Sex, Gender, and Yoga

Dissolving Gender Roles in the Embrace of Reality

Mark Whitwell | Heart of Yoga
The traditional Hindu figure of the Ardhanarishwar, half male half female.

Inherent in the tradition of tantric hatha yoga is the practice of participation in the union of opposites. The union of opposites is central to the felt non-dual cosmology that finds no difference between the source and the seen reality, or as we might say in some contexts, between Shiva (consciousness) and Shakti (the resonance or expression of that consciousness as energy). We honour and love how these traditions made place for embrace of Shakti, embrace of the energy and manifestations of this world. Prior to this, your body was not necessarily seen as something divine, but as a curse of maya or samskara to be overcome. For all who have been devalued and traumatised by dualistic religions positing divinity as “a guy in the sky, by and by, when you die,” this recognition and revelation of cosmic interplay is a delight and a relief.

In translating the sacred language of these traditions, however, words have been used in the limitations of English such as “the feminine” which unfortunately also have a vast history of use in society’s project of patterning people into gendered ideas, which may or may not suit who they are as a unique individual.

Gendered words are so inextricably associated with hundreds of years of pain, abuse, and patterned roles of vulgar limit, that it is natural to question the very use of language that has been used to confine individuals to the stereotyping of misogynist society.

My children and grandchildren were each born with their own individual range of human behavioural potential, each one utterly and completely unique. And yet the gender norms of their society will pattern them into limiting themselves from their full range of expression. Girls learn not to fully feel or express their anger. Boys learn to be tough and not cry, and acquire success in the world. These restrictions are then framed as natural difference and become a burden on most adult lives. They may not be didactically taught but are absorbed from the culture around us as we grow. Of course there are some natural differences, but these are negligible compared to the force of gender stereotypes, and we can hardly even speak of what is natural under the current weight of differential social patterning.

Consider this: in life there is no left without right. Left does not deny right. Left intrinsically implies right. Left depends on right to even exist. The left is an equal acknowledgement of right. Take this consideration to any opposites appearing in the natural world. Including strength and receptivity. They are “not two,” they are “one.” One life, one energy. Not one in the sense of cruel schoolmasters beating left-handed students and conforming all to the right. (Or the “unity” of English language after violently punishing children for speaking indigenous languages.) But one in the natural multiplicitous preferences and prior unity of each body.

The apparent separate existence and identity of each opposite dissolves in the prior One in which each exists. Paradoxically, each opposite fully exists in its own individuation and unique character and is fully acknowledged in its own right, in the One.

Yoga sadhana is participation in the perfect union of opposites, which is already perfectly established as life itself. Not some process of “balancing” stereotypes within yourself. Yes, the result is a greater spectrum of expression, as the constraints of gender constructs are outshone. But it is not a process of a balancing at all, or gradually merging, for life’s opposites (which have nothing to do with gender) are always already in union.

Mark Whitwell | Heart of Yoga

What does ‘the feminine’ even mean… in a Yogic context?

We use the word ‘feminine’ to point to one of these unspeakable opposites (in the knowledge that one cannot exist without the other) and not at all to human social constructions. It is not ideal, as there is a vast pollution of this word, just as even the word ‘Shakti’ itself is reduced to sell gender stereotype-reinforcing jewellery, makeup, clothes and workshops.

But we can discard arbitrary social associations and not concede the rights to language to the most degraded meaning. The words Yoga, God, Sex, and Guru are all similarly toxified. (Perhaps every word — what do we assume the word ‘wealth’ to mean, for example?) We can be sensitive to the context in which words are spoken but not allow them to be monopolized by degraded associations. Our efforts are to point to the origins of the violence rather than allow useless meanings to dominate the meaning of words that are operating in a wide variety of ways. We can be impeccable in our contextual feeling, rather than impeccable in our language. Language is living, it is only as degraded as you speak it to be. We extend to each other a hand of graceful intention to understand what is actually meant.

‘Feminine’ is a word that has been broadly applied to mean a vast range of things — the dictionary tells us it can mean “the female sex or gender”, not necessarily human, not necessarily of bodies, and also mean anything from the gender of language to the sex of a thing (like a flower). In this time of unravelling what has been socially imposed in the name of gender, this broadness is coming back to haunt us. There is an interest in working out what has been imposed and discarding it, which is good.

And yet in another sense these definitions are not broad enough. Because when we refer to the feminine principle, the feminine as half of reality, yet not a ‘thing’ separate from the masculine, we are talking about a principle operating simultaneously at multiple levels, not limited by form, yet inclusive of it. The dictionary definitions themselves are coming out of a materialistic culture that, unlike the Tantric traditions, is not attempting to describe a principle of reality, both seen and unseen. English does not adapt well to this task — the word “Goddess” has problems too, namely the automatic deistic assumption of a being outside of ourselves, and even more suggestive of human embodiment.

