Why I am not a yogini

The word yogini has a long and complex history within yoga. Its usage has always been as political as it is religious. Within modern yoga, yogini is a term that has been used by female practitioners, particularly yoga teachers, to claim something specific and shared about women’s experiences in yoga – modern hatha yoga in particular. It’s often associated with a shared if nuanced idea of a female form of divinity. It carves out a space, away from mainstream yoga, by women who are attempting to reconcile with patriarchal aspects of the practice. It also carves out a space for spiritual practice that is beyond the patriarchal religious landscape of Europe and America. In this way ‘yogini’ borrows power from a mythical, idealised idea of what a yogini might be, to set against the spiritual ideal of either yogi or nun, and in contrast with the very complex and real history of the term.

In Indian history the word yogini has meant many things. I am not a Sanskrit scholar, but to my understanding, the word has meant goddess but also demon, disciple but also witch. When it has been used to mean ‘practitioner’, this has not been consistent with what we recognise as modern transnational yoga practice.

Yogini is, above all, a word freighted with history, with religious identity and so with politics, a word steeped in the various traditions of South Asia, and Hinduism in particular. As a result, many Indian and South Asian people are made understandably uncomfortable when it is used by white women with little idea of its orginal context.

Yogini is used not only as a self-identified label, but also to signify groups of mutual support and belonging. The kind of yoga teachers who most commonly use the word ‘yogini’ to apply to themselves, also use ‘yoginis’ to describe groups without checking that everyone in them is female. Despite apparent appearances, not everyone who ‘looks female’ to you is a woman. There are many mainstream environments where we are also assumed to be all ‘girls’ or ‘ladies’ together when we are not. And just because terms such as non-binary and gender non-conforming are becoming more commonly used, does not mean that the people they apply to are a recent phenomenon.

The use of the term ‘yoginis’ to apply to a circle of people is thus used to signify a specific kind of space: one that is exclusive, carved out, separated, and ‘single sex’, and the people that might be excluded by that usage are not new. But also, the history of single sex spaces in feminism is not as simple as we might think. Overwhelmingly, the historical fight of feminist pioneers was for mixed spaces, for inclusion, whilst the forces of conservatism fought to maintain separate spaces for women, so that they – we – would not pollute masculine environments.

The fight for women’s colleges, women’s public bathrooms, women’s sports, was a second-best solution – the primary aim of feminists was to force full access by women into education, public life and sports, and separate-but-theoretically-equal spaces were the only ground that the patriarchy would cede to us.

Over time that usage was complicated by the growing realisation that different conversations could be had when men did not dominate a space. Women-only educational spaces became spaces of refuge and empowerment, joined by the rise in women-only ‘safe spaces’, such as abuse phonelines, domestic violence shelters, and more.

I think that it’s in this, later sense, of a women-only space as inherently both radical and safe that ‘yoginis’ is now often used. These are spaces where other genders might exist but are deliberately decentred. That might feel like progress, but this kind of feminism has always excluded queer people and women of colour. The assumption that there is a common experience of (often white, middle class) femaleness gave rise to the politics of intersectionality developed by black feminists such as Kimberlé Crenshaw. More marginalised voices – those of queer women, disabled women and non binary genders – also gain from intersectional feminism, because white feminism silences all those voices too, and fails to recognise the multiple ways such communities suffer in spite of mainstream feminism, and in many cases, because of it.

The difficult truth is that mainstream feminism produces female safety and solidarity at the expense of many others. One way it does to is fighting for ‘safe’, ‘women-only’ spaces that are often actively unsafe for queer women, disabled women and women of colour in particular.

All this means that calling a group of yoga practitioners ‘yoginis’ might feel for you like honouring your shared experiences and creating safety, but it might be just the opposite for many of the people in your circle.

What we find safe varies from person to person, but it has a lot to do with feeling on familiar, known ground, and also with having your needs seen and met. And that’s when we come to the tangled history of passing, masking, and code switching. For various marginalised groups, survival depends on your ability to pass for one of the mainstream. Temporary safety is bought at the expense of authentic self-expression. If you can pass for straight, neurotypical, cis, or white, then you are less likely to be targeted for your difference. We see this culturally in many forms, from Anglicising your name on a job application to passing for cis in a public bathroom. That’s why many trans activists aren’t arguing to maintain the access to women’s bathrooms that is already fraught for them, they’re arguing for non-gendered, secure cubicles for all.

Because while passing can be a privilege, it is also an immense burden. Part of that burden is the lingering threat of being ‘found out’. Dominant society demands marginalised people pass as well as they are able, and rewards success, but it enacts terrible retribution on those who are unmasked. Those who pass are seen as more untrustworthy than those who do not. Again and again, the unspoken message is ‘to allow you access to this space we will expect you to lie about who you are, but if you are found out, the retribution will be worse than if you hadn’t’.

Just as passing is debated in queer and black activism, masking is heavily debated in autistic activism. Your ability to access possibly life-saving resources as an autistic person often depends on diagnosis: a visible label which will also be used to discriminate against you time and again. And anecdotally at least, the people society eventually labels as ‘autistic women’ seem more likely to be non-binary or gender non-conforming. We might actually be better at passing for non-autistic than for cis-female, because gender is experienced differently for us.

The realities of ‘passing’, of who decides what is ‘normally’ female, for women of colour, queer and disabled women, gives words like ‘yoginis’ a hidden charge, not of safety, but of danger.

This is not hypothetical. I have been educated in women only environments, been in ‘single sex’ sports facilities, hung out in women only queer spaces. And either as a queer woman in an assumed heterosexual space, or a bi woman in an assumed lesbian space, or as a neurodivergent woman in any ‘single sex’ space, I have often felt uncomfortable, even unsafe, and occasionally suffered violence. Excluding men does not make spaces safer. Challenging abusive behaviours does. I know how hard this might be for other feminists to hear, but the spaces I have felt and been safest in, have more often been mixed than women-only.

So when we use the term ‘yogini’ to self-identity, we risk offending people with South Asian, particularly Hindu heritage. But more than that, when we use the term ‘yoginis’ to draw a circle of apparent safety around a group, we risk actual, real harm, and to many more people in that circle than might be immediately apparent. These are people who rarely get to be seen, and heard, and to feel safe, in ‘women-only’ spaces.

Most importantly, with this post I’m not arguing for the policing of such language. I’m arguing for something much more difficult. I’m asking us all to think more carefully about the assumptions we’re making when we reach for terms that feel comfortable and obvious, even special and sacred to us, but might land very differently with the people around us.

I’m asking us to truly think about what safety is, and that for many, it is not a state that feels comfortable and familiar, but hard-won, fragile, and all the more sacred for that.

with deep respect to the lifeworks of Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd and Audre Lorde, and in the long transnational tradition of speaking the unspoken and of sharing liberation, whatever the cost

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