What’s in an “Om”?: How Women are Transforming Yoga

I have an Indian friend I do yoga with occasionally in Cambridge. She confessed that as much as she loves it, she draws the line at Om.  

“I just can’t do it,” she told me, using the same words I have employed to explain why I refuse to take communion, even with mild Episcopalians, or say that part about “under God” during the pledge of allegiance. 

But I can Om with the best of them, and once I get over that initial self-consciousness, I rather enjoy the thrum in my chest—especially when I can’t differentiate between what originates from my own body and what penetrates my rib cage from the sound of those around me. And when Yogawoman landed in Boston last week, I was in the theater for the screening, closing my eyes and following the guidance of the woman who was introducing the film. “If it moves you, take a deep breath in…,” she told the audience, pausing, “…and out.”  

Made by Australian filmmaker Kate Clere McIntyre, in collaboration with her husband Michael McIntyre and sister Saraswati Clere, the film is a love letter to yoga—for urban women in lululemon pants, yes, but also for women fighting cancer and women who are large, for girls locked up in juvie and kids in a Nairobi slum, for women trying to find a lost libido and women about to give birth. 

More than fifty women and girls cross the screen in an hour and half. Their bodies are flowing through vinyasas in packed classes, teaching and being taught. Their heads are talking, telling us their conversion stories. Seane Corn of Off the Mat recalls her ah-ha moment at 23, as she walked down the street one day at a time in her life when nothing was going particularly well. Yet she was happy. “Could it be the yoga?” she marveled. Yogawoman, narrated by the ever-graceful Annette Bening, is all-encompassing; which is both a strength and a bit of a weakness. Each small segment seems to hold the kernel of an entire story, and you can tell that the filmmakers wanted to include it all.  

And what of religion in this mix of motion? Take Back Yoga folks, should they see the film, will probably get their kurtas tied up in a serious knot. Yoga’s religious undertones and roots in Hinduism (and Buddhism and Jainism, lest we or the Hindu traditionalists forget) are glanced over, used mostly as a set up to juxtapose the male dominance of the practice over the last couple thousand years. The film tells us that women once naturally inhabited the realm of yoga practice, until the staid Brahmin men got a hold of it and reined in the power of mortal women in the public sphere, relegating feminine powers to the goddesses alone.  

It was Indian men, too, who brought the practice to the West, but there has been a massive shift in the last generation. Now it is women who have become what Kate Clere McIntyre describes as “modern-day evangelists, getting up on their yoga platform” and finding ways to push women to do things they think they can’t do, to step away for just a moment from family and responsibility to other; from careers and mass media imagery of who they should be and what they should look like.  

At first, Michael McIntyre admits, he wasn’t sure why they weren’t making a documentary on yoga, as opposed to women and yoga. I wondered the same thing. Isn’t the stereotype of men that they are even more out of touch with their bodies than women; overscheduled and torn between conflicting demands that don’t allow a minute for introspection, contemplation, or the stillness from which groundedness is born? All these reasons are why the film claims women should do the practice. But Michael came to believe that they were documenting something momentous, and women were leading it. “As a man going to classes taught by men, I was getting the practice, but not the phenomenon,” he said. “Women are taking it to the next level.”

I have stayed with yoga for more than half my life, always finding sustenance in it for both my body and my mind. But I have also grappled with a resistance to fully immersing myself in its community or the language of the “journey” that is often used. This reveals my own stubbornness more than anything else. Like the language of religion, the vocabulary is loaded when it comes to yoga. I resist the tones of narcissism: it’s all about me and my journey and my personal development. 

But what—really—are the religious fundamentals of yoga if not this focus on self-actualization? It is a journey, with one’s body and mind the traveling partners, and (as some of the film segments show) an extension to service to a wider community. Stretch the body, still the mind, seek the union, the yoking, that is what the word yoga literally means.   

Yoga is a Sanskrit word,” Michael said when I pressed him on the religion question. “No doubt about it. It’s a spiritual practice. I think people have a spiritual experience with it.”  

And the Om? Mantras can take many forms, find use in many settings. One scene from the film has stayed with me, taken at a girls’ juvenile detention center in Palo Alto, CA. Based on the work of nurse Mary Lynn Fitton, the Art of Yoga Project brings yoga to girls who are incarcerated. Tempers flare within the concrete walls of the center, but one supervisor says that when one girl is losing it, the others will throw her a life rope. “Do an Om!” they cry to their angry comrade, “Do an Om!” 

The film says that up to 90% of girls who find themselves locked up in their teenage years have been sexually abused. There on a gymnasium floor, in loose gray sweatpants, their faces blurred to protect their privacy, the camera circles them as they bend and reach. They can give a subtle sign if they don’t wish to be touched, but one girl who is open to the contact is extended in child’s pose, the front of her body pressed against the floor, arms reaching out. The teacher comes up behind her and gently presses down on her sacrum—a Latin word derived from the Greek hieron osteon or “sacred bone”, from the belief that the soul resides there. I have known the positive jolt of electricity that I have felt in yoga classes when a teacher’s hands helped me move deeper into a position. But to think of these girls, who have not been the recipients of gentle touch, it must be monumental in terms of healing. A child in child’s pose. Teaching a girl on her way to becoming a woman how to feel her body and trust it and push it.  

Academic, storyteller and friend Julie Byrne recently wrote this in a piece for Frequencies, a “genealogy of spirituality”:  

Tell the children that they can see through the powers that be. Tell the children that they can choose to believe this and not that. Tell them that their bodies are theirs for the making.

Something was happening to the girls and women of Yogawoman. Call it religious. Or spiritual. Or good for your posture. Or whatever. But next time you get pissed off, just think of a teenage girl with tattoos and sweats, giving you a way out. “Do an Om!”

 

For those interested in seeing the film for yourself, there’s a Yogawoman screening in New York City this Thursday, and more in theaters and living rooms around the world.

meerasub@gmail.com'

Meera Subramanian is senior editor of Killing the Buddha and writes about culture, faith and the environment for The New York Times, Audubon, Salon.com, Grist, Search, and others.