And so for lack of a better word, ‘the feminine’ or ‘the feminine principle’ is commonly used by many well-respected philosophers of Yoga and Tantra, such as Sally Kempton, Mirabai Starr, Brenda Feuerstein and Christopher Tompkins. We expand the word to encompass something beyond either biology or sociology alone, and in doing so renovate language. Is it reducing reality to a human projection? Only if that is what we are actually doing with the word. Otherwise, it is honouring the nature of reality in opposites in union, which is obviously a principle far beyond the human, and rediscovering our own identity in something both cosmic and real, rather than socially contrived. The fact that humans are male-female, both within each person (as the union you represent) and as a classification of our physical embodiments, is because our bodies are a duplication of the cosmos and the patterns of the cosmos. Whatever we call them, these patterns are prior to humanity.

We can, however, probably be done with the popular phrase “the divine feminine,” as it implies that the ordinary feminine is not already divine. Let us check we are clear on what is meant — not in any way the stereotypes of gender known as feminine, such as suggesting women are soft only, or men are strong only. We are all both, or we would not be here. This is what is embodied in the figure of the Ardhanarishwar.

Mark Whitwell | Heart of Yoga

“I’m painting my nails, I must be ‘in my feminine’ right now” — neo-tantric practitioner

Neo-tantric and new-age groups have taken the precise sacred language of radical medieval religious texts on liberation (the Tantras), such as Shiva Shakti, and the sincere modern attempts of yoginis and yogis to express these principles (not concepts!) in English (such as ‘feminine’) and degraded it. Lacking the transformative practices of actual hatha yoga to release social constraints, the words are reduced in these communities to deeply conventional divisions such as male body vs female body, or male gender stereotype vs female gender stereotype. Those who were already chafing against the confines of social expectations are not given relief by these degradations. Particularly as the actual sadhana of asana and pranayama is not accurately taught. These teachings further pollute language, sowing confusion and disillusionment and contributing to the desire many feel to just walk away from gendered language full stop.

Male and female are always already in mutual union

The problem and destruction of humanity is imagining female-male concepts and identities are separate. That they exist independent of each other. In fact, they do not. One does not and cannot exist without the other and together they are the nurturing force of all form, of All life. Yet humanity lives as if they are separate identities. Male gender patterning has destroyed female, in the process destroying himself and Earth.

The predoctrinal Yogas of participation in the given reality or natural state is the way through this darkness. They evolved in wisdom times, cultural human treasures long gone, where male-female forms were known to be obviously equal and opposite. Where one empowered the other in and as the One life, in eternal mutual exchange, the sap of life springing forth, in same-sex or opposite-sex intimacy, every gender identification or none at all. Prior to any one-dimensional biology or homophobia, we are all female-male in makeup, as this is the substance and nurturing force of all form. This is what Yoga practice brings forth in human life. It deprograms the body-mind. The matter of actual Yoga technology, actual asana pranayama needs to be understood and actually practiced. These were compassionately given by sincere reality realizers in wisdom cultural circumstance to sincere people who were yet restricted. Krishnamacharya dug these up for us in these times. The necessity for embodied practice cannot be bypassed with mere philosophy and meditation.

And consider this: life, spiritual life or religious life is not about disengaging, about residing in an inner state of awareness to the troubled world and imagined separate objects perceived to be a problem (although such a point of view is a massive weight of “spiritual” cultural influence). No, spiritual life is a matter of engaging, embracing, and outshining all patterns of the cosmos, whether apparently good or bad, with your life’s consciousness, awareness and natural love (seeing the fact of unity of all) until all patterns are informed of the inherent unity of all things. The indivisibility or non-difference of the natural state. Here there is no problem, no trouble of anything arising in the one reality in which everything is happening.

But here’s the thing: in the natural state there is no dissociation at all from individuation. Actual individuation, not artificial categories. All are utterly respected and embraced, including each unique sexual character. No one and nothing is denied. It is not about residing in some neutrality where individuation and unique character is imagined to dissolve in sameness, or interior ‘oneness,’ dissolving into a kind of love soup where the individual disappears. No, this male doctrine has caused misogyny in the first place. Each individual is honored in and as reality itself.

To seek to escape the boxes we have been put in by avoiding using words like woman/man, or like he/she is understandable, but tends to neutralize, dissolve and negate individuation and sexual character, just as male doctrinal “residing as inner awareness” dissociated from experience does. This is a call for Yogic embrace of all experience, all patterning, all identity, honoring each and loving each. The One life outshining all limit and brightening and blessing and acknowledging, being with every unique, autonomous living thing.

So Vedanta and Tantra are one. The great statement of advait (“not two”) of Vedanta is enacted upon by the “not two” of Tantra. The Tantra is not the play of opposites gradually merging. The Tantra is the actions of “only one.” The two dharmas came together with Ramanujaacharya of the 10th century, and they are now available to all of us through the agency of Krishnamacharya. Even now, whatever happens in the checkerboard of mass imagined separation of one to another, webs of limiting patterns interacting with each other, even now as humanity stumbles along in the dark, or gets their act together with your diligent help. Don’t be intimidated by left-wing language activists or right-wing abusers. Those who are out of touch with embodiment, with feeling, with their own union of opposites, cannot guide us and only spread more confusion, no matter what their beliefs or poetry. Find your own way to participate in the union of opposites in the One reality.

Mark Whitwell

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Mark Whitwell

Mark Whitwell


Mark Whitwell has worked as a Yoga teacher around the world for the last 45 years and is the author of 4 books on Yoga. He lives in Fiji with his wife Rosalind.