction to it. Deimos spins a story about Feminine and Masculine sexual essences and describes them in stereotypically patriarchal fashion. Women (basically, those who have Feminine essences) are ‘like Hawaii’: lush, creative, fertile, supportive, free-spirited and nurturing. They like to love and be loved and are devoted to their lovers. They are not really concerned about mental achievements; it was said that to the extent that they become good at ‘taking on the world’ modern women become more and more alienated from who they really are, and consequently from the kind of sexual relationships they really want. Men, as you might by now imagine, are on this picture ‘like New York City’: full of ambition, bustling, dominant, aggressive, go-getters who are driven and savvy and who are often ‘great minds.’ To the extent that modern men have learned to be caring, supportive and sensitive males, they harbor a discontent from not (at least sexually) expressing their true skyscraper nature. Deimos’s basic argument is that we should transcend the idea of gender equality-sameness and allow ourselves to be passive/active with each other, depending, of course, on what one’s true essence is. All of this struck me as, to put it mildly, far-fetched. (Besides, I was already corrupted from having read volume one of Foucault’s History of Sexuality.) Some of Deimos’s observations about why contemporary relationships have problems and why men and women have conflicted gender identities and aspirations made some sense. There was also a certain appealing quality in the very simplicity of his approach – did it not but reflect the great cosmic yin-yang? In any case, I remained quite skeptical about his judgments.

In class, however, only one of the other eight students said anything at all negative about the material! I knew these people to be university students and graduates; they were not dumb. Why was nobody thinking critically about all this fluff? Why were all these women (the class was for women only; we happened to have various ethnic backgrounds) identifying so much with this depiction of womanhood that smacked of a convenient submission to, and justification of, the current patriarchal order of things? One participant actually said she felt enlightened by the book and relieved that she could now accept her feminine essence. Another said she ‘devoured’ the book in two days, and instantly connected with Deimos’s approach. Even the lone student who had negative things to say about the book belittled her own criticisms, saying that she did, after all, find the book rewarding ... and she thought that her problems with it had to do with her entirely too practical Wisconsin upbringing which made her baulk, in particular, at the suggestion that women are like Hawaii and men are like New York. I kept thinking about steak eating, cattle rustlin’, macho-man small town America – was it Feminine just because it was rural? Were there no Feminine cities, simply because skyscrapers resemble penises? And what about the sexual essence of San Francisco?

Still, I am not sure whether my yoga class or my graduate seminar disturbed me more that week. In an institution of ‘higher’ learning, supposedly reflective graduate students took self-righteous pot-shots while maintaining a palpable disconnect between the feminist party line and the practices they perform and endure every day. In fact, in the two hours we reflected on Foucault, nobody could come up with a single real-life example of self-transformation. Meanwhile, as tantric yoginis, we were in the very process of reworking how we experienced not only our sexuality but more generally our bodies, our world, our thoughts, our hearts. By doing. But none of those students seemed to think critically about what it meant for them to do so. They did not ask about the terms on and by which such transformations were supposed to take place. If tantra is about discovering that one has always been, ‘deep down,’ like Hawaii, then what is there left to do or say? What is the point of applying the askesis of yoga practice in the first place? To my mind, not much.

Is there a common element in these two scenarios? The need to hold what one brings to the table up for grabs, at least in moments of reflection. Which is perhaps why Elaine could learn as much from my tantra classmates as they could from her. It is why I have tried to temper my feminist irritation at Deimos’s text. For while my feminist beliefs might be reassuring and necessary and insightful, and many other things, the fact remains that they may not be true. Or at least not the whole truth.

Is there in fact a sort of crippling self-imposed blindness at work in certain critical discourses that refuse to consider whether their subjects are generally more submissive or more nurturing, generally are more violent or more expressive? Not once-and-for-all are, nor essentially are, but simply are, right here and now. Very hot buttons to push, suspiciously hot. Maybe we are self-constituting (and constituted) in ways that yield crucial differences that are not, as it so conveniently turns out for many theories, fundamentally equivalent. Our status and our deserts as equal beings does not derive from the real gendered, raced, and sexualized practices that constitute our subjectivity as persons, but from a language that scopes over these differences as irrelevant. These differences may certainly be irrelevant to considerations of moral worth or to considerations of justice – as indeed I think they are – but they may nevertheless make us fundamentally different beings who can do and who do in fact do fundamentally different things. They may not be irrelevant – far from it, perhaps crucial – to understanding things like reasoning and freedom. What, I wonder, is the problem with understanding things in this way? Because the feminist in me is already starting to object. And yet when I’m on the yoga mat the surest truth is that the ways I can and can not do things have to do with who I am, not in essence, but where I’m at, as we say; what I have to work with, and what ‘range of motion’ my mind-body can withstand on that day. These are realities that cannot be postulated away. New freedoms, perhaps, have to be worked into existence.


Karen Kachra is a graduate student at Northwestern University in Chicago.

